News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

Bruce and Kathy O'Gorman of Decatur decided to convert to Judaism, and Rabbi Jeffrey Ballon, right, is helping the couple in their search at Temple B'Nai Sholom in Huntsville. 'I felt a sense of belonging that I had not felt before. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know,' Kathy said.
Daily photo by Brennen Smith
Bruce and Kathy O'Gorman of Decatur decided to convert to Judaism, and Rabbi Jeffrey Ballon, right, is helping the couple in their search at Temple B'Nai Sholom in Huntsville. "I felt a sense of belonging that I had not felt before. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know," Kathy said.

Hear, O Israel …
Converting couple finds home in Judaism, though Alabama Jews only number 9,000

By Melanie B. Smith · 340-2468

A lifelong search finally led Kathy Reed O'Gorman of Decatur to a faith as ancient as Abraham, as fundamental as the Ten Commandments.

She and her husband, Bruce O'Gorman, are converting to Judaism.

It is a story that is uncommon in the Tennessee Valley, often called the buckle of the Bible Belt.

If local people talk of "conversion," they usually mean publicly declaring faith in Christ for the first time or going from one Christian denomination to another. The three-county area has hundreds of churches but zero synagogues.

Kathy O'Gorman, 51, said she did not grow up in a religious family. A native of Huntsville, she said she did not even know there were Jewish congregations there.

"I've been searching for a religion I could embrace that would add meaning to my life, while at the same time allow me room to grow," she said.

Kathy, a former teacher, said she attended different Christian churches and found some truth in each one. However, she said, she never felt she belonged.

She struggled with Christianity's teaching that it is the only way to heaven. She also felt a church ought to encourage questioning.

Kathy said she is drawn to the Jewish faith's encouragement of independent study, questioning and lifelong learning. The faith traditionally does not actively seek converts, but Kathy said she has felt welcome.

"I felt a sense of belonging that I had not felt before," she said. "The more I learned, the more I wanted to know."

She said she has embraced traditions like baking challah bread and lighting Shabbat (Sabbath) candles.

Bruce O'Gorman, 46, said he also was not reared going to church, although he did attend Baptist services sometimes with friends. His first wife was Catholic, and he converted before she died of breast cancer so that a priest could marry them in the church, he said.

When Kathy began talking about Judaism, he said he had little interest, but the more they talked, read and visited the temple, the more he liked what he learned.

The O'Gormans said they started attending temple services and found them meaningful.

Local Jews must go to Huntsville or other cities to find houses of worship. Temple B'Nai Sholom in Huntsville, where the O'Gormans attend, has about 200 families and dates to 1876. Rabbi Jeffrey Ballon said inquiries from people like the O'Gormans aren't infrequent.

"I wouldn't say people are banging down the doors," he said. "There's always a little cadre of people who are spiritually searching, and we let them search."

The congregation offers Hebrew classes and sessions about the faith. Last year, about 15 to 18 people attended, he said.

However, not many searchers actually convert, Ballon said. Some inquire because they have had an unhappy experience in another religion, he said.

What about Jesus?

The O'Gormans said the biggest hurdle for them was what to believe about Jesus. One help was the TV documentary "A History of God" that asserted the divinity of Jesus and his place as one of the Holy Trinity were not settled until hundreds of years after Jesus' death, Kathy said.

She and her husband studied on their own, such as reading a paper by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, "The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus," and a book by Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, "We Jews and Jesus." They also studied the Bible and did Internet research, she said.

The couple is taking an Introduction to Judaism class and doing a home course on Hebrew. Kathy said they will not undergo a formal ceremony until they have completed the studies and rabbis feel they are ready.

"I feel in my heart that I've always been Jewish. It just took me a while to find my way home," she said.

About 200,000 people in U.S Judaism are converts, according to The American Religious Identification Survey reported that Jews comprised 1.4 percent of the population in 2001, down 0.4 percent since 1990.

Temple B'Nai Sholom is the only Reform Jewish congregation in the region. Etz Chayim is a Conservative synagogue also in Huntsville. Two other major movements of Judaism are Orthodox and Reconstructionist.

The religion itself, such as its emphasis on intellect and spirituality, is becoming more of an appeal today than the cultures associated with it in the past, Ballon said.

"The ethnicities of smells, tastes, language and behavior have fallen away, and the religious sensitivities have become attractive," he said.

The rabbi said he knows of about a half dozen Jewish families in Morgan County.

Birmingham convert and wife create ‘Jews in Alabama’ podcasts

There are Jews in Alabama?

That is not an ignorant question. It is the playful name of a podcast by a Birmingham Jewish couple in their 30s, Eric and Raya Rzeszut.

“There Are Jews in Alabama?” broadcasts from the couple are genial discussions of faith and life, created via the Internet.

Eric Rzeszut said his wife grew up in the faith but he is a convert. He said the Jewish community in Birmingham numbers about 5,000 and is “active and vibrant.” Alabama had about 9,000 Jews in 1995, according to the American Jewish Yearbook and By contrast, more than a million people are reported members of Alabama Baptist churches.

Eric Rzeszut said he feels fortunate that Birmingham has three synagogues, a Jewish Community Center with a preschool, a Jewish elementary school and other institutions.

“We don’t feel alienated or persecuted here in Birmingham. The greater community at large is very warm and friendly toward us,” he said.

Rabbi Brian Glusman of Temple Beth-el in Birmingham said he works with perhaps 10 converts a year. He said no one is in charge of such figures, so other rabbis may work with more or fewer. It is a tradition not to call attention to converts but to regard them as Jewish from birth, he said.

Glusman, a native of Huntsville, said he has experienced affection and admiration as a Jew in Birmingham, likely because the Bible calls Jews “God’s chosen people.” Alabamians rank high in national polls in their regard for the Bible.

“I find a tremendous amount of respect for Jews,” he said.

A Decatur woman converting to Judaism, Kathy Reed O’Gorman, said she is aware that Jews are a small minority in Alabama and have been a persecuted people.

“My husband and I feel at peace with our decision to convert and to join with the Jewish people,” she said.

Melanie B. Smith

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