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Colombian mom comes ‘home’ to Judaism
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Colombian mom comes ‘home’ to Judaism

Conversion completes years-long exploration of her Sephardi roots

The night before Elise Quintana made her first visit to Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, the Conservative synagogue in Cranford, she had a dream: A woman who seemed familiar, with a child, approached her, warmly welcoming her.

“That’s exactly what happened,” Quintana said, recalling the moment nearly a year later. “I walked in, and there was this woman I recognized from my daughter’s preschool, and she was very friendly and welcoming.”

It was a mystifying but reassuring step on a path that began in her childhood in Colombia. She reached the culmination on June 10, when she and her seven-year-old daughter, Daniela, underwent conversion to Judaism in a ceremony in Teaneck. Participating in the ritual was Beth-El Mekor Chayim’s Rabbi Ben Goldstein; Rabbi Lawrence Troster, rabbinic scholar-in-residence with GreenFaith; and Rabbi David Nesson, the leader of Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, who had supervised her course of study.

Goldstein said, “It was moving and profound to see Elise reach this point, and especially to see her do it with her daughter.” He added that he hopes her experience will encourage others who might not have had the chance to convert, or simply to study and learn more about Judaism.

Chatting at the temple a few days later, the 37-year-old Quintana retraced her path to becoming a Jew, describing it with the careful precision of someone accustomed to standing her ground on making an unusual choice.

When she was six, her parents immigrated to the United States, leaving her behind with her maternal grandmother, an evangelical Christian, in the inland city of Cali. “I wasn’t baptized and I refused to go to church, and my grandmother didn’t force me,” she said.

Instead, she began trying to learn more about her family’s background, specifically her father’s. She knew that his mother, an immigrant with Spanish roots, was Jewish, and that aspect intrigued her.

She finally joined her parents in 1987 at the age of 11, coming to Elizabeth, where she still lives. At 19, she married a fellow Colombian who, though he didn’t share her approach to religion, didn’t object to it. They had two children, and have since divorced.

Quintana continued on her path — as before, on her own — exploring Sephardi history through the Inquisition and since. She also visited Jewish museums in New York City, including the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, connecting more and more with her Jewish roots. “I love finding out the facts about things, and I think it’s so important to know where you come from,” she said. “You need to have that really clear.”

The big turning point came in 1999, when she visited Israel for the first time. “It was love at first sight, like coming home,” she said with a sigh and a smile. “Seeing Jerusalem was like a dream.”

That was followed by two more trips. The travel wasn’t always easy. “At the El Al counter, when they hear ‘Colombia’ that’s it — they think drugs. I always get searched,” she said. Her last visit was in 2004 when she was pregnant with her daughter. “I tell Daniela she has been to Israel — in my tummy. She likes that. But it’s been much too long; I wish I could go back.”

‘A beautiful example’

Daniela had been in the summer camp at the YM-YWHA of Union County, and last September, Quintana registered her in the religious school at Beth-El Mekor Chayim. Education director Tamara Ruben, who has a passion for South America and has visited the continent 12 times, was intrigued by this mother and child.

“We require children of members to be in the religious school from third grade, and here was a child who was only in second grade and was already enrolled,” she said. “And her mother wasn’t just telling her to learn about Judaism; she was studying, too. It is such a beautiful example of going along this path.”

At Goldstein’s suggestion, Quintana began studying for her conversion with Nesson, the leader of Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael. She works in a real estate agency, and it meant fitting those classes in between work and caring for Daniela and her 17-year-old son, David.

Her daughter has happily gone along with the process of becoming a Jew. Her son, she said, will decide for himself what he wants to do.

Quintana beamed as she described completing the process. “It feels unbelievable — as if I’ve finally closed the circle,” Quintana said. “I’ve officially become what I always felt myself to be.”

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