Why they choose to be Jews: a panel discussion

Why they choose to be Jews: a panel discussion

Jason Paddock, far right, dabbled in other religions until he converted to Judaism. He joined a panel of converts in explaining why they became “Jews by Choice.” From left are Anne Kroll, Mark Zaccardo, and Christine Sullivan. Photo by Debra R
Jason Paddock, far right, dabbled in other religions until he converted to Judaism. He joined a panel of converts in explaining why they became “Jews by Choice.” From left are Anne Kroll, Mark Zaccardo, and Christine Sullivan. Photo by Debra R

Anne Kroll still cooks for her mother a traditional Christmas Eve dinner containing shellfish, even as she prepares an acceptable kosher fish for herself and her family to eat instead.

Jason Paddock dabbled in Scientology and Mormonism, but now spends his Saturday mornings in synagogue.

The two were among four converts to participate in a panel discussion on March 28 at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, sponsored by East Brunswick Hadassah, about their decision to become “Jews by choice.” During the program they shared their personal journeys and answered questions from the audience, including some on their religious practices and relationships with their Christian families.

Raised as a Catholic, Christine Sullivan converted to Judaism upon marrying her Jewish now ex-husband. When she told her parents, her father paused and said, “Well, our Lord was Jewish,” and then even injected some humor, adding, “At least you’re not becoming a damn Protestant.”

Mark Zaccardo was already technically Jewish through his mother, despite being raised in his father’s Catholic religion, and some in the audience questioned whether an actual conversion was necessary.

However, Zaccardo said he was told by Rabbi Bennett Miller of Reform Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, where he and his Jewish fiancée Jen-Eve Frace worship, that because he grew up in a different religion, it would be necessary to undergo a formal conversion and the accompanying classes to learn about Judaism. The Orthodox and Conservative movements follow traditional Jewish law, which considers children of an interfaith union to be the religion of their mothers. However, Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent and considers people to be the religion in which they were raised. 

Paddock, Sullivan, and Kroll said they were initially discouraged from converting by rabbis. Paddock, who was raised with no religion, said he had to “show up like 18 times” at Miller’s office before he would consent to the conversion. The former rabbi of the East Brunswick Jewish Center (EBJC), Chaim Rogoff, initially told Kroll “Jews do not recruit.” Eventually, after he was convinced of her sincerity, Rogoff oversaw the conversion and Kroll and her husband, Adrian, have been longtime members of EBJC. 

Kroll, who believed her decision to convert was “bashert,” said an added bonus was her family’s acceptance of her decision.

“I cried when my little bald-headed Roman Catholic father put on a yarmulke at my wedding,” she said. “He would do anything for family.

She has told her son, Jake, a student at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, they celebrate Christmas Eve with her mother “because we love Nana;” attended the church mass for her father’s funeral out of love and respect; and promised him before he died she would take over from him the responsibility before winter of placing grave blankets, an evergreen covering, on graves of family members.

Sullivan, who grew up in western Massachusetts, had never met a Jew until her family later moved to Springfield, Mass., where she befriended a Jewish girl. When she asked the other children why they wouldn’t play with her friend, Sullivan was told it was because, “Jews killed Jesus.”

She met her ex-husband in college, picked up more Jewish friends along the way, and as she learned about Judaism, the Holocaust, and Israel through them and through reading, Sullivan said she began to feel Jewish, “as if the spark had always been there and now came out brightly.”

Despite her divorce and remarriage to a non-Jew, she has remained Jewish, and still lights Shabbat candles, holds Passover seders, and attends synagogue.

“I am a Jew and have been a Jew for 36 years,” said Sullivan.

Zaccardo said he essentially practiced no religion for more than 30 years until he met Frace, with whom he’s been with six years, and began accompanying her to Anshe Emeth. He found the overall conversion experience to be pleasant and described going to the mikvah as “surreal.” 

“I was expecting a baptism type thing,” he said. “When I was in the pool submerged I felt a rebirth.”

He now goes to temple every Friday night and considers himself to be a different person. His Jewish mother was “ecstatic,” and the rest of his family is accepting. His father, with whom he’s been estranged for years, even sent him a congratulatory card when Zaccardo had an adult bar mitzvah.

Paddock was brought up mostly in Canandaigua, in the upstate Finger Lakes region of New York, and only knew about Jews from what he saw on television.

“But every bottle of Manischewitz wine is stamped ‘made in Canandaigua, NY,’ so there must have been a few Jews there, but I never met them,” he said.

His father is a non-practicing Catholic and his mother “I think Protestant or generic Christian,” and were “indifferent” to the conversion.

“My parents had progressive minds and had this attitude that, ‘He’ll grow up and figure it out on his own.’”

Paddock said he couldn’t relate to Christianity and other faiths, but after meeting his wife, Risa, in college and being exposed to Jewish thought and practice, he realized his search was over.

Although he found learning Hebrew as an adult challenging, the conversion process was positive, said Paddock, who found the mikvah experience particularly profound.

“I’ve never felt so comfortable or at peace in my entire life as in that water,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

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