February 12, 2021
Considering conversion: From Texas church songs to Israel hassidic tunes
By Barbara Sofer
She used to be the minister of song in a Texas megachurch, but now she’s an aficionado of hassidic melodies in Israel.
I’m thinking of this remarkable story as the women of the Chabad movement mark the 33rd anniversary of the death of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, in a program organized by Chabad Talbiyeh.
Instead of still one more Zoom lecture, this event is a rousing, worldwide farbrengen: a night of nostalgic stories, Torah talk and vocal music for women only by women only, singing in Australia, the United States, the Ukraine and, of course, Israel. (Have I mentioned how much I dislike programs for women dominated by lecturing men?)
Mrs. Schneerson from President Street was the middle daughter of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, (known as “the Frierdiker”) and Rebbetzin Nechama Dina Schneersohn and the wife of the seventh and last Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Hers was reputedly the voice that convinced her husband to take over her father’s mission.
She had a powerful impact on Chabad and was an empowering influence for women emissaries, who became full partners in the movement’s prodigious outreach, building Jewish outposts in the most unlikely locations.
“Unlikely” is also a good word to describe Gayle Redlingshafer Berman, the operatic singer who, with two of her students, set the tone of the program with the early Chabad melody for “Ach Leilokim,” a meditation from Psalm 62, elevating the daily humdrum to a spiritual realm.
GAYLE REDLINGSHAFER was born on a 250-hectare (618-acre) farm in Illinois. Her family descended from signatories of the American Constitution and soldiers in the Revolutionary War.
Gifted with an extraordinary voice, she sang to her horse, Star, as she rode through the cornfields and beyond the pigpens. At church, she was a star in the choir. By high school she was already filling in for the organist.
Music and religion coexist for her, and by the time she met her husband-to-be she was minister of music at Colonial Hills Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas.
That meant that she was in charge of three services every Sunday morning, 12 choirs, three major works with orchestra every year, a youth musical she took on tour and two children’s musicals. That was in addition to singing professionally and teaching voice at a local university.
A friend introduced the busy choirmaster to Harold Berman, a musician performing in the United States Air Force Band.
Almost immediately the two music-makers were hearing wedding bells. Berman, a Jew who, growing up attended the Temple of Religious Judaism in Monroe, New York, didn’t think their religious differences “would be much of an issue.” Gayle didn’t see “religion getting in the way” of their love. They agreed to respect each other’s beliefs and that they wouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.
Their decision to wed despite the religious differences placed them among the majority. More than half the Jews in the Diaspora marry non-Jews.
For the first decade of their marriage their duet was largely harmonious, indeed without religious cacophony. Staccato notes were introduced with their rethinking an earlier decision not to bring up children.
THE BERMANS’ exigent journey to Orthodox Judaism and family life in Israel – they live with their children in the Gush Etzion town of Efrat – is chronicled in their book Doublelife, written as letters sharing their fears and frustrations, hopes and happiness. And yes, Chabad played a positive role in welcoming them and setting them toward observant Jewish life.
But the Bermans have gone beyond living their own devoted Orthodox lives, to gently advocating for conversion. They recently shared the downs and ups of their own experience in a three-part motivational seminar for an Orthodox organization with the inspired name “Route 613, your route to gerut [conversion].”
Orthodox Jewry has a reputation for being the least welcoming stream of Judaism toward converts. Beyond the required turning away three times of anyone who wishes to convert, clerical and community cold shoulders are equally discouraging.
Rabbi Maury Kelman, a lawyer and the volunteer director of Route 613, says that attitude is changing. “The reality is that most Jews outside of Israel intermarry. There are no barriers. No one is forced to seek conversion these days, and only a small percentage of non-Jewish partners of interfaith marriages convert. The necessary sincerity isn’t in doubt when they come to us.”
His organization’s website has a friendly but no-nonsense home page: no sugarcoating of the demanding process. The online program includes an intensive and comprehensive educational program and demands eventual commitment to a halachic lifestyle.
Although Kelman lives in Jerusalem, most of the hundreds of students are from the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. A growing number are in Israel, as well as China, Zimbabwe and Albania.
“We don’t do the actual conversion, but we make sure our students are fully prepared wherever they are,” says Kelman.
He invited Gayle and Harold Berman to share their experience. They describe the “time bombs,” friction points with the potential to set off an explosion. As members of the couple – this always involves both husband and wife – move at different paces as they embrace Orthodox Judaism, deeper conflicts may be hiding beneath seemingly benign arguments.
For instance, Gayle was insulted when Harold pushed aside her American classic milk and butter-laced mashed potatoes because he’d decided to stop eating milk and meat together and was embarrassed to tell her.
On her own journey, she became increasingly impatient with the minimalist Jewish practice she observed in her new community. At a Rosh Hashanah service she’s frustrated at the gossiping while she’s struggling to hear the cantor.
“I keep hearing about the Jewish community’s concern over intermarriage. How am I supposed to take their concern seriously when so many Jews don’t take Judaism seriously?” she asks.
With perseverance they found the “pockets of positivity” that kept them going forward.
“We’re having a very warm and enthusiastic response to the Bermans’ sharing their candid story of changing a family of two faiths to one fulfilling one,” says Kelman. “They’re also a reminder that people can consider conversion at any stage in their marriages.”
The overwhelming majority of those seeking conversion are women. Any woman who doubts the possibility of making what might seem like an impossible journey should listen to Gayle Redlingshafer Berman’s rendition of Chabad melodies. It’s guaranteed to melt your heart and lift your soul to the heavenly spheres.