Raised with little religion in her home, it was during college when Callie went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem that she first embraced her Jewish heritage and converted to Orthodox Judaism. Despite her full immersion in the Orthodox community and faith, Callie cultivated a private interest in Mormonism, particularly in temples. Callie eventually left Orthodox Judaism to join the Church and raise her children Mormon. Her rich spiritual journey has been thoughtful and deliberate.
Tell me about your Jewish upbringing.
I grew up in St. Louis. My mother was Jewish but was raised as a Reform Jew (the most liberal form of Judaism) and was totally not religious. My dad was a secular Christian, but not religious at all either. When my siblings and I were growing up, my parents tried to give us the best of both worlds. So we would celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, as well as Passover and Easter. I don’t want to be judgmental toward my parents, but I felt that it was without any real meaning. It was really more about the food and culture around it, not really about the religious meaning.
I think certain people are born with a spiritual soul, and I was one of them. I was always asking questions, wanting to know where I came from, and where was I going when I die. My parents are great people, but they are just not wired that way. So I didn’t get a lot of spiritual nourishment as a kid. I even begged my mom to take me to Hebrew school, and I remember her so clearly saying, “You know, Callie, I did that as a kid, and you are so lucky you don’t have to do that!”
Growing up, I knew that I was Jewish. I had warm and fond memories of Jewish holidays, and I felt something pulling me toward Jewish life. So when I when to college in Washington, I started going to the local synagogue a couple of blocks from the university and started going to the services there, and loved it. I loved the community, culture, and the rich tradition, and I soaked it up.
How did you become an Orthodox Jew?
I decided that if I wanted to know more about Judaism, I should go to Israel. So my junior year I went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I would say a vast majority of students there identify themselves as Jewish but are not Orthodox, which seems odd, considering that I wanted to become more religious. They had a program in the evenings where you could learn more about religion, so I joined. In this program, they matched each American student up with a religious woman about the same age. So I was matched up with a woman named Chani from Brooklyn. She was a young woman from an Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn and was sent to Jerusalem to look for a husband. So while she was dating in Israel, she was willing to take me under her wing and teach me more about Orthodox Judaism. Something within me clicked. The Judaism she taught me was much different than the one I learned growing up. I thought that Judaism was about eating bagels and watching Woody Allen movies and things associated with cultural identity. I didn’t know that religious faith could be so deep.
At one point, someone in the orthodox community said, “So if you are here to learn more about being a Jew, why are you at Hebrew University? Why don’t you leave Hebrew University and join a seminary?” These seminaries are educational institutions for people like me who are American Jews without any Jewish background who want to become more religious. So I took their suggestion and dropped out of Hebrew University to join a women’s seminary called Neve Yerushalayim, located in a very Orthodox Jewish part of Jerusalem called Har Nof. My parents were beside themselves, since I had left the university and forfeited all of my credits. But I spent the rest of my time in Israel there. It was an intense experience, since it was all new to me. We were not only learning the Torah, but also what it meant to have a Jewish home, how to keep kosher, the law of modesty, and the Sabbath. It’s a very commandment-driven religion. So much of it is about your daily actions: what you eat, how you eat, even which shoe you put on first. There are a lot of laws to learn! When I came back to America, my family didn’t know what to do with me. They were a little confused, and maybe even a little upset. I remember my mom telling me that for her, Orthodox Judaism is as foreign as Roman Catholicism. It’s so different from the liberal American Judaism that most American Jews know.
What was it like living as an Orthodox Jew? What did you gain from the experience?
Long story short, I lived as an Orthodox Jew for ten years, immersing myself in that world. I got married, and eventually ended up living in the epicenter of Judaism in St. Louis. To some extent, it was a really rich life. The community feeling was very meaningful for me, as well as being connected to these people. I also felt anchored spiritually. I felt like I had something that was tying me to past generations of my family, and I felt like I was embracing something that had been forgotten by my mom and her parents. I felt like it was the right thing to do. One of the things that appealed to me early on about Orthodox Judaism is the sense of boundaries, knowing what to do and when to do it. I liked having these guidelines. I also liked the family culture. The children were loving and respectful; they were different from the kids I had seen growing up in secular America. I thought that if that was the family I wanted, I should become an orthodox Jew.
Describe your crisis of faith with Orthodox Judaism.
Ten years later, after my first daughter was born, I really had a crisis of faith. First, I was working so hard to do the things that I was supposed to do. I was trying to follow all of the commandments the best I could. But if you don’t grow up with Orthodox Judaism and adopt it later as an adult, it is really hard. And I realized that I felt really empty inside. I just didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of it. I felt that if I was working so hard to do this, I should feel fulfilled and happy, but I didn’t. Around this time I started going to a local moms’ group, none of whom were Jewish. I looked around and saw all of these mothers who were wonderful people and were devoted to their children. I realized maybe there is more than one way to do this. Maybe there is more than one way to be a good parent and have great kids. Maybe Orthodox Judaism is not the only path to get there.
I also never really felt like I fit in the community in some ways. I even remember thinking to myself, “Am I really Jewish? Because if it wasn’t for my genealogy, I wouldn’t be sure.” I started to wonder if this was the life that I wanted for myself and for my children. Did I want the rest of my life to look like this? So I went to meet with leaders in the Jewish community to talk to them about what was happening, because I was terrified. I had put so much of my adult life into this. The main message I got from these leaders was to do more mitzvahs (commandments) because every mitzvah you do will tie you closer to God. I remember someone telling me that every mitzvah is like a piece of thread, and the more threads you make, the thicker the rope gets, and the stronger your connection will be to God. And I really tried doing that. But no matter how zealous I was in doing the mitzvahs, it didn’t work. A couple months later, I decided to step out of the Orthodox world, which was scary, especially living in an Orthodox neighborhood.
What was it like when you decided to “step back” from Orthodox Judaism?
I remember the first time driving a car on the Sabbath. I was totally freaked out. I looked around and thought, “The world is going on. It’s the Sabbath, and people are going shopping!” It was freaky to take that step and think that I was breaking the Sabbath—and yet I was okay. My husband also decided to step back with me, since he had some similar issues. We tried some other synagogues in St. Louis, and some more conservative synagogues (which are in the middle of Reform and Orthodox), but we never felt like any place was a match for us.
What else contributed to your “crisis of faith” with Orthodox Judaism?
For me, I believed that the Torah was God-given. I totally believed that it was divine, and so I didn’t think it was ours to change. Some Reform and Conservative Jews say, “The Torah made sense back then, but we live in different times, so we need to adapt and change it for our time,” and that never rang true to me. But I felt like a hypocrite, because while I didn’t think we should change the Torah, I felt that the commandments, as the Orthodox Jews understood them, didn’t make sense to me. For example, on the Sabbath there are hundreds if not thousands of rules stating what you can and cannot do. For example, you can’t switch a light on and off on the Sabbath. And I remember thinking to myself, “I understand it is important to keep the Sabbath, but I don’t know if God really cares if I turn the light switch on or off. Or if He cares that I use an umbrella when it’s raining or push a stroller.”
So I was caught in this funny space, and there weren’t any synagogues that I felt comfortable in. My husband and I didn’t really do anything for a couple of years, which was hard for me. But I was floundering a little bit, and I didn’t know what to do. Then I had my second daughter, and I wanted so desperately to give my daughters a religious tradition, because I had felt cheated by not having anything growing up. But I didn’t want to give Orthodox Judaism to my children.
What made you become interested in the Mormon Church?
My interest was piqued when my husband and I were living in Seattle and we decided to take a weekend trip to Las Vegas for our first anniversary. We had a layover in Salt Lake City and when I stepped off the plane, I remember seeing all of these signs inviting us to go to Temple Square. I remember thinking, “Wow! I want to do that! I wonder what this is all about!” My husband thinks that this was the start of everything and jokes, “I should have seen where this was heading!” So we got home from Las Vegas, and I was fascinated; I wanted to learn more about the Church. I discovered on TV that we had the BYU channel, so I started watching that in the evenings. In the Jewish world at the end of the Sabbath, all of the men go back to the synagogue after sundown to have a prayer service to mark the end of the Sabbath, and I remember watching BYUtv while my husband went to the synagogue. I felt a real sense of shame about it, but I was fascinated. My friends and family teased me about what they called “my Mormon thing.”
So what did you do as a result of your fascination with the Mormon Church?
After a couple of months, I decided I wanted to go to Utah and check it out. I think it was more of a voyeuristic thing, because to me it was so different. But I was just so fascinated and wanted to see what it was all about. So we went to Salt Lake City for one long weekend, and we went to the BYU campus, Temple Square, and saw the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Looking back, I think, “How crazy is that—this Orthodox Jewish couple going to Salt Lake City and bringing their kosher groceries with them so that the wife can see all of this?” It’s odd. But I loved it, I really did.
One of the sister missionaries who gave us a tour of Temple Square gave us a copy of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” and I remember thinking, “This is what I believe. There is some truth here.” If you had asked me at the time if I had any interest in joining, I would have said, “No way, I am a Jew. But this is really interesting.” So I went back to Utah a couple of times by myself.
When we would travel, I would always try to find the Mormon temple in every city we were visiting, and my husband would take pictures of me outside of the temple. I was fascinated by temples. I wanted so desperately to go inside and to know what went on inside. And I remember telling somebody, “I wish I could go in now, but I know that when the Moshiach (Messiah) comes, all of these temples will be opened and then I will have a chance to go inside.”
Tell me about your friendships with other Mormon women.
When we were in Seattle, I worked part-time at a store that sold scrapbooking supplies. The owners were members of the Church, and I formed a friendship with the wife. We enjoyed each other’s company, and we were curious about each other’s faith. We had good conversations over the years back and forth, and I really loved her. When we left Seattle and moved to St. Louis, I gave her a book and she gave me the Book of Mormon. She wrote her testimony in the front and had made notes throughout the book. I was so touched that she would do that for me. I had no intention of reading it, but it was such a nice gesture, so I couldn’t throw it away. When I got here to St Louis, I put it in a box in our basement and forgot about it for a couple of years. But I never let go of my “Mormon thing.” I still enjoyed watching BYUtv and reading about the Church.
I was also involved in a movement called “attachment parenting.” Something that was really meaningful to me was baby-wearing, where you carry your baby in a sling close to your body. I helped to form a baby-wearing group in St. Louis, and I met a woman named Jamie who was also passionate about it. We formed a deep bond right away, and we were deeply connected spiritually. She was LDS, and at the time I was stepping away from Orthodox Judaism, but was not interested in the Church. We would have really wonderful long discussions about faith and beliefs and we just really “got” each other. We could exchange ideas and go back and forth. It was really wonderful to meet someone who really understood me.
What was the turning point for you to be more receptive to Christianity?
I think that one of the turning points was one of the firesides with Gladys Knight in St. Louis. Jamie knew that I was a huge R&B fan, and she said, “Hey I have an extra ticket to go to this event, do you want to come?” So we went, and it was wonderful. I was touched. I remember as we walked out to the parking lot, she asked me, “Do you think there is a reason that you have had a lot of friendships with Mormon women?” And I said, “No, I really never thought of that before.”
We then sat in her car for hours talking, and at one point, when I was talking about my misgivings about Orthodox Judaism, she said, “So you think that the Old Testament is true, divine, and God-given, but the laws that were drawn out of it by the rabbis don’t apply anymore?” And I said, “Yes, that is what I think.” And she said, “You know Callie, that’s exactly what Jesus taught.” I said, “Really?” She then gently suggested to me to read the New Testament and encouraged me to see where it took me. The next day, I started reading. I thought it was great, but I didn’t know if Jesus was the Messiah. That’s a big hurdle for a Jew! But my mind was more open, and we continued to have these discussions.
Eventually, my friend suggested I meet with the missionaries. I was really hesitant at first, but then I thought, “You know, maybe I will meet with them. It would check something off my bucket list. If nothing else, it would be a great story to tell at parties about how I met with the Mormon missionaries.” So, I did. When I started to meet with them, a lot of it wasn’t new for me. I had already been watching BYUtv, as well as General Conference. But some of it was new.
Whenever I considered Christianity, I always felt like I couldn’t accept it for one simple reason: a lot of other Christian denominations say that if you don’t accept Jesus, you are going to hell. And I couldn’t accept that. There are millions of good people in this world who are living good lives who have never heard of Jesus or who live in a culture where it is not possible for them to even think about Jesus. And I knew that I could never be a member of a faith that would condemn them because they never had that opportunity. So when I asked the missionaries that question, and they had a real answer for me, I thought, “That makes sense. Maybe this is true.”
As a Jew, what were the hurdles you had to overcome prior to joining?
I think I was waiting for a sign. I prayed and I read a lot. I kept waiting to feel that “burning in [my] bosom.” But that never came for me, at least when I was investigating the Church. But I wanted it to be true and I hoped it was true. I remember watching General Conference before my baptism and thinking, “Everything they are saying makes sense, but I don’t know about the Jesus part” (which now sounds crazy!). But I thought, “There is so much truth, and maybe that’s true too.” And if I could get over that hurdle of Jesus being the Messiah, then really the whole “Joseph Smith thing” was no big deal.
I realized that if I hoped the Church were true, I had to put my faith into action. So I decided to be baptized, and I hoped that after doing so, I would receive the confirmation that I had made the right choice. I remember when I told my husband, he was absolutely alarmed. So I decided to delay it until he could be okay with it.
I got a real testimony very quickly about priesthood blessings, because while I was going through this, I really wanted to be baptized. But my husband was not ok with it, and I didn’t know how to move forward. One of the sister missionaries told me that I should get a priesthood blessing, which was a new concept for me. But I went and had a beautiful blessing. When I went home that night, my husband sat next to me, and said, ‘So, if you were baptized, what would that mean and what would that look like?” So I told him and he said, “All right, I think that is okay.” It was almost immediate. Shortly after, I was baptized, in January 2010. It didn’t happen overnight, but I did receive that confirmation that I was looking for, and I am grateful that I decided to make that leap of faith.
How have you tried to incorporate Jewish traditions as a Mormon?
I know that I have this incredible heritage and traditions to pass down to my children. I think they are lucky to be members of the Church, as well as lucky to have this Jewish background that is so beautiful. If I could pull it all together to make it meaningful for them, it would be a wonderful thing. But I have not gotten there yet.
I remember a couple months after I joined the Church, somebody in the ward was doing a Passover Seder, and she said to me, “Callie, you should be a part of this.” And I thought, “Are you crazy? I am finally at the point where I am free from all of that. And I don’t want to do it!” For Jewish women the holidays and traditions are a lot of work—especially Passover. Jewish women all over the world dread Passover, because it is an enormous amount of work. You literally clean your house from top to bottom, as well as every drawer, nook, and cranny. And you have to clean out your whole kitchen and get rid of everything. It probably doesn’t surprise you that when I was living as an Orthodox Jew, I dreaded the holidays. I think that by and large Orthodox Jewish women would say that they feel fulfilled and it is a wonderful experience for them. For me, it wasn’t. So when people suggest that it would be great if I did all of the Jewish holidays plus all of my responsibilities as a member of this Church, I say, “No, I am not interested right now.”
I know it would be great for my kids, and I know that I am not obligated to do Passover at the same level that I used to. But part of me is resistant. So, I am happy to still do the fun things associated with Judaism, like Hanukkah and Purim. They are both such low-pressure holidays. I would love to get to the point where I could introduce my daughters to their Jewish background. I really hope that they will go to Israel one day. I would love to go as a family. But to tell you the truth, I don’t incorporate a lot of Jewish tradition into my life right now.
What has been the hardest part about joining the Church?
In terms of my relationships with the Orthodox Jewish community, some people are still quite friendly and wonderful to be with. But there is another segment of the community that has not been as kind. That’s been hard for me because even though Orthodox Judaism was not the right path for me, I still have enormous respect for it. The people are wonderful, kind, and generous. I know that my choice has really confused and upset some of them.
But I think the hardest part for me has been my family’s reaction. They surprised me because none of them are religious. While I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I think a lot of modern American Jews do not define themselves by what they believe, but by what they don’t believe. And what they don’t believe in is Jesus. So for me to accept Jesus must have been offensive to my family. My extended family has been very upset and very confused about my decision, and I have been trying to deal with it gracefully. I realize that they don’t really know a lot of other active Mormons, only Mormons who have left the Church (which doesn’t help my cause!). So I feel like I have to play my cards right to show them that there are positive things about the Church. I hope that as the years go by, they will see the positive impact it has had on my daughters. I think that their hearts will be softened, at least a little bit. My husband has been great, though.
When I joined the Church, I didn’t have a solid testimony yet. I wanted it to be true and I hope it was true, but it was a huge leap of faith for me. Now that I’ve settled into my life as a Church member, I can say that I have received a quiet confirmation that it is true. What I hoped for and what I had been looking for throughout my life is here and it’s real. When I joined the Church, I could have exchanged one set of commandments for another, but I’ve realized that when I internalize the gospel and open my heart to the teachings of Christ, I’m led by the Holy Spirit and I don’t need to preoccupy myself with a checklist of things I have to do or things I can’t do. When I create a condition that allows the Spirit to guide me, I’m directed so that I know what to do and what is most important to focus on. I’m incredibly grateful for that and for my membership in the Church.
At A Glance
Location: St. Louis, MO
Marital status: Married
Children: Two daughters ages 7 and 8
Occupation: Freelance editor
Baptism: January 2010
Schools Attended: Schools Attended: Evergreen State College (BA), University of Missouri (MLS)
Favorite Hymn: “Lead Kindly Light”
Interview by Sarah Shumway. Photos used with permission.