Ahuvah Gray

OUR SISTER, THE JEW - Ahuvah Gray's Journey of Inspiration

by Chana Rochel (Andrea) Eller
The Jewish Home - November 15, 2012

My grandmother always taught my family that the most important thing in life is to honor G-d. She taught me Tehillim when I was four, beginning with ‘You open Your Hand and fulfill the need of every living thing’ (Perek 145). If I had one-tenth of my grandmother’s avodas Hashem I’d be happy.”

All remarkable considering Ahuvah Gray’s grandmother was a sharecropper in Mississippi and she herself was once an ordained Baptist minister.

I mount the stairs to her loft apartment in Bayit Vegan and enter Ahuvah’s haven. The first things I notice are her Katherine Hepburn cheekbones, her warm, dark caramel colored skin, and an illumining smile I find myself trying to tease from its recesses for the next hour and a quarter. Her life – the physical one that is – is within compact walls, everything in its place, small and neat, her daybed tucked under a breezy window, a combined dining-room and kitchen embellished by green plants. I am charmed by the ease with which she receives me, and apparently all others, as a friend. Her voice is low and resonant, and her speech is often punctuated with “Baruch Hashem,” the “shem” stretched out with a touch of Southern to “shiyem.” It’s not long before I realize that “Baruch Hashem” is her life.

Many know her story as recounted in her book My Sister, the Jew. Delores Gray grew up in the Bible Belt in a loving religious family with strong values – values for which her family is grateful. These days each phone conversation with them ends with “Thank G-d we were brought up the way we were.” Coming of age in the 1960s, she, her brothers and her sister sidestepped the “Question Authority” and “Do Your Own Thing” mentalities, opting instead for the traditional love of family, educating one’s self, working and marrying. She grew up in a home her mother opened to those needing food, clothing and even shelter. It was a home where her mother’s and grandmother’s love of G-d and their devotion to prayer were a way of life. That love and devotion fed her own love of bible study, and that in turn propelled her to learn the Jewish scriptures, seeing, as she did, her Christian faith as inseparable from the roots it claimed.

After her schooling, Ahuvah worked full-time for Continental Airlines, and eventually started her own international travel agency specializing in tours to the Holy Land. She had to see the place to be able to sell it, and was so moved on her first visit she decided that one day it would become her home. “At last my soul had found its resting place,” she states in her book. Ahuvah did well. She had her travel business, a condominium, a new car, beautiful home furnishings– and a hole in her life for all her creature amenities. A California earthquake shook her out of her comfortable success; it took down her condo and most of her possessions. She saw first-hand that all was indeed vanity, and decided to move to Israel “to study the Word of G-d.” Responding to the cries of her soul, which, she says eloquently, was in exile until she converted, she eventually became a Jew.

But why would the soul of a devout Baptist minister
cry for such a radical shift? Perhaps not letting her rest
were three facets of that soul.

For one thing, to say that Ahuvah is sensitive to the spiritual might be akin to saying Pavarotti was able to carry a tune. The transcendental has been the driving force of her life. Consider a truncated list: Her first major influence was what she saw as her grandmother’s ability to connect to the Creator through prayer; a corresponding need for such connection has since been her own prayer (she davens three times a day); as Delores, she joined the ministry, stirred by the Jewish prophets about whom she taught; Tehillim have always moved her to tears; her recollection of Tehillim served as the marker of her recovery from a serious illness; the otherworldly giving nature of her first employers – Jewish – has always inspired her; her Bible study trumped barbeques and television as her choice for entertainment; the pastor for whose congregation she ministered as a teacher taught her about the One-ness of G-d and she responded to that truth to the exclusion of anything to the contrary; of her own accord she began to pray in Hebrew from a Siddur – a decision which she describes as transforming; on one Tisha B’Av came the realization that she had a Jewish neshama, and on the Yom Kippur that followed the power of Kol Nidrei nearly flattened her; each Jewish holiday moved her closer to her spiritual goal….This brief list can be epitomized by citing her awareness of the Hand of G-d in every move she makes.

Hard to miss a pull to the extramundane here.

The second trait that may have made inevitable the trip from Baptist to Jew is the core of honesty in Ahuvah Gray. An anecdote from her book illustrates her integrity. Well before she converted, a Jewish friend took her to a Pesach Seder at the home of Moroccan friends – a religious couple not expecting a non-Jewish guest. There are myriad halachas governing the Pesach Seder, among them regarding the participation of non-Jews. The Moroccans were flummoxed, and Ahuvah and her friend left to join another Seder. At that Seder many of the Jewish participants were outraged as to what they regarded the Moroccans’ inexcusable position. But Ahuvah was not offended, which may have seemed odd, given she was not considering conversion at the time. So at the second seder where outrage gave vent, Ahuvah herself stood up for her Moroccan hosts. She announced that not only was she not offended, but that if there was a law prohibiting gentile presence at this uniquely Jewish holiday, that was that. “This is Judaism,” as she said. Then Christian, this woman out-thought and out-performed most at that Seder who would have molded Jewish law to their own mindsets rather than respecting the truth, wisdom and depth of G-d’s Torah. This view of the world through eyes unclouded by self or agenda – a view commanding allegiance – is what sets Ahuvah apart from others.

The third trait supporting her migration to Judaism is her tenacity. Once she decided to go for the gold, she would brook no interference. Discouraged by others time and again, she held her connection to Hashem – her Jewish connection to Hashem – her most precious possession, and refused to let go. She fought like the dickens in the face of tall odds to become a Jew, with spiritual stamina enough to survive her beis din’s four rejections and to take the matter to the highest beis din in Israel. She had been “ratted out” by a well-meaning informant accusing her of being an ordained minister scheming to infiltrate Jewish walls and convert Jews. (The truth was that she had rescinded ministerial title and obligation years before.) She stuck out her trials, and today she is a holy Jew.

Ahuvah’s preoccupation today is her meetings with Rav Elyashiv, ztz’l, the recently passed Gadol HaDor of the generation. She is in mourning, and it is written on her expressive face when she speaks.

“When I think about it, who would have ever thought that I, from a different world, different culture, different language, and at one time of a different religion, would be privileged enough to meet the Gadol HaDor? I had private meetings with him that were set up by his daughter, Rebbetzin Auerbach, olah haShalom. It must have been the Ratzon Hashem. I didn’t sleep the night of the levaya. I couldn’t believe he was gone. I think we Jews feel things more deeply than others, especially since we’re here in Yerushalayim with the kedusha. None of us is over it. None of us.”

How did Ahuvah meet the Rav? Ahuvah was on her way to a chol haMoed Pesach se’udah when she saw “a distinguished looking gentleman” enter HaGrah, her shul in Bayit Vegan. It was Rabbi Shteinman, shlita, for a meeting with the visiting Rav Elyashiv. Ahuvah decided she wanted a bracha from the Gadol HaDor! But by the time the se’udah was over, the great tzaddik was gone.

“Of course I was disappointed. I went home and called my rebbetzin, Rebbetzin Heinemann, and said, ‘You won’t believe it. Rabbi Elyashiv was in Bayit Vegan! I wanted to get a bracha from him and missed my chance.’ She said she would call Rebbetzin Auerbach to see what could be done. Rebbetzin Auerbach then arranged for me to meet Reb Elyashiv on an Erev Shabbos in Me’a She’arim. I knew the Rav was going to speak Hebrew, so I called a friend and asked her to come with me to translate because I still couldn’t speak so fluently. She asked if I was joking! Rav Elyashiv! She canceled her lunch appointment, rented a car and picked me up. We drove to Me’a She’arim, parked, walked up the little alley-way, and rang the bell. Rebbetzin Auerbach answered the door. It was the first time I’d ever met her. When the Rebbetzin opened the door and we walked into the apartment, the room was full of light, and I’m not talking about daylight. He was sitting here studying a gemara, and Rebbetzin Auerbach introduced us to Reb Elyashiv. The Rav began asking questions of us, but never looked at us. He asked me where I lived, and for how long; I had lived in Bayit Vegan for eight years at that point. Then he began asking questions in Hebrew, so my friend translated back and forth. After a while I asked my friend to ask the Rav for a brocha for a shidduch. She asked him and he said that he was not a one to perform miracles. I thought for a bit before I answered, because this was Reb Elyashiv! Then I said, ‘Please tell him Hashem does!’ And he looked at us for the first time and had a big smile on his face. He gave me a bracha and he gave her a bracha, and when we were leaving I said to her, ‘The Rav is the holiest man I’ve ever seen.’ The whole time we were standing there once I was thinking, ‘Hashem, Reb Elyashiv is completely m’vatel his ego.’ You could see it, you could feel it. But the reality of the hashgacha pratis of my meeting him didn’t hit until after the levaya. I don’t know what we’ll do without now that he’s gone.”

The question for our generation is unanswerable, but it is clear what Ahuvah Gray will do. She will keep growing. I asked her if there was anything she felt missing in her life.

“Nothing. I don’t miss the States; when I’m there I feel as if I’m on another planet, and I can’t wait to get back to Eretz Yisroel. I believe my neshama is connected to the land here. It’s just that simple. When Hashem wants me to marry, he’ll get me married. Look at everything else He’s done for me! I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and where Hashem wants me to be.”

Ahuvah Gray has toured the English-speaking Jewish world and inspired the religious and non-religious alike with her story. She has written four books, is working to produce a video touching upon her meetings with Rav Elyashiv, and every day this unusual woman works on herself, her relationships with others (Bayit Vegan is her extended family), and her relationship with the Al-mighty.

Just as I was leaving I remembered reading in her book that she had taken tap-dancing lessons as a young girl, so in the middle of her dining room together we did the timestep, and a few shuffle-ball-change combinations together, then gave each other a high-five. It gave us a good laugh, and despite our having moved from the sublime to the giddy, it strengthened my conviction that we are fortunate we can call Ahuvah Gray one of our Jewish sisters.


Ahuvah Gray