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Leap of faith: Brandeis sophomore holds off conversion to judaism upon arrival on campus

By Ariel Wittenberg

Section: Features

September 26, 2008

As a sophomore in high school, Emily Dunning assumed that she would convert to Judaism once she went to college. Since arriving at Brandeis University last year, however, Dunning, who is now a sophomore, has decided to postpone her plans for conversion.

Dunning acknowledges that her delay may puzzle some because Brandeis has a large Jewish community, but said she was deterred because in college, she simply doesn’t have the time.

“It was an opportunity cost-based decision,” she said.

As the daughter of a “staunchly Christian” mother growing up in Plano, TX, Dunning went to Sunday school and church weekly, despite the fact that her father was an atheist.

“My mom was very gung ho about being a Christian,” she said, “and we live in Texas, so you kind of have to be an Evangelical.”

Despite her upbringing, once Dunning reached high school she lost her “suspense of disbelief in the Christ myth.”

“It was just like, this is Texas, so you’re going to be evangelical, no questions asked,” she said. “You were Christian because everyone else was, not because you believed in it.”

Dunning didn’t want to leave the faith without substantiating her decision with research, so Dunning went to the library to study Christianity and it’s origins.

Because Christianity’s origins are closely tied to Judaism, once Dunning ruled out Christianity, Judaism was next on her list.

Dunning was inspired by Judaism because it encourages intellectual thought and individual interpretation.

She also found that while the conservative Christians in her town had often used their faith to justify political platforms with which she disagreed, Judaism used the Holocaust to advocate Social Justice—something she believed in.

Afraid of what her parents would say, Dunning hid her conversion plans from them for almost two years.

“I would have my dad drive me to the library so that I could study,” she said. “But half of the time I was actually looking at their Judaica exhibit and trying to learn as much as I could.”

When Dunning decided that she was serious enough about converting that she should inform her parents, they responded in disbelief.

“[My mom] just shrugged it off and said that I would eventually find Jesus and be a Christian anyway,” she said.

Dunning continued her self-education, attending services at the local synagogue in order to learn the prayers.

When it came time to apply to college, Brandeis’ Jewish background didn’t even cross Dunning’s mind until after she had decided to come.

“It just happened to be a very nice coincidence,” she said.

But upon her arrival at Brandeis, Dunning found the Jewish community to be intimidating. In Plano, she had assumed that she knew more about Judaism than many of the Jews that she knew. In college, Jewish students she has met are exceedingly well informed, leading her to question exactly how much observance is required by converts.

“I used to think I could pick and choose which laws to believe, but I’m choosing to be Jewish,” she said, “So then doesn’t that mean that I am choosing to follow all 613 commandments? ”

Dunning says that while she still has questions about exactly how much observance conversion entails, she’s not in any hurry to answer them. “I don’t want to rush it,” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean I won’t pick up my copy of the Talmud at the end of the day and read it. The Talmud’s fun to read.”

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