Ahuvah Gray is an African-American convert to Judaism, proud of a 23-year career with Continental Airlines, who lectures worldwide on her unbelievably uplifting spiritual journey to orthodox Judaism. She is the author of six books about her spiritual journey: My Sister the Jew, Mind Over Matter, In Search of Hidden, Call Upon Me, Journey to the Land of My Soul, and Gifts from a Stranger. A movie about Ahuvah Gray’s spiritual journey is in the making by B’nard Lewis of Columbus, Ohio. Ahuvah lives in Jerusalem, Israel.
Q: Please tell us about your religious journey to becoming an orthodox Jew?
In 1991, I started my own travel agency in Los Angeles. I took a group of Christian tourists to Israel and while we were leaving Tel Aviv and coming around that first curve up toward Jerusalem, my heart started pulsating like it was going out of my chest and I said deep inside of myself “I am at home.”
I had been an ordained minister for 14 years, I had learned all of Tanach (the Jewish Bible) and I had even taught myself the Hebrew alphabet. Somehow I always felt that I had a Jewish soul. So it literally took an earthquake to shake me out of my comfort zone and realize my dream to convert to Judaism and to live in Israel as an orthodox Jew.
In April of 1994 at four in the morning, an earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley, where I had been living for 10 years. The earthquake registered 6.7 on the Richter scale and was considered to be huge. My bed shook so violently that I was thrown to the floor. In half-shock I said to myself “Get up, girl, this is not turbulence from an airplane!” I had been a flight attendant for Continental Airlines for so many years and had felt air turbulence at times. But with this experience, I knew it was a serious earthquake. I started running out of the condominium while reciting Tehilim (Psalm) 121. By the time I finished praying, I knew that I was moving to Israel at the soonest possible opportunity. Not long after that, I packed up my stuff and moved.
Q: How long did your conversion take and how old were you?
It took two years for me to convert at the age of 51. The rabbis at the Jerusalem Beit Din refused me three times, closed my file, and then ultimately reopened it. I call it a “Harvard conversion” because it was so hard.
In the end, it all worked out. While I was converting, Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem gave me the name Ahuvah which means “beloved.”
The most uplifting moment I experienced was right after my conversion. My neighbors in the Bayit VeGan neighborhood of Jerusalem, and the seminary I was attending at that time called Nishmat, threw me two separate parties. It was exhilarating to have so many people – friends and acquaintances – stop by to wish me Mazal Tov.
Nishmat even remained closed for the day for this special event and when I walked into the seminary, there was a huge sign emblazoned with “Mazal Tov Ahuvah.” So many English- and Hebrew-speaking seminary girls came to celebrate with me. It was incredible.
Q: What was it like living in a religious neighborhood like Bayit VeGan?
The term Bayit VeGan translates into “house and garden.” I have been loved and embraced by everyone in my community who are supportive of me as a black orthodox Jewish woman. I never thought that I would be living in a Charedi neighborhood in Israel. I am so grateful to Hashem that I am living this lifestyle for over 25 years now. In my neighborhood in Bayit VeGan, the vast majority of men dress in black suits and black hats. It was like I was moving from one black neighborhood to another!
Q: What experience in your childhood made you the person you are today?
I was born and raised in Chicago. Every summer our parents would send us to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, to visit our grandparents. In Mound Bayou, by the way, everyone who lived there was black and this is where the seeds of my spiritual life were planted. My grandmother, who was a humble Christian, taught me that “you children must learn to honor G-d.”
Now that I know about keeping the Shabbat, looking back at my childhood, I felt as though I had always kept the Shabbat in my hometown even though the Christian Sabbath was on Sunday and, of course, not on Saturday. My grandmother would do all of her preparations on Saturday. She would braid my hair, iron our clothes, and lay them out on the bed and do all of her cooking on Saturday night. Then on Sunday, when we came back from services, the table would already be set and she would warm the food on a thick pot belly stove. At the table, my grandmother would expect us to learn the Psalms, chapter 23, and recite it, which I did when I was only four years old. I am an orthodox Jew today because of my grandmother from Mound Bayou, Mississippi, who taught me the love of G-d and Psalms, whose source I found in Judaism.
Q: Please tell us about the time when you were on a speaking tour in Australia and a woman came up to you.
I was eating in a restaurant in Australia. A woman I had never seen before came up to me and asked me, “Are you Ahuvah Gray? I heard you speak about your grandmother who taught you to love Hashem and to learn Tehillim. I wanted you to know that I am praying the Tehillim every day because of your grandmother!”
I thought to myself. What a merit. My humble grandmother, the daughter of a sharecropper in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, could influence a religious Jewish woman in Australia to say Tehillim, all because she insisted that we children learn Tehillim, which I did.
Q: How did you come up with the title for your first book, My Sister the Jew?
The title My Sister the Jew came from a note sent to me by my siblings congratulating me on my conversion, and it read: “Congratulations, to my sister the Jew. We’re proud of you.”
Ahuvah Gray’s five other books include, Mind Over Matter, In Search of Hidden Treasures, Call Upon Me, Journey to the Land of My Soul and Gifts from a Stranger.