On any journey, it is just as important to know where we have come from as it is knowing where we are going. So let me tell you a bit about my beginnings.

My name is Michèle Sankar, and I was born into a religious family… a religious Roman Catholic family. My mother is of Irish-Canadian background, and was raised with a love of the church, Catholic education, and a strong sense of morality. My father was born in Hungary, and although he left with his family when he was a young teen during the revolution of 1956, he, too, attended Catholic schools all his life.

I even "knew" that I would only marry a CatholicThe usual Catholic milestones filled my childhood – baptism as an infant in a Hungarian church in Toronto, First Communion, Saturday morning religion classes, weekly Mass, and so on. Catholicism was a source of pride for me, and I was a devoted and happy Roman Catholic!

When I was two, my family moved to a small village about an hour-and-a-half from Toronto. At that time, the population was 1,200 people – with at least 5 different churches in the village. Not a Catholic one, mind you. You see, the community was very Protestant, so our little, old Catholic church was out on the country side roads, and that's where I went to church, along with a few Italian, Polish, Dutch and Irish families.

Despite being in the minority – and the fact that, as Catholics, we were occasionally subjected to some negative comments – I was incredibly proud of my Catholicism. As a nine-year-old, I marched confidently into to my classroom with a cross of ashes on my forehead after having been to pre-Easter services at church that morning. I loved it all! I even "knew" that I would only marry a Catholic, and would bemoan the fact that there were only two or three boys in my class who would be eligible husbands.

As I grew up in a very Christian community, I knew virtually nothing about Jews. One part of our Sunday church service referred to "our brothers and sisters, the Jews." I asked my Irish mother about Jews at one time, and she smiled and told me that the Jews were very special people with a special connection to G‑d. That stayed with me, and at the age of eight, a Jewish seed was planted. Not once did I hear anything anti-Semitic from my parents, or from any of the churches or Catholic institutions I attended. So the Jewish spark was kindled, but I was Catholic… I was going to marry a Catholic. I had even picked out good Catholic names like Anthony and Maria for my future children. But somehow, something was pulling me towards Judaism.

I have always been an avid reader so I started looking for Jewish-themed books. While our little library wasn't great, it did have some children's books and novels with connections to the Holocaust. I read them all.

My parents became friends with a Jewish couple that lived out in the country with their two children. This was my first time to meet "real" Jews! We visited them once when the lady's older father was also visiting. He reached for something, which caused his shirtsleeve to pull up slightly. And there on his forearm, I saw them. Numbers written in bluish-green ink on his arm. It took a moment for me to realize what they were. This was my first real connection with the Holocaust – a man who looked like a regular grandfather, but had clearly lived through a horrific period.

There was little Catholic Michèle sitting for the first time at a seder table, and it was déjà-vuWhen I was about nine or ten years old, our family was invited to a Passover seder by that same Jewish couple. There were no Jews for 60 miles, so they decided that the next best thing would be to invite their nice Catholic friends. Ours was a family who would understand and appreciate a seder!

For many of you, each time you sit at the seder, you're reminded of previous years. You know what the bitter herbs and matzah taste like… you are familiar with the sights, the smells, the story, the songs. And yet, there was little Catholic Michèle sitting for the first time at a seder table, and it was like déjà-vu for me. I knew and "remembered" those tastes – the crunchy, the bitter, the salty. How could something be so surreal and yet so natural and familiar? I was home.

So my Catholic plan for life took a little twist. Catholicism was still good, but I needed Jewish stuff. It was part of me now, and I couldn't dismiss it. Everytime I watched TV or a movie, I scanned all the names in the credits, trying to identify which ones were Jewish. I expanded my reading from Holocaust books to Jewish-kid-growing-up-in-Brooklyn books, including Chaim Potok's novels such as The Chosen. I learned that keeping kosher meant more than not eating pork.

When I was eleven, I had the wonderful opportunity to fly to Hungary for the summer, and spent two months in a town with my grandfather's sister. She was a devout Catholic and we went to church every day. Nusi had never married and had no children or grandchildren of her own, but she loved and indulged me the way a grandmother would. Money was scarce in Communist Hungary, but she gave me a gift of a pad of paper and some coloured pencil crayons. I can still remember her shock when she looked through my art pad, expecting to see pictures of kittens and flowers, and found instead a series of concentration camp scenes. The figures I drew were all faceless, but in Hungary I felt compelled to create these pieces nonetheless. We took trips to various cities, yet I just wanted to pass synagogues, to see them from the outside. It was around this time that I started having Holocaust nightmares where I frequently awoke in a cold sweat, having dreamed of running through alleys and forests, hiding when I could. Naturally, I attributed this to reading so many books about this tragic period in history.

I was about twelve, and my parents knew that I was strong in my faith and they were happy with my reading and learning. My dad then told me about another family whose wife was Jewish. Wow! I knew of two Jews near our community! Imagine my delight when The Jewish Wife lent me a book called The Jewish Catalogue, a comprehensive guide to all things Jewish. Very happily, I began reading about Shabbat, the holidays, koshering meat, and other concepts that were new to me.

In every textbook, I would scan the index for Jews, Judaism, or IsraelAs I was nearing the end of grade 8, it was time to face a new chapter in my life. Until this time, I had been in public school, the only option in our town. My parents had both attended Catholic boarding schools, and so this option was presented to me. I was thrilled! There was also a part of me that was interested in becoming a nun, although that meant not marrying my yet-to-be-discovered Catholic husband or having my already-named Catholic children.

And so I spent my four years of high school in a convent boarding school in London, Ontario. They were wonderful years. I went to Catholic Mass twice a week and was part of the religious committee, studying, singing and taking an active role in the community. And yet, I continued to entertain Jewish thoughts. In every textbook, I would scan the index for Jews, Judaism, or Israel, and try to soak up what I could. The only troubling aspect was the occasional nightmare of running through old alleyways, between stone buildings, down secret passageways, until I got to a forest where I kept running. Looking back now, perhaps I wasn't running away, but beginning to run towards something…

At 17, I started my studies at the University of Toronto, which is where I started moving more purposefully toward Judaism. For the first time, I met Jews my age. My dreams of meeting a nice Catholic boy were starting to be replaced by dreams of meeting a nice Jewish boy. I went to church less often. I registered for a Biblical Hebrew course at the university, where we learned the Hebrew alphabet and began reading Genesis in Hebrew.

Finally, in my third year, I realized I needed to make a decision. I had no anger toward the church, and it hadn't disappointed me; my experiences had all been positive. But as great as it was, I felt G‑d was tugging me toward Judaism. There had been signs and clues in my growing years, and I needed to listen.

It was time to make my first call. I telephoned a synagogue in Toronto, and asked to speak to the rabbi. This was the first time I spoke these words aloud: "I want to be a Jew." Silence on the other end of the phone. Then the rabbi's voice:

"Are you engaged to a Jew?"


"Dating a Jew?"


"Well, that's usually why people want to convert."

"But I want to convert because I want to be a Jew."

He asked about my age and background, and then started to dissuade me. It's really too hard…There's a lot involved…….. Being Catholic is good too, and so on. But I persisted. To discourage me further, he listed many books that I should buy.

How do you explain to your parents that you no longer believe in the divinity of the one they think is divine?I bought them, I read them, I called him back. The rabbi agreed to meet and learn with me. It was clear that I had to tell my family. It was one of the most awkward and difficult conversations I have ever had. Oh, there was no screaming or crying… nothing like that. But how do you explain to your parents that you no longer believe in the divinity of the one they think is divine? How do you tell them that you can't eat food the way they prepare it? How do you let them know that December 25 and Easter are meaningless holidays to you, ones which you will no longer be celebrating? And how do you convey to them that this Jewish religion, with its rules and stringencies, is the faith you love and feel so much a part of?

My mother did what any Irish Catholic mother would do in this situation. She went to her parish priest. While she was pouring out this story, he said to her, "Don't worry about Michèle. So many young people drop away altogether from religion. Your daughter went on a faith journey that brought her to Judaism. She still believes in G‑d, and He takes care of the Jews. You don't need to worry about Michèle." Imagine that, coming from a priest. And I have to credit my mother, the most religious Catholic I know, for also being the most understanding and supportive.

Well, word got out. And do you know what was interesting? My non-practicing family and friends, the ones who didn't do much church-going, were generally the most judgmental and critical of my decision. My own father, whom I dearly love, could not understand how someone would choose to join such a "restrictive religion." His mother, my Hungarian grandmother, was very upset. She was grateful that her husband did not live to see this day. I couldn't understand why it bothered her – or my dad – so much, when neither of them had been heavy church-goers anyway.

During this time, I began dating a friend from university – a nice Jewish boy, David – and he joined the learning train with me.

I gave up pork, and did not eat dairy and meat together. But shellfish stayed on my menu. One evening, my mother made delicately breaded scallops – very unkosher. After sitting down to dinner, I put a scallop in my mouth and began to chew. Ugh! Dreadfully bitter. I immediately spat it out, thinking it was a bad scallop. I tried another… same story. Could it have been the oil that was rancid? My mum and stepdad said that theirs were fine. I insisted on trying half of one from my mother's plate. Her half was delicious, she said, yet mine was acrid. At this point, my lips and tongue were starting to feel numb, as if there were a thick coating of Vaseline jelly inside my mouth. That, of course, is one sign of a serious food allergy. For years I could eat the stuff, and now that I had committed to Judaism, G‑d gave me a way to make sure I would never touch shellfish again.

By moving along at a reasonable pace, I was able to make each observance my ownEventually, I bought my own little meat pan and a dairy pot, plus simple plates and cutlery to use in my parents' home. By this time, David and I were enrolled in weekly conversion classes which were to last almost 18 months. Soon I was buying kosher meat for myself, and I quickly came to love the island in time that is Shabbat.

Was it difficult? In some ways, yes. But by moving along at a reasonable pace, I was able to make each observance my own, and I saw how it made my life increasingly better.

A few months before the end of the conversion course, David asked me to marry him. I was going to be a bride!

Eventually the day for me to go before the Beth Din – to convert – arrived. I answered the rabbi's questions, and finally went for my immersion in the mikvah waters. I tell you, the experience was unsurpassable in its beauty and meaning. The Hebrew date was the 5th of Iyar, and the parshah that week was Tazria/Metzora, which deals with the laws of mikvah. How appropriate!

Now, I'll change the direction of this story a bit. I was always interested in my family history. My Irish grandparents had lovely stories of their ancestors. My Hungarian grandfather also talked about the difficult years growing up in southern Hungary. My Hungarian grandmother did not like to discuss the past at all, saying that the wars and Communism were painful to discuss. Fortunately, my father's sister had an excellent memory and was able to help me put together my family tree shortly after I got married. My grandmother's name was Eva, and her mother was Elly. Elly's father was a doctor. Really? A doctor? And what was his name? Simon. Simon? But no typical Hungarian man has the name Simon unless…. I decided to take a chance, and I wrote to the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery in the town where Simon once lived. Did they have a burial record for a Dr. Simon Winter, who died in 1943? Yes.

Things unfolded, leading me to more documents and discoveries that are another story altogether. Suffice to say, I discovered that my paternal grandmother was a Jew, born to two fully Jewish parents in 1914. In 1923, things were not good for Jews in Hungary, so my great-grandfather had the family baptized to improve their political and social situation. They did not maintain connections to most other family members, and lived thereafter as Catholics.

My grandmother was devastated when I discovered her "shameful" secretBut my grandmother was a Jew, which means that my father is a Jew. The two people who were the most distraught by my conversion were Jewish according to Torah law. My grandmother was devastated when I discovered her "shameful" secret and did not acknowledge or discuss it with me. I respected how painful it was for her, so I didn't probe – but my heart was aching. She passed away just before Passover three years ago.

My research led me to discover that some of my Jewish ancestors and their families were killed during the Holocaust. Some tried to take refuge in the Portuguese safe-houses of Budapest, only to be forced out by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and murdered. Another survived and left the country, childless. My great-grandparents had to wear the yellow star, yet somehow survived in Budapest during the Holocaust. I do not know more because the one remaining relative from this time period refuses to discuss any of it with me. Even that person's own children do not know that their parent is Jewish.

My Catholic grandfather must have known about his wife's Jewishness, but if he did, he never mentioned it. My father and sisters were certainly surprised by the news. We learned, however, that during the war, my grandfather hid a Jewish colleague in their apartment. I also have old letters attesting that he looked after some belongings for Jewish neighbours when they were sent to the ghetto – and that he returned all of it.

More than ever, I felt responsible for bringing back the Judaism that was lost to my family through murder and assimilation. My children and I are the only living Jewish descendants of my great-great-grandparents. G‑d had a reason for bringing me back to Him. I needed to be the voice – and the soul – for those who could no longer speak.

So what was I going to do about it? It was a tremendous responsibility that G‑d entrusted to me. The truth is that during the first few years of married life, we had become somewhat lax in our observance. While I didn't write or go shopping or watch TV on Shabbat, we drove to synagogue, reheated food in the microwave, and flipped lights. I was blessed with three children. They all went to Jewish babysitters, and on to Jewish Day School.

Kosher? We had a separate meat and dairy section in our kitchen, and only food products with a kosher symbol were allowed. Despite the stringency at home, however, we still ate out, ordering "vegetarian" or fish.

One day, my husband came home and said, "Did you know that there is a synagogue here in Richmond Hill?"

"You're kidding!" I replied. "Where is it? What's it called?"

"It's Chabad Lubavitch, and it's actually in the basement of the rabbi's house."

I looked at him. "Lubavitch? Are you kidding me? That's really Orthodox. Aren't they all black hat and beards? No way!"

I assumed they would know that I "didn't belong"The truth is, I was worried. Such a small group in a personal space… I wouldn't be able to slip in anonymously or check out the lay of the land. I assumed they would know that I "didn't belong," that I was "just" a convert. I thought that I would be judged by stern and solemn people. No, thank you.

A few weeks later, David convinced me to give it a try. On one lovely Shabbat, we reached the home of Rabbi Mendel Bernstein and his family. In we went, and a nice young brunette named Toby sat near me and smiled. She was friendly, made nice small talk, and didn't ask any uncomfortable questions. After an hour, it occurred to me that she was the rebbetzin.

We became regulars. My oldest son, about 8 years old, began bugging me about covering my hair. For the sake of peace, I started to put a kerchief over my head. Over the period of a couple of years, the kippahs and tzitzit stayed on my boys even when they were out of school. My pants remained unworn in my closet, and I began wearing more modest clothing.

It was a new critical point in my life. Through increased learning, I knew that our growth had to continue. I decided that instead of announcing what I was going to observe, I needed to ask myself when I was going to embrace other aspects of Jewish life. These observances weren't burdens; they were gifts – gifts that had been taken away from so many Jews in the past, and I was grateful for them. Just as the instruction manual for our new appliances is written to ensure the best results – even when it tells us what not to do – so too G‑d wants what's in our best interests, and gave us an eternal manual called the Torah.

We quickly learned that when a person wants to increase in observance, obstacles soon disappear and life becomes easier and happier. Being Jewish according to Torah law is truly a joy for me, but there were difficult times too. Unlike my friends, I couldn't refer to my bubby's kreplach recipe, or my zaidy's traditions. Everything we did we had to borrow and personalize, secretly watching the rabbi, for example, to make sure we were doing a mitzvah right. And that scared me. I had a fresh Jewish soul and I didn't want to soil it. But I also know that, as humans, G‑d always gives us another chance. Mistakes don't undo the good that has been done, and it doesn't tarnish the good we will do in the future. We need to live in the present, to make this moment count.

I am a Jew. I never get tired of saying it, thinking it, believing it, loving it I used to feel sad that I had nothing Jewish to offer my children… no traditions, no stories, no heritage. Now I know that every woman, no matter what her history or status, influences the dynamics in her home. Like most Jewish mothers, I fret over my menus for the High Holy Days, I grumble about the cleaning we need to do for Passover, I go into panic mode in the half-hour before Shabbat starts. But deep down, I am intensely grateful.

And that "stern Orthodox community" I was so worried about? How wrong I was! We quickly became a part of the Chabad family in Richmond Hill, sharing services, classes, celebrations, and friendship. This is a home where we have never been judged – only embraced.

I am a Jew. I never get tired of saying it, thinking it, believing it, loving it. Every day, there is that a thrill in me that exclaims: "Yay! I'm a Jew!" G‑d made me work for my Jewishness, and because of that, I appreciate it every moment. I don't believe that any event in our lives is just coincidence. Every one of us has a wonderful ability to renew our commitment to Torah and good deeds, to learning, praying, and making a difference to others – every single day.

My wish for you is that every day you get hit with that thrilling realization, "Yay! I'm a Jew!" and that you do something with it. When someone gives you a designer jacket or an expensive purse, you don't leave them in the closet. You take them out, use them, and enjoy them. It's the same for your Jewish life.

Don't keep your Jewish flame hidden in the closet. Take it out, utilize it, and go gently if you must. Flames can be shared without the giver losing any light; the more we share, the brighter it becomes. I pray that each of us treat every day as our first day as a Jew.