A decade ago, you wouldn't have dreamed of seeing Yaakov Parisi among a pack of yeshiva students. He was an evangelical pastor back then, in charge of a church in Oklahoma, completely unaware of the complexity and beauty of Jewish law.

Nevertheless, Parisi – who converted to Judaism several years ago in front of a Denver rabbinic court and now lives in Jerusalem – was one of the star pupils this month during a 10-day yeshiva immersion program at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J.

And while Parisi came specifically to share his story to the 90 other full-time college students and professionals who took part in the 10th annual program, Rabbi Boruch Hecht revealed that "everyone comes with a story."

Hecht, director of the winter program at the rabbinical college – which houses two full-time Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivas on a wooded campus in the northwestern part of the state – said that people are attracted to the session because it offers in-depth learning among pupils who have not necessarily been raised religious.

"One man promised his father that he would learn to say the Kaddish properly in Hebrew," said the rabbi, referring to the traditional mourner's prayer. Another was seeking spirituality in his British Columbia hometown when a visiting Chabad rabbi told him about the New Jersey rabbinical college.

Hecht said that many signed up after listening to his fall semester presentations on American university campuses. In addition, some 30 Argentine college students took part after touring the New York area in a trip sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch of Buenos Aires.

"The level of the students' commitment really becomes a gold mine of inspiration," said Hecht.

David Altman, a 37-year-old self-employed landscaper, said that he attended the program because he was looking for an in-depth learning experience that went beyond the little bit of time he spent in day school as a teenager. His wife encouraged him to absorb the whole yeshiva lifestyle by even staying in the dormitory with the other students. His roommates were Parisi and two other married men.

"I'm taking more notes than I have since 9th grade," he said excitedly one day in the middle of the program, "and loving every second."

An About Face

Participants in a winter yeshiva program at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., engage in a back and forth on a finer point of Jewish belief.
Participants in a winter yeshiva program at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., engage in a back and forth on a finer point of Jewish belief.
For his part, Parisi became very animated when describing his transformation "in a nutshell."

He said that as an assistant pastor 10 years ago, he was asked by a superior to research the holiday of Passover so that his church could learn about what the pastor called the Jewish roots of Christianity.

"I was very enthusiastic about the research," stated Parisi.

The enthusiasm quickly turned to surprise, however, when he was unable to find any ritual descriptions in the non-Jewish texts he was using.

"If we are the 'Seed of Abraham,' " Parisi said he wondered at the time, "why aren't we observing Jewish rituals?"

He picked up an English translation of the Torah, a prayer book and a special order of the Passover seder called a Haggadah: "I started learning and it just kept going and going."

Before long, he was becoming more and more drawn to Judaism, and Parisi and his wife eventually moved to Denver to study the religion full time.

After converting there, they moved to Jerusalem, where Parisi learns in a yeshiva.

Hecht said that the other students were inspired by Parisi's story. While, in many cases, his experiences were drastically different from theirs, they could relate to his devotion to Judaism after just a little taste of learning about the religion.

"When students are exposed to learning, they enjoy it," said Hecht. "Many of them always come back for more."