Woman embraces ancient religion in heart of the South

By Galen Holley and Bob Schwartz

TUPELO – The Hebrew word shuv, from which the Judeo-Christian religious world derives its concept of conversion, means to turn or change direction. For a Tupelo woman that turn will be toward a community that already feels like home.
Friday morning, Glenda Morlock-Gault will formally become a member of the Jewish community. As the most recent convert at Tupelo’s Temple B’nai Israel, Morlock-Gault will undergo a ritual immersion and stand before a panel of three learned Jews to give an account of her faith.
Previous conversions in the congregation took place in Memphis and elsewhere, but this will be the first in Tupelo. Morlock-Gault undertook the year-long process under the guidance of Rabbi Marshal Klaven of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson.
The ritual on Friday will formalize Morlock-Gault’s commitment in the faith, but her fellow congregants have considered her part of the community for some time.
“Someone said I have a Jewish soul. I really don’t know,” said Morlock-Gault, who was raised an evangelical Christian but has been taking part in congregational life at Temple B’nai for six years.
“I just know it’s who I am,” she said.Jewish communities have not traditionally reached out to attract new members. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Jews are born Jewish. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates that 85 percent of the 6.5 million Jews in the U.S. were raised in the faith.
Some 10,000 Americans convert to Judaism each year. In Mississippi, where estimates place the number of Jewish faithful at only 1,500, conversion is rare indeed.
Jewish congregations are generally open and welcoming to non-Jews, and that’s especially true at Temple B’nai Israel, where the power of Southern hospitality is as strong as at any other house of worship.
From the moment Morlock-Gault set foot in Temple B’nai Israel, the unique mixture of ancient tradition and small town friendliness captivated her.
“The people were warm and welcoming,” said Morlock-Gault. “They didn’t try to make me believe what they believed. They accepted me, talked with me and encouraged me to think and read and make up my own mind.”
The requirements for conversion differ among Jewish movements. The Reform movement, with which Temple B’nai Israel is associated, leaves many of the specifics of study and ritual up to the individual rabbi. Study is the centerpiece of the process, and Rabbi Klaven designed a rigorous distance-learning program for Morlock-Gault.
Even before the conversion, she worked out her own set of spiritual disciplines. For years she has abstained from shellfish and pork, which are prohibited by the Jewish food laws of kashrut. In addition to attending services, she has also studied the Tanakh, the canon of Hebrew scriptures. She even taught herself Hebrew.

Two cultures
Temple B’nai Israel stands at the intersection of two distinctive cultures – Judaism, with its ancient pedigree and Middle Eastern customs, and the American South, last bastion of gentility and familial hospitality.
Becoming a Jew here is perhaps different than it might be in any other place on earth. That’s been the experience of Butch and Mary Henderson, who after a decade worshiping at the temple still haven’t formally converted.
“There’s no put-on about anybody at the temple. Everybody is just themselves and they seem to appreciate my wife and I being ourselves,” said Butch, a Booneville attorney who grew up Episcopalian.
As with Morlock-Gault, personal study led Henderson to gradually become part of the Jewish community, and at 66, with no children left to raise, he sees no reason to go through the formal process. He and Mary are just part of the family, and those sitting next to them at services are fine with that.
Jewish merchants brought the religion to North Mississippi, and the relationships forged through trading introduced Henderson to Jews in Booneville. A Jewish friend loaned Henderson’s father money to build their first family home.
“It just seemed very natural to me,” said Henderson, remembering how Jewish people were part of the social landscape of his childhood. In some way, he said, that familiarity perhaps led him to become a “self-proclaimed Jew” much later in life.
A number of Jewish congregations in Mississippi have closed in recent years, leaving only 11 still active. In such a small universe, Morlock-Gault’s commitment is indeed special.
“The affirmation and confirmation which will be present at Glenda’s conversion is heard so much louder in a state such as Mississippi,” said Rabbi Klaven, who, during a special service Friday evening will publicly proclaim Morlock-Gault’s commitment in the faith.
“Glenda’s decisions can play a major role in the continued growth of the Jewish community in Mississippi and beyond,” he said. Her example will “uphold the Jewish perspective that a Jew by choice is equal to a Jew by birth.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@journalinc.com. Contact community columnist Bob Schwartz at bobschwartz@att.net.