Local Jewish conversion students say they are undeterred by post-Oct. 7 tumult
Choosing communityPittsburgh Jews by Choice resolute

Local Jewish conversion students say they are undeterred by post-Oct. 7 tumult

Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.

Nico Demkin visited the Hoover Dam wearing a kippah and Hanukkah shirt. (Photo provided by Nico Demkin)
Nico Demkin visited the Hoover Dam wearing a kippah and Hanukkah shirt. (Photo provided by Nico Demkin)

When he decided to convert to Judaism, Nico Demkin knew that standing with the Jewish people wouldn’t always be easy.

“I knew that people might say ‘You’re choosing a side or giving up being American or the values you were raised,’” he said. “I knew that I would face adversity. Unfortunately, I have, but that doesn’t deter me in any way.”

Demkin is working with Rabbi Aaron Meyer at Temple Emanuel of South Hills to become a Jew by choice. He’s emblematic of those who have decided to cast their lot with the Jewish community despite pervasive antisemitism.

He is aware of the increased tensions that exist between the parts of the Jewish world and various other groups — including some far-left progressives in the United States, countries that consider terrorist attacks to be legitimate forms of “resistance,” and others who support the Palestinian cause while condemning the Jewish state.

“I’m active online with a lot of Jewish groups,” he said, “and there are some converts who have been shaken up by the events.”

Demkin said that he expected that a conflict like the one begun by the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 would eventually arise.
“Unfortunately, I was correct,” he said.

A self-described leftist who grew up Roman Catholic, Demkin pondered the priesthood before deciding to convert to Judaism after a convergence of two events.

The first was meeting his wife, Sara, who is Jewish. The second was a genealogy test that confirmed Ashkenazi DNA.

Before deciding to convert, Demkin already felt an affinity for the Jewish people. An English major with a minor in history, his college thesis was about antisemitism in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

He also researched how Ashkenazi Jews going to Ireland influenced the early days of the Irish Republic and the perception that the community wasn’t viewed as real Irish.

Demkin understands how they felt. He moved to Pittsburgh with his wife from Philadelphia after not feeling as safe or supported as they would have liked in the City of Brotherly Love. While the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting showed there was antisemitism here in the Steel City, it was something he viewed as a one-off.

“The unfortunate silver lining of the Tree of Life aftermath is seeing the non-Jewish community support and prop up the Jewish community,” he said. “There’s a relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish community that is not evident in other cities, and that gives me a lot of confidence.”

Demkin, who wears a kippah, said that his exchanges with people around Pittsburgh have been primarily positive.

“Since Oct. 7, I’ve been walking around Squirrel Hill and had folks come up to me and say, ‘We’re not Jewish but we support you,’” he said. “I had the same thing happen in Lawrenceville, where people walked up to me and said, ‘Happy Chanukah.’”

According to a 2014 Pew Study of the U.S. religious landscape, nearly 1 in 6, or more than 16% of American Jews, are Jews by choice.

Samantha Haberman wasn’t raised Jewish despite having a Jewish parent. Interested in her Jewish heritage, she went on a Birthright trip to Israel as an 18-year-old before the pandemic. The experience was “eye-opening,” she said.

“Before the trip, I was open to exploring the religion and seeing and learning about it. But being there and being immersed in the culture was really incredible,” Haberman said. “I just knew I wanted to be a part of it as much as possible.”

Haberman spoke with both Meyer and Beth El Congregation of the South Hill’s Rabbi Alex Greenbaum and has been taking the “Introduction to Judaism” course offered at Rodef Shalom Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom. She decided to convert with Greenbaum because of her family ties to his congregation.

Rather than feeling trepidation or fear, Haberman said she’s proud to continue studying for her conversion following the events of Oct. 7.
She feels a personal connection to the people she met on her trip to Israel and has friends serving in the Israel Defense Forces, she said.

“There’s a real sense of nationalism that every citizen has,” Haberman said of the Israelis she knows. “I think during these times, it’s important to come together as a community around the world and show that we can’t be broken, especially in Pittsburgh after the Tree of Life shooting.”

Haberman also said she feels blessed to have discovered the Pittsburgh Jewish community — something she didn’t feel connected to before starting the conversion process.

Despite her enthusiasm, Haberman said it can be a scary time to be a Jew — and an unsettling time to join the community.

“I have a friend in New York who stopped wearing her Star of David necklace because she was afraid to walk around the city with it on in plain sight,” she said.

Since Oct. 7, Haberman said a lot of hate has been reignited. Notwithstanding the protests over Israel’s response to the Hamas attack and the different rallies she’s seen on various university campuses, Haberman keeps a long view.

“Antisemitism has always been around. It’s terrifying,” she said. “The Jewish people have endured so much.”

Rather than focus on the hate, though, Haberman thinks about the joy she has found converting.

“I really appreciated how welcoming the community has been to me and to every convert that I’ve encountered. I think it’s my favorite part of being a Jew is the community,” she said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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