Editor’s note: This is the first part of a five-part series on places of worship that members of the UTD community attend.
Jewish student finds peace, community in local synagogue
Alana Stovall remembers feeling nervous as she made her way to the Congregration Tiferet Israel, a synagogue — or shul — in Dallas, on Dec. 22.
As she stepped into the chapel inside the synagogue and made her way to a small chamber at the head of the room called the ark, the finance and accounting sophomore came closer to completing her conversion to Judaism.
“It was as if there was a spirit in the air of peace and tranquility,” Stovall said. “It was like time could’ve stopped and stood still and that would’ve been OK. I was surprised I didn’t cry.”
The rabbi parted the doors of the ark, drew the curtains and revealed the three Torahs, or Jewish holy books, housed inside. Stovall’s family and friends watched as she recited her commitment to God.
“It was a very surreal experience,” she said. “It was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling (experiences) I’ve ever had in my life.”
Stovall is of Chinese descent, but was adopted by her mother Libbi Stovall when she was 3 years old and came to the United States in 2000. Although Libbi was born Jewish, she doesn’t observe the faith strictly, so she didn’t convert Stovall to Judaism when she was young.
Stovall chose to take that step when she turned 18. She said her grandparents were the reason for her attachment to the faith.
“My grandparents had the biggest impact on my Jewish life. When I’m sitting at shul, (I think), ‘Wow, I’m so thankful for what they did for me,’” she said.
However, Stovall’s connection with Judaism extends past her family’s influence. The synagogue played a huge role in strengthening her tie to the religion.
“I fell in love with this shul pretty fast,” she said.
The shul is 126 years old and Alana’s mother and uncle attended Hebrew school there. Their bar and bat mitzvahs were held there as well.
Although she does pray at home sometimes, being in the shul puts Stovall at ease and brings her closer to God.
“The only symbol of (my home) being a Jewish home is the fact that we have a mezuzah on our doorposts,” she said. “When you go to shul, even if it’s just for lessons with rabbi, there’s a spirit in the air of a holy place. It’s quiet and it’s not a place where you have to think all the time.”
On the day she went to consult her rabbi about starting her conversion process, the sight of five stained glass murals in the entrance of a hallway struck her. These murals pictured the five books of Moses, the chief prophet of the religion.
“It was particularly special,” Stovall recalled. “It shows you in a really compact version what it’s about. I’m a visual learner, so it shows (the) not always beautiful, but meaningful, stories that the Jewish people live by.”
Further into the shul, the main sanctuary also resonated with Stovall because of all the symbols it houses of God’s existence. The large ark, the sight of the six candles and the eternal flame’s enduring light reaffirmed her faith in God.
“(The main sanctuary) really struck a chord with me, because even when we’re not there for God, He’s there for us,” she said. “Even when we’re not deserving of His love and of His forgiveness, He finds a way to forgive us, and that’s something that we, as humans, really struggle with.”
Stovall’s conversion took an entire year. She was tasked with rigorous coursework and attending Shabbat services every Saturday. She made promises to give up shellfish and pork and to marry and raise her children Jewish.
However, the most difficult part for Stovall was overcoming the fact that not everyone was accepting of the conversion.
“(Some people) really shut me down,” Stovall said. “(They said), ‘We won’t observe that conversion. You’re not going to be Jewish in our eyes.’ Like any other human being, I want to be accepted. I want to know that just because I come from a different place, that it’s not going to change how people look at me.”
Her appearance — being Chinese and 5 feet tall — set her apart from the crowd, but she had to look past that and believe that she was, in fact, Jewish.
“I had to get over being paranoid of other people’s judgments,” Stovall said.
Her rabbi was her greatest supporter through the conversion process, she said.
“He said to me, ‘Why does it matter? You know you’re Jewish in your heart and soul and that’s what matters,’” Stovall said. “That was the day I learned to accept myself. That was the hardest thing about Judaism.”
Since overcoming the obstacles to conversion, Stovall has found a home in her shul.
“When you are in the synagogue with all these other people who volunteer their time to be there, it’s nice,” she said. “It’s a community into which you can bond with other people of the same faith, even if they don’t observe to the same level. It’s a time to reflect and to reassess your goals.”
To finalize her conversion, Stovall had to complete the ritual of mikvah, which she described as a “Jewish baptism.” The mikvah room holds particular significance for Stovall because of the promises she made to the rabbis that attended her mikvah ceremony.
“They said, ‘Alana are you ready?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am ready,’” Stovall said. “They said, ‘Do you promise that after going mikvah that you will practice and abide by all the laws of Judaism that are given to women’ and I said, ‘Yes, I will.’”
After making the promises to the rabbis, who then stepped outside, she approached the steps that led down to the mikvah pool completely unclothed. It had fresh running spring water that created white noise. She stood with her legs apart and tilted her body forward until she was submerged completely.
From that point forward, she was officially Jewish.
As a student, her fast-paced schedule keeps Stovall busy all week, but on Shabbats, when she attends shul, she’s able to put everything else on hold and concentrate on being close to God.
“It’s the atmosphere of Shabbat,” she said. “It’s a time to be at peace. Especially for me as a college student, I get really caught up in life. It’s stressful. I’ve got assignments due, I’ve got so-and-so nagging me — I don’t have time. I’ve really given a lot of thought to what makes Shabbats so nice for me and it’s just you sit there and you breathe.”