Journey to Judaism
by Chris Haley
This is the story of a gentile from a small Southern town who found a spiritual home in Reform Judaism, became Jewish, and assumed a professional leadership role in the Reform Movement in New York City.
I grew up in Tennessee in a small town named Shelbyville, located about an hour south of Nashville, where there were virtually no Jews living in or around the immediate area – including me. After graduate school, I moved to Atlanta and took a job as Manager of Grants and Contracts for Atlanta’s Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS). The position at JF&CS offered a wonderful opportunity to explore a potential career path in fundraising. While working for JF&CS in the late 1990s, I attended a major gifts fundraising training presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, where all attendees were asked to stand and then remain standing based on their age group. Fresh out of grad school, I was the last person standing and the youngest person in attendance. The facilitator, clearly unaware of my religion, announced to the group that I was the future of Judaism. He issued an imperative that we must get younger people engaged in Jewish communal work.
While at JF&CS, I found myself fascinated by Judaism and learned as much as I could about it. The Jewish people of Atlanta – many of whom were Reform Jews – inspired me in a way I had not been inspired before. I learned about tzedakah and tikkun olam, allowing those principles, in particular, to wash over me like waters of a mikveh. My early experiences with Judaism occurred at a seminal moment in my life, serving as the foundation for my perspective on philanthropy and my future career in development.
My experiences in that first job seemed to foreshadow my path to Judaism. Back then, I didn’t see a clear “on-ramp” to Judaism. But years later, when I began dating a Jewish man, I considered conversion for the first time. My spiritual journey had begun to lead me in a new direction a number of years before, but in 2005 I began studying Judaism in a more formal way at Temple Israel of Minneapolis through an Intro to Judaism course. I converted to Judaism and became an active member of the temple, serving as co-chair of the finance committee and a member of the development committee. In hindsight, my time at JF&CS seemed to happen for a reason. That first job out of graduate school and the support I received from the staff at JF&CS are the reasons I decided on a career in development and provided the first step toward my conversion to Judaism. It’s why I am here, in this moment, as a Reform Jew.
Today, in my role as Development Director at the Union for Reform Judaism, I know that the work we do as Reform Jews has tremendous power. Led by our new president Rabbi Rick Jacobs and joined with our other lay and staff leaders, I am energized and excited by the sacred path that we are on together. I look forward to continuing our work with the wonderful clergy, lay leaders, and fellow staff of the Reform Movement to strengthen our Movement for many generations to come.
Chris Haley is the URJ’s Director of Development. He is an active member of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York and lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his partner and their two cats.