On the floor lies a jewelry box. Its owner sifts through the contents before stumbling on a Star of David, which helped to solidify this Branson native’s new faith after changing her beliefs nearly five years ago.
The Star of David in Lacy Cole’s hand shows signs of wear. Held together by a safety pin, the star bears no comparison in beauty to the one that now dangles around her neck. But, as her first handmade Star of David, it was an important symbol of Cole’s decision to leave her Southern Baptist roots and become a Jew.
Cole grew up in Branson, a town in the heart of what she refers to as the buckle of the Bible belt. Since the path to Judiasm was one few, if any, of her neighbors followed, her decision to convert was not an easy one. Cole wasn’t concerned about her parents’ reaction; her folks, she said, have been nothing less than supportive. Still she waited more than a year to tell her mother and father, who are divorced.
“I didn’t really tell my dad.” Cole said. “I just happened to be wearing a Star of David necklace, and he happened to look at my neck and said ‘Do you have a fascination with the Jews now?’” “Well no dad, I’m Jewish now. I have converted. And he said, ‘OK I wish you happiness,’” Cole said.
Cole was exposed to Christianity through her paternal grandmother, who Cole’s mother, Kimberly Ann Trimble, described as a “very religious lady.”
“We often joked and said that she had a ‘private phone line to God,’” Trimble recalled. “It seemed her prayers were always answered.”
Under the guidance of her grandmother, Cole and her brother started attending Baptist summer camp. One summer, just before Cole entered the 4th grade, she met Richard Voliva, a counselor and Baptist preacher. Cole’s friendship with Voliva would continue into high school, where he was her English teacher. He would also try to answer Cole’s increasingly persistent questions about Christianity.
“I have a very very good knowledge of Christianity and the new testament.” Cole said, “It’s not that I just made a blind decision on a whim, ‘Oh, you know I like this better,’ it’s a very, very well thought out educated decision.”
Even in 3rd grade I couldn’t understand why we are supposed to fear God,” Cole said. “Why would you fear someone you love? That just didn’t make sense to me. I would ask him these questions and he would tell me, ‘Honestly, I can’t answer these questions, I don’t really know.’”
One day, Voliva told Cole that, rather than allow her frustrations with the Southern Baptist Church to eventually pull her away from God completely, she might want to consider seeking out another religion. Cole looked into many of the world’s major faiths, even dissecting other sects of Christianity before stumbling onto Judaism.
“It was perfect.” Cole said, “It still had the really old roots that I was looking for, but my questions were more easily answered.”
But Cole’s decision wasn’t readily accepted by her peers, and she has been subjected to some anti-Semetic gestures. She recalls having a chunk of pork thrown at her in high school. During Cole’s freshman year at MU, she was in an elevator with four boys who, seeing the Star of David around her neck, began heckling her.
That Easter, during a car ride home from Springfield, Trimble and her daughter struck up a conversation about religion. Cole remembers her mother posing a question about Easter and expecting a “Christian response.” Cole told her of her new faith. It took several more conversations with her daughter before Trimble understood the thought Cole had into the decision and her commitment to Judaism.
“At first I would have to say I was shocked.” Trimble said, “I was hurt, I felt like she was leaving behind everything she had ever been taught, and I wondered where I had gone wrong in her raising.”
Cole’s Jewish peers are impressed with her dedication. Rebekah Goodall, a 20-year-old MU sophomore who has known Cole for over a year, sees no difference in her own status as a born Jew, and Cole’s choice to become one.
“She’s really inspiring to me,” Goodall said, “because I feel like I should be more dedicated to reading the scriptures.”
Cole is teaching herself Hebrew, and the burden of the rest of her Jewish education has fallen heaviest on her own shoulders. Recently, she learned that she must go through a formal conversion process in order to be officially recognized as a Jew. She must study with a rabbi and take part in a Bet Din and a Mikvah among other rituals. A Bet Din is a three person committee, the rabbi and two other learned Jews from the community, who are well-versed in the traditions of the religion, said Yossi Feintuch, rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom.
The group is responsible for confirming the candidate’s sincerity and basic knowledge of Judaism before he or she progresses to a ritual bath, or Mikvah. The converted is immersed in “living” water, touched by rain, without clothes, jewelry or makeup. Once this sense of being reborn is completed, the candidate is considered Jewish.
“When I decided what I wanted to be and what I believed in I didn’t have any resources.” Cole said, “I was teaching myself and I didn’t know what I needed to do.”
While her conversion remains unofficial, Cole believes the road ahead is another test of her faith. She has only dug deeper into Judaism, including choosing a Hebrew name, Ruth, after the young girl who, in her favorite Old Testament story, converts to Judaism. Cole relates to the story, and considers Ruth her own matriarch.
“I feel like I am fully Jewish, every part of me, Cole said. “There is not one part of me, even through the anti-Semitism, that regrets this choice. People that were born into Judaism didn’t have a choice, I had a choice, and yet I stayed.... You can’t get much more devoted than that -- to know what you’re walking into and still say, ‘This is still what I want.’”