By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006; B01
When the sun goes down today, Jim Nicotera will file into synagogue like any other Jew, take his seat and begin the intense reflection that marks the annual, 10-day High Holidays period for Jews.
Having grown up Catholic -- even serving as an altar boy -- and having converted to Judaism last year, Nicotera has an intimate relationship with the holidays' fundamental goal: self-change. For him, the key Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers of repentance, sin and death were not simply passed down through the generations and repeated out of tradition; they took sorting out -- and still do.
Jewish converts have received new attention in the past year, as U.S. officials from the major Jewish denominations have made unprecedented appeals, emphasizing the importance of conversion -- particularly among non-Jews married to Jews as a way to keep the minority faith alive.
In the Jewish calendar, the most sacred of holidays is the period between Rosh Hashanah, which begins tonight, and Yom Kippur, which begins the night of Oct. 1. Called "the days of awe," the holidays are a period during which Jews ask for forgiveness for their sins and the sins of their community, from one another and from God.
"We are supposed to get into spiritual readiness for this awesome period of changing ourselves," said Sybil Wolin, who teaches a course through the Jewish Study Center in the holidays' basics to people considering conversion, among others.
Rosh Hashanah, which rings in a new year in the Jewish calendar, is translated from Hebrew as "head of the year." The year that begins tonight is 5767.
Converts to Judaism share a key theme with the holidays: rebirth. Jewish scripture describes Jews as "reborn" after Yom Kippur, or "Day of Atonement," during which Jews fast and are cleansed. Rabbi Aaron Panken, dean of Hebrew Union College in New York City, said the Talmud, a collection of Jewish oral law and teachings, talks about converts in a similar way. The Talmud says "that they are a newborn person, that there is a sense of rebirth in the conversion process," he said. As part of the conversion process, some Jews are immersed in a ritual bath called a mikvah, a Hebrew word that shares a root with "hope." But the conversion process isn't always easy.
Nicotera, a 55-year-old finance director from Fairfax, "never felt quite comfortable" with converting, even two decades after marrying a Conservative Jew and raising two Jewishly observant sons.
"After being raised Catholic, it's hard to say, 'You know, I don't believe some of that stuff.' I felt I'd be a hypocrite if I tried to convert," he said.
He admired the "pragmatic" approach to God he heard about in services, but he felt an absence of spiritual things that he associated with Catholicism, such as "a sense of miracles and wonder, an afterlife, a messiah. I felt I needed something more spiritual to balance out the pragmatism."
During the High Holidays, Nicotera would often meet his wife and sons after synagogue to have a dinner with a group from the synagogue, including several interfaith couples. He went to services occasionally, but as a non-Jew was not allowed to participate fully.
Then, he said, a couple of years ago, "I totally stunned my wife and kids" by deciding he wanted to be a Jew. After talking, studying and debating with friends, his wife and a rabbi, Nicotera concluded that he identified with the key Jewish tenets of one God and an earthly purpose of doing good. He could live with the ambiguity about the afterlife, he said. But that doesn't mean his exploration has ended.
Having been raised with the concept of human beings as fallen creatures, Nicotera has worked to digest the Jewish concept of "sin," the word which is chanted many times during the High Holidays. In Hebrew, the language of Jewish prayer, sin translates as cheyt , which shares a root with the word that means an arrow that missed its target. Nicotera has had long talks with his rabbi about sins: Are they always against God, as Nicotera understood in Catholicism, or can they be against man only?
"The whole thing about not having original sin still boggles my mind," he said.
Last fall, for the first time, he attended all of the High Holidays services and this year will do the same. After services, the family will get together with friends. "We bring lox, and someone else brings bagels and we all get together and talk."
Among those who attended one of Wolin's classes through the Jewish Study Center this month was Michael Marcus, 29, who works in the communications department of the National Air and Space Museum and is starting the conversion process and will attend High Holidays services for the first time. Raised by a Catholic father and a Protestant mother, Marcus went to the class with his wife, who is Catholic.
Marcus said he was not drawn to religion until he was in college and learned about the life of his paternal grandfather, a Jew, who converted out of the faith to marry Marcus's Catholic grandmother. It was then that certain things clicked: a willingness to debate, an analytical view, the centrality of the Jewish home as the spiritual center, as opposed to the parish and the priest, which are fundamental in Catholicism.
Three years ago, when Marcus was deployed by the National Guard and was asked to identify his faith on his dog tags, Marcus, in a moment of clarity, surprised himself: "I'm Jewish," he thought.
In his studies about the High Holidays, Marcus said he has identified strongly with the Jewish practice of communal confession. During Yom Kippur, Jews chant aloud their confessions and ask for forgiveness not only for the sins they knew they committed but also those committed unknowingly.
Marcus said that for his first observance of the High Holidays, he would reflect on how to focus more on family and friends.
Hannah Fischer, 27, also will attend High Holidays services for the first time since she started seriously considering converting. She is still wrestling with the holidays' theme of self-change and whether it applies to her if she converts.
"The things you learn about religion when you are very young don't leave you," said Fischer, who grew up in Baton Rouge and works for the Congressional Research Service.
Fischer said she remembers being drawn as a teenager to the Jewish heritage of her father, who had become a Lutheran when she was a baby. She knew nothing of Judaism, but as a student at a boarding school in rural Louisiana, she found a temple to visit during the High Holidays.
"I just thought it was incredibly beautiful," she said. But since she began dating a Jewish man 10 months ago and more seriously considering converting, Fischer said she can't help but notice that she is approaching Judaism "with a Christian lens."
At this time of year, as she prepares for the High Holidays, she is exploring the theme of repentance and the prayers in which Jews ask "to be written in the Book of Life," or to survive in the coming year. In this, Fischer sees the Christian emphasis on life. "I feel that's also an affirmation that we all want life, we want to be alive."
In addition to such weighty topics as death and sin, there also is a pragmatic challenge for converts to Judaism: adjusting to sitting in synagogue for two or three hours at a time during High Holidays services.
"I still have trouble dealing with the length of the services, to be honest," Nicotera said with a chuckle.