But there is nothing common about this 65-year-old resident of Bayit Vegan, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood in Jerusalem.
Gray, an African-American former Christian minister, whose grandparents were sharecroppers in Mound Bayou, Miss., is a true original.
“I like to say I went from one black neighborhood to another black neighborhood,” she told the Chronicle from her home in Jerusalem while preparing her Shabbat dinner. “But here, it’s all black hats and black coats.”
Gray will be coming to Pittsburgh Sunday, Nov. 6, to address women at the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, recounting the story of her journey from airline stewardess, to minister, to entrepreneurial tour guide, to Orthodox Jew.
Although as a young woman growing up in Chicago she could not have foreseen that one day she would become a Haredi, in retrospect, Gray says that the strong spiritual roots planted by her parents and grandparents ultimately led her to her conversion.
“My upbringing led me to my Yiddishkeit,” she said.
As a child in a devout Christian home, her favorite Bible story was that of Abraham. She so connected with the patriarch that she frequently would fantasize he was her great-grandfather, and that together they would travel the Holy Land.
So when she finally visited Israel in the early 1990s, something felt familiar and right.
“I was leading a Christian pilgrimage to Israel, and when I got off the plane, my heart started pounding in my chest,” she recalled. “I said, ‘My God, I’m home.’ ”
Having been feeling unfulfilled with the teachings of Christianity, Gray said she was looking for something more, and found it in Judaism.
“I came from a very disciplined Christian background,” she said. “But I had reached my plateau in Christianity. Nobody could answer my questions. I knew it was time to move on.”
For five years, Gray stopped attending church, saying she found many “discrepancies” in Christianity.
“The more I discovered the Torah, the more discrepancies I found in Christianity,” she said.
After visiting Israel 14 times in five years, Gray presented herself before the Jerusalem Beit Din (rabbinical court) as a candidate for conversion to Judaism. But the court rejected her three times, even closing her file, as it suspected her of being a Christian missionary.
Gray persisted, though, and with the help of the chief rabbi of Haifa, She’ar Yishuv Cohen, got her file re-opened and was finally allowed to begin her conversion process.
Two years later, she became a fully practicing member of the Haredi community, praying three times a day, keeping kosher, and even teaching at Miklalat Esther, a division of Neve Yerushalayim, a girl’s seminary in Israel.
“I have been loved and accepted into my community since the day I came here,” she said of Bayit Vegan. “The Haredi community felt like home. This is the umbrella Hashem placed me under. He wanted everything I learned to be learned properly.”
Still, she sees the incongruence of someone of her background living among the ultra-Orthodox.
“I laugh at myself,” she said. “I say, ‘Hashem, You have a great sense of humor.’ ”
Want to go?
What: “Ahuvah Gray: Prayer Through the Eyes of a Convert”
When: Sunday, Nov. 6, 7 p.m.
Where: Kollel Jewish Learning Center
For women and teenagers
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)