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‘Like Ruth, I found my true way home’

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From abuse to teenage pregnancy to observant Judaism, convert Batsheva Phillips hasn’t had an easy journey, but today she knows she’s where she’s meant to be.

“The first question people ask when they find out I converted to Judaism is, ‘What the heck is wrong with you?’” Phillips told an audience at Yeshiva College. “This question gets me every time because how can you explain a 10-year journey in a few sentences?”

Born to a conservative Christian family, Phillips always felt like the black sheep. Growing up in Constantia, Cape Town, living predominantly with her mother, stepdad, and younger brother, she moved frequently. “I had lived in 13 different homes by the time I was 16,” she said. This included a move overseas to New Zealand.

As a child and teenager, Phillips was exposed to two opposite worlds. Her mother’s was dominated by the church, something Phillips never fully related to. “My biological father was sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll,” she said. With intermittent arrests and stays in rehab, her father was a constant source of disappointment.

“The first time I was on the receiving end of his physical abuse was at the age of 10,” she said. “I learned to cover up many swollen and black eyes, split lips, and more bruises than I could ever count. I defended every girlfriend that he punched, every waiter, every neighbour that he’d get in a fight with. At the age of 10, I learned literally how to fight someone three times my size.”

By the time she was 16, Phillips was living with her mom in Constantia and had fallen into a depression. “I got involved with the wrong people, trying to run away from reality. In my damaged head, I decided that I was going to figure out the world for myself and wanted to have a baby. The psychology, I think, was that I was going to teach my parents how to parent.”

So she fell pregnant. “The most immature and irresponsible decision I’ve ever made is also the biggest blessing I’ve been given,” she said. When her mother found out about the pregnancy, Phillips was given the ultimatum either to have an abortion or move out, so she left.

Phillips’ mother eventually allowed her to move back home on the proviso that she would give her baby up for adoption upon its birth. Phillips pretended to agree to as she needed a home and a way to finance her matric year.

Ultimately, she wrote her final exams when her baby daughter was six weeks old, pumping and dumping milk in the school bathroom. Nevertheless, she finished with some distinctions and a university pass and left her mother’s home as soon as exams were over. Years later, Phillips and her mother reconciled, and today they are “besties”.

On leaving home with her baby, Phillips lived with her daughter’s abusive father. After a year, knowing that she couldn’t let her daughter experience the same turmoil she did, she moved to Johannesburg.

Once she was settled with a job, Phillips reached out to family in Johannesburg who lived a “different” kind of life. “My cousin who had converted many years prior invited us to a meal on a Friday night,” she said.

“It was a culture shock. These people were singing in an ancient language, they washed their hands and didn’t talk and drank out of little wine goblets. When they did speak, it was really loud and bizarre. And then the food came out – there was meat, salad, kugels, dessert, and magic braided bread. It was like Christmas day on Friday night, but so much better.”

By chance, her first friend in Johannesburg was also Jewish, and through his friends, her Friday night options and Torah exposure expanded. Eventually, she attended shul, which was somewhat overwhelming. A friend suggested that she try Reform shul where services were easier to understand, and Phillips began converting to Reform Judaism. Ultimately, she found it didn’t resonate with her as much as orthodoxy did.

Trying to expand her Jewish friendship circle, Phillips joined the Community Security Organisation. “I met my future husband learning Krav Maga. I guess you could call it love at first punch,” she said. His father is Jewish and his mother isn’t, and they shared similar feelings about Judaism. After having their first son, they contacted the Beth Din and after six months of back and forth, they were accepted into the conversion programme.

In a fairly new marriage, with a newborn, a new home, and a new shul, the couple eventually began to feel the strain. Her husband spent every spare moment at shul or learning. Running a busy household with kids and working full-time, Phillips began to feel growing resentment. Yet after therapy, they realigned.

Phillips also had to face the demons of her past, and eventually came to understand that although she didn’t feel Hashem as she navigated significant challenges, he was always there, subconsciously guiding her. “Yet, I wasn’t ready to embrace him. I needed to grow,” she says.

Phillips urged community members not to take their Judaism for granted. “My husband and I have fought hard to be Jewish and to be accepted as part of your tribe. You’ve received the most incredible gift from Hashem.”

Phillips relates to the story of Ruth, which features in the upcoming Shavuot festival. “Like me, Ruth was given a choice: she could walk away from Naomi and return ‘home’ and reclaim her identity, or she could stay with Naomi, leaving her home, city, status, and religion.

“The second choice, be it harder and more challenging, would be to continue my journey in Judaism with a staunch commitment to Hashem, Torah, and mitzvot. I inherently rejected the belief system that I was bought up with to fulfil my soul’s yearning to be part of the Jewish people. Two years after converting, I still believe I made the right choice.”

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