The last year and a half has been a soul-searching time for Timoth Copney-Welton.
The actor, dancer and choreographer first learned he’d developed rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. Eight surgeries on his feet and ankles followed. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, leaving him pondering life’s impermanence in ways he never had.
“I found myself face-to-face with my mortality, and it was sobering,” he said. “I decided it was time to do something about it.”
What Copney-Welton, 65, did was commit to completing a journey he’d started years before: converting to Judaism. Now he finds himself looking forward to his first Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, as “an almost full-fledged member” of the faith.
The solemn occasion begins at sunset Wednesday and ends Thursday evening.
“Yom Kippur is a uniquely holy time, and you don’t fully appreciate its significance until you’re Jewish, or almost Jewish, as I am,” he said. “It’s a crucial part of keeping the covenant with God as our people said they would.”
The Day of Atonement, as it is also called, marks the culmination of the High Holidays, a 10-day period of prayer and self-reflection that starts on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
Yom Kippur calls for Jews to fast and engage in prayer for a day as a way of remembering and repenting for sins of the previous 12 months, in hopes that God will be pleased and inscribe their names in the Book of Life for another year. The day involves taking part in lengthy ceremonies at a synagogue and observing a range of prohibitions designed to heighten awareness of the divine.
For Copney-Welton and others who have recently embraced or converted to Judaism, taking part promises to be a landmark on their journey of faith.
“I feel a little intimidated, because I want to get it right, but I’m also thrilled,” said Kate Wheeler, 36, of Glen Burnie, who has been living a Jewish life for months and expects to complete her conversion next year. “It’s about focusing on the spirit as opposed to our physical needs, so it’s not meant to be a totally pleasant experience, but I’m excited about becoming more connected to the Jewish faith and community by participating.”
Even as such polling centers as the Pew Research Institute in Washington report an ongoing decline in the number of people who consider themselves religious, Copney-Welton and Wheeler are far from the only locals looking forward to their first Day of Atonement as members or about-to-be members of the Jewish faith.
Andrew Busch, the senior rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville, said it’s too early to quantify a trend. But he said he and many of his colleagues have seen a “sharp uptick” over the past couple of years in the numbers of people reaching out with serious questions about Judaism or to inquire about conversion.
The process varies across branches of Judaism, but conversion generally calls for months of study, regular meetings with a rabbi, and sitting before a Beit Den, a panel of three rabbis, “to be quizzed about Jewish knowledge and commitment,” Busch said.
John Franken, the senior rabbi at Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, agreed that a resurgence of interest appears to be underway.
Franken is lead instructor of “Introduction to Judaism,” a course covering history, philosophy and traditions offered twice a year by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.
He said the 18-week course — an intimate class to which rabbis have long referred individuals interested in converting — has become so popular that organizers have set an enrollment limit of 35, and it is consistently reached.
In Franken’s view, anxiety around the pandemic could be one factor behind the increased interest in spiritual matters. So could the political divisiveness and shifting societal norms of the day.
Whatever the root cause, he believes the draw of tradition, history and clarity of purpose — some of the elements that define the Day of Atonement — give the faith a powerful appeal in this day and age.
“Quite a few people today are craving ritual and a sense of history, a structured experience that invites them to grow spiritually, ethically and intellectually as individuals,” Franken said. “That’s something Judaism does a very good job of offering to a lot of people.”
It certainly did for Copney-Welton. His childhood home in Ohio was next door to a synagogue, and he said his familiarity with people there gave him a sense of respect for the Jewish faith he never lost.
When he returned to its teachings as an adult, it was the rituals and traditions — the lighting of ceremonial candles, the prayers, the tales of great figures in the Torah — that gave him a sense of spiritual connectedness he’d never experienced.
“Since I got interested in religion as an adult, I’ve felt that I’m only really communicating with God when I’m doing Jewish prayers,” he said.
Sarah Cusack sees things in a similar way.
Raised a Roman Catholic in Maine, Cusack, 32, said she came to feel less than connected to that faith tradition. It ended after she found herself drawn to Judaism, a faith she saw as full of deep and historic processes — but ones that somehow clarified her lifelong quest for answers to life’s more mysterious questions.
“There was something comforting about the way things are done,” she said, “whether it’s the fact that Jews fast on Yom Kippur, that women light candles on Friday night, or that Judaism uses a lunar calendar. I’ll never know the ‘whys’ behind all these things, but that’s the beauty of Judaism: It encourages the questions.”
In one way at least, Cusack fits a profile among those interested in converting: She’s engaged to a Jewish person. Her fiance’s family didn’t pressure her, she said, and have been “incredibly supportive” in explaining the nuances of her new faith.
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Megann Coleman is similar. Raised non-religiously, she fell in love with Judaism and its culture through her fiance, Cooper Farrell, a computer systems administrator from Ellicott City, and his family.
“He would include me in the holidays, their family dinners and so on, and I always felt so welcomed,” she said. “The reception from everyone was so warm. It’s such a rich tradition, I was interested from the get-go.”
Though health reasons will prevent her from fasting, Coleman, 27, said she expects to attend evening prayer services with Farrell at their synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, and to embrace the tradition with him and his family as the years go by.
“I’ll keep learning as I go,” she said.
For Copney-Welton, the holiday promises to be another milestone in the faith journey he expects to finalize next month in a ceremony at his temple, Bolton Street Synagogue in Roland Park.
He was “profoundly honored” to be asked to do a reading at the synagogue during Rosh Hashana, he said, and he hopes that attending services on the Day of Atonement will only seal the conversion he has been pursuing, in a way, for most of his life.
“I really want to be written in that book,” he said.