More than three decades ago, when Carol Landa learned that her thesis adviser was critically ill, she came upon the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” by Rabbi Harold Kushner (Anchor Books, 1981), which explores human suffering and faith. The book helped her cope with her grief and anger, and allowed her to envision a way to move forward.
Landa, who lives in East Brunswick, grew up attending a Lutheran church in a small town in Pennsylvania, but Kushner’s teachings led her to undertake a years-long study of Jewish thought and, eventually, to convert to Judaism. Today she is a devoted volunteer at East Brunswick Jewish Center (EBJC), where has done everything from weeding the synagogue’s garden to reading Torah.
“The synagogue can only function with the hard work and dedication of people like Carol,” said EBJC Rabbi Jeff Pivo. “She will put stickers on hundreds of chairs before the High Holidays so people know where to sit, she will teach religious school, she will tutor students — anything you can think of.”
Landa’s path to conversion began when she returned to Kushner’s book a decade after first reading it, when her mother became ill and Landa was going through a divorce. Then, intrigued by the tenets of Judaism, she bought book after book for a self-guided study of the religion’s principles.
“Judaism fascinated me. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. Every time I couldn’t understand something, I bought another book,” she said. “What drew me to Judaism was that it just made sense.”
Landa had been living in State College, Pa., since 1976, after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Penn State. She worked at a nursing home and then spent a dozen years as a research assistant in a laboratory at Penn State while studying part-time for a master’s degree in food science. After earning her degree, she took a job teaching a software training course that required a lot of travel.
Often finding herself at a hotel on the weekends — she typically spent about 180 days a year on the road — she began attending Shabbat services at synagogues in various cities. “Each synagogue I walked into, I was always welcomed,” she said.
In 1999, after studying informally with a rabbi in New York City, she sought out a rabbi to guide her study for conversion and was introduced to Rabbi Isaac Mann, a faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. For more than two years, the rabbi met with Landa weekly — an in-person visit once a month and a phone call during her business trips the rest of the time. During this period she met Jay Landa, a physics teacher living in Brooklyn, in an online chat room where she had posed questions about Judaism.
The year 2001 was one of major transitions for Carol Landa. She converted to Judaism, married Jay, and moved to East Brunswick, which the couple chose because of its robust Jewish community. (Her adult daughter lives in Vermont.) After 9/11, Landa decided she didn’t want to travel anymore for work and became a science teacher through New Jersey’s alternate route program, which trains and certifies teachers who seek to switch from another career; for the last 17 years she has been a ninth-grade biology teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School.
At EBJC, Landa has taught music to children in Hebrew school and spent 10 years leading pre-kindergarten Shabbat services. She is a member of EBJC’s executive board, serves on the religious committee, and has been a key force in organizing and promoting the weekly egalitarian minyan, often leading the service, reading Torah, and chanting haftorah.
She is always working on improving her command of Hebrew — “It took me six months to learn the first 17 lines I learned in the Torah,” Landa recalled — and has studied modern Hebrew with Pivo and is now taking online lessons in biblical Hebrew.
“As someone who wasn’t born in this faith, she, like many converts, has devoted herself to her studies,” Pivo said. “Carol is never satisfied with what she already knows. She is always looking for another thing to learn, which is really the mark of a traditional Jew.”
And of course, Landa can be counted on to pitch in at EBJC for any work that is needed. She has weeded the garden, painted the houses owned by the synagogue, stuffed envelopes, and helped with organizational chores for High Holiday services. “Many members don’t realize how many volunteers are needed for the High Holidays,” said Ellen Botwin, EBJC’s executive director. “She does it because of the goodness of her heart.”
Her participation comes for a simple reason: “Judaism is central to my life,” Landa said. “It has brought meaning for me, and it has surrounded me as a family.”
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