Nolan Edmonson thinks for himself, and that trait has already opened up an unusual path. The 18-year-old from Montclair, brought up in a black Baptist-Catholic family, and schooled at a Catholic high school, left for Israel this week for 10 months of study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.
He underwent conversion in June and is reveling in having made his passion for Judaism official. The process was overseen by the Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. He wasn’t required to do the usual course of studies. “When they asked me questions about Halacha, they were satisfied that I knew enough,” he recalled.
Much of that learning has been taking place at the synagogue where he found a spiritual home, the Orthodox Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston. The welcome in general has been warm and open.
“He’s an extraordinary young person,” the congregation’s Rabbi Eliezer Mischel said. “I think the community has gained more from him than he’s gotten from us.” His conversion came just before Shavuot, and when it was announced in the synagogue on the holiday, people broke out in cheers, and danced with him in celebration.
He also has attended services — and been as readily welcomed — at Chabad of West Orange and Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David, also in West Orange.
Nolan is aware, though, that things might not always be as easy. “When I went for the conversion, one of the rabbis asked me how I would feel if I came up against discrimination. I told him I really hadn’t thought about it — but I’m not worried,” he said. What he does want, however, is for Jews to realize that Jews — by birth or choice — “come in all types.”
Nolan’s family is made up of Southern Baptists and Catholics. “I called myself a Baptist neo-Catholic,” he said. From the beginning, he was outspoken about his views. “I was always opening my mouth, on my soapbox about everything.”
His parents got divorced when he was very young, and his mother — while encouraging her highly opinionated son to pursue his own ideas — took him and his older brother to Catholic services. Through a friend of hers, however, the family began attending a “messianic” synagogue in Livingston, which blends Jewish practices with its Christian doctrine. He enjoyed the atmosphere and many of the ideas, familiar from his Christian education, but with the added Jewish element.
With no notion of the conflict between messianic movements and mainstream Judaism, Nolan blithely attended services at a Chabad synagogue in Florida while on a visit there, and thoroughly enjoyed it. When he came home, he sought out services and Hebrew classes. “I found Judaism intellectually and spiritually stimulating,” he said.
That gradual evolution raised a challenge. His mother sent him to Catholic high school, St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, which he attended willingly, but more and more he found that his views clashed with Christianity. “I started to mention to my mother, very casually, that I didn’t really agree with some of what they were teaching us at school,” he recalled. “She just told me that I had to work out my answers for myself.”
With her support, he began observing the rules of kashrut, and wearing a kipa. For most teens, that could have elicited teasing, but Nolan has an easy, confident way about him. He established himself as a capable student in class and in sports, and while his yarmulka did attract questions, he wasn’t ever ostracized.
“It’s funny, but I suppose because I was known to question things, I became the person people would turn to for discussions about spiritual issues,” he said.
For now, Nolan is excited about being in Jerusalem. It will be his third trip. The first was in December 2012 with a student group. He also went in June 2013 for the bar mitzva of a son of the Livingston couple with whom he has stayed on Shabbat, Harold and Stacey Ullman. Nolan said, “They and their children have welcomed me into their home and made me a part of their lives and nurtured my love of Judaism and taught me the meaning of Jewish observance.”
For the next 10 months he will study at Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox yeshiva near the Western Wall. He insists that he has no security concerns and can’t wait to get back to Israel.
“My mother told me that any time I don’t feel all right there, I can come home right away; I told her that won’t happen,” he said. “I’ve memorized the layout of Jerusalem, and I’m really excited about being there for a longer stay.”