Daniel’s Journey: Jew to Atheist to MormonBy: Graceforgrace
Recently I wrote about Daniel Ortner’s conversion story and thought that it was a very appropriate and inspiring story to share on Wheat and Tares. Daniel also has a blog that he writes on called Symphony of Dissent.
Enjoy his story!
Daniel’s Conversion Story
I was called many times and I would not hear (Alma 10:6)
I was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. My parents moved to Florida when I was about 3 and a half. I was raised in a Jewish household in which Judaism played a large cultural role but a rather smaller spiritual one. We would go to synagogue for the high holiday services, and then go back home and eat shrimps and pork. My father is a very secular individual, and his lack of belief in God is rooted in the Gas Chambers of Auschwitz and multiplied by heartbreak and loss. My mother was the more spiritual of the two. She taught me to believe in God and to love the spiritual. And yet, she also believed in a God that did not know or care about the little things that we did. “God doesn’t have an IBM computer” she would tell me whenever I would ask why we didn’t keep the same commandments my orthodox friends did. I went to a Jewish private elementary school and had my Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, but religion was not a very large part of my life.
Nonetheless, I had a lot of experiences that led me to spiritually wonder about the purpose of life. I remember as a small child asking my mother what happened after death, and she didn’t really have a response. She said she hoped there was something after this life, but wasn’t entirely sure. I went to the library and read books for kids about death, but didn’t find any answers there either. My grandfather died when I was 6 and my grandmother when I was 8. Death seemed like an awful force that I could not fully understand.
As I got older, my father who had long suffered from heart problems began to have serious health issues. One night when I was in fifth grade he got taken to the hospital by ambulance late at night. When I was 11 he had his third open heart surgery. The possibility of his death was always ever present in my life.
Amidst this background, I continued to search for spiritual answers that would help me understand why. After elementary school I stopped attending a Jewish Private School, and went to a public middle and high school. There, for the first time I was surrounded by people of other faiths and began to take an interest in christianity.
One of my best friends at the time Sarrah was a strong believer in Christ and she really helped me to learn more about him. She had a lot of light despite a life filled with darkness and trials and I was drawn to that special light. She prayed for me that I would always be surrounded by strong Christian individuals and that prayer came true in a myriad of ways. Wherever I traveled and however far I got away from God, people of faith seemed to literally find me. Thanks to her influence and that of several others, I began to more and more strongly believe in Jesus Christ. I also had a lot of personal experiences such as spiritual dreams that led me to believe in a God and in Jesus Christ. I remember reading Isaiah 53 and trembling with awe at the description of the lamb of God suffering for the sins of all mankind.
And yet, something held me back from fully committing to Christ. In part, it was the opposition of my parents whose heart broke as I told them about my interest in Jesus. On the other hand, there were several nagging questions that I just did not feel were settled. I wondered what would happen to the generations of my ancestors who had lived and died Jewish. They had faced the gas chambers and pogroms because of their faith. I could not accept the notion of a God that would condemn them to hell, and yet my Christian friends offered little hope. I began to slowly drift away from Christianity
When I was 15 my mom was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. It came as a total shock to me, because she had always been the healthier of my parents. Even though she fought valiantly, she died shortly after I turned 18. The last months were especially difficult even though her faith in the face of that trial was also inspiring. The loss was absolutely devastating to me and in time it continued to gnaw away at my faith. As I began my undergraduate at Brandeis University, I began to read Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and fell under their spell. I didn’t know how to accept a God that would allow my mother to suffer, and so I went to the opposite extreme of denying his existence
Around this time, I became friends with a girl named Tatiana who I later found out was Mormon. She was one of the only two undergraduate members of the church in the whole university! She wasn’t active at the time, but she still held many of the same values. She wouldn’t drink and had a very traditional view about the role of women which stood out in a very ‘progressive’/ feminist friendly university. I became really intrigued by her values. We dated for a while, but ultimately things didn’t work out between us.
I spent a summer studying abroad in China, and while there had an instructor who was a strong member of the Christian community there. We began to talk about God and religion, and those lengthy conversations with him really opened me up to the possibility of a God again. I noticed the vibrant spirituality that people had in China, and I began to yearn for something more in my life. When I returned, Tatiana had decided to begin going back to church and I felt for some reason prompted to check it out. Up to that point I knew next to nothing about mormonism, but I went to Barnes and Nobles and I sat down and picked up Mormonism for Dummies and the Complete Iditot’s Guide to Mormonism and I sat down and began to read. As I read, I was really struck by the power of the doctrine I read. I began to read about the pre-earth life and the plan of salvation and it just felt right…It filled a hole in my soul. It immediately made sense to me. It answered all the question I’d had about how one could believe Christ was the way and yet also believe that those who didn’t know him could be saved. I went to my friend Tatiana and asked her if I could go to church with her.
The next day was a sunday, and I went with her to the Cambridge University Ward. We were late for sacrament meeting, so I ended up going only to Sunday School and Priesthood, but what struck me was how friendly people were. I was warned to wear a suit and tie, so it took people a while to realize I was not a member. I was asked to give a closing prayer, and when I expressed that I wasn’t a member, people were a bit shocked. Pretty quickly however they set up a meeting for me with the missionaries.
Blessed is he that believe in the word of God and is baptized without stubbornness of heart. (Alma 32:16)
The first time I met with the missionaries, I had thought through a whole bunch of questions relating to the doctrine of the Church. I asked them difficult or near impossible questions such as why are there transvestite and hermaphodidic individuals if gender is a pre-mortal trait, and what happens to those that have more than one husband or wife in this life. My poor missionaries did a great job though of deflecting the questions and inviting me to read and prayer to God sincerely.
Even at that early point I knew I was feeling something special. I told my friend Tatiana that she shouldn’t expect me to be baptized quickly or anything, but that I could really see myself liking the church. I had some hang ups with the Church’s conservative political position on things like gay marriage but I felt myself drawn towards it more and more
I began to read the Book of Mormon and I remember liking it but also finding some things about it strange. It was strange to me to think of Israelites talking about Jesus Christ, but it also made so much sense to me. It was weird to imagine that Jesus had been hid like a big secret of some sort from the people of Israel. Indeed, it made much more sense to realize that he had been taught about all along I continued to read everything I could find about the church ( both pro and anti-Mormon) but felt drawn more and more to the church.
One day, I was talking to a non-member friend who is really opposed to the Church. She began to bash the church and especially focused on how awful the LDS Temple was. She had a good friend that was married in the temple and that friend’s family could not attend the wedding since they were not members. My friend was absolutely disgusted by this practice. As she spoke to me, I was pretty taken aback and wondered why that was the practice. While thinking about it, I felt strongly prompted to go to see what the temple was like in Boston.It was 9 at night, but I got into my car and drove to the temple ground.
When I got to the temple, I got out of my car and I felt an overwhelming spiritual presence. I had never felt something quite so powerful. I felt it through every fiber of my being. I felt as if the God was talking directly to me. In my mind, I heard his voice telling me that the church was true and that he was there. I was stubborn, and so I got back into my car and I drove to the nearby Catholic and Protestant churches to see if I would feel the same way there. I didn’t feel anything of the sort ( in fact I felt rather negative spiritually in front of the Catholic Church). I then got back to my car and drove in front of the temple, and when I got there again I went to one of the sides and knelt down in front of one of the stained glass windows. There, I poured my heart out to God and I felt transformed by the spirit. My whole being was filled with light. In that moment, I could clearly see the person that the Lord wanted me to become. I could see my potential as his son. I knew without a doubt that God loved me and wanted me to join his church. Since that moment I have never doubted the truthfulness of the Gospel. Even in my darkest moments, that experience has been like a beacon of light.
I knew that I should be baptized.
When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up. (Psalms 27: 10)
Telling my father about my decision to be baptized wasn’t an easy thing to do at all. Luckily, soon after that, we met in New York for the Jewish high holidays. The weekend before, I had been with my ward to a camp out up in Sharon Vermont at the Joseph Smith Birthplace and I got up to bear my testimony that i knew the church was true. Telling my father of that testimony was much harder though. We walked around Manhattan near Lincoln Center, with the Manhattan temple nearby, and I finally worked up the courage to tell him. His reaction was of course quite negative as I would have expected. He strongly forbade me from getting baptized and told me that if I did he would not want to have anything to do with me. I compromised with my father and agreed that I would wait six months before baptism so that he could know that it was a sincere desire of my heart
I spent the next semester studying abroad in London and it was a pretty challenging time in many ways. Throughout it all, however, I went to church every Sunday and bore my testimony each month during fast & testimony meeting. At times, I felt quite alone, but my faith in the atonement of Christ got me through it all.
After six months, my father was still as opposed as ever to my being baptized, and so I rather painfully ended up postponing my baptism again. Even though I was over 18, my father’s approval was ultimately very important to me and I wanted to try to respect him. I returned to the U.S. from Israel and as I was about to leave Florida to drive up to Philadelphia where I would spend the summer my father finally gave me his permission to be bapitzed. I went up to Boston then next weekend and I was baptized into the University Ward there. I still remember the joy that I felt when I was baptized. I felt cleansed from all of my sin and like an innocent child in the eyes of God. It was such a wonderful and unforgettable feeling.
Although there were challenges after baptism and confirmation, I felt a new energy and ability to cope with trials. My co-workers that summer were strongly critical of the Church because of its stance on gay marriage, and I struggled with internal doubts over that same topic, but I kept on striving and struggling. My ward had a trip to palmyra and while there I prayed in the sacred grove and felt the Lord confirm to me again that everything I had come to believe was true. That summer was one of great growth and development ( and I met my future wife while living in Philadelphia as well!).
Behold, verily I say unto you, go from them only for a little time, and declare my word, and I will prepare a place for them. (D&C 31:6)
Still, one of the hardest decisions loomed before me. Even before baptism, I had begun wondering whether I would have to serve a mission. I began rationalizing and telling myself that since I was older than most missionaries I wouldn’t have to do so. Nevertheless, I felt really strongly that I should serve and that service would transform my life for the better in so many ways. It was ultimately a difficult choice knowing how strong my father’s opposition would be, but I realized that whenever I thought about serving I felt incredible peace and calm, while when I thought to stay home I felt selfish and ill at ease. I felt a burning desire to share the gospel with others and to help them feel what I felt. Ultimately, I knew that I had to serve. I filled out my papers, deferred from law school, and told my father about my choice to serve.
Of course, he didn’t take that well and he threatened me once again with disowning. The hardest part wasn’t the threat, rather it was seeing the pain that I knew I was causing him Yet, I understood that serving would be ultimately what would secure for me an eternal family. Still, I remember feeling so physically and spiritually ill when I put in my papers. I had to remember to ‘cast not my confidence away’ and rely on the Lord. For weeks I felt discomforted and filled with despair. I was certain I’d never see my father again if I went to serve a mission. I didn’t know how I would pay for schooling once I got back. Yet, I put my faith in the Lord. When I got my call and heard that I would be serving in Novosibirsk, Russia I felt the spirit fill me with an overwhelming sense of peace and a confirmation that what i was doing was right.
I had the most incredible mission experience. I loved serving the Lord and I am so grateful for that experience. I know that the call was inspired of God. On my mission I gained a far deeper testimony of the savior and his church. I came to know him as I learned to love and serve his children. They were far and away the best two years I have ever spent, and I am so grateful to the Lord for the opportunity. I am thankful I was able to touch and teach some of my precious brothers and sisters and to help them enter the waters of baptism.
While on my mission, I felt strongly prompted to apply to law school at BYU Law. I had already been accepted and deferred at a higher ranked law school, but I still felt a strong prompting to apply there. I ended up getting offered a full scholarship and was able to come to law school without having to take upon myself massive debt. I am currently finishing up my first year of law school and absolutely loving it. I am also engaged to Jessica who I met back in Philadelphia. Perhaps most importantly of all, my testimony is still burning strongly and I am filled with conviction and the power of the Lord. I am grateful to him for all of my many blessings and for the opportunities that yet lay ahead. I know that my redeemer lives and I am so grateful to him!
I know that joining the church can be tough and that Satan often puts challenges in the way. However, I also bear witnesses that if we follow Christ and show our faith everything will work out for the better. Every good thing in my life today has come because I showed faith. Because of my faith I have a scholarship at a law school, a wonderful fiance and I had the most incredible opportunity to serve God on my mission. All the things I was afraid I would lose have not been lost. Although not perfect, my relationship with my father continues to improve and I was blessed to be able to see him again after my mission. If you have faith and not fear and follow the savior I promise that the Lord will pour down his blessings from heaven!