Angela Himsel is not your typical Upper West Side Jewish mother. Her life began in rural Jasper, Indiana, as the seventh of 11 children in an ethnically German, working class family that belonged to the Worldwide Church of God, an evangelical Christian denomination that preached the imminent return of Jesus and the End of Days.
Like all of the church’s followers, Himsel believed that at any moment, the Great Tribulation would come and she would be raptured to Petra, Jordan. In the meantime, the church’s founder and leader Herbert W. Armstrong demanded that members observe biblical holidays such as Shabbat and Sukkot, and follow the biblical dietary laws.
Celebrations of Christmas, Easter and birthdays were not allowed. Neither were voting, serving in the military, remarrying after divorce, or wearing makeup — the latter defiantly ignored by Himsel during her teenage years. In addition, church members were expected to rely on faith healing, even for serious illnesses.
Himsel and her siblings went to public school, and although her parents did not necessarily encourage her to pursue higher education, they did not prevent her from attending college.
Himsel, 57, might have remained a member of the cultish Worldwide Church of God (now more mainstream evangelical and known as Grace Communion International) until today had she not spotted a Hebrew University pamphlet at her college’s study abroad office in the early 1980s. She chose to visit Israel for a year as a way of connecting with the Bible. She experienced the places she had heard about her whole life, and she also discovered Judaism and Jews for the first time. It was a revelation that changed the course of her life.
While Himsel’s siblings all eventually fell away from the Worldwide Church of God (either joining other churches or not practicing at all), only she chose to convert to Judaism and raise an Orthodox-affiliated Jewish family.
In Himsel’s new memoir, A River Could Be A Tree, we learn of her unforeseen transformation into a Jewish woman, wife and mother of three. A journalist, Himsel shares her unlikely journey from Jasper to Judaism, bringing us along on the key geographical and theological stops along the way.
The Times of Israel recently asked her about her current views on the Worldwide Church of God, a family tragedy, and her Jewish identity three decades after converting.
At what point did you fully understand the cultish nature of the Worldwide Church of God?
It was only when my sister Liz told me that we were raised in a cult. I had known where the church had come from, but I only knew what the church told me. When the internet came along, I could actually research and go back and read some of the church literature that was online. There were also chat forums where former church members and their kids shared their recollections. This verified what my sister had said to me. I think this was part of an unconscious impetus for me to write the book, because I hadn’t known what I was part of.
I think I always would have said that the church was a little kooky, a little extreme. But I never would have used the word ‘cult.’ Somehow that seemed very scary to me. That sounded very ‘Jim Jones.’ On the other hand, I think we would have drunk the KoolAid quite frankly.
Did you have no inkling that the leaders were using money tithed by members to support their own lavish lifestyles, or that the leaders themselves were not adhering to church teachings?
I think my [Catholic and Lutheran] grandparents told my parents that it was just a cult that wanted their money. It’s an amazing thing that we have this ability to ignore what everyone around us is saying and just assume that they don’t know the mind of God, that they aren’t chosen, that they don’t understand. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
What is your view of the Worldwide Church of God now?
I find them despicable. They were responsible for so much suffering. Not just mental and spiritual suffering, but physical, as well. Because they insisted that you would be healed by faith, there were a lot of people who died as a result. That’s murder. I know that these people had free will, but their kids did not. The kids were at the mercy of their parents’ choices and decisions, and that still goes on today in various churches and religions. Any church that would deny children access to healthcare is not exactly Godly, let’s just say that.
Your own sister Abby died at 13 after suffering from an apparent heart ailment for several years. Your parents relied only on faith healing, yet you do not express any anger or resentment toward them.
I think that they did take her to the doctor after she got sick. And I also think that the doctors in Jasper were not great. My opinion is that she was never [properly] diagnosed . I don’t recollect them taking her to Indianapolis to see specialists. I think my parents did try to get medical care at the beginning, but they did not pursue it any further. They just let it go on for years.
I don’t blame my parents because they actually believed that God would heal Abby. From their perspective, they were getting the same thing as surgery. They really did. They believed it. It is heartbreaking.
Do you remember any anti-Semitism being expressed in the church community?
There was no badmouthing of Jews because they didn’t even exist as far as we were concerned. We referred to the Hebrews or the Israelites of the Bible, but we didn’t refer to current-day Jews… We lived really landlocked in southern Indiana. This was before 24-hour cable news, so what we had access to was limited. We watched the news, but I never personally made the connection between Jews and Israel. I wasn’t even aware that Jews were still observing the biblical holidays. I knew the Jews were scattered around, but I didn’t realize that there was a sense of Jewish community and that there was a global sense of connection among Jews no matter what country they lived in.
You underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism around the time your first son was born. Do you think you would have actually converted had you not gotten pregnant while dating the man who would become your husband?
I think that getting pregnant made me realize that I was much farther along in terms of Jewishness than I had previously thought. Even though it was a final leap, I didn’t know I was that close. I guess that theologically I was already much more in line with Judaism than I thought. I think that the hard part to converting isn’t the theological bit, but rather the community bit. Since I am married to someone who is Jewish, it gives me a different kind of an entrée than someone who is single and converts. I felt — and still feel — that converting to Judaism on your own without extended Jewish family is incredibly difficult. I really admire people who can do it.
Do you consider yourself an Orthodox Jew now?
I don’t like labels in general. I feel very uncomfortable when someone wants to describe me as an Orthodox Jew. I do go to an Orthodox synagogue and am active in the Orthodox world, but I’m actually much more of a pick-and-choose Jew. I converted Orthodox for various reasons, one of which is that I didn’t want there to be any concern that my kids wouldn’t be Jewish enough. I don’t like the whole labelling thing, because I think it sends an underlying message that if you are Orthodox you are more Jewish, and if you are Reform you are less Jewish. I don’t believe there is anything as being more or less Jewish. If you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish. End of story.
In the book, you mention that some people automatically assume you are not Jewish because of your physical appearance. Does this bother you?
It doesn’t bother me because I am incredibly curious and nosy about other people, as well. When someone tries to find out in a discreet way my background, I tend to volunteer the information immediately. I’m not embarrassed about how I was raised or about the fact that I was not born Jewish. It’s probably pretty evident that genetically I do not have any Jewish markers on my chromosomes.
There is this theme of blood that runs through my memoir, and that was on purpose. Our blood ancestry is important, but it doesn’t define you… I think that broadening the notion of what a Jew might look like to include not just Ashkenazim is important. The way I look doesn’t define who I am in any sense.
What was it like for your children to grow up with two very different sets of grandparents and extended families — in terms of ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status?
I think one thing to bear in mind is that we live in New York City and my family lives in Indiana, and my husband’s family was mainly in Florida while the kids were young. So they didn’t grow up with their cousins and aunts and uncles close by, seeing them every weekend. Having a geographical distance meant that nobody was regularly confronted with the differences — no, we’re not going to have that pot roast, sorry. No, we’re not going to have a glass of milk with that. On the other hand, my family was, and still is, respectful of my choices.
I think the kids appreciate both sides in terms of the warmth. I think the warmth and the love from both sides was equal.