What would Ruth do?What would Ruth do?

Tennessee family of 12 are fresh converts

Formerly Christian Chad and Libby McJunkin and their children embrace Orthodox Judaism in time for Shavuot

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

The McJunkin family. (Photo credit: Karen Talley)
The McJunkin family. (Photo credit: Karen Talley)

In a mass conversion of sorts, Chad and Libby McJunkin and their 10 children became members of the tribe last Sunday. The formerly Christian Chattanooga, Tennessee, family was converted to Orthodox Judaism on June 1 in Brooklyn. The parents, now known as Sholom and Nechama, were also married according to Jewish law the same day.

In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, the father described his children as “sparkling” and “shining” as they emerged from their ritual immersion in the mikveh. The couple, married for 18 years, has six girls and four boys, ranging from one to 16 years of age.

McJunkin, a carpenter, said it feels wonderful to now be Jewish and embraced by the Orthodox communities of Borough Park and Chattanooga, but he admits that the road to conversion has not been entirely smooth. While avoiding giving a direct answer to a question about how his teenage children were taking to the change, he noted, “There have been ups and downs for all of us.”

This is not the first time the family has adapted to an all-encompassing religious lifestyle. After trying out many churches, and prior to becoming interested in Judaism two-and-a-half years ago, the McJunkins lived in an Amish community for two years.

“I became a [Amish] brother and we lived in an Amish community west of Nashville. It was the real deal: horse and buggy, no electronics or Internet,” he said.

“But when I came in to contact with people who told me about the Hebrew scriptures and I learned about the Torah, I realized there was a conflict between the Five Books of Moses and the New Testament,” McJunkin explained. “One was true and the other was totally false — and it’s obvious which one was false.”

The family was excommunicated by the Amish and returned to live in Chattanooga. They moved in with family in rural Georgia, where McJunkin and his wife grew up.

“I was really hurt that my whole life had been wrapped up in a lie. We cried for a week and had a family meeting and decided to go toward Judaism,” he recalled. At that point, the McJunkins returned to Chattanooga, where they received guidance from members of Chabad and others. (Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time a Christian family of 12 from the rural South converted to Judaism.)

Chad (Sholom) and Libby (Nechama) McJunkin under the huppah. (Photo credit: Alexander Rapaport)
Chad (Sholom) and Libby (Nechama) McJunkin under the huppah. (Photo credit: Alexander Rapaport)

Getting married according to halacha was very meaningful for McJunkin, who peppers his speech with Hebrew and Yiddish words.

“I don’t love my wife any more today than before. She’s always been the woman for me, but there is no comparison between the chassuna we just had under the huppah and when we got married the first time in a courthouse,” he shared.

McJunkin, 38, and his wife, 35, are considering moving their family to a larger Jewish community where their children, who have been homeschooled until now, will have more Jewish educational and social opportunities.

The main obstacle to such a move is economic.

“All signs indicate that we would move. There is no Yiddishkeit and there are no schools where we live, but it is very expensive to live a Jewish life, let alone an observant Jewish life,” the fresh convert explained.

So far, the Jewish community has stepped up to help the McJunkins as they embark on their new path. People they had never met hosted their wedding, and others are contributing to a crowdsourced wedding shower fund to assist them in purchasing new dishes, housewares, appliances, Judaica, and kosher groceries.

“There is a simple mitzvah of showing love to a convert,” said Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the Masbia food kitchen network, who organized the online fund. In the last three days, 221 people have donated $9,335 toward a $20,000 goal.

The family is looking forward to celebrating Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, this week for the first time as Jews. There is a chance they may celebrate the holiday in the Holy Land in the future.

“We are seriously considering aliyah,” McJunkin said.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed