DECEMBER 20, 2018, BEVERLY – Twice a month or so at Temple B’nai Abraham right after Saturday services, Tom Cheatham gives a Hebrew lesson to Deb Willwerth. Cheatham, a mathematician who served for 6½ years in the Israeli army’s computer division, brings a logical, focused mentality to his lessons.
“I’m a strict teacher, and I do grammar, and not everybody likes my hardcore approach to the language,” said Cheatham, of Marblehead.
Willwerth, who lives in Beverly, enjoys his approach. “What formulas are to math people – parsing a sentence and breaking it apart – I loved it, I absolutely loved it, so the way he approaches it, it feeds right into my interests,” she said. “I’m 68-years-old and I’m learning a new language and I say, ‘What in the world am I doing here?’ It’s kind of daunting, but it’s a source of joy, and it’s a source of honor, too. I love it.”
In addition to their Hebrew lessons, Cheatham and Willwerth are united by a deep commitment to spiritual life at Temple B’nai Abraham. Both serve on the synagogue’s Ritual Committee, which Willwerth chairs. Both are gabbaim, who ensure that Saturday Shabbat services run smoothly.
Most interestingly, both of these Judaism dedicatees are converts. “We laugh about it: Converts are leading the way,” said Cheatham.
Cheatham and Willwerth took wildly different paths to the classroom at B’nai Abraham where they study Hebrew together and discuss the logistics behind the upcoming Tu B’Shevat celebrations.
Cheatham, also 68, grew up in Sudbury to a Southern Baptist father and a Christian Scientist mother. By the time he was a teenager in the late ’60s, he was an adventure-hungry hippie with no use for any religion.
“I ran away from high school in my senior year, I hitchhiked across the country, participated in the riots in [Chicago’s] Grant Park,” he said. “Eventually a friend of mine said, ‘Well, you ought to volunteer on a kibbutz – you’re kind of a socialist kid, a hippie, you can be out there on the frontier working the land.’”
That’s exactly what Cheatham did, arriving with a totally blank slate.
“I didn’t know where Israel was, and I certainly didn’t know how to spell ‘Jewish,’” he said.
Cheatham joined a group of volunteers on a kibbutz in the far north, near Lebanon, where he worked in orchards and cotton fields, and met a Jewish girl from Pittsburgh named Suzie he soon married. Cheatham studied math at Tel Aviv University, and eventually joined Mamram, the Israel Defense Forces’ Center of Computers and Information Systems. Though he was by that point a fully integrated Israeli, fluent in Hebrew, with a Jewish wife and children, Cheatham remained agnostic when it came to the Jewish religion.
Cheatham eventually moved his family back to Massachusetts so that he could be with his mother in her final years. He finally converted in 1986 so that he could join his son on the bimah when he was bar mitzvahed.
After a career change in 2002, Cheatham reexamined his priorities, and became more active with his Judaism. In 2005, he and his wife took part in an adult bar mitzvah ceremony. He also became active in Temple Shalom in Salem, where he helped facilitate the merger with Temple B’nai Abraham. For the past five years, he has been the chief financial officer of the JCC of the North Shore in Marblehead.
While Cheatham came to Judaism through his love of Israel, Willwerth, a retired teacher and career counselor, had always been deeply fascinated with everything to do with Judaism and the Jewish people. She grew up in Manchester-by-the Sea with a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. Her father worked with many Jews and felt a deep affection for them, a feeling that carried over to his young daughter.
“Whenever I read about Judaism, I just felt an instant connection,” said Willwerth, noting that affinity existed despite the fact that she barely knew any Jews and had never been inside a synagogue.
Everything changed when Willwerth was 15 and she read Leon Uris’s epic novel, “Exodus” about the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
“That just rocked my world – it was an 800-page book and I think I read it in half a day,” she recalled. “For some reason, I thought, I belong with these people.”
Willwerth carried this deep-seated belief with her for years before she finally converted. When she was 49, she attended the bar mitzvah of a son’s friend at Temple B’nai Abraham, and with some trepidation, approached the rabbi about converting.
“I heard the rabbi speak, and I don’t even remember what he was talking about, but it was just this sense of the beauty of Judaism … and I said, ‘that’s it.’ I just felt this need to talk to him and at least express how I felt, and I honestly did not think that I would be encouraged, but I was.”
Willwerth had a new religion for a new millennium. In January 2000, she began 22 weeks of conversion classes at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline. She was a star student, and not long after she converted, she threw herself into her new religion.
She was the first woman in the history of Temple B’nai Abraham to recite a haftarah on Yom Kippur, became a gabbai, and chair of the Ritual Committee. Last October, she traveled to Israel for the first time, where she had her bat mitzvah atop Masada.
As a leader in her temple, Willwerth tries to enlist other congregants to become more active in the services. She’s able to use her story as an example. “I tell them when I came in, the only Hebrew word I knew was ‘shalom,’ and I just can’t express what it’s added to my life; the people that I’ve met, and the absolute joy and calmness and peace this decision has given me,” she said. “Now I know who I am in this world.”