BOXFORD – It’s been quite a month for Christopher Harrah. Within a few weeks, he became both a father and a Jew.
“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” said Harrah, who learned on July 8 that he and his husband, Jody, were approved to adopt three sisters. “The one thing I’m looking forward to more than anything is raising all three of them Jewish.”
Although Harrah, 42, who lives in Boxford, officially converted less than a month ago, he has practiced and studied Judaism since he was 15. The breadth of knowledge he acquired was so extensive, Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody felt he could forgo conversion classes.
“He was so advanced, there was no reason – I could’ve gone through the whole syllabus with him, and he already knew, because he’s been studying for 26 years,” said Perlman. “His mind is really fascinating, and he’s a scholar.”
Harrah began studying Judaism as refuge from what he described as a homophobic, fundamentalist Baptist upbringing in Texas and Oklahoma. “I always knew there was something wrong with what I was being taught,” said Harrah, who described attending a military-style Baptist school where children wore three-piece suits and sat silently in cubicles engaging in self-study. “I knew I was gay at four years old, and all that I was being taught was that gay people were going to hell … I knew it was wrong, and I was bound and determined to find a solution.”
Harrah found the beginnings of a solution when he befriended a Jewish neighbor, with whom he discussed the Bible and the differences between their respective religions. Harrah began to privately identify as Jewish, a feeling that was cemented when he visited the Congregation Jewish Community North, a Reform synagogue in Spring, Texas, when he was 15. Harrah came out to the congregants, who responded with hugs and affirmation.
“They accepted me for who I was, and nobody had done that my whole life. I broke down,” Harrah recalled. “I really don’t know if I would’ve found Judaism had I not been gay, because that’s where I felt embraced, and I just didn’t know people could be like that. When I was 15 years old, I never questioned for one second that I would be Jewish for the rest of my life. Without Judaism, I think I would’ve taken my life.”
Judaism proved an anchor for Harrah when he came out to his parents and they kicked him out of their house. He has not spoken to them since 2001. He began attending Jewish services, but thought his sexuality prevented him from converting, especially when he saw news reports of ultra-Orthodox protesting gay marriage.
“I put conversion on the back burner, because I said ‘It’s not possible – now they’re telling me they don’t like gay people,’” Harrah said. “I just thought it was something that was tolerated. I certainly didn’t think any rabbi would ever do it.”
Even though Harrah wasn’t ready to convert, his Judaism continued to provide him with meaning, comfort, and a feeling of solidarity. When he was 18, he traveled to Auschwitz, where he saw yellow stars (worn by Jews who were prisoners there) and pink triangles (worn by LGBTQ prisoners) exhibited next to one another.
“I was tortured – I was beat up and bullied when I was young for being gay,” he said. “The Jews were tormented in Germany as well, and it was all coming from the same source of hate – the hate was the same, it was just manifested differently. When I saw the [symbols] side by side, it just made me think that my life’s going to be different.”
Harrah lived in Connecticut for many years, where he and husband Jody managed apartment buildings. The couple moved to Boxford last year when they opened up JH One Properties in Lynn, an apartment management firm. Self-employment provided them the flexibility to adopt, and with children in the picture Harrah finally felt ready to convert. Rabbi Perlman assured him that his conversion would allow him to bring his children up Jewish.
“Rabbi Perlman was literally the first person in my life after talking about the children was telling me[to tell me] that I can be gay, and I can be married, and I can be converted Jewish, and I thought, ‘I can be?’” said Harrah. “I would wake up every single morning and say, ‘This is something I’ve always wanted – to have children, and to be Jewish for them.”