PEABODY – There’s a well-known Hebrew refrain that comes to mind when telling the story of Joshua Dionne: dayenu – “it would’ve been enough.”
If Dionne, who was raised Catholic, had of his own volition decided to learn all about Judaism and then convert: dayenu. If he had decided to pack up everything and make Aliyah to Israel: dayenu. But on top of all that, Dionne, 26, will enlist in the Israel Defense Forces to protect his new homeland. He leaves in just four days.
“It didn’t feel so much like I was converting, or changing myself – it was more like a homecoming, more like becoming who God intended me to become,” said Dionne.
Dionne grew up in Worcester as an apathetic Catholic who was “dragged” to Sunday school, and church on Christmas and Easter. As he grew older, he found himself drawn to what he had been taught to call the Old Testament.
“It feels like the original story,” he said. “When you start off in Genesis and continue onwards, it has a natural progression, and in Catholic theology, they try to connect things to the Torah and Tanakh to Jesus, and I never saw those connections. When I read the Torah just as the Torah, I can read it and have it make sense to me.”
Dionne also was attracted to the communal, questioning nature of the Jewish religion. “You can’t be a Jew alone. When you light the candles for Hanukkah, you’re doing it as a family or synagogue or community – with Judaism there’s this sense of participation,” he said. “Throughout my journey, the synagogue has felt more like a second home to me.”
Dionne found that second home at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, near where he worked at the Northshore Mall. He approached Rabbi Richard Perlman about the possibility of converting, and the two began lessons together.
He appreciated the informal, conversational nature of their sessions. “In Catholicism, there’s a hierarchy, whereas in Judaism, I’ve never seen the rabbi as a spiritual figurehead over me … I’ve seen him as a teacher, a mentor, someone who’s helped guide my journey,” he said.
Dionne grew increasingly serious: he began reading widely, attending services at Ner Tamid regularly, wearing a yarmulke, and keeping kosher. By the spring of 2018, he felt ready to begin the formal conversion process, but Perlman advised him to join a temple trip to Israel before taking the final plunge.
A week spent visiting the historic sites was transformative, as are so many trips to Israel. During the trip, he made three life-changing decisions: to convert, to make Aliyah, and join the army.
“I moved around a lot as a kid, I spent some years homeless as a kid, and being in Israel felt like home,” said Dionne. “It didn’t feel so much like a trip … this is where I decided I wanted to be a Jew, and this is also where I decided to make my home.”
Dionne decided to enlist in the army because he felt that military service is integral to Israeli identity. “If this is a part of who I am, I want to come here to serve – this is something meaningful,” he said. “I don’t have dreams of being the next super soldier, but even if it’s doing something simple, I want to give back to the community that’s given me so much.”
He wrote a letter to Rabbi Perlman expressing his intentions, and shortly after he told the rest of his travel companions. People began to tear up.
“When he was standing at the Mount of Olives looking over Jerusalem, I saw the tears flowing down his eyes,” said Perlman. “That was a moment none of us will ever forget. We saw how he jelled with the land, and just became one with it. I knew then that it was the right choice.”
Dionne returned home and converted. His family attended the small ceremony. His grandfather John Dionne, although a devout Catholic, has wholeheartedly supported his grandson. Since converting, Dionne has changed his middle and last name to honor his grandfather.
After his conversion was recognized by the Beit Din (a rabbinical court that approves conversions), Dionne began the process of making Aliyah. Everything has been approved, and now it’s just a matter of saying his goodbyes, and trying to fit as much as possible into three suitcases. Ner Tamid sent him off in style, giving him an Aliyah at a Shabbat service, sponsoring a Kiddush in his honor, and presenting him with a gift.
He will arrive in Israel on Aug. 26, and spend five months at a kibbutz in the north intensively studying Hebrew. Then he will join the Michve Alon, an army Ulpan program for Lone Soldiers (those in the IDF with no family in Israel) near Safed, before receiving his official military assignment.
“It’d be silly to not be nervous, but at the same time, the life changes and the people that I’ll meet will make it worth it,” he said. “It feels right. I’m going home.”