Artist Beth Bourland’s conversion to Judaism in watercolor and collage J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on August 22, 2022

Beth Bourlands path to becoming a Jew began in earnest three years ago, when she started working with Rabbi Yonatan Regev toward her conversion. Regev, then of Oaklands Temple Sinai, mentioned that some people keep a journal of their conversion experience, and Bourland took his words to heart.

Rather than record her feelings in writing, the Alameda resident expressed them through art. Many of the watercolors and hand-cut paper assemblages she produced form part of a 17-piece exhibit called Journey to Judaism. The exhibit is currently on view in the social hall of the Reform synagogue and will be up through the High Holidays.

An exhibiting artist who has had both solo and regional shows in the area, Bourland said Journey to Judaism stands apart from the others. This series is the most emotional project Ive ever done, she explained. It really was a project that came from the heart.

Bourland, 60, grew up in a Methodist but secular family in Michigan. As a young woman, I looked for some kind of spiritual path and didnt really find anything, she recalled. Years later, she found Judaism.

A friend invited me to a musical service at Temple Sinai in the spring of 2019, and I was attracted to the synagogue, the siddur, she said. I had tried to find spirituality and hadnt found anything I totally agreed with. That summer, she began meeting with Regev.

I feel now that it was inevitable, she said. I didnt know it till I was in my mid-50s. For me, the core is that Judaism doesnt dictate any one belief or set of beliefs. It doesnt pretend to have all the answers. Judaism welcomes debate. It can accept that there are mysteries and is OK with that, and I think thats intellectually brave.

Bourland studied with Regev from July 2019 until the spring of 2020, when Covid brought a halt to their one-on-one sessions. She also visited synagogues and historical sites, such as the original shul that sits behind Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, where she observed Tisha BAv in 2019. Several of these places, such as The Little Shul, are depicted in her exhibit.

Her beit din conversion ceremony took place via Zoom in July 2020 and was officiated by Regev, Sinai cantor Ilene Keys and educator Rabbi Ruth Adar. Bourland hasnt yet dipped into the mikvah but hopes to soon.

Though the pandemic interfered with Bourlands studies, it played in her favor by giving her more time to develop the artwork on exhibit. She credits Temple Sinai member Dawn Kepler for assisting her: She was someone that Temple Sinai listed as an outreach-greeter. Thats how I met her. We became friends. Kepler proved to be instrumental in assisting with the project, Bourland said. She helped me navigate the channels of getting this exhibit going, even helping her hang the show.

Kepler was intrigued from the get-go. When we first met, [Bourland] told me that she was going to do a sketchbook, she said. I was really excited and asked, Would you consider doing an art show?

Bourlands works reflect the research she poured into the project. Joyful Shabbat, a paper assemblage showing a diverse group of people clapping and dancing, was inspired by a Friday night Shabbat she attended at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

For Almond Blossoms, Bourland traveled to Modesto to visit a farmer in order to capture the glory of the flowers a Jewish symbol of hope and renewal in full bloom. And she spent time in Vacaville with Maayan Kline and her dog, Benzi, both of whom served in the Israel Defense Forces, after reading about them in J. She titled her painting of the two Heroic Team.

The Memory Garden is a serene scene of the Jewish sacred space at the Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma for those grieving fertility or pregnancy loss, while the ink illustration Kosher Deli is a whimsical take on Bourlands outings to Bay Area delicatessens with a dollop of humor, such as the little boy chasing a live chicken through a deli store. I decided to go in the cartoon direction, she explained.

Does she have a favorite in the series? Yes, she said, Violins of Hope, a watercolor inspired by the exhibit of rescued Holocaust violins and the concert Bourland witnessed when it toured the Bay Area in 2020. Seeing the instruments and hearing them played was intense, Bourland recalled. The program helps preserve the truth. Its very important.

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Artist Beth Bourland's conversion to Judaism in watercolor and collage J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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