story and photo by Melinda Lejman
In the last issue of Focus, we learned about Temple Israel synagogue becoming a certified safe space for LGBTQ Jews through the organization Keshet (meaning ‘rainbow’ in Hebrew). Now, meet the conversion student who spearheaded the project as part of his mitzvah project, a social justice component of the process of converting to Judaism.
Matthew Hollon isn’t from Montgomery, but no one has heard of Prattville, Alabama. About twenty minutes north of the better-known city, Prattville is home to about 33,000. Moving to Memphis in 2011 with his boyfriend, he landed a job in marketing. “The job worked out,” he tells me over coffee, “the relationship didn’t. But we’re still good friends.”
Growing up in a fairly religious home, Matthew attended a Southern Baptist church with his family. Though his parents divorced when he was eight, Matthew maintains a close relationship with his father. “I love the man to death,” he says. “We disagree on basically everything, but I still get a hug and a kiss and he still tells me he loves me every time I see him.”
Not unlike many teenagers, Matthew struggled with his sexuality and sense of belonging. Even after Matthew’s mother switched to a non-denominational church, the feeling of not fitting in lingered.
“At first I thought it was just the church,” explains Matthew. “I knew the pastor at the non-denominational church was not very pro-gay. So, I thought that’s why I wasn’t comfortable.” Eventually, Matthew realized it wasn’t just his sexuality that eliminated Christianity as an option for him.
Becoming somewhat agnostic in college, Matthew still found religion fascinating and read books to feed his curiosity. He remembered a Jewish teacher from high school who answered many of his questions, but never tried to sway him one way or another. “Jews don’t believe in proselytizing, which is one of the things I like about Judaism,” explains Matthew. “For some reason, my mind kept going back to the books about Judaism that I had read over and over again.”
A few years after moving to Memphis Matthew started regularly attending services at Temple Israel, Memphis’s only Reform synagogue. Feeling so welcomed by Temple’s community, Matthew decided to become a permanent part of the synagogue and completed his conversion to Judaism under the sponsorship of Rabbi Katie Bauman in 2015.
As part of his conversion, Matthew completed a mitzvah project to help Temple Israel become certified as a safe space for LGBTQ Jews through Keshet, an organization whose mission is ensure full LGBTQ inclusion throughout the Jewish community. “I wanted to let people know we are an inclusive synagogue because it fits our Jewish values,” explains Matthew.
He was thrilled that synagogue leadership was enthusiastic about the prospect. “When I brought up the idea, there was no, ‘Well, we’ll look into it,’” Matthew says. “They wanted to make it happen.“ Now a fully vetted organization, Temple Israel is even listed in Keshet’s online Equality Guide.
Some conventions would label Matthew a “Jew by choice” while others might apply the term “convert” to those not born Jewish. When I asked about his preference, Matthew’s response was perfect. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m Jewish, so it doesn’t really matter how I got there, I am now.”
Not only is Matthew now a member of Temple Israel, he also teaches fourth graders in Temple’s religious school. “It’s a lot of fun, and I really enjoy it,” says Matthew. “And every once in a while, you’ll see that sparkle where you’ve got a kid’s interest…it makes you feel like you’re making a little bit of a difference.”