CHEYENNE, Wyo. - From the large picture window in the Winter family's living room, the multicolored Christmas lights of their neighbors mingle with the flickering candles of the menorah on the coffee table.
Chanah Winter likes the combination of lights and remembers when she, too, decorated their home for Christmas and piled gifts beneath a sparkling tree. The holidays give Chanah and her husband, David, time to emphasize the differences between Christianity and Judaism to their three children, Simcha, 7, Jacob, 9, and Adam, 12.
Recently converted to Judaism, the family is enthusiastic about their new faith and grateful to be welcomed into Cheyenne's diverse Jewish community.
In the process of converting, the family assumed new names to reflect the Jewish heritage Chanah recently discovered through genealogical research. Through Internet searches and library study, Chanah traced her family roots to Amsterdam, where she believes her family was descended from Sephardic Jews.
The connection explained a yearning for Jewish practices Chanah has felt since she was a teenager.
"I was a good Catholic girl drawn to Judaism," Chanah said.
Sephardic Jews settled in Turkey, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe and the Arab world after being expelled from Spain in the 1500s during the Spanish Inquisition.
More than 200,000 Jews fled the country. Some died while escaping to safety and others were forced to convert to Christianity or face death.
"My family comes from those who were forced to convert," she said. "It sounds strange that my family's ancestry influenced us to take this path, but it makes sense to me."
Chanah and David changed their last name from Hayes to Chanah's family name, Winter, and allowed their children to choose new first names.
"It's considered a good deed to take on the name of a Jew who can't carry on their own name," Chanah said.
It was important to her to reclaim the heritage that had been stolen from her forefathers.
Growing up in a Catholic home in Ohio, Chanah attended a Catholic school where she was discouraged from reading the Bible. "It's just the way it was then," she said.
As she grew older and more bold in her spiritual curiosity, Chanah met a Protestant friend in high school who offered her a Bible and encouraged her to read it.
"I found Leviticus, where the Feasts of the Lord are described, and we're told to keep the Sabbath," Chanah said. "I figured, this must be really important."
At only 16 years old, Chanah began to observe the rules set out in Leviticus, requiring people to honor the day of rest, observe Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and other sacred holidays.
She admits this confused her family, but she felt compelled to obey the Old Testament rules she considered to be eternal.
"I was really drawn to these ceremonies," she said. "They had great meaning for me."
At the University of Cincinnati, Chanah continued her spiritual quest, seeking knowledge in the library of Hebrew Union College, where she sat at the large tables in the library, reading and listening to the lively spiritual debates of Jewish scholars.
"They had very animated discussions," Chanah said.
She devoured books that explained Jewish law and offered answers to theological issues she said she couldn't find with a Christian frame of reference.
At about the same time, Chanah met David who shared many of her spiritual questions. David grew up in a Protestant home and also questioned the teachings of his childhood.
"When we got married, we decided, if it's in the Bible, that's what we're going to do."
Since David served in the Air Force, the couple moved often and worshipped at Christian churches. They continued to search for a practice that they felt satisfied God's desires for them. They tried Baptist churches, The Church of Christ, Presbyterian churches and others that followed a strict interpretation of the Bible.
"We increasingly had difficulty finding churches that we felt comfortable in," Chanah said.
She and David held Passover Seders and Friday night Shabbat dinners at their home, inviting friends in the congregations to join them, to the chagrin of church leaders.
"They called us Judaizers," she said.
Christians consider themselves a branch from the tree of Israel, David said. "When we followed the tree trunk down to the roots of the Christian faith, we found that we were on a different tree."
When they arrived in Cheyenne more than two years ago, the Winters went to the Messianic Jewish community hoping to study the Torah and learn about the foundations of Judaism. Messianic Jews follow Jewish practices, but believe that Jesus is their Messiah.
After attending services, however, they realized that the community was yet another that simply didn't fit their needs.
"It just wasn't our belief. We didn't want to dress up and play Jew," Chanah said.
A quiz on the Web site beliefnet.com offered David and Chanah an interesting conclusion - it said their political and religious beliefs placed them square in the category of Orthodox Jews.
"It was kind of an 'ah ha' for us," David said, although denying their belief in Christ was a painful and difficult process.
The family now keeps a Kosher kitchen at home, separating milk and meat dishes and avoiding pork and shellfish. Chanah home-schools the children, taking time to emphasize theology in the daily freeform lessons she designs.
"Judaism expects us to be life-long learners," Chanah said. "Sometimes the kids learn Hebrew all day, sometimes they learn math all day. I teach in a way that works best for each of them."
The couple hopes to move their family to Israel someday, where their spiritual quest might not seem so radical as it does in the United States.
"We know it's unusual for people to make such changes in their lives because of religion," Chanah said. "We're only doing what we feel is right for us."
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