As we continue on the paths to conversion that we heard this past Yom Kippur, we also learned the story of Cole (Coleton, actually), who was born in Wisconsin and raised in the Isanti/Cambridge area, where his father is nearing retirement as a police officer, and his mother (z’l) bred and raised horses on the family farm where Cole grew up in a family that now includes two sisters and a brother.

Having received his undergraduate degree in Political Science from Hamline, he and new wife Savannah were married this past summer by Rabbi Adler and Cantor Strauss-Klein at Scharr’s Bluff State Park in Hastings. They now live on the Nordeast side of Minneapolis, close enough that he can walk to work downtown.

Though this photo is perhaps reminiscent of Hawaii on a clear day (see below), it was taken in Golden Valley recently, in the Sukkah at the Rybeck’s open house.

What do you do downtown?

I work as a member advisor for Gravie, which is health care start up. We help people manage their individual health insurance plans, through the Minnesota exchange or We basically help employers move their employees to those plans, if there is a good price fit for them, and then help coordinate payments. We have about 60 employees, so it’s a lot of fun.

And can you summarize the resume for Savannah? 

Basically she’s an Air Force brat. Her mom was a doctor in the Air Force, and her dad was in the military for a while. So she moved back and forth between Minnesota and Arizona. She finally ended up here, and went to Hamline U, and she has her degree in history and music performance, vocal performance.

Is she doing that now?

She is with the Hamline alumni choir. They sang at the induction for Hamline’s new president.

And what is her day job?

She is a Software Automation Engineer with TapQA, a management consulting firm in the Twin Cities.

Where did you two meet?

We met at Hamline; I was her orientation leader. For some reason, she took a liking to my bad jokes.

What would be the most adventurous trip you’ve ever had? 

Well we went to Hawaii last October. That’s where I actually proposed to her. One of my best friends from high school is a volcanologist, with the University of Hawaii, and she showed us around the active volcanoes down there. It was a very cool trip.

Did you have a special time and place where you popped the question?

Yeah, it was near the volcano crater Kilauea Iki. It has recently started erupting and my friend Kendra was down there recording lava flow measurements.

Was Savannah surprised?

Oh yeah! Her first reaction, perhaps unflatteringly, she said “Oh ___! For real?” So I think she expected it at some point, but she didn’t expect it then.

So you had planned that moment? Can you describe the scene?

It was planned. But we didn’t plan on it being so rainy. We ended up going up the mountain and walking into a cloud. And it was very wet, so we were soaked, which added to the shock. And it made it difficult to take proposal photos!

You proposed in a cloud?

Pretty much. Which is much less exciting than it sounds. You can’t see anything.

Well I hope she answered the right guy. 

I think so… I think so.

As we shift our scene from the top of an erupting volcano, to the still formidable but substantially lower heights of our bima, rendered clear by the light of our ner tamid, we recall the story of Cole’s path to Judaism that he shared with the congregation last month. 

Coming from a rural farming community, I was 14 years old before I met my first real live Jew. I had read about Jews in my books about world history, heard about them on the news in Israel, and seen them caricatured by comedians on Saturday Night Live. But the first Jew I met became my first Jewish friend. It was on a trip to Chicago for Model United Nations. One of the first friends I had made at this conference was a boy by the name of Stefan. Born in Serbia, he was a representative for Austria, and we worked closely during the conference to pass resolutions and develop treaties.

After the conference, we kept in touch, and eventually I found out that he was Jewish. I was fascinated with the idea that there existed a people and an entire religion that I had never experienced in my life, and I had to know more. He indulged my curiosity, answering my relentless questions.

I told my mother, who was terminally ill, about my experiences, and about my new Jewish friend. She then shared stories I never knew about my great-grandfather who came from Germany to escape an unspeakable terror. Our unknown original family name was replaced by one lifted off of crates aboard the ship he stowed away upon. Arriving in the United States in the late 1920s-early 1930s, he moved from New York to Minnesota where he believed he would have fit in because of the large German speaking population. He met and married a German-American woman in Isanti, Minnesota. His transformation from a German stowaway to a Midwestern American was complete when his wife encouraged him to join the Lutheran church. He turned away from his past, assimilated, and never spoke about his life in Europe to anyone but my great-grandmother, and when they both passed away before my mother had turned 15 years old, the knowledge of where my family came from was gone and we had become fully assimilated into Midwestern America.

In 2009, when I came to Hamline University, I made my second Jewish friend, my internship supervisor at the Minnesota state capitol. When I realized that there had been Jewish people in my life for a while and that I had not noticed, I was moved to pull on the Jewish thread of my life and see where it would lead me. It led me to a certainty that I indeed had Jewish roots, and I made the decision to pursue a Jewish life.

It was on the stairs of the Capitol building in February of 2010 that I began my formal Jewish education by placing a call to a rabbi to ask how I should proceed. He recommended conversion, and I began the course. I met people, young and old, who were interested in learning everything from kaballah to kashrut. It was an amazing class. I learned so much and felt like I was becoming a fully informed member of the Jewish people. I also studied with Earl Schwartz and Rabbi Adler at Hamline. My then girlfriend, now wife, Savannah, helped me cook for my first Passover Seder where we hosted over a dozen guests, and I became the leader of Jewish Student Life at Hamline.

Through this journey, I believe I have become a person my friends –both Jewish and not – can recognize as a good man. It was this year that I, after admittedly dragging my feet during college, finally approached Rabbi Adler about converting with Mount Zion Temple. Maybe it was because I had attended Mount Zion with a kind of confidence as a Jew that I felt nowhere else, but I felt fully affirmed in my new community and felt valued from the moment I started attending. I only have Rabbi Adler and Savannah to thank for nagging me to actually visit. Those two ladies really deserve the credit!

I’m so happy to be here, and thank you all for supporting me and Mount Zion, for without this place, I couldn’t have come home.

L’shana tova, and may you be inscribed in the book of life.