I'm Converting: How One Man's Missionary Trip Reconnected Him To His Family's Past

Aug 25, 2019

Daniel Ortner grew up Jewish. His mom had a strong belief in God and would routinely make latkes for Hannukah. His father's family was deeply rooted in Judaism. Some of his father's relatives died in the Holocuast.

As a child, Ortner attended a Jewish private elementary school in South Florida. But then, a tragedy in high school shattered his faith - when his mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She passed away on his 18th birthday, right around Hannukah.

"I couldn't accept how [God] could do that to her. So, for several years I became a pretty ardent atheist. I was very adamant that there was no God," Ortner says.

Soon after his mother's death, Ortner was in college at Brandeis University, where he founded a humanist group and held long, theological debates denying God's existence.

"But eventually, after a couple of years I realized that there was something missing in my life, that I felt a need to connect spiritually again," Ortner says.

One of his friends at Brandeis belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ortner, searching for a spiritual connection, became curious.

"I went to a Barnes and Noble store and opened the Mormonism for Dummies book and the Complete Idiot's Guide to Mormonism," Ortner says. "Seemed like decent places to start given what I knew about the church at the time."

The more he read, Ortner says he was struck by some of the doctrines of the church, especially what the church believed about Jesus Christ.

"The idea that those who died not knowing about God, not knowing about Jesus Christ, not knowing about God's plan would still have a chance after this life to accept it. Immediately I kind of latched onto that and knew it was true," Ortner says.

Ortner had found an answer to a question that had plagued him growing up: What happens to people in the afterlife who don't believe in Jesus?

He decided he wanted to join the church, but he says it's a choice his father resisted.

"Shortly after I told him I wanted to be baptized he told me he would disown me if I did that," Ortner says.

He says his father felt his decision to convert was naive and ill-motivated. Ortner made his case for almost a year. Finally, his father relented and he was baptized.

But the friction wasn't over. Evangelism is central to Mormon belief. The majority of young men who belong to the church take a missionary trip to spread the word of God in the hope of converting others. Ortner says that didn't sit well with his father.

"I knew that my father saw missionary work as evil as a thing as imaginable. Particularly because so many of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust because of their beliefs," Ortner says.

Ortner's grandparents lived in a small town in Poland, not far from the Auschwitz concentration camp. They escaped Poland shortly after the Nazi occupation and fled to Russia during the Second World War. There, they became refugees in a work camp in Siberia.

Those who go on the missionary trip are not allowed to select where they want to go, so when Ortner found out he was going to Siberia, he saw that as a sign from God.

Daniel Ortner lies on Lake Baikal in the southern region of Sibera in Russia. He lived there for two years on his missionary trip for the Mormon church.
Courtesy of Daniel Ortner

"While I was on my mission my father and I exchanged emails about our family ancestors and I learned a lot about my family and I learned about one relative," Ortner says. "He escaped from Poland and actually joined the Russian army at one point and then he was taken as a prisoner."

That relative, his great uncle, starved to death as a prisoner because he refused to eat the food they offered, which had pork in it.

Ortner says before becoming a missionary, he would have interpreted that story differently.

"Why would you not save your life? Why would you sacrifice ... yourself for a belief?," Ortner asks. "And it was only after I went out as a missionary and I dedicated two years of my life to everyday getting up and serving — serving God, serving others — that I really came to understand how belief and faith can motivate and change your life."

"I really came to appreciate, you know, religious believers of all faiths, how they live their life according to divine principles they embrace and how it pushes them to be a better person every day."

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A moment now to reflect on faith and what may drive someone to refocus their religious beliefs. It's a conversion story.

DANIEL ORTNER: My name is Daniel Ortner. I was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 10 years ago.

FADEL: But Ortner grew up Jewish.

ORTNER: My mom was very - a very spiritual person. She believed strongly in God. But my father didn't think there was any higher purpose to life. But he was very strong in his Jewish heritage. It was a very important part of his identity.

FADEL: Ortner went to Jewish schools. Hanukkah always landed near his birthday, and he would look forward to his mom's homemade latkes. But his faith was shaken by tragedy.

ORTNER: My mom, when I was in high school, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she passed away shortly after my 18th birthday. After she died, it really shattered my faith in God, and I couldn't accept how he could do that to her. So for several years, I became a pretty ardent atheist. I was very adamant that there was no God. I was actually one of the founding members of the Brandeis humanist chapter. We used engage in all kinds of debates - theological debates, denying the existence of God. But, eventually, after a couple years, I realized that there was something missing in my life, that I felt a need to connect, spiritually, again.

FADEL: One of his friends at Brandeis belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church. And Daniel, searching for a spiritual connection, became curious.

ORTNER: I went to a Barnes & Noble store. I opened the "Mormonism For Dummies" book and the "Complete Idiot's Guide" to Mormonism. Seemed like decent places to start, given what I knew about the church at the time. And I was quickly struck by what I read, particular some of the doctrines of the church, the idea that those who died not knowing about God, not knowing about Jesus Christ, not knowing about God's plan would still have a chance after this life to accept it. Immediately, I kind of latched onto that and knew it was true.

FADEL: The question of what happens in the afterlife to people who don't believe in Jesus was one of the deepest questions Daniel Ortner had as a Jewish person growing up surrounded by Christians. The Mormon church, he says, provided an answer and a welcome. Ortner's father resisted.

ORTNER: Shortly after I told him I wanted to be baptized, he told me that he would disown me if I did that.

FADEL: Daniel made his case for almost a year. Finally, his father relented, and Daniel was baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the friction wasn't over because worldwide evangelism is central to Mormon belief.

ORTNER: You know, my father saw missionary work as evil of a thing as imaginable, particularly because so many of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust because of their beliefs. His parents lived in a town in Poland not far from Auschwitz, the concentration camp. And, luckily, they escaped Poland, and they went to Russia during the Second World War. And they were refugees that - in a work camp in Siberia.

FADEL: And so Daniel Ortner's assignment from the church had special resonance.

ORTNER: I got my mission call, and I opened it. And I was told, you have been called to serve in the Russia Novosibirsk mission.

FADEL: The Novosibirsk mission in Siberia.

ORTNER: While I was on my mission, my father and I exchanged emails about our family and sisters. And I learned a lot about my family. And I learned about one relative who - during the Second World War, he escaped from Poland and actually joined the Russian army at one point. And then he was taken as a prisoner. I don't know all the details about why or how, but he refused to eat the food that they offered him because it had pork in it. And he actually starved to death because he wouldn't eat the food there.

And I think, you know, before I joined the church, before I went out as a missionary, I would've thought that was crazy. Why would you not save your life? Why would you sacrifice yourself for a belief? And it was only after I went out as a missionary and dedicated two years of my life to, every day, getting up and serving God, serving others that I really came to understand how belief and faith can motivate and change your life. And I really came to appreciate, you know, religious believers of all faiths, how they live their life according to divine principles that they embrace and how it pushes them to be a better person every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAKING AIDA'S "BLUE SHELLED")

FADEL: Daniel Ortner lives in Rocklin, Calif., with his wife and three children.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAKING AIDA'S "BLUE SHELLED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.