Aharon and Emily Work in God’s Vineyard
Like most people, Aharon and Emily Zorea of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Richland Center
were once wanderers; sometimes literally, but very much allegorically. They both had a storied past in which they danced with faith and religion. Thirsting for something more, they found the Catholic Faith. Although having different experiences, both carried similar threads that began to weave themselves together as they approached the sacrament of matrimony and their journey to the Catholic Church.
First named Aaron Wilson, Aharon was born to parents who were brought up Christian but did not practice any particular denomination. But after the birth of Aharon’s two older brothers, Aharon said, “My parents decided they needed faith but had a strong bias against Christians. They thought the Christians were overly simple, so they converted to Judaism because they saw it as an intellectual religion.” Aharon and his brothers were raised Jewish and eventually became ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, a sect of Judaism known for religious conservatism and social seclusion. They grew so committed that they moved to Israel. They even changed their family name to Zorea, which means “sower of seeds” in Hebrew. “As a Hasidic, one is extremely sensitive to God’s voice. Their expectations for prayer life and spirituality are very, very high. For Hasidic Jews, they’re praying almost constantly—everything they do has a prayer associated with it,” Aharon explained.
Open to Conversion
A family friend had snuck a Holy Bible in their luggage before they left for Israel fully knowing that they were dedicated to Judaism. Even as a Hasidic Jew, Aharon’s dad was still seeking truth and began reading this Bible while in Israel.
“God’s hand was in this in lots of different areas,” said Aharon. “Clearly, the Messiah who we waited for and prayed for every single day, as a Hasidic Jew, has already come,” explains Aharon. “We became very excited about the basic faith (Christianity) in Israel. After this, we started asking questions about doctrine and ritual and liturgy and the community itself.” So, at 12 years old, Aharon and his family, with this newfound excitement, moved back to the United States, converting from Judaism to Christianity.
The family was first baptized by Southern Baptist missionaries, but even though they had “found” Jesus, they were still searching for a place of truth. Aharon’s family felt that American churches didn’t have the same sort of piety that you found in the mission churches in Israel. Coming back was a bit of a disappointment. They hopped from Protestant church to Protestant church for about two years. Finally, despite a prior disdain for Catholicism, Aharon’s dad broke down and said, “Well, let’s try the Catholics.”
“Immediately, there was a sense of coming back home,” said Aharon, “in the sense of Catholic unity from this Hasidic type of community. It’s not the same on some levels, but in terms of the liturgy and the idea that there are certain things that you ought to do and we all do it together, (this concept was) very strong with Catholicism. The idea that there’s a depth of history and depth of tradition was very similar to the depth of tradition in Judaism. It resonated immediately.” In 1983, after completing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), Aharon and his parents entered into the Catholic Church.
When Emily was a baby, she was baptized in the Lutheran Church and grew up among people who held a lot of misconceptions and negativity towards Catholicism. When she was in high school, she became disillusioned by the whole process of constant church switching and stopped going to any church altogether. The rest of her family followed. “But we still had that faith base of, ‘we believe in salvation, we believe that we are on the Earth to do good things, and we believe that there is a heaven for us when we die,’” Emily explained.
It wasn’t until she met Aharon that she decided it was time to search again for truth and get answers to some of her lifelong questions. “I wasn’t just getting married. I was joining a family,” Emily said, referring to Aharon’s two sons, Jacob and Jonah, whom he had with his first wife, Deb. She died of breast cancer when the boys were still very young. “I saw how important the Faith was to all of them. I wanted to be part of the family by more than just attending Mass because they attended. I really wanted to participate and be a part of this with them.”
She and Aharon discussed all the concerns she had about the Catholic Faith. “Of course, there’s a solution for this,” said Emily, “which is RCIA.” They attended the classes together, had discussions at home and went back and asked more questions. “I found all the questions I had had very logical explanations. You just have to be present to hear the explanations. Sometimes, those explanations can take some time to go through. I think that’s what some people can miss, not being patient enough to work through the entire explanation.
“Going through RCIA, you literally have a year to learn and work through the theology. There was a discussion about Mary at RCIA and I asked, ‘How do you know that?! You make these assertions about Mary but how do you know this is true?’ Father Robert Letona told us he could give us volumes on Marian Theology but then opened the Catechism of the Catholic Church and read a whole paragraph about what we were talking about. It was so logical and beautiful and well-reasoned. In that moment, my heart was really humbled. That paragraph was all that I needed. It was a turning point for me because I realized that if the Catholic Church had thought through this issue, then they’ve thought through really everything. They have writings and explanations for every point of their theology.”
Emily also faced opposition from family who had their doubts about and prejudices towards Catholicism. Every time these differences were brought to light, reasoning and truth were revealed. “If you have a truly humble heart, then the seeds will fall on receptive ground,” said Emily. “I think misconceptions about the Catholic Church come from a spirit of pride. If you are insistent on maintaining that spirit of pride, there is no explanation or reasoning or evidence that will convince you.”
Preparing for Marriage
The couple made a point of being honest with each other and got answers to Emily’s questions and misconceptions before making their commitment of marriage. “There’s a faith here,” says Aharon, “an openness. This sensitivity also presumes a certain faith that God actually does have an answer. This isn’t a mystery where we have to come up with an answer ourselves. It’s there. God has it. All we really have to do is listen.”
Throughout this process of searching and seeking, the Zoreas admit there were trials and tests. “RCIA is a spiritual experience, so when you are going through that, there will be lots of temptations to quit or to not see it through. But to keep going every week, is a way of really resisting a lot of temptation and attacks to prevent you from receiving a great grace,” said Emily. “Meeting opposition along the way is a sign that you are onto something that is worth it.”
Aharon shared that he’s witnessed some people having the misconception that RCIA is telling candidates what to think but from his experience it is the opposite. He’s seen people become more open-minded and open-hearted; learning truths and receiving graces from the Holy Spirit, together developing a clearer sense of their faith.
And this is part of the reason that the RCIA process is over the course of a year or more. It is a time of preparation and discernment.
On April 5, 2015, at the end of her RCIA study, Emily celebrated her full reception into the Catholic Church. “It was everything that I was hoping for and looking for,” said Emily. “I felt like I found that piece of my Faith that was missing.” Their marriage sacrament followed in July of 2015.
Spreading the Faith
Presently, Aharon is a historian, professor and published author. Emily is a 4K through 12th grade librarian, and both work in the public school system. Together, they taught 9th grade faith formation classes at their parish for several years and are currently taking a break from it. “When you’re in it for so long, you can sometimes deprive other people of the opportunity to serve,” said Aharon. Emily is a lector and sells Scrip. Jacob and Jonah now teach CCD classes and, like Aharon, are members of the Knights of Columbus. Together, they all assist with the presentation of gifts at Mass.
“I look at the vocation of teaching itself as an expression of my Faith. I cannot remove one from the other,” said Aharon. “I simply give the lectures and focus on truth and let God take it from there. God will touch their hearts wherever they need to be touched. The witness is itself the strength that you can rely on the Holy Spirit taking over where I lean back.”
As a librarian, on her drive to work, Emily says a rosary for her students with the intent to pray for the kids who have no one to pray for them or do not pray themselves. “This is very much a part of our Catholic Faith. We have the piece of it we do visibly in church. We also have the very active piece that we are doing as agents of God in the world, representing God to our students. We do this through our prayers, how we interact with them and how we’re relating to them,” she said. “Children need grown-ups to represent God to them.”
Like Emily, Aharon says that from the very beginning of his teaching he always looked for opportunities to be God’s hands on Earth. “My job is not to actively proselytize and try to convert people into the Faith. That does not mean that I don’t have a very important role as a witness to the Faith. We all need to be a witness to the Faith. I try to show the truth in my interpretation in history. I should always be reflecting those same truths in every lecture that I give. In teaching, I can somehow be a help in ways that I’m unaware of. I expect that I’m not going to know how I might be useful or helpful.”
The Zoreas both have a mental catalog of stories from their students, sharing that they remembered something that was said and influenced them in a positive way. These influences have often led to more questions and, therefore, a more personal conversation about Faith or Catholicism outside of teaching. “This is where I know God is speaking through these hearts,” said Aharon. “It will never be up to me but if I can sow the seeds, then God will nurture them.”
Story by Marcy Stenstrom
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the March/April 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine