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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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A journey back for his future
An ex-evangelical preacher looks to convert to Judaism.
By MINDY RUBENSTEIN
Published May 1, 2007
Spiritual growth is not a destination, it's a journey. And that's fine for Lynn Allen, who has spent the past six years learning about Judaism in hopes of someday converting.
"We're not just after the goal, the medal, " Allen said. "We want to be correct." His wife, LeAnn, also hopes to convert, along with five of their seven children, who range in age from 16 to 28.
The family lives on 10 acres in a rural part of Pasco near Dade City. The children have all been homeschooled.
Raised a Methodist in southeast Iowa, Allen has been trying to find a place where he feels at home. He tried the Jesus movement in the 1970s and then turned to evangelism, spending the next 20 years as a fundamentalist, evangelical preacher. He knocked on doors, preached in bars, stood on street corners and college campuses.
"There was always something missing, " said Allen, 60, a language arts teacher at Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel.
Allen says now that what he was trying to find was "fundamentalism ... but it was not in Christianity."
After much reflection, he decided that Judaism, to him, seemed to be the strongest foundation for religion and belief in God.
So he "slipped out the back door of Christianity."
After moving to Pasco County he began exploring Judaism through a Messianic temple, which teaches the traditions of Judaism - and that Jesus was the messiah. But that still didn't fit.
"It is Christianity. It is not Judaism, " Allen said of the Messianic temple. "It's not even close."
But he liked what he learned about Judaism and began digging deeper.
Eventually, the Allen family found Rabbi Sholom Dubov near Orlando. He gets about 50 calls a year from people wanting to convert. Of those, three or four actually complete the process.
"We are hesitant with all potential converts as is required by Jewish law. The obligations for conversion are quite extensive, " Dubov said. "In a case where God created someone not Jewish, the assumption is he was not meant to be Jewish."
He said Lynn Allen is still in the learning stage. He doesn't know if or when he'll be ready to convert. "There's a strong force against him. And that is the conversion of the family, " he said. "It won't be a conversion of the Lynn Allen family. ... Some fruit ripens quicker than others."
Every Friday, they drive two hours to Orlando, where they observe Shabbat, traditionally the holiest day of the week in Judaism (sundown Friday until sundown Saturday). They spend the day in synagogue. They don't drive, use the phone or check e-mail.
Of all family members, their oldest son, Luke, 28, is closest to conversion. He goes by the Hebrew name Benyamin and rents an apartment within walking distance of the Orlando synagogue.
Allen admits he's not in a hurry. But sitting in his classroom at Weightman Middle, he looks more like a rabbi than a language arts teacher.
"I want there to be an awareness ... a Jewish presence in the midst of this population, " he said. "I cannot speak for the Jews. I can only speak as a convert trying to get in."
He started wearing a traditional black kippa, or skullcap, to school last year, but not before meeting with school administrators to explain his situation.
Karen Ward, previously an assistant principal at Weightman, hired Allen, and knew him during the process before she moved to Centennial Middle School.
"When he first walked in he had a calming effect. And I was like, 'Wow, this man is amazing, ' " she said. "When he started to pursue his religious teachings he was very up front about it but not pushy. I gave him a lot of credit for that. He's just a very quiet, unassuming person."
He would talk to Ward about the ongoing conversion process. "It was fascinating because there were so many things he had to do and he seemed very dedicated. He's definitely an inspiration."
Allen speaks softly, using terms like "our creator" and "fear of Heaven." Pointing to the skullcap, he said, "This holds me accountable."
Though he said students seem to show him more respect now, he has gotten snide comments in the halls.
He and his family continue their studies indefinitely, and eventually, when Dubov determines each of them is ready, they will go before a panel of rabbis in Miami. They'll also do something called a mikvah, or ritual immersion, as well as some other rites of passage.
Becoming Jewish includes 613 commandments from the Torah, and once people are obligated to do something they tend to be less motivated. "You lose the excitement, the enthusiasm, the heat and desire to want to convert. What you're left with is the responsibility, " Dubov said.
Many Jews born into the faith do not observe the traditions. "It's kind of lopsided, " the rabbi said. "You can be atheist and still be considered Jewish. But someone with all the interest, why should he be given a stricter sentence than someone born Jewish? That I can't answer ... there's a cosmic divine plan that's greater than my ability to grasp it."
Allen has no plans to rush into anything.
"To fully and properly observe the Jewish religion is life itself, " he said.