This 94-year-old never stops learning and teaching.
Photography by Jerry Zolynsky
Temple Beth El member Dr. James Allen Jones is 94 years old, but he could easily pass for 70. He stands tall, dressed in a casual suit with a purple vest and tie. He doesn’t need any help getting around, and he has plenty to say — especially about his conversion from Christianity to Judaism at age 92.
Jones’ gravitation toward Judaism started during his early childhood.
“When I was just 3 or 4 years old, I used to stand near our back window and look out at the garden, and somehow something just grabbed me that there was the presence of God,” Jones said.
He was born in Detroit’s Conant Gardens neighborhood, known as the most prosperous, predominantly middle-class African American neighborhood in the city at the time. His father was a Baptist minister who never pushed him to attend church, and his mother would tell him the story of Creation at night before bed.
At age 6, Jones was hungry to learn about religion and wanted to enroll in catechism classes. Jones looks back on that moment, recalling his father’s words of wisdom: “If you want to be a good Catholic, you’re going to have to be a good Jew first — and it’s going to take you all your life.”
During his teenage years, Jones was involved in a diverse church. He was the youngest member of the choir and became baptized at 15.
“I was about to tell them I don’t really believe this, but then I thought, if I don’t, they won’t baptize me,” Jones said.
His interest in Judaism became more pronounced after his next-door neighbor, Lena Ringgold, gave him a Victrola turntable with hundreds of records of operas and Jewish songs.
“That’s when I heard ‘Kol Nidre’ and all of these Jewish chants — and so I listened every morning and every night,” Jones said.
Another major turning point for Jones was in 1957, when he became a Fulbright Scholar in Leeds, England, studying education. While teaching at an elementary school, he was introduced to a Jewish man who invited Jones to star in an upcoming performance of Othello.
As a lover of Shakespeare and performance, Jones accepted the role. One of the first shows was in front of a Hadassah group, and while Jones was backstage, a young Hadassah member encouraged him to spend his next term teaching at the Talbot Road Jewish School in England. Jones accepted the position and was assigned to a class of 27 boys, where he taught Introduction to Torah and the Prophets.
“After introducing myself to that, something in me said, ‘This is where you belong,’” Jones said. “It was in December — I’ll never forget — when I decided I was going to do it.” He was going to convert.
Jones mentally made his decision at 32, but he wouldn’t formally begin the conversion process for several decades. In the meantime, he returned to Detroit, where he exposed himself to different facets of Judaism.
“I explored ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Humanistic — about six, seven different ones,” Jones said. “I used to come out to different synagogues and temples for Torah study and classes.”
In 1974, Jones was invited by the Temple Beth El music director at the time, Jason Tickton, to take an Introduction to Judaism course with a focus on music, which he says pushed him further toward Judaism. He later joined the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council, where he stayed for 15 years and became the 26th president.
It wasn’t until Jones found the synagogue that spoke to him that he was ready to convert.
“It was about finding a place that gave me the spiritual satisfaction,” Jones said. “With Temple Beth El, it was a warm, different kind of a welcome. When people find out who you are, they will come to you and they’ll just be friendly to you, and it’s constant. My wife has enjoyed the same kind of exposure and experience there, and we’re going on four full years of being members.”
Soon after landing at Temple Beth El, Jones and his wife, Gar, moved from their Arden Park mansion in 2015 to a West Bloomfield condo — one he discovered in an issue of the Jewish News.
At age 92, Jones converted and, soon after, became a bar mitzvah.“I found the satisfaction that I wanted to in Judaism,” Jones said. “It was like coming home.”
Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Mark Miller and Rabbi Dorit Edut, among many others, have been integral in Jones’ conversion journey.
“I believe Dr. Jones has provided a unique sense of inspiration to our Temple Beth El community — not simply because of his incredible wealth of experience, but also because of the joy and seriousness he brings to the endeavor of living a Jewish life,” Miller said. “Personally, I love the opportunity to learn from both his wisdom and his spirit every single week.”
While exploring Judaism, Jones held teaching positions and was a principal in Detroit Public Schools for 40 years. Even after retiring, he was a principal at several Roman Catholic schools, taught at Wayne State University in the College of Education and was the principal at Ecorse High School, where he taught Introduction to Religion.
“I invited a minister, an imam and a rabbi, and I got Rabbi Dorit Edut,” Jones recalls. “When Rabbi Dorit finished, the young ladies in the class wrote a letter to her saying they would like to become a rabbi. Mind you, we had three Hispanic kids — the rest were black kids and two white kids.”
Now, at 94, Jones continues to learn as much as he can and is gravitating toward exploring the concept of Jewish identity.
“It’s a good year for me — I’ll be 95 on May 2,” Jones said. “I told my wife this is going to be my year.”
Jones stays active by regularly performing Shakespearean plays at Temple Beth El for congregants, including The Merchant of Venice and, most recently, a return to Othello, where he weaves biblical themes into each play. Jones hopes to soon perform his 400th rendition of Othello and finish his book on his transition from Christianity to Judaism.
Regarding his relationship to Judaism, Jones says his philosophy is, “I’m still learning.” He participates in weekly Torah study courses and attends Sunday minyan, which for him, “feels like family.”
“I feel satisfied, I feel comfortable — I still feel I have beautiful challenges,” Jones said. “I still feel motivated to learn and to study Torah each week.”
Laura Bonnell contributed to this article.
Catch Dr. James Allen Jones performing “The Torah and Shakespeare” on April 24, May 1 and May 8 at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
Read more: Hues of Jews: Metro Detroit’s Jews of Color