To Samara Sodos and Greg Celestan, the Jewish community is like home.
Sodos, a Milwaukee native, grew up in the Jewish community. Although she now lives in Florida, she may be recognized by some in Wisconsin as a former reporter and anchor for Today’s TMJ4. Now the founder of a public relations firm, Sodos said her faith has always been an “enormous” part of her life. “Judaism has always been central in my life, in my soul,” she said.
Celestan, her fiancé, is newer. The chairman and chief executive officer of defense contractor Celestar Corp., Celestan is now in the process of converting to Judaism.
Their journey together started at Port Tampa Bay, where Celestan served as a commissioner and Sodos was the director of public relations. Although they met at the port, the pair said it wasn’t until after Celestan’s term ended that they began socializing.
By then, Sodos had changed her views on finding a partner for life.
Growing up Sodos attended Hebrew school and Sunday school. She went to the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC in Eagle River and had some involvement with BBYO-Wisconsin Region.
For a long time, Sodos said, she was committed to marrying a Jewish man and living a Jewish life. But life as a journalist can mean moving around frequently.
“At some point, I decided that finding a great partner in life is just hard enough in itself, so I was willing to date people who weren’t Jewish,” Sodos said.
And as time went on, her connection to Judaism faded, leaving Sodos without one of her sources of joy. But she had found the person with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. And she noticed Celestan had a fascination with Judaism. During a discussion about when they wanted to set their wedding, he surprised her by revealing he wanted to convert.
“It was a stunning, emotional moment that took days to process, and I suddenly felt like this lost part of my soul was restored again,” she said. “It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and it made me realize that, that’s what real love can do.”
Celestan grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, where he said his family was a minority as black Catholics. He said he was introduced to Judaism while at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where some of the Jewish students became his best friends. He even attended the first Jewish wedding to take place at the military school.
Celestan said between his friends and Sodos, he realized Judaism is where he wants to be. The religion speaks to him because he enjoys the conversation between himself and God, and that it’s a “thinking religion.”
“I always feel like this is where I’ve been,” he said. “It’s an interesting feeling for me. I just feel that every time we go through some different part of either the history or we’re going through the Torah, it makes sense to me.”
He described the conversion experience as “amazing” but said it has introduced some complications. Sodos and Celestan said the process has prompted some negative reactions from people who aren’t comfortable with the decision. Given the success of his company, Celestan is well known in his local business community. He is finding some are struggling to accept his choice.
“I didn’t quite expect that reaction from educated people,” he said. “That part drew me back a little bit. I understand that’s probably the start of what I will see as I go down this path.”
Celestan said he and Sodos are still working through how to respond in those scenarios.
Ironically, he said he had expected the push back to come from other areas. As it turns out, his mom wasn’t surprised with his choice. Celestan said his mom thought the decision made sense, noting that she was a convert to Catholicism.
“Her blessing meant a lot to me,” he said.
Celestan said he expects to complete the conversion process shortly before their wedding next year. He plans to continue his studies to become a bar mitzvah.
The experience has also allowed Sodos to reconnect with her faith, as she attends the classes with Celestan and is now teaching a Sunday school class on the Holocaust. Together, they’re lighting the Shabbat candles each Friday night.
Sodos said she is proud to be with Celestan and that she thinks all Jews should be proud he decided to join the community.
“To me, he is one of the most exciting and greatest converts in history,” Sodos said.