Last week I touched on difficulties that the potential convert often faces during their conversion process. Yet unbeknownst to many, there are a plethora of rabbis and Jewish communal leaders who have converted or whose mothers or maternal grandmothers converted. Furthermore, I think conversion should be worn as badge of honor and spiritual halo. I would venture to say that if we were to analyze our own ancestors, many would find they are a mixture of various different ethnicities and religions. I know of many Jewish communities across the globe that would have ceased to exist had it not been for those of other faiths who embraced Judaism. Converts often become the backbone of the community and invigorate the Jewish Day School with vibrancy and life.
In the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion the commentaries note that Abraham and Sarah openly and publicly facilitated conversion and did their utmost to encourage others to adapt a monotheistic lifestyle. Unfortunately the commitment to monotheism was short lived and totally lapsed after Abraham’s death. Some scholars explain that Isaac’s zeal and rigidity alienated those who were used to Abraham’s softer and more approachable manner. Sadly, four thousand years have passed but many communities still fail to heed the lessons of yesteryear. Even those that believe passionately in the fundamental dictates of Torah somehow ignore that the Torah delineates 36 different times the importance of treating converts with dignity and respect.
Last year I visited with a large group of Jews living in Bello, a suburb of Medellin, Colombia who can trace their roots back to the Spanish Inquisition. They lived and practiced Catholicism for centuries, but in the past ten years converted to Orthodox Judaism. Their commitment and dedication to Judaism left me inspired and uplifted. However, the local Jewish community shuns their existence and refuses to allow any association with the established community. Sadly, the Catholic community is no better and constantly writes disparaging and denigrating articles about these apostates. Yet it is them and others like them who are prized jewels in our treasure chest. Though their wealth cannot be measured in gold and silver, their spiritual enrichment is far more valuable.
In light of two stories of personal dedication and sacrifice that have been posted over the past few days, it is important to highlight the tremendous breadth and depth converts give to our collective Jewish community and the gratitude they deserve. The first story is about Rabbi Avraham Sinai and was published in Arutz Sheva on October 26, 2014. It may be hard to believe, but Rabbi Avraham Sinai’s journey to the holy city of Tzfat in northern Israel, where he lives today with his family, included a prolonged stint as a Hezbollah terrorist. In his previous life, 52-year-old Rabbi Sinai was a Shia Muslim living in Lebanon. Surprisingly, it was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist group which initially pushed him towards Israel.
The PLO, made up mainly of secular Sunni Muslims, took over wide swaths of territory in Lebanon, and mercilessly persecuted Shia Muslims under their control. “They did things that were worse than what is going on in Syria,” Rabbi Sinai said in a recent interview with Israeli Channel 20. Rabbi Sinai – before he was a rabbi or even a Jew, began helping Israeli intelligence, passing information on PLO movements in his area. When the PLO’s influence waned and the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah was founded – with funding and support from Iran – Sinai’s Israeli handlers persuaded him to sign up. For years, he worked as a spy within Hezbollah, climbing its ranks and passing on valuable information on the terror group’s activities to Israeli intelligence – foiling several terrorist attacks, he says.
But eventually, his cover was blown, and he was forced to flee to a region of southern Lebanon controlled by the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) – which was allied with Israel at the time. Not long after, his Israeli handlers informed him that his life was still in danger, and relocated him to Israel. There, he and his wife converted to Judaism under the tutelage of the chief rabbi of Tzfat, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.
Another story, published in The Jerusalem Post, told of hundreds who attended the funeral early on Monday of a woman killed in last week’s terrorist attack on a Jerusalem light rail station. Among those present were Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the Ecuadorian ambassador to Israel. Karen Yemima Muscara, 22, was an Ecuadorian citizen who had come to Israel to convert to Judaism after discovering she was descended from Conversos, Spanish Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism after 1492. Muscara was critically injured in a terror attack on a Jerusalem light rail station last Wednesday.
Muscara was pronounced dead Sunday evening by doctors at Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem. The NRG news site quoted Mayor Barkat as saying that Muscara was “a delicate soul and guardian of peace who fought to be a Jew. Like many before her, she also fell in love with Jerusalem. Seven months ago she joined us and tonight, with unbelievable pain, she is parted from us,” Barkat said. “As mayor of Jerusalem I say that the situation won’t continue. It’s unacceptable that those who live their whole lives for peace fall victim to those who glorify death.” He vowed once again to restore calm to Jerusalem. Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday flew in Muscara’s parents after she suffered head wounds and was seriously injured in the attack. Her mother said Sunday that her daughter’s dream had been to come to Israel and build her life there, but her life was cut short. (The Jerusalem Post, October 26, 2014)
In conclusion, I ask that we modify the words of JFK: Ask not what the convert can do for you (as they have already done so much more than we can ever have imagined), but rather ask what you can do for them. What can we do to make their leap into the religion of holiness a holy experience? And believe me, whatever we do is a small price to pay and only a fraction of what they truly deserve.
Rabbi Jack Engel