Judaism Isn’t Scary By Angela Himsel
It was 1968, and I was 7. According to the Worldwide Church of God, the small evangelical church my family attended in Evansville, Ind., every Saturday, the world was going to end in 1975. In the end times, the ministers shouted from the pulpit, "there will be mass murder, corpses will litter the streets, and the world will reek of the stench of dead bodies!"
"Satan has a hold of this world, and this world must come to an end!" they continued. "This world is temporal, God's world is eternal! Jesus will return, like a thief in the night, lest all flesh shall perish. Do not slumber, do not sleep, do not let your love wax cold! The great God is going to spank this world, and he is going to spank hard! Worldwide droughts, starvation, etc."
I have three children of my own now, and I live as a Jew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. For the past several weeks, in preparation for the Jewish holidays, I have been taking stock, physically and spiritually. My son could use a new suit for synagogue, my daughter needs her hair trimmed, maybe I really will send out New Year's greetings cards this year, and will my sins be forgiven and will I be written in the Book of Life? If not, then what happens?
Memories of my past growing up in that church, which says it has about 64,000 members worldwide, elbow their way into my current world of apples dipped in honey and greetings of "Happy New Year!". I myself fled as soon as I could, both geographically and spiritually: After studying in Israel for two years, I moved to New York 22 years ago and eventually married the son of an Orthodox rabbi. A few years later, when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I decided to forswear demons and destruction and convert to Judaism, a religion that worried less than I would like about God's plan and salvation, but one that encouraged me to keep one foot firmly rooted in this physical soil. 10/2/05 NYTimes
At twelve I wanted to be Jewish by Aliza Hausman
At twelve years old, when I told my Catholic mother that I wanted to be Jewish, she slapped me silly. That was when I found out my family was staunchly anti-Semitic. As the daughter of immigrants, I had only just realized that there were other options outside the mix of Catholicism and Santeria—Spanish voodoo—practiced in my home. Even living in Washington Heights, around the corner from Yeshiva University, I assumed everyone was also Catholic and had little altars at home where their mothers made offerings to saints.
It took a visit from a Holocaust survivor, a trip to Yeshiva University's museum, and one excursion to the local library's religion section, and I was sold. After all, as a child in Sunday school, everyone had drawn Jesus when we were told to draw G-d, and I had only squiggled my yellow crayon around and said "God is light." The nun was perturbed. But I cringed whenever I heard "in his name we pray," or when I saw all the idols in church.
It wasn't until after college, many non-observant Jewish boyfriends later, that I rediscovered Judaism. My best friend, a sworn atheist, had met a rabbi and gone Orthodox. Instead of freaking out, as many of his friends did, I asked him for books and websites, and when I told my family about it, my sisters said, "Well, great… didn't you always want to be Jewish?"
At the beginning of a religious conversion process, there can be a startling and unexpected chain reaction—a change or loss of friends, a new vocabulary, a new wardrobe and a less than supportive family reaction.
"So, who are you converting for?"
"No, really? Don't you believe in Jesus?"
"You're going to hell."
And then there are those crowds of Jews, who—like some friends and family—simply don't understand who they've encountered in meeting me. Although the American mainstream has largely accepted Jews as white, an increasing population of non-Caucasian converts is adding brown, black and yellow to the American Jewish milieu. My Muslim, African-American student, Reggie, break-danced with rabbis at my wedding and discusses Talmud with my husband, a rabbinical student. My aunt, always full of questions about Judaism, loves to tell those around her about her Orthodox Jewish niece.
Do Jews who negatively react to my skin color forget that they were once slaves in Egypt and strangers in another land? Sticking out like a sore thumb in your own community — the only dark or different face in the crowd — is the struggling convert's reality. These new Jews are causing ripple effects, perhaps raising the bar as they change how non-Jews look at Judaism and Jewry. The encounters of converts testify to their tenacity and dedication to staying the course, despite absurd and frustrating obstacles. As more converts from dissimilar backgrounds join the fold, perhaps people will stop gawking at us in shul. If nothing else, it isn't very polite to stare. By Aliza Hausman,
Shlomo and Dina Jin, of Kai Feng, China, were joined in matrimony according to Jewish law in Jerusalem on Wednesday. The two have been married as non-Jews for about two decades but tied the knot again, this time as newly converted Jews. Their daughter Shalva converted to Judaism over a year ago and has completed National Service. Jewish traders arrived in Kai Feng and established a synagogue in 1163. To this day about 500 descendants of the community maintain a strong Jewish identity. (Jerusalem Post 9/9/05) Rabbi Maller points out that 1,000s more will rediscover their Jewish identity and return to Judaism in the next few decades.
FROM BAPTIST MISSIONARY TO JEWISH ANTI-MISSIONARY
Every Sunday before afternoon services at his local church, Benjamin Kluger would roam the streets of Tourcoing, a small city in the north of France, and distribute literature on the Second Coming. He would approach anyone and everyone to ask them if they had a minute for God, and if they did, he would engage them in a theological discussion and encourage them to attend services at the local Baptist church. Kluger was only a teenager at the time, but he admits with a modest smile, he was successful.
It's been 15 years since Kluger took to the streets for Jesus. Noe he is the coordinator of Jerusalem's anti-missionary division for the ultra-Orthodox organization Yad L'Achim. But he looks back on his missionary past almost fondly and sees it as a guiding force to his anti-missionary present. "I know the other side because I was once like that," he says. Indeed, it's been quite a journey for the 32-year old father of two.
"We would meet at 5 o'clock at the church [on Sunday] but before that, we would go to the streets and convince people to come with us. We would talk to them about the Bible and quote the New Testament - we wanted to save the world." It was people on the streets, in fact, that convinced his Catholic family to become Baptist.
For Kluger, whose surname was Lesage before becoming Jewish, the religious fervor he felt throughout his youth soured at 18, when a Jewish worshiper began to attend his church service. The local pastor, he says, went out of his way to make the potential convert comfortable and would refer to baptism as a mikveh [ritual bath] and Christianity as a Jewish movement. Kluger says that he too wanted to proselytize among Jews, but couldn't grasp why he had to present his religion as something that it wasn't. "I didn't understand why the pastor was presenting Christianity as wrapped up in Judaism," he says. "Before, I had trusted everything I learned from him, but then I realized, how do I know that he's not trying to trick me too?"
Kluger began studying intensively on his own, lost faith in the New Testament, made contact with a rabbi in Lille, and by the age of 20 was living in Israel as a Jew. He became active in Yad L'Achim shortly after moving here. "I heard that there were missionaries active here and so I was looking for ways to help," he explains.
Kluger now spends most of his days working out of the Yad L'Achim office, meeting with people who have come under "Christian influence" and trying to show them the errors of their ways. He tells them about his own missionary past and tries to prove that Jesus is not the messiah. He is more successful now than he was when he worked the other side. HaAretz 12/10/04
India's lost tribe recognized as Jews after 2,700 years By Peter Foster in Aizawl (17/09/2005) News-Telegraph
With a cry of "Mazeltov" and a Rabbi's congratulatory handshake, hundreds of tribal people from India's north-east were formally converted to Judaism this week after being recognised as descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes exiled from Israel 2,700 years ago. A rabbinical court, dispatched with the blessing of Israel's Chief Rabbi, travelled 3,500 miles to Mizoram on India's border with Burma to perform the conversions using a Mikvah - ritual bath - built specially for the purpose.There were emotional scenes as the Oriental-looking hill people professed their faith, repeating the oath from Deuteronomy: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."
Over the next five years up to 7,000 members of the Bnei Menashe are expected to emigrate to Israel after years of pleading their case were met with official recognition. Since the 1950s a small group of tribal people, who live in the jungle-clad hills that straddle Burma, India and Bangladesh, have claimed descent from the Lost Tribe of Menasseh, the remnants of which are said to have found their way to China, Thailand and north-eastern India. Their claims gathered force in the 1980s when amateur anthropological studies purported to have discovered similarities between their ancient animist rituals and those of Biblical Judaism.
"This is the greatest day of our lives, a wonderful new life is now beginning for us," said Pe'er Tlau who, along with his wife and three sons, plans to emigrate to Israel as soon as formalities allow. Mr Tlau, an electronics engineer whose father fought for the British during the Burma Campaign, successfully proved his Jewish credentials before the rabbinical court, answering detailed questions on Jewish rituals and observance.
Later, after all the male converts had shown they were properly circumcised, the families immersed themselves, naked, in the Mikvah constructed with the help of detailed plans sent from Israel. Twice they dipped beneath the ice-cold water, each time receiving the blessing of Rabbi Moshe Klein, a senior member of the conversion authority attached to the office of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
The recognition of the Bnei Menashe by the Chief Rabbinate was achieved after a decade of lobbying by a Jerusalem-based group, Shavei Israel, which dedicates itself to finding Israel's scattered tribes and returning them to Israel. Michael Freund, the group's chairman, said he believed the conversions had closed the circle on almost 3,000 years of history as the Mizo Jews could now return to the Promised Land as Jews.
UGANDAN JEWS COME HOME OFFICIALY
NEW YORK, Feb. 14 (JTA). Four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel joined the community´s spiritual leader, Gershom Sizomu, in supervising the conversion of most of Uganda´s 600 Jews, a several-day affair that concluded Tuesday. Sizomu, who recently returned to Uganda from a semester of rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College in New York, the Reform movement´s theological seminary, is thrilled that the 83-year-old Jewish community has converted according to halachah, or Jewish law The community lives on the outskirts of Mbale, the third largest city in Uganda. After several intense days, two-thirds of the Abayudaya — some 400 people in all — were converted. Most of those who chose not to undergo the conversion cited sickness or travel complications The males of the community had been circumcised at birth, yet they agreed to undergo "a hatafat dam brit," a symbolic procedure to extract a droplet of blood from the penis.
.The Jews of Uganda trace their roots to Semei Kakungulu, a local agent of the British who was also a missionary converting the people of Mbale to Christianity. Kakungulu favored the Hebrew bible, and spread its teachings instead of the Christian one. The British fired Kakungulu in 1917. Around that time, he circumcised himself — when almost 50 years old — along with his two grown sons and the 3,000 men of the community. Two years later, the city began referring to the community — pejoratively — as Abayudaya when members began practicing the Orthodox Judaism they maintain to this day. After Kakungulu´s death in 1928, many members left the Abayudaya.
Sizomu´s grandfather held together what was left of the community from 1936 to 1992. During that period, the community experienced both a blessing and a curse: In 1962 Israel opened an embassy in Uganda, bringing clothing to the country´s 1,000 remaining Jews and prayer books to their 36 village synagogues, but in 1971 Idi Amin came to power, banning Jewish practice and ordering Jews to convert to Christianity or Islam. Amin took 32 synagogues for public use and shut the Israeli embassy, which never reopened. The countries renewed diplomatic ties in 1994, but Uganda today is served by the Israeli ambassador in Kenya.
Although Sizomu was too young to suffer from Amin´s repression, he remembers his father being tortured for building a sukkah, the fatal beatings of community members who collected remnants of a synagogue roof that had blown away in a storm and the caning of older brothers and sisters who refused to weed crops in the school gardens on Saturdays. Amin was overthrown in 1979 — two days before Passover, Sizomu recalls. "It was a real celebration of freedom a practical Pesach," he said. "Whenever it´s Pesach, we remember that wonderful time in 1979," when they felt like the Jews freed from Egyptian bondage.
About fifteen years later, an American organization called Kulanu — Hebrew for "all of us" — that aids lost and dispersed Jewish communities learned about Abayudaya, and has been working with the community since. Kulanu established a scholarship fund to help the community´s 150 children attend primary and secondary school, and coordinated the mass conversion. At the community´s request, Kulanu initially wanted Orthodox rabbis to perform the conversion. They declined, saying Mbale didn´t have enough of an Orthodox infrastructure — butchers, day schools and the like — to sustain an Orthodox lifestyle.
Now, after his experience at the Hebrew Union College, Sizomu plans to reshape his community´s brand of Judaism. The different kinds of Judaism he found in the United States are good for preserving the Jewish people from assimilation, he said. He hopes to develop in Uganda a "Reconstruvodox" Judaism — a mixture of Orthodoxy and Reconstructionism — to allow women more influence, including the opportunity to become religious leaders.
In addition to the recent conversion, Sizomu´s brother, Joab Jonadav "J.J." Keki, recently became the sub-county chairman over 32 villages and more than 25,000 people. That gives him control over police and military forces — and makes him the first Jew in Uganda to win political office. Also on Tuesday, the day they completed the conversions, the visiting rabbis officiated at Sizomu´s wedding. "It´s terrific, and I feel honored to be part of this," said one of the officiating Rabbis, Howard Gorin of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. Gorin said he is "incredibly impressed that people in the middle of Third World poverty still maintain their Judaism to the extent that they do." Maybe that´s what Karen Primack, a Kulanu staffer, meant when she praised the "Ugandan miracle."
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