African American and Orthodox Jewish
Black converts to Orthodox Judaism discuss what drew them to their new faith and the challenges they face from both communities.
BY: Debra Goldberg
In Brooklyn, they stand out not only for their skin color but also for their religious piety. In the neighborhood of Crown Heights, where the tension between blacks and Jews still bubbles beneath the surface of relative calm, and in Flatbush, where Yiddish is heard as often as English in the kosher shops and bakeries that line Avenue J, people of color with African heritage who have converted to Orthodox Judaism keep kosher, adopt the modest dress of the ultra-Orthodox, and in every way live a traditional Jewish life. Their spiritual journeys, however, were not without some major bumps in the road.
Yitzchak Moshe Jordan--his English name is Sean--is an enthusiastic 22-year-old student studying at the Ohr Somayach yeshiva (Jewish academy) in Israel. He converted this past year in Brooklyn. Born and raised by a Christian mother in Baltimore, Jordan says he first became aware of his desire to be Jewish in the second grade when he watched an ad on television that said, "Happy Passover from your friends at Channel 2." Jordan says: "It was instantaneous.... After seeing that commercial, it struck something inside of me. I threw a tantrum and told my mother I wanted to be Jewish."
His attitude is typical of African American converts to Orthodox Judaism, many of whom say their attraction to Judaism is deeply personal and almost inexplicable or mysterious, certainly not the result of a political or even intellectual decision.
In an odd twist of fate reminiscent of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, Jordan's grandmother was named after a Jewish woman. She took notice of Jordan's passion for Judaism and encouraged her grandson's interest. "My grandparents and great-grandparents had very warm relations with the Jewish community when she was growing up," Jordan says.
The identification in childhood with a Jewish spiritual heritage is not unique to Jordan. Chasidah Beruryah Ba'as Avraham, a 37-year-old convert of African heritage through her Caribbean mother, says her awareness of herself as a Jew has been with her as long as she can remember. She said that by the age of seven, she knew she was Jewish. It was so primal that "to have someone from the time I was seven to the time I did the conversion telling me that I was not Jewish was like someone being female being told she was a male.... There is no relationship between your reality and what they perceive."