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."

Rabbi Meir Fund, rabbi of the Flatbush Minyan synagogue in Brooklyn and a well-known specialist in Jewish conversions, says "an Orthodox conversion implies that the candidate for this conversion is being prepared to follow a life of complete observance of Jewish law, Jewish living, Jewish thought, classically understood but applied to the modern world." Rabbi Fund said the process can take from one to 10 years.

Sharon Harvey Rosenberg is a 42-year-old African American woman who studied with Fund and converted in her late 20s. Rosenberg, a full-time journalist, is married to a white Orthodox Jewish-born man she met after her conversion and is the mother of three children. Also drawn to Judaism as a child, her own family was supportive of her decision. Her identity is Jewish, but she is proud of her African American heritage. She has been saddened, however, by what she sees as an unfortunate divisiveness between the black and Jewish communities.

"It can be very painful, like watching two people you love fight." says Rosenberg. Reflecting on negative comments she heard from both black and Jewish individuals during the time she was converting, she says, "I felt both sides had only met the worst of each other, and had never met the best."

Fund is well aware of the obstacles a convert of color faces. "We try and talk them out of becoming Jewish. We emphasis the obstacles...we make it very clear that this move is going to carry a stiff price tag, given all of the challenges the person will face."

For Yitzchak Jordan, who also studied with Fund, one of those challenges was meeting resistance to his conversion from members of the black community, while also facing isolated but very painful incidences of racism within the Orthodox Jewish community. Within his own family, he experienced opposition from his mother and friends, who questioned his motives when in high school he began to wear ritual items, a yarmulke and tzitzis, fringes worn by Orthodox Jewish men. He felt belittled by the message they were sending him, "that I was obviously not proud of who I was and I obviously didn't have any type of identity if I was going into a community where black people weren't included."

Although he says "the truly anti-Semitic slurs were few and far between," the "underlying principle was that all Ashkenazi Jews were racist. Anything that came from the black community was just a response to that.


Conditions also became tense at home during his college years at Johns Hopkins University. "I had to lie to my mother and tell her I was going out with friends when I was really going to shul," he remembers. "She wanted to know why I couldn't eat out of a pan in which she cooked pork. That got into an all-out screaming match." (His mother now supports his decision to convert and even bought him, says Jordan, a nice set of tzitzis from Israel.)