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."
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."
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.)
Jordan was also not prepared for the offensive behavior of individuals within the Jewish community while he was studying for conversion. Although he stresses that the overwhelming response has been positive, he says he was clearly unwelcome in some circles. This became apparent when he looked for housing in Flatbush. One woman refused to show him the front apartment, which she'd promised him on the telephone. When he showed up at her front door, she offered him a unit with a basement entrance instead. He also recalls painful moments before his conversion when he was subjected to racial slurs by Orthodox children.
While agreeing that racism probably was a factor in Jordan's difficulty in finding housing before his conversion and that racist incidents do occur in Brooklyn, Fund points out that racism in America is not limited to Brooklyn. He also stresses that racist behavior is strictly forbidden by Jewish law.
Jordan says his response to racist slurs from Jewish children and his problems with finding housing made him more sad than angry. "They are wrong. They are breaking more mitzvahs [commandments] than someone who is eating pork and driving on Shabbos [Sabbath]. They are hurting themselves, and in the next world they are going to have to answer for it."
There was also a great deal of heartfelt curiosity from members of both communities. Jordan says he was surprised by how many older black people asked him about his ritual clothing and customs.
Racial prejudice was not enough of an obstacle to keep Yitzchak from pursuing his goal of formal conversion, which he says was enabled by acts of extraordinary kindness from people within the Orthodox community and support from people like Fund. "I'm pledging allegiance to Hashem [God]. Even if every Jewish person in the world said, 'Get out of my neighborhood,' I would go live in a cave and study with the same siddur [prayerbook] I had been using since high school. There was nothing that could change the fact that I loved Hashem and his Torah. The people were secondary to me."
Despite the difficulties they have met on their spiritual journeys, all three converts to Judaism are thriving. "I don't think of the African American world and the Jewish world as being in conflict," Rosenberg says. "Other people have conflicts, but that is not my issue. I'm proud to be both...I'm honored to be both."
Yitzchak Jordan says he is ecstatic studying in Israel and hopes one day to become a rabbi. "I would like to work with converts. I would love to help them cross over the threshold.... My main concern is that a black 10-year-old girl living in Chicago's south side or in south Los Angeles who wants to light candles on Friday night and doesn't know why will have unrestricted access to what she wants to be. Or that a black little boy can wear ritual garb without it being seen as anti-black. Getting people to be less racist, that's for the rabbis to figure out."