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  • Writer's pictureRav Hayim Leiter

The Race To Be Jewish

I didn’t grow up observant. We were what I’d call involved liberal Jews. My first steps towards a more traditional lifestyle started in high school on the March Of The Living. My parents were shocked when I returned home wearing a kippah. My thought process was so many of our ancestors were persecuted for being Jewish, I shouldn’t take it for granted. There were many lessons learned from my time in Poland and Israel but one of those lessons only became clear more recently.

While on The March, some of the students were caught drinking. The rules were clear –– it was grounds for immediate expulsion from the program. The rabbi leading our group decided the students should form a Beit Din (religious court) to justify to him why the guilty parties should stay. The students had to nominate three representatives to sit on the court, and they chose me to be one of them. My response was, “Great. But what’s a baked bean?”

Thankfully, the court adequately defended the students and they were permitted to stay on the program, but no thanks to me. I was so nervous and unsure of myself, I don’t recall saying a word. It was one of those moments where I saw how little I knew. To say I was humbled is an understatement.

Fast forward twenty-six years. I am now a rabbi in Israel serving on a private Beit Din for conversion. A few weeks ago, a colleague contacted me requesting the court convene to convert two very worthy candidates. One, Dabi, survived the genocide in Rwanda and the other, Baanan, the genocide in Sudan. (The names have been changed to protect the converts' anonymity) Their stories are beyond moving.

Dabi tragically lost both of his parents and was raised by his grandmother. He attended a Jewish school in Rwanda that was established to care for the refugees there. Since the Jewish people saved him, all he wants to do is serve in the Israel Defense Force and become one of us. Baanan fled Sudan for Egypt alone at age 13. While there he learned of another nation that spent most of their existence as refugees. He so desired to be one of us, much like the Jewish people and many of his brethren, he crossed the Sinai by foot to get to the holy land.

As the date of the conversion approached, we struggled to find three to sit on the court. Many of the rabbis contacted were deeply moved by their stories, but for political reasons, they couldn’t serve as a judge. The night before the conversion, it was clear that if it was going to happen I would not merely be a member, as I normally am, I would have to serve as the Av Beit Din (head judge) for the first time. I felt like I was back on the March of The Living, nervous if I could rise to the challenge. But I remained focused on the purpose of our endeavor –– to help these men become Jewish.

The day finally arrived and my home was filled with many people. Beyond the three judges we were able to secure and the two candidates, we had three others who were either instrumental in organizing the court or helping Dabi and Baanan settle in Israel. In addition, there was one rabbi who heard their story and felt compelled to attend out of solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, the court interviewed the gentlemen and decided, due to what they said and the high praise of their sponsoring rabbis, to convert them. After the mikveh, we all returned to my house where the candidates were gifted Tallit and Tefillin that they donned for the first time, saying the morning prayers. One of the organizing rabbis did the traditional blessing giving them their Hebrew names. He remarked that according to Jewish law the converts were on a high spiritual level and thus could bless those around them. The blessings they gave were so moving there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

As things were coming to a close, my wife, Lea joined us and I introduced her to the new converts by their new Hebrew names. Pleasantries were said and the gentlemen were on their way. Once they had left I mentioned something Baanan had said. “Baanan?? I think I know him?!” she exclaimed. She grabbed my arm and we ran down the stairs. We caught them just before they got to their car. Lea excitedly said, “Baanan, I’m Lea, You know my boss!” It turns out my wife’s boss was also instrumental in saving him and helping him settle in Israel. Lea had heard about Baanan for the past ten years but had never met him face to face. It was truly the quickest game of Jewish Geography in history.

As Baanan and Lea embraced, overwhelmed by such a serendipitous occurrence, it was clear that no matter what the politics may have been, there are those who not only belong but in some ways have always been part of our nation. It’s hard to express what an honor it is to come from the Beit Din I first sat on while learning of our time as refugees, to heading up this Beit Din in our holy land, bringing other refugees into our midst. There is no doubt that we are a better people with these two amongst us.


This first appeared here

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