Religion & Beliefs

How Do We Feel About Mass Conversions?

There’s an awesome article over at the Forward about a group of 55 African American men, women and children from Cairo, IL who just underwest conversions at a Conservative shul in Memphis: Rural Converts Journey Into Judaism By Jennifer Siegel … Read More

By / December 21, 2007

There’s an awesome article over at the Forward about a group of 55 African American men, women and children from Cairo, IL who just underwest conversions at a Conservative shul in Memphis:

Rural Converts Journey Into Judaism By Jennifer Siegel


A rural community described as “far away from everywhere,” Cairo, Ill., boasts 40 churches, 40 blocks and fewer than 4,000 people — and as of earlier this month, it also has 55 brand-new Jews.

Dozens of Cairo’s residents — all African American and ranging from toddler to senior citizen — visited a mikveh in Memphis, Tenn., on December 9 and took the plunge into conversion. It was the culmination of an 18-month spiritual journey that has brought a number of Reform and Conservative Jews into common cause with a group of spiritual seekers from a town that is predominantly black and poor.

“It was incredible. Who would have thought that rabbis in St. Louis and Memphis would increase the number of Jews of color in America appreciably?” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein, who attended the conversion ceremonies and serves as the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Memphis. “Judaism saved my life,” one of the converts told Greenstein. “That’s the first time in 100 converts that I’ve ever heard that,” the rabbi said.

The conversion odyssey, which was first reported on by Memphis’s Commercial Appeal newspaper, began in Cairo roughly four or five years ago, when a now 39-year-old computer repairman named Phillip Matthews grew disaffected with the Baptist faith in which he was raised and became interested in Judaism. Described as having a magnetic personality by several rabbis involved in the Cairo conversions, Matthews quickly found himself at the center of a study circle that involved an extended network of friends and family — including, by his estimation, 17 or 18 relatives, among them his mother, siblings, nieces and nephews — who ultimately converted to Judaism along with him.

Full Story It’s pretty incredible on a number of levels. For one thing, that particular part of Illinois has a reputation for being both incredibly racist and incredibly Anti-Semitic. Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro) has never had a real Jewish presence before, and I’m a little concerned about possible backlash against this community. But I have to say that what made me pretty uncomfortable in this article are two quotes from Matthews, who was the one who got the ball rolling:

“By the grace of the father in heaven, we had no accidents going up and down the highway for 18 months,” Matthews said of the long journeys.

 

 

“When you read the Bible, when you read the Old Testament, and you see all the things that the ancestors of old endured, you see what it is to have endured,” Matthews said.

The thing is, “By the grace of the father, in heaven” sounds to me like Jesus talk. And Jews don’t call it the Old Testament—it’s the Bible, or Tanach. Those are little things, and it certainly sounds like these guys are serious about what they do:

Mordecai Miller, a Conservative St. Louis rabbi who helped authorize a number of the conversations, said he was impressed by the converts’ sincerity. “Did they have a halachic consciousness?” he asked. “The truth is that they do. And sadly, there are many Jews who do not have that sense of being commanded.”

So okay, I’m glad they feel an obligation to halacha but I wonder how that plays out in a community where there aren’t really any other Jews? On the one hand it’s great that there are really 55 of them all in it together, but I hope they’re all serious about this, and as committed as they seem, because something tells me being a black Jew in Southern Illinois is not going to be the most pleasant or easy experience.