For You Were Strangers

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boy pointing
07 Jun 2007

The first I heard of Matt was from his rosh yeshivah here in Jerusalem, who called to ask if we could have a Shabbos guest. This particular young man, said the rabbi, was a black American convert from New York City, an exceptionally gifted and promising Talmid. We’d be sure to enjoy his company.

That Friday night when my husband answered the door, perhaps my body language gave me away. What had I expected; some sort of coffee-colored version of a nice Jewish boy from Manhattan’s Upper West Side? The person who entered our home sported the uniform black hat/black suit of any other yeshivah bachur, but as far as my habitual responses were concerned, this was just the kind of guy I’d avoid in the New York City subways. Possibly in response to whatever mixed messages the hostess herself was giving off, his posture conveyed apology, head lowered shyly as he walked in.

As our awkward, forced conversation got off the ground, we learned that our guest did indeed come from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but not the Upper West Side of Lincoln Square Synagogue on 67th, or the Upper West Side of Central park and 92nd. Matt came from Harlem, the unknown and foreign land past 125th St.—to my mind, the other side of the moon.

He politely obliged my irrepressible curiosity about his past, though (to my chagrin) I would later find out that wherever he went on Shabbos, people always asked him the same question. How, I inquired, did you find Judaism? My unarticulated emphasis was audible even to my own ears: “How did you ever find Judaism there?”

Matt told the story. One Saturday morning when he was fifteen, his mother had awakened him with this unexpected exhortation, “Come on, son, hurry. You and I are going to synagogue.”

“Synagogue?” he murmured. “That’s for the Jews, isn’t it?”

Thus was he introduced to the religiously observant black congregation in Harlem, numbering around a thousand members, whose dogma maintains that it is they and not the Europeans who are the historical descendants of Biblical Hebrews. So-called Ashkenazi Jews, in their view, are deluded by a millennium-long case of mistaken identity.

For Matt, Judaism took. He immersed himself in Old Testament studies, finding himself increasingly electrified to have come upon what his instincts told him constituted truth. But he also came across, as time went on, what appeared to be inconsistencies in the congregation’s dogma, and questions arose in his mind that begged investigation elsewhere. He sought out information at Manhattan’s NCSY, the National Council of Synagogue Youth, ended up studying there for a year, and then underwent Orthodox conversion. At their suggestion, he eventually came to Israel for more intensive learning.

By the end of the evening, it was obvious that we were in the presence of one of those rare, bright young men whose sharpness of intellect is matched by depth of feeling. In order to pursue his Torah learning, he was enduring alienation from the people back home by whom he was loved and respected. He had, to his distress, hurt his mother by leaving. He had forgone—he told us this wryly, with an enigmatic, sad little smile—his position of honor in the congregation: it was their hope that Matt would be the Messiah.

It emerged in conversation that he was not in his late twenties, as his demeanor had led us to assume, but eighteen, a teenager not much older than our own. In his brief time on the planet he had acquired a maturity that belied his years. He said that he loved the learning and loved Jerusalem. We asked if he was going to stay. Yeah, there was a minor problem that would have to be worked out, but he was planning on making aliyah.

Problem? What’s the problem?

Well…with the children.

The children? You mean your brothers and sisters in New York?


Here? You mean the Arabs?

No…the Jewish kids, from some of the neighborhoods around here. They say things. They point, laugh, that kind of thing. I know it shouldn’t bother me, they’re just kids. Rabbi S. is trying very hard to do something about it, and he spends a lot of time talking to me about it, and about everything in my life. And there’s another black guy in the yeshivah. He says he knows what I’m talking about; he’s had to deal with it. He says the answer is just to get deeper into the learning. It doesn’t bother him so much, maybe because he’s older. For me, it’s getting so every time I go out on the street, I’m kind of looking around for the kids.

Matt came to us for Shabbos dinner two or three more times that winter. Gemara was getting more and more interesting, he told us. He and his chavrusa (learning partner) were getting the gist of learning with each other better and better all the time. And the situation with the Israeli children? Well…he was working on it in his own mind. This was where he wanted to be. Jerusalem was the right place for him.

The day before Tu B’Shvat I ran into him at the makolet. Ahead of me in line with his bags of dried apricots and pineapples and dates, he wished me a happy holiday, and I asked how things were going. He said the yeshiva was going very well, thank you.

And the thing with the children?

He looked me in the eye. “I don’t know if I can take it anymore.”

“What do you mean? You wouldn’t leave Israel because of that, would you, Matt?”

“I don’t know what to do. It gets to me.”

That was the last time I saw Matt. I called the yeshiva a few weeks later to invite him for Shabbos, and the secretary said he had returned to the States.

Shall we attribute his departure to our country’s children behaving like children? Or to Jewish parents’ gross failure to passionately inculcate the most basic of Jewish values: respect for the other, who was created by God – the other, who is not like you.

Where are you now, Matt? And who in the world do we think we are?

Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. She teaches writing in Israel and the United States.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.