By Shimshonit • March 27, 2008
On my long journey to Judaism, I’ve heard and met several very inspiring teachers. Most have no real Internet presence, but here are three of my favorites who are available to the general public, and also happen to be converts. Yes, they’re all Orthodox, but it’s who they are rather than where they ended up that I think is noteworthy.
I once heard a taped lecture given by Rabbi Asher Wade at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem (one of the many places he teaches). The lecture topic was how young Jews can view/resist/fend off Christian missionaries on college campuses. It was a fascinating lecture, and when I heard a couple of years later that he would be speaking in the Boston area, I grabbed my fiancé, stuffed him in the car, and drove up to Malden, Mass., with all possible speed. Rabbi Wade was born Wallace S. Wade in Danville, Virginia in 1949. After getting his bachelor’s degree in the U.S. and a master’s degree in Scotland, he moved to Germany where he worked as a chaplain for the U.S. Army, received his ordination as a Methodist minister, and pursued a doctorate at the University of Hamburg. One morning, before leaving to deliver a sermon for his congregation in Hamburg, Wade and his German-born wife read in the paper articles commemorating the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht (the “night of broken glass”). In one of the photographs published, they saw the Berlin Great Synagogue, destroyed on that night. They recognized the buildings around it, and realized that the site of the destroyed synagogue was the University parking lot. This led to plenty of questioning, first of how their elderly German neighbors had likely spent that evening, then of their role of their church and university in the Nazi persecutions, and finally of their own beliefs. Their questioning led to their researching Judaism, and ultimately to their conversion together. Rabbi Wade is a counselor and teacher at various educational institutions, lectures widely on the international circuit, and lives with his wife and six children in the Old City of Jerusalem. I recommend reading a bit more about him, and particularly about his and his wife’s families’ reactions to their conversions. If he ever lectures near you, postpone all other recreation and go hear him.
I once heard Gavriel Sanders speak on behalf of an Israeli organization called Yad L’Achim which works to thwart missionaries in Israel. Sanders now hosts the Gavriel Sanders Show (described as “an hour of Jewish information, inspiration, motivation, and transformation”) on the radio and available for streaming or downloading from his website. In the bottom left of the home page of his website is a link to an audio file of his “spiritual biography.” It is a very interesting listen. In short, Sanders was once an evangelical Christian missionary. He spent decades under the auspices of the Messianic Jewish movement (i.e. Jews for Jesus) converting hundreds of Jews to Christianity in the U.S. and Israel. He relates how learning Hebrew and reading the Jewish scriptures in the original Hebrew weakened his belief in the prophesies he had been taught relating to Christianity. Attending an anti-missionary rally in Los Angeles, he realized that his work of cloaking the Christian message as Judaism for consumption by uneducated Jews was deceitful and dishonest. He ultimately converted to Judaism and has worked since then to make teshuvah (amends) for his missionary work by supporting anti-missionary activity and broadcasting informative and inspiring Jewish content.
Yisrael Campbell is described as “the premiere standup comedian in Israel.” A Catholic-born Philadelphian, his journey took him from Reform to Conservative and finally, to Orthodox Judaism. He tells the story of his road to Judaism with wit, warmth, and gently barbed humor. Here’s what he learned about Chanukah at his Introduction to Judaism class. In addition to a couple of one-man shows and an ad parody for the “Jphone” on the Aish.com website, he has done several comedy tours in Israel with a team of comedians (including Palestinian Ray Hanania, Israelis Charley Warady and Gil Kopatch, and Egyptian American Sherif Hedayat).
I hope these righteous converts, their stories and their work will inspire and delight you.
About the Author
16 Responses to “ Three Inspiring Gerim: Rabbi Asher Wade, Gavriel Sanders, and Yisrael Campbell ”
- Rivkah Mar 27th, 2008 at 3:44 pm
- So often in reading or hearing conversion stories it seems that the converts were raised in non-religious settings and simply “found their preferred expression of spirituality” in Judaism. (At least, that’s how it has frequently come across to me.) Since I was raised by a strongly religious, Christian family, I don’t really relate to those stories. It seems acceptable to others if you didn’t have former allegiances, but not so much if you did…so to read about converts, especially those which were not just religiously observant but also religious leaders… I find it fascinating and enjoy knowing that it’s not so unusual to question a once-strong faith, and decide it wasn’t based on the right foundation.
- Thanks for posting these stories, Shimshonit.
- Avi aka TG Mar 27th, 2008 at 5:37 pm
- Nice post! I’ve actually heard of all three of these people and I’m quite familiar with two of them.As for Gavriel Sanders I actually did a post on my personal blog some time back, although I can’t recall if it was pre-or post conversion. I would agree that his story is quite a fascinating one considering that he went to Israel to teach Hebrew as a means of converting unsuspecting Jews to Christianity, but ended up losing his faith in the New Testament and eventually converting to Judaism (not once but twice) instead. Having said that, I’m about as far from being a fan of his as one can get. I find him inflammatory, ethnocentric and disrespectful towards non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Oh and add to all of that that he comes off (at least to me) is being excessively right wing, which is never a good thing in my books! I just can’t take him seriously on any level. Well that is except for his retelling of his conversion process and journey into Judaism. It is a fascinating story.Anyhow great post!
- Now for Yisrael Campbell, he’s the guy I have heard of but never actually heard. Awhile back an Orthodox friend told me about how, he’s done like a million different conversions. My friend was hinting at the fact that he thought I was going to be just like this guy. Thus far (thank G-D) I’ve managed to prove my friend wrong! Yup I’ve managed to keep it to just one conversion and that would be Reform. I didn’t even do a second conversion when I moved into the Conservative movement and that’s something I’m proud of.
- Way back even before I formally began the conversion process, I was a fan of Rabbi Asher Wade and his wife. I have several of his lectures permanently loaded onto my MP3 player and I enjoy listening to them over and over again. I especially love the story of how he came to Judaism and I drew a lot of encouragement and value from it, during my own conversion process.
- Shimshonit Mar 28th, 2008 at 6:08 am
- Rivkah, I’m glad the stories of these converts spoke to you (at least two of them). The dramatic turn-abouts of Rabbi Wade and Gavriel Sanders were fascinating to me too. They suggest that people who begin by being dedicated to one faith, but then become disaffected, can find a new home being similarly dedicated to another. I’ve got another post brewing on this issue which I’ll put up soon. Thanks for your comments.
- An extension of this train of thought, Avi, relates to Gavriel Sanders. I have heard him speak in a very specific context, i.e. telling his story and encouraging people to give money to counter missionary activity in Israel. He is an engaging speaker, very dedicated to Torah and Judaism, and never stoops to bashing the world he came from. He is highly principled in this way. I haven’t listened to his show, but I am not surprised to hear that his beliefs or his style rub you the wrong way. When looking at someone like this, remember where he came from–this guy was a farbrennter (zealous) Christian whose job was to reject the validity of anyone else’s beliefs and try to convert them to his viewpoint. I think that even when people change religion, they don’t necessarily change their character. He was once on fire about Christianity; now he’s on fire about Judaism. Same guy, same style. Rav Wade was less extreme; he belonged to a fairly middle-of-the-road Christian denomination and, based on his embrace of psychology, philosophy, and the secular world of knowledge, a seeker of wisdom rather than a spiritual salesman. And Yisrael Campbell–he was a lost soul, then a traveler–another seeker. And these attitudes don’t even fall strictly along sectarian lines–Campbell is associated with Pardes Institute, a seminary where men and women learn together and generally adopt a modern outlook in Orthodoxy; Rav Wade davens with the Gerer chassidim (though he doesn’t exactly consider himself a Gerer) and teaches at Ohr Somayach, a haredi yeshiva. I would probably consider Sanders a haredi Jew, but as I explained above, I’m not sure that’s what motivates his outlook.
- Chavi Mar 28th, 2008 at 6:20 am
- This is a great posting, and I’m curious to look more into Rabbi Wade. I feel apprehensive about those who convert after a spark of guilt or remorse for tragedies against Jews. I don’t want to be taken the wrong way, but there’s that factor that sometimes makes my stomach a little whilry. Like the radio host who played antiSemitic poetry who later converted. It almost feels like making amends, by converting. I’m sure these individuals feel sincere.
- I feel like I’m sounding really judgmental, but I don’t mean to. Does anyone get what I mean?
- Rivkah Mar 28th, 2008 at 10:38 am
- Chavi, I think I understand what you’re saying…I’ve actually been questioned on my German heritage, whether that’s a motivation for conversion. Although someone might feel remorse by proxy, I would think they could work within their Christianity if they wanted to “repair” the damage.
- We all come to the same place by different ways, though, so as long as someone is sincere in their dedication, I’m happy for them.
- Shimshonit Mar 29th, 2008 at 9:52 am
- And some with Jewish heritage, like me, find their way back by learning about the Shoah (Holocaust). I think it’s much more desirable (not to mention savory) to find Judaism through its positive attributes, but sometimes righteous indignation does the trick too. In both Rabbi Wade’s and Gavriel Sanders’s cases, they first saw flaws in what they believed, then investigated Judaism. If it hadn’t made sense to them, they could have turned back. The fact that they didn’t, but pursued Judaism to a conversion, means perhaps that Judaism was right for them.
- I once heard of a guy who had Jewish heritage and was living a religious Jewish life. He studied at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem (a very serious, well-reputed place) and was planning to get married. When it came time for him to dig up some documentation to prove he was Jewish, he discovered that his mother or grandmother (I’m not sure which) had a non-Orthodox conversion. At that point, he was faced with the choice of converting or not converting. He ultimately chose not to convert, but became a Ben Noach (observer of the Noahide Laws). He decided Judaism wasn’t really for him after all.
- Aliza Hausman Apr 5th, 2008 at 9:42 pm
- I made a point of seeing Yisrael Campbell’s show in New York after missing his act at LimmudLA where he was part of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour to a group of Jews from all affiliations. His act is fantastic.One of the other group members is the convert that was mentioned in a previous comment as having read anti-Semitic poetry on his radio show and later converting. His name is Aaron Freeman. I highly recommend viewing his YouTube video of his act. I have never laughed so hard as I did the night I attended his act. It was also just really amazing to see a convert like myself joking about the same experiences I’ve had myself.
- It’s possible to see snippets at: http://www.ipcomedytour.com/show.htm.
- Shimshonit Apr 8th, 2008 at 12:38 pm
- Thanks for the links, Aliza. I enjoyed seeing a bit of what the IPCT does, and seeing the other players. I had heard of Aaron Freeman but hadn’t seen him before. What a story–from anti-Semitic poetry to becoming a Jew! Another person who just shows that life is a journey and you never know where the twists and turns are going to come.
- Gavriel Aryeh Sanders Apr 9th, 2008 at 3:13 pm
- I appreciate the posts here. I would like to make a correction in the original post at the head of this thread. Sometimes what is said is not always what is heard. One sentence above said: He spent decades under the auspices of the Messianic Jewish movement (i.e. Jews for Jesus) converting hundreds of Jews to Christianity in the U.S. and Israel. That is not accurate. I spent years as part of an evangelical/charismatic denomination. Anyone familiar with the spiritual mileu of Calvary Chapel, the Vineyard, the Assemblies of God et al, will clearly understand where I was theologically. I never worked officially for Jews for Jesus, though I did invite them periodically to do presentations in my church. I was a strong supporter of messianic ministries such as the ABMJ and others. I had one of their senior missionaries conduct four nights of messianic Passover sedarim in my church one year, which influenced about 600 people as I recall.In Israel, I worked with several ministries, one based mainly in kibbutzim, another that had a Christian radio station in South Lebanon, another that had an outreach to Arabs. I attended the Baptist church in Jerusalem when I lived in Motza Illit. I note that the Conservative and Reform movements are in negative growth. There is insufficient replacement in the birth rates and intermarriage and assimilation are devastating both movements. Hence the easing of conversion requirements in an effort to attract converts. Alas, many of them don’t stick. Curiously, not a few of them migrate to Orthodoxy.I hold one simple metric for defining a Jew: will this person have Jewish grandchildren? Maintaining the living links in the chain of Jewish perpetuity is what matters. The Torah provides profound guidance for insuring the Jewish future. “Atem had’vekim ba’Hashem Elokeychem – chaim kulchem hayom.” – You who cling to Hashem your G-d are all alive this day.” I think about this everyday. If that makes me extremist, I accept the badge. I think Jews should be extremely safe in this world. I think Jews should be extremely proud of our rich heritage, history, land, language, and contribution to bettering the world. I think Jews should be extremely tenacious about surviving and thriving. I think Jews should be extremely focused on being a light to the nations – and stop caring about being liked by the nations – or being like the nations. I think Jews should be extremely in love with Hashem and His blessings to us through the Torah. That’s my form of extremism. Let’s get bottom line here: What’s very clear is that those who embrace the behavioral, moral, and ideological principles of the Torah persist. Those who don’t eventually evaporate. The trends are clear. There is a fascinating, albeit alarming, study of this available at SimpleToRemember.com. I recommend the article “Will Your Grandchildren Be Jews?” I wish all here a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach. Kol tuv.
- Gavriel Aryeh Sanders
- I apologize for the length of this response. I felt it important to correct some inaccuracy. It’s the kind of mole hill that the messianics mold into a mountain. I also felt compelled to respond to Avi’s words. I love him. He was obviously drawn to something beautiful in Judaism. I would hope his children and grandchildren will be able to carry the torch forward.
- I have been were Avi is. He has not been where I am. From reading his comments, I am not surprised that my views bother him. If I’d met a Gavriel Sanders back when I was the Torah study leader in my Reform congregation, I would have been defensive, too. I would have used Avi’s kind of language to describe my unsettledness.
- In a recent video taping, I rattled the interviewer when I said that more Jews have been lost to the good life of American culture than the numbers that perished in Nazi Europe. We should have a population of nearly 15 million Jews in America today. There are no memorials to these millions, no grants to fund studies about them, no marches in their honor, and no museums erected to display pictures of the American Holocaust. These millions have perished quietly, singly – like drops of rain evaporating on a sizzling summer sidewalk.
- The future of Judaism is where it’s always been historically, in the world of Torah observance. Cultural Judaism, while stimulating, entertaining, and intellectually variegated, is short-lived. Some of today’s Jewish movements are simply on the endangered species list. I’ve read their analyses of the crises. I’m saddened that they seem to avoid the root cause.
I just spoke last Sunday to a conference of youth at the Hillel House at UCLA. I stated clearly that I dislike labels. Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox are modern conventions. I’ve met spiritually vibrant Reform Jews on the one hand and Orthodox Jews suffering from dry rot on the other hand.
- As to Avi’s comments that I’m “inflammatory, ethnocentric and disrespectful towards non-Orthodox streams of Judaism”, I smiled when I read this. Anyone who really knows me knows this is simply inaccurate. Now, I’ve always believed that a person with an experience has an advantage over a person with a theory. I’ve experienced Reform Judaism (three years) and I’ve experienced Orthodoxy (in several streams) for nearly ten years. There’s simply no comparison. Describing my Reform days, I’ve said in lectures across the country that “if Judaism is a house, I was living on the porch”.
- I did not convert hundreds of Jews to Christianity. A few dozen, if that. But I did influence hundreds over the years. I have said that in the church I served in California there were an estimated 500 Jews among a church population of about 10,000.
- Shimshonit Apr 9th, 2008 at 10:42 pm
- Gavriel Aryeh Sanders,Thank you for your thoughtful, lengthy comments. They elucidate your experience and provide both important facts and food for thought–all reasons why I consider you an inspiring ger. -Shimshonit
- May we all merit to rear our children and grandchildren with a love of Hashem, Torah, and Judaism.
- First, I would like to apologize for my inaccuracies about your story above. I struggled in vain to find a written account of your story on the Web, which might have helped me represent you more fairly. As you rightly point out, what is said is not always what is heard. I listened to your spiritual autobiography, but only once, and muddled some details. Thank you for taking the time to correct my mistakes. I am relieved that you only succeeded in converting dozens of Jews to Christianity, though I’m less clear on what it means to have “influenced hundreds over the years.” I suspect it means that at least some of them went on later to convert to Christianity, for which you earned partial credit.
- Gavriel Aryeh Sanders Apr 10th, 2008 at 5:35 am
- Shimshonit – your words are good. No need to apologize. Thank you and may I recommend adding SimpleToRemember.com to your resources on the right, along with Aish.com? Chag Pesach kasher v’sameach l’kol klal Yisrael.
- Avi aka TG Apr 10th, 2008 at 8:19 am
- GavrielAs for your comments regarding theory and experience, fair enough. However, I would like to point out that most of what you have written regarding me is not much more than theory itself! I don’t claim (and have not claimed) to know where you have been but you claim to know where I have been and I can only assume by that you mean you understand/know something about me. That is very much theory. You don’t know me and you don’t know where I sit Jewishly, because you haven’t taken the time to get to know me.Yes there are many problems within the non-orthodox world that are putting our People in danger, however, from where I stand (I believe you call it the porch), I see just as many dangers coming from the Orthodox world itself. I am convinced with all of my heart, mind, and soul that our survival will not be found in one movement or ideology; rather it will result from an healthy diversity (both religious and cultural )within our Peoplehood.Be well.
- Thank you for suggesting the two links. We have, at some point, posted the link for SimpleToRemember. As far as AISH goes, I feel, as the person responsible for this blog, that AISH falls outside the type of resources we want to include at JBC.ORG. After all, this community is of converts and specifically points of view from a non-orthodox perspective. Therefore, we want to focus on resources that respect our ultimate goal. That is not to say we don’t appreciate our Orthodox contributors or the orthodox world and value their points of views but they (for the most) part fall outside of the scope of this blog).
- I, more or less (in most regards), sit on the border between the Orthodox and Conservative worlds. We (my wife and I) actually spend more time socializing and interacting within Orthodox circles than we do outside of them. Our level of observance is definitely on par with the majority of Orthodox Jews we meet. In fact, so much so that I am often told that I am really an Orthodox Jew in denial and should just get over it and do a real “orthodox” conversion to make things official. Sure I believe the Mitzvot are binding, yes I wear a Kippah and yes I have un-tucked fringes dangling from my shirt but I have ZERO interest in re-converting orthodox. You may have logged in more time and know many more things than I do, but its ignorant to assume you know me and a mistake to assume I am as you were.
I don’t claim to know everything about orthodoxy but I have seen and experienced enough of it first hand to know it’s not for me. Like I’ve said above, I have in the past and continue now to spend much time interacting with orthodoxy and some of it I truly do love and feel connected to. For example, I draw much inspiration and sustenance from Orthodox thinkers like Rabbis David Hartman, Yitz Greenberg and Avi Weiss to name but a few . However, unfortunately much of Orthodoxy (IMO) is simply moving in a direction that (I and others like me believe) is at odds with what Hashem wants from us. I’m not saying I’m right but it’s what I believe based on what I have seen, studied and yes, experienced. Don’t get me wrong, I value Orthodoxy as an important part of the Jewish Organism but I just don’t buy it as being the only “True” expression of Judaism. Feel free to think that I am stuck out on the porch because I’m not Orthodox but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the result of a lack of knowledge on my part regarding the world you have embraced. Because that’s a bad theory.
- Let me begin by saying that I may have overstated my point in using the choice of words I did in my original comment. However, I did go out of my way to frame my statement as an “I find him” statement. I didn’t try to pass it off as fact, just one person’s opinion. I have listened to you, and to my ears you come off in many ways like a Jewish Rush Limbaugh. I’ll be the first to admit that other people’s mileage may vary on this issue but I have no doubt that I’m not the only one who feels this way. Of course I’m just as certain that you have devoted fans as well. I guess I am just not one of them.
- Rebbetzyn Jun 25th, 2008 at 10:41 pm
- I know Gavriel Sanders and he is not extremist and I find it offensive that Basic Orthodox belief is so ignorantly belittled
in recalling any reference to a persons past “religion/s” and comparing them to Judaism
in any way shape form or fashion is in my opinion the height of anti-semitism and it brings to mind
The 39 Lavim D’Oraisah which are being breached on many different levels : thought speech & action.
I feel deeply saddened that the midah kneged midah of every
self -hating / self- ignorant Jew
that gets sucked into xanity produces an equal and opposite effect is inflicted on Non-Jews
they have secular/Self hating Jews con them into false conversions.
There is a commenton a film that can be ordered from J.E.M.S/KEHOT by the Lubavitcher Rebbe where he talks
about how any movement that is Non-Orthodox dupes the convert
as they cannot effect a conversion his words are ” they do
NOT get a Jewish soul and they lose the one they have”
The explanation is as I understand it their “Beis Din” cannot affect the descent of a Jewish soul through their auspices.
and that because / if they themselves are halachically Jewish the fact that they are Jews means that they have enough spiritual power to do the opposite of good to the unsuspecting person…what is affected is a loss with no gain…..Ithink that it would
be in the best case scenario the seven noachide laws by default.
- If this is printed at all I am relatively certain that it will be blasted as “hate speech”.
it actually comes from Ahavas Yisroel and a desire to at least one person look into themselves and decide that they are tired of feeling like they don’t belong anywhwere(and I do not mean this in a petty political clique sense)
stop fooling themselves and start
- Yair Jun 29th, 2008 at 8:48 am
- I don’t think your comments will be flagged as hate speech, but I submit that one needn’t even look outside of Orthodoxy to find strong rejection of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings. You seem to be putting on non-Orthodox converts an orientation and self-image that I know, as a non-Orthodox convert, is not only not the rule, but not even the norm. Non-Orthodoxy doesn’t “dupe the convert”; on the contrary, every non-Orthodox rabbi with whom I studied was clear that without an Orthodox conversion, most Orthodox rabbis would not consider me Jewish. It’s an educated and informed choice to convert non-Orthodox, not a bill of goods sold to an unsuspecting oaf. Finally, I am curious as to what “Basic Orthodox belief” was belittled by someone saying they don’t appreciate the published work of a particular Orthodox Jew? I know Avi pretty well, and it’s safe to say that he and I respect and enjoy much that comes from Orthodox rabbis and scholars, so disagreeing with the way one guy carries on his spiel is not a blanket slam on Orthodoxy. Your comments on the other hand ARE a blanket slam on non-Orthodoxy: perhaps stones shouldn’t be thrown in glass houses?
- Avi aka TG Jun 29th, 2008 at 9:04 am
- YairAs for the Rebbetzyns Rebbe comment regarding “Jewish” souls. I respect her right to hold whatever beliefs she chooses to on the subject but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to buy in to them! I flat out reject this type of metaphysical thinking as being essential or normative to Judaism. Incidentally I know of ‘Orthodox’ Jews, including rabbis, who also reject the Rebbes (and by extension our Rebbetzyn friends) views on the subject. Said another way it would appear that at least, some orthodox Jews think the Rebbes Teachings are as un-Jewish as my own non-orthodox conversion is, so let us not assume that I am merely presenting some sort of heretical non-orthodox view.
- You make a good point and one that has also been echoed by my own experience’s back in Canada. It was made very clear to me that my conversion would likely not be recognized by members of the orthodox world. I think this (informed choice as you put it) is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to non-orthodox conversions.
- Yair Jun 29th, 2008 at 10:18 am
- Nachon! I couldn’t have said it better myself ;-)!
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