As you know, I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and the majority of the residents of my neighborhood are Chareidim, including those from the Lithuanian yeshiva world, Chassidim, Sephardim, Yemenite Jews, and German Jews. My synagogue in Bayit Vegan is the Gra Synagogue. Most of the founders of this Chareidi synagogue were German Jews, including Holocaust survivors, and some of the songs and customs of the synagogue are according to the traditions of the German Jewish communities. The majority of the congregation, however, are from the Lithuanian yeshiva world, and the spiritual leader of the congregation is Rav Aryeh Leib Heyman, a disciple of a leading 20th century sage, Rav Aharon Kotler.
The atmosphere at the Gra synagogue is both dignified and friendly. The high level of the prayer services at the Gra synagogue attracted Ahuvah Gray, an African American convert to Judaism, and in her book, “My Sister the Jew,” she describes the warm welcome that she received from this congregation. She has also become a “spiritual daughter” of Rav Heyman and his distinguished wife, Rebbetzen Chaya Heyman.
Among the members of the Gra synagogue is a convert from Germany. There are a good number of converts from Germany in the Land of Zion, and Rebbetzen Leah Feldman, a noted educator and guide of Jewish women, once told me that she found the converts from Germany that she encountered in her work to be highly devoted to Judaism.
A convert from Germany can present an emotional challenge to some Jews, as most of the German nation approved and supported their government’s brutal persecution of the Jewish people during the Holocaust era. Some Jews therefore feel ambivalent about welcoming a convert from Germany into the Family of Israel, especially since he or she might be a child or grandchild of someone who murdered Jews. A response to their emotional dilemma can be found in a teaching of the Talmud which reveals that even individuals that descend from certain oppressors of our people can become converts (Sandedrin 96b). The Talmud mentions that the descendants of some notorious oppressors of our people were converts who became students and/or teachers of Torah, and it cites the following examples:
1. “Descendants of Sisera studied Torah in Jerusalem.” (Sisera was the general of the army of Yavin, King of Canaan. Sisera was a cruel general who severely oppressed our people for twenty years. He was eventually defeated by our people under the leadership of our general, Barak, and our judge, Devorah.)
2. “Descendants of Sancheiriv taught Torah in public.” (Sancheiriv was the ruler of Assyria who attacked our people.)
3. “Descendants of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Brak.” (Haman tried to murder all the Jews in the Persian Empire, and the story of how we were saved from his genocidal plans appears in the Book of Esther.)
Even a Gentile who persecuted Jews and then repented can also become a convert to Judaism! The above teaching from the Talmud cites as an example, Nevuzaradan – a Babylonian general who destroyed the First Temple and murdered thousands of Jews, yet who became a sincere convert.
I have attached information and excerpts from a story about the convert from Germany at the Gra synagogue. May this story remind us that we are the nation of the Torah – a universal nation which absorbs converts from other nations who accept upon themselves the responsibility to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
Rabbi Berel Wein is a noted Jewish historian who also served as a congregational rabbi and Torah educator in the United States. He now lives in Jerusalem.
In a trip to visit Israel, Rabbi Berel Wein attended morning services in a synagogue in Jerusalem. He relates that, unlike his own synagogue, which has benches facing the front of the synagogue, this synagogue had tables and benches, so he was forced to look at those praying opposite him. A tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired man and three blond small boys walked in and sat down opposite him. Rabbi Wein noticed the seriousness and intensity of their praying. The children were especially well-behaved and followed the service dutifully without once wavering in their concentration. For Rabbi Wein, accustomed to the more freewheeling American child, it was an unusual experience.
Afterward, the rabbi remarked to a friend that they looked like fine people. His friend said that the man was a microbiologist at Hebrew University who happened to have an extraordinary story to tell. “Would you like to hear it?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, called to his fellow congregant, “Avraham, this is Rabbi Berel Wein. I’m sure he would like to hear your story.”
The two shook hands and agreed to walk home together. As they went, the rabbi listened to him tell the following story:
“I was born and brought up in Germany. My father was an officer in the elite Gestapo killing squad, the Todtenkopf (Deathhead Squad). He served throughout the war and after it was over successfully eluded apprehension. But his crimes were so heinous that years later the West German Republic continued to pursue him. Finally, he was caught and imprisoned for ten years. Later, because he was so old, they reduced his sentence and let him out after four and a half years.
“My father never talked about his past, and when he was caught, I read about his crimes in the newspaper. It was a bewildering experience to find out that my father led such a monstrous life.
“The family was shaken by the news. I was a teenager and became very confused by all the notoriety. When we went to visit him in prison I couldn’t go in to see him. I felt as if he betrayed me. However, one useful thing came out of this -- I developed an interest in the War and found out as much as I could about the Todtenkopf and its role in the Holocaust.
“All this occurred around that time the Eichmann trial was taking place, and Holocaust material began to be published. I read all I could find and was able to get a general picture of what happened to the Jews. What I found out horrified me and the thought that my father took a role -- a leading role in the slaughter -- made me feel that perhaps our family was tainted with evil. If the conditions were the same, I asked myself, could I too become a killer?
“I took a trip, getting as far away from Germany as possible. It was as if I was haunted by Germany and all things German... On the way, I decided to visit Israel to get some perspective on the victims of the Nazis and find out what was so special about this nation… I needed to come to terms with what was churning inside of me, and I toured the country, working periodically here and there on agricultural settlements.
“While in a kibbutz, I saw a poster advertising a summer’s program at Hebrew University in desert zoology, and I enrolled. I did very well and in the fall was able to register for a graduate program at the university. While I was engaged in graduate work, I also became interested in Judaism.
“I loved Israel so much I just stayed on and applied for citizenship. Also, after about two years of learning about Judaism I decided to study to become a Jew. A few years later I earned my Ph.D. in microbiology and became a Jew. I married and settled in Jerusalem. My wife was a German Lutheran, but she, too, converted.
A psychologist might interpret my conversion as sublimating my guilty feelings, but I prefer to think about it as fulfilling my Jewish destiny. Don’t ask me how or why, but here we are -- an observant Jewish family. And we are very happy living as Jews.
“About a year ago we learned that my father was not feeling well. My wife thought it would be a mitzvah to visit him and show him his grandchildren. At first I was apprehensive about going back to Germany, a country I now feared. But in the end, I took a sabbatical and we went back to Darmstadt to visit with my father.
“It was quite a scene. My boys wore their yarmulkas, and had their tzitzis (fringes) showing. Their payos (sidecurls) were tucked back behind their ears and, of course, they spoke Hebrew.
“When he first saw us, my father was overwhelmed, and initially, couldn’t bring himself to embrace