(JTA) — Jasamine Hodge started converting to Judaism eight years ago, but it wasn’t until Oct. 7 that she set a date to finish.
As a child and teen, Hodge, 33, who lives in Kansas City, had grown up with families that practiced Christianity and Islam. When a friend introduced her to Judaism when she was 24, she realized she had found her “religious home.”
Over the years, she studied Judaism intensively, spent time in Israel and learned Hebrew. Yet because of complications in her life and community, including rabbinic turnover at her synagogue, she still was not officially Jewish last fall.
When Hamas struck Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking hundreds of hostages, she felt the gap in her identity acutely.
“When the attack happened, I just felt this urgency to be even more connected with God because I felt that every single prayer, with so many against us, was needed right now,” Hodge said. “As I continued to elevate my prayers and elevate my closeness to God, I realized that this was the time more than ever that I needed to push things to the finish line.”
Hodge is not the only person to experience a pull toward conversion after Oct. 7. Multiple rabbis told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that they have seen a surge in interest from potential converts since the attack, both from people who were already in the process of converting and from people who had never before been in touch. The surge has taken place even as the attack and the ensuing war between Israel and Hamas have fueled antisemitic incidents around the world.
“It’s been nothing short of profound and personally inspiring as an educator, and invigorating as a spiritual leader, to see people in the face of such brazen hatred feel all the more called to step into their Judaism,” said Rabbi Avram Mlotek, who received Orthodox ordination and lives in New York City.
For those who were already Jewish on Oct. 7, there has also been a noticeable inclination to draw closer to those identities or to Israel. Some Israelis have reconnected with their faith since the war began, and a number of Jewish families that had been planning to move to Israel before October sped up their immigration process in response to the attacks.
With two other Orthodox-trained rabbis in New York City, Mlotek facilitates a 22-week online course and beit din, or three-member religious court, aimed at making Orthodox Jewish conversions accessible outside of the rigid process overseen by the Rabbinical Council of America, an umbrella Orthodox rabbinical association that coordinates its conversion process with that of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Rabbi Adam Mintz, who leads a congregation in Manhattan and is part of Mlotek’s conversion initiative, said that in the weeks immediately following Oct. 7, he and his colleagues “have found an explosion of people who are interested in beginning to explore conversion.” He said he had been fielding three to five phone calls per week with people who were interested in pursuing conversion — a substantial increase over the typical rate.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, which operates an online conversion course that many Conservative rabbis recommend to potential converts, experienced a 40% uptick in interest inquiries in the three months following Oct. 7.
“There was a noticeable increase,” said Benjamin Wright, the program’s associate director. He characterized the rise as “pretty sharp.”
Exactly what is driving the uptick is still coming into focus. In addition to people who are part of Jewish families seeking to formalize the way they feel, there are examples throughout history of people choosing to become Jewish after learning about Judaism or identifying with it because of a trauma to the Jewish people.
Most notably, thousands of Germans expressed a desire to convert to Judaism in the years after the Holocaust, with many saying they were overcome by their sense of “guilt and shame and shock” at the atrocities their country had committed, according to one historian. The interest was so high that in 1950 a special commission was formed to help Berlin’s top rabbi sift through the requests. In recent years, a debate has consumed some Jewish circles in Germany over whether there is such a thing as too much conversion.
But for now, the rabbis say the people who have moved most quickly from Oct. 7 toward conversion are people who have longstanding connections to Judaism.
Kelly Tanner was already months into her conversion process when the attack occurred. The daughter of a Catholic mother and a Methodist father, Tanner, 26, began looking for a church when she moved to New York City for college. But it was not until she met Jake, who had grown up in a Conservative Jewish home and introduced Tanner to Shabbat and other Jewish traditions, that she felt she had found the right religious home.
“It felt like I was getting a piece of that spiritual side of me back that I had been looking for since I was 6 years old asking my mom to go to church,” she recalled.
Tanner initially had not expected to complete her conversion until closer to her wedding, planned for 2025. But after she reached out to Mintz the week of Oct. 7 to find out whether their regularly scheduled meeting was still on, she felt inspired by his response to move faster.
Mintz responded that “the perfect reaction to this war was creating really strong Jewish families,” Tanner said.
“That stuck with me for the rest of the conversion,” she added. “You feel so helpless here. But when you think about the importance of just spreading light during this time, and creating community, which are all huge parts, obviously, of Judaism, then it feels like you are doing something. Like there is some kind of tangible thing that you can do way over here in New York, when it feels like the world is just crumbling.”
Tanner completed her conversion on Dec. 21.
Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh, who directs the Miller program, is expecting more than 100 students when her next course begins later this month. “I have never had this many students ever,” she said.
But while she said she was eager to learn from her new students about why they had chosen to reach out since Oct. 7, she had already learned about the effects of the attack on people who have chosen Judaism.
Some have sought her advice about the safety of keeping their mezuzahs publicly displayed on their doorposts and about discussing Israel with their non-Jewish relatives.
“When [Oct. 7] first happened, I had students who came up to me and said, ‘Rabbi, I didn’t realize that I had to have a relationship with Israel as a Jew. I was converting to Judaism, but I didn’t know that I had to have a relationship with Israel,’” Rabizadeh said.
“I had other students that came up to me who had already converted and said to me, ‘I suddenly feel Jewish now. And not only do I suddenly feel Jewish, now I suddenly understand what antisemitism is,’” she added.
Tanner said that while her family has been “incredibly supportive” of her decision to convert, some of her family and friends have expressed concerns “because it’s a scary time to be Jewish right now,” she said.
Mlotek said that unfortunate reality has come up in his class, too. Because many of the students are already engaging in Jewish practice or have expressed sympathy for Israel after Oct. 7, they may be considered Jewish by others, for better or worse.
“We got into this conversation about how the enemies of the Jewish people don’t look with as piercing precision as the way we Jews do ourselves about Conservative, Orthodox, Reform,” Mlotek said. “Whether that hatred comes from the right or the left, if you stand with the Jewish people, you’re considered one of us. I think our students are experiencing that in a very acute way.”
That experience was deeply personal for Veronica Elmendal, who lives in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias and whose children are in the Israeli military.
“Why did they kill us?” she asked, referring to Hamas. “Because we’re Jewish. They slaughter us because we’re Jewish.”
Raised Christian in Sweden, Elmendal, 45, underwent a conversion to Judaism in 2004 when she was living in Los Angeles, after having already lived in Israel for a time in the late 1990s. But after her family moved to Israel in 2021, religious authorities there said they could not verify the rabbi who had overseen her conversion and thus could not recognize her as Jewish.
Elmendal was able to secure a spouse visa through her husband, who is Israeli, and she said she and her four children — ages 7 to young adult — knew they were Jewish, no matter what the government said.
“My kids, they always feel Jewish anyways. They know they’re Jewish. And I’m Jewish, too. I don’t care what anybody says,” she said.
But after Hamas’ attack, she said, that didn’t feel like enough. “When Oct. 7 happened, all my kids, it was very important for them to be registered as Jewish,” Elmendal recalled.
Now, she is working with an Israeli rabbi on a conversion that will pass muster with the country’s religious authorities. She immersed in a mikvah and completed a conversion exam last month.
“They’re ready to take my kids to the army. And they’re ready to die for this country,” she said about her older children. “So this is why it’s very important for us to do the conversion.”
Hodge, too, recently completed her conversion. On Dec. 21, she immersed in a mikvah under the supervision of three rabbis, including Mlotek and Mintz, to finish the process. Now back in Kansas City, where she works in real estate and is preparing to marry her Israeli fiance, she says she is ready to contribute to the Jewish people — as a Jew.
“When the war happened, I felt that my connection to Judaism was growing stronger,” Hodge said. “I felt my need to be a Jewish mother was growing stronger, and my desire to be in Israel, to help and just to be unified with the people. So for me, this was the biggest push. I want to start my Jewish family. I want to bring good to the Jewish world right now. We just need that right now.”
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Texas University Plans to Close Qatar Campus Amid Scrutiny of Hamas Ties
On Thursday, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted 7-1 to end its contract with the Qatar Foundation, which will result in the college’s Qatar campus shutting down over the next four years.
Texas A&M said it decided to reassess its relationship with Qatar after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, in which the terrorist group murdered 1,200 Israelis and took more than 240 more hostage. It cites regional instability as one of the reasons for its decision. The Qatari government also has extensive ties with Hamas’ political and military leadership.
The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development is funded by the Qatari government and is the institution that funds Texas A&M’s Qatar campus.
The Chair of the university’s Board of Regents said it “has decided that the core mission of Texas A&M should be advanced primarily within Texas and the United States.” He continued, explaining that “By the middle of the 21st century, the university will not necessarily need a campus infrastructure 8,000 miles away to support education and research collaborations.”
The decision also comes amid heightened scrutiny of Qatar’s role in American higher education — as it spent almost $5 billion on American universities between 2001 and 2021 — as well as its role in funding terrorist groups such as Hamas.
In an article for The Free Press in October, Eli Lake outlined what he saw as the significant influence Qatar is having on American higher education. He lists the universities that have gotten significant donations from Qatar, such as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. He also notes that Qatar’s influence goes beyond money, affecting policies and programs within specific academic departments as well. For example, the Qatar campus of Northwestern, which is home to the U.S.’s best journalism program, had an agreement with the terrorist-sympathetic Al-Jazeera that it would help train its students.
The significant attention paid to these relationships is likely driven by the steep increase in anti-Israel and pro-terrorist sentiment in the U.S., particularly on college campuses.
A 2023 report from the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy also concluded that concealed donations from foreign governments to U.S. educational institutions are associated with an increase in antisemitic incidents on campus and the erosion of liberal norms.
However, the Qatar Foundation believes the decision was made for political reasons. In a statement, it wrote: “It is deeply disappointing that a globally respected academic institution like Texas A&M University has fallen victim to such a campaign and allowed politics to infiltrate its decision-making processes. At no point did the Board attempt to seek out the truth from Qatar Foundation before making this misguided decision.”
There have been no indications thus far that other universities that receive a significant amount of Qatari funding, or operate campuses in Qatar, are reconsidering their relationship.
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Antisemitic Vandals Strike Hillel Building at University of Leeds in UK
The Hillel House of University of Leeds was vandalized on Thursday night, raising further concerns about a hateful campus climate and rising antisemitism across the United Kingdom, particularly since Hamas’ October 7 attacks.
The vandals, according to pictures shared online, graffitied “FREE PALESTINE” on the building and additional scribble on two window panes.
“We are heartbroken and angry that after an uplifting and inspiring Challah Bake, our JSoc Hillel House was defaced with antisemitic graffiti,” Leeds JSoc, which uses the building for club meetings, said in a statement also signed by the Union of Jewish Students, an advocacy group. “It is shocking and outrageous that those who hate us would stoop to this level.”
The groups noted that a University of Leeds professor may be responsible for leading anti-Zionist to the building, alleging that he shared its address “for the sole purpose of intimidating Jewish students on campus.”
“We are working with CST and the police to ensure that those who committed this crime get the consequences they deserve,” the group added.
Anti-Zionists extremists struck elsewhere on Thursday, storming University of Birmingham with socialists and other far-left groups while holding signs that said, “Zionists off our campus” and “75 years of illegal occupation!” Many concealed their faces, covering them with keffiyeh.
“Jewish students are feeling less and less safe at university because of these vile antisemitic acts,” National Jewish Assembly (NJA), a Jewish civil rights nonprofit, said in a statement about the incidents. “It’s time we say enough. Jewish students deserve and must feel safe on campus.”
Thursday’s incidents followed a set-back for the academic Jewish community. Earlier this week, it was announced that a UK government agency which arbitrates disputes over employment law ruled that University of Bristol lacked standing to fire sociologist David Miller, an extreme anti-Zionist who was accused of harassing Jewish students and promoting antisemitic tropes, and said his “anti-Zionist beliefs qualified as a philosophical belief and as a protected characteristic.”
Pervasive antisemitism and anti-Zionism at UK universities is forcing members of the Jewish academic community to conceal their identities on campus, according to a June 2023 report issued by the Parliamentary Task Force on Antisemitism in Higher Education, a committee of lawmakers and established by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2022 in response to complaints of anti-Jewish racism and discrimination.
“We were told it was commonplace for Jewish students to choose not to wear certain clothing or jewelry around campus because it would make them visibly identifiable as Jewish,” the Task Force wrote in the report, titled Understanding Jewish Experience in Higher Education, noting that academic staff “also raised important comparable concerns about negativity surrounding their Jewish identity.”
The Task Force recommended that all universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which, it said, has not, contrary to the claims of its many opponents, diminished free speech and academic freedom.
Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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US House Committee Threatens Harvard University With Subpoena for Antisemitism Documents
Harvard University on Wednesday was given a “final warning” to fully cooperate with the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s investigation of antisemitism on its campus.
In January, Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) gave the school, which spent the fall semester under fire for allegedly ignoring rampant antisemitic harassment and intimidation, two weeks to deliver documents relevant to the committee’s investigation. Harvard never did, and now Rep. Foxx is threatening to subpoena the material she requested.
“The committee has sought to obtain information regarding Harvard’s response to the numerous incidents of antisemitism on its campus and steps taken to protect Jewish students, faculty and staff,” Foxx wrote in a letter to Harvard University interim president Alan Garber and Harvard Corporation senior fellow Penny Pritzker.
“Harvard’s responses have been grossly insufficient,” she continued. “If Harvard continues to fail to comply with the committee’s requests in a timely manner, the committee will proceed with compulsory process.”
Foxx has requested a trove of documents, including “all reports of antisemitic acts or incidents” and “related communications” going back to 2021 that were sent to Harvard’s offices of the president, general counsel, dean of students, police department, human resources, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, among others. She also requested documentation on Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz, who, the school determined during an investigation, “denigrated” several students for being “Israeli Jews.” Originally, Foxx gave Harvard a deadline of Jan. 23 by which to comply.
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is also investigating other top universities, including the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to determine whether administrators at those schools ignored antisemitic discrimination. The probes were announced after the committee grilled the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT about their plans to respond to rising anti-Jewish hate in their communities. During the hearing, Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of Penn — both of whom have since resigned from their positions — as well as Sally Kornbluth of MIT largely evaded lawmakers’ questions, infamously equivocating on whether calling for the genocide of Jews contravenes school rules.
For Harvard, America’s oldest institution of higher education and arguably its most prestigious, the presence of radical anti-Zionists on campus has been a persistent issue. At the start of this academic year, a student and anti-Israel activist interrupted a convocation ceremony held by the school, shouting at Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana, “Here’s the real truth — Harvard supports, upholds, and invests in Israeli apartheid, and the oppression of Palestinians!”
However, the broader public largely did not take notice until Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre in Israel. As scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies circulated worldwide, 31 student groups at Harvard issued a statement blaming Israel for the attack and accusing the Jewish state of operating an “open air prison” in Gaza, despite that the Israeli military withdrew from the territory in 2005.
For her part, Gay waited several days to condemn the Hamas atrocities, and when she did, her statement said nothing about antisemitism. When she resigned at the beginning of the new year, she accused her critics of racism.
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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