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The New Jews of Show Low, Arizona: How a pastor parted with Jesus and led his congregation to Judaism

(JTA) – Richard Cortes can trace his spiritual development to a class field trip at a Florida theme park.

It was 2008 and Cortes was taking classes at a Pentecostal megachurch, on a path toward seminary and eventually leading a congregation, when his group spent the day at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience.

The creation of the park, which has since shuttered, had worried Jewish groups. They were concerned it might be intended as a tool of proselytization because its founder, Marvin Rosenthal, was a Jew who became a pastor, referred to himself as a “Christian Hebrew” and engaged in missionary work.

For Cortes, the park had the opposite effect. He marveled at the imaginative recreations of the biblical world he had been studying, explored the Second Temple-era replica of Jerusalem, and strolled through a scriptorium that displayed Torah scrolls. But when he encountered a park employee playing the character of Aaron, the biblical priest and brother of Moses, and heard the blast of the shofar Aaron carried, something broke open deep inside Cortes. He realized he wanted to experience religion the way Aaron did.

Cortes couldn’t sleep that night, staying up in a fervor of weeping and prayer. His soul had been stirred by the encounter, and the feeling was so intense he would later liken it to being reunited with a long-lost parent. He was also a little embarrassed. Traditional Christianity was now so clearly in his eyes a false religion that he kicked himself for not having realized it sooner.

When the sun came up, he woke up his wife, Alpha, and told her he could no longer return to the church. He was determined to find a synagogue, he told her. A Christian herself, Alpha resisted for months as her husband charted a path toward what is known as Messianic Judaism, a religion rejected by all mainstream Jewish groups that combines the practice of Jewish rituals with the worship of Jesus as the messiah.

But she ultimately came along, and over time, so did more and more people. By last year, Cortes was leading a thriving Messianic community in a remote mountain town in Arizona. Drawing from the area’s heavily Mormon and evangelical population, Cortes’ congregation was seen as a successful outpost in the wider Messianic movement.

Yet an uneasy feeling was gnawing at Cortes. Messianism promised that he would find proof of Jesus’ divinity within Jewish texts, but the harder he looked, the less he could see, leaving him in spiritual crisis. He was confused about how to proceed and terrified about the reaction of his wife and congregants to his internal transformation, but he knew he had to make a change.

Last month, Cortes and 20 of his followers converted to Judaism. Dozens of others in his community are considering doing the same.

Their mass conversion is an event with few precedents in Jewish history and a seemingly unlikely outcome for a group of people who live hours away from any Jewish community. The presence in Phoenix of a rabbi with an open mind and unusual point of view and the shifting of Jewish life online because of the pandemic opened doors that might otherwise have been closed. But it was not only Cortes and his followers undergoing a transformation: The very idea of who is a Jew, and how one becomes Jewish, is changing, too.

Jubal Most, 3, inspects his mother Stefani Most’s new Star of David necklace while his family is prayed over at Congregation Beth Israel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

On the day of their conversion at a synagogue in a suburb of Phoenix last month, Cortes, 53, said he regretted his prior association with the Messianic movement, accusing it not only of inappropriately adopting symbols of Jewish religious observance like the kippah and the shofar but also of masking its tenets in order to proselytize to Jews.

“I never partook in missionary activity but the fact is that I was involved in a movement that did a lot of missionary work,” he said. “I am just completely appalled that I was a part of it.”

Cortes was wearing a dress shirt and slacks and sported a close-cropped beard. His eyes were shielded by athletic sunglasses as he lingered in the synagogue’s sweltering courtyard, awaiting his turn to appear before a Jewish court, immerse in a mikvah or ritual bath, and receive a Hebrew name.

In converting, he hoped to demonstrate the sincerity of his transformation, mark a clean break with past worship and usher in a new and final phase in his dramatic spiritual journey.

“This day is about righting a wrong and holding our hands with our new brothers and sisters,” Cortes said. “We are so excited to be a part of the Jewish community, and to prove ourselves to the Jewish community that we are legitimate.”

The next day, Cortes would attend his first Shabbat dinner as a Jew; the day after that, he’d be called up to the Torah for the first time, at Congregation Or Tzion in Scottsdale, the Conservative synagogue whose rabbi, Andy Green, had convened his conversion court. And then on Sunday Cortes and the other new Jews of Show Low, Arizona, would head home to their mountain town in a remote corner of the state to begin the rest of their lives as a Jewish community.

No Jewish denomination regards the Messianic movement or belief in Jesus as compatible with Judaism. Nevertheless, about 225,000 American adults identify as Messianic Jews, according to data from a 2020 Pew Research Center study. (An additional, unknown number of people belong to the Hebrew Roots movement, a related denomination that also blends Jewish practice with Christian belief but differs on some doctrinal issues.)

Experts say the Messianic movement is growing rapidly in many places in the world, competing, for example, with the evangelical church for lapsed Catholics in Latin America and the Philippines. As it grows, however, the movement is also hemorrhaging adherents who come to experience it as a stepping stone on the way to something else.

Some turn to Noahidism, a pared-down version of Judaism that doesn’t require conversion. A concept that comes from the book of Genesis and is developed through rabbinic discourse in the Talmud about halacha, or Jewish law, Noahidism stems from the story of Noah and teaches that there are seven basic commandments applying to all people, Jewish or not. A contemporary religion based on the seven Noahide commandments is growing rapidly, says Rachel Z. Feldman, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and the author of a forthcoming book offering the first comprehensive academic look at the phenomenon.

“A theological and abstract concept that we’ve been talking about in the halacha for thousands of years is now for the first time in history being transformed into a living faith identity,” said Feldman, who does ethnographic research on Noahide communities and estimates the number of followers in the tens of thousands worldwide.

Feldman said the Show Low group fits within the global trend she’s been examining.

“We’re talking about a massive new movement of the Jewish world that not that many people know about. Entire congregations, like the one in Arizona, are leaving Christianity,” she said.

Or Tzion rabbi Andy Green holds the hand of Jubal Most, 3, and he and his family and fellow congregants look on as the rabbi explains the Mikveh ritual bath in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

Others who leave the Messianic movement ultimately hope to reach Judaism. But Judaism is not an easy religion to join. Prospective converts must form relationships with rabbis and convince them of their sincerity, which can be difficult in the many places where there are no rabbis, no way to participate in Judaism’s communal practices, and not even any Jews to learn from.

To make matters more challenging, Messianics are deeply distrusted in the Jewish world. They are often seen as agents of a Christian effort to proselytize by masquerading as Jews — an effort that some Messianics embrace. Deceitful tactics by Messianic missionaries since the movement was founded several decades ago, especially the offshoot Jews for Jesus, echo a longer, painful history of forced conversions by the church. Many even consider the movement antisemitic for claiming that rabbinic scholars have intentionally suppressed the truth of Jesus.

But experts also say the Jewish community has become so accustomed to thinking of Messianics as a potential threat that it’s failing to perceive an important new phenomenon: Although covert Messianic missionaries do continue to exist, many more from the movement seem to be abandoning Jesus with a genuine hope to engage with Jews.

“It is quite possible that there is no group today more responsible for conversion to Judaism than Jews for Jesus, than the Messianic movement,” said Tovia Singer, an Orthodox rabbi who heads Outreach Judaism, a counter-missionary organization that serves as one of the first ports of call for questioning and lapsed Messianics.

“Richard’s case seems like a very rare story, but there are many people like him,” said Pinchas Taylor, a rabbi trained by the Hasidic Chabad movement who heads American Faith Coalition, a group catering to spiritual seekers of all backgrounds. He said he’s encountered thousands of people who have left Christianity and become interested in learning Jewish wisdom, even if they are not always able or seeking to convert.

“It’s sort of ironic, right? This movement that was supposed to be so feared, you could say is the greatest producer of new converts, probably in the world today,” Taylor said.

Cortes was born in New York City in 1971 and lived happily among Jews in Brooklyn and the Bronx until his family moved him to Puerto Rico when he was a young teen. He attended a Pentecostal church in his youth and became irreligious as an adult only to be drawn back in, leading him in his late thirties to take preparatory classes to join a seminary program at Victory Church in Lakeland, Florida. He left the church following his epiphany at the Holy Land Experience theme park and connected with a Messianic synagogue near his home in the Orlando area.

Richard immersed himself in Jewish texts, reading the weekly Torah portion and studying Jewish sages from Rashi to the Rambam. Hoping to delve deeper, he began to learn Hebrew. He eventually became ordained as a Messianic pastor. On a trip to Israel, he visited the Western Wall and, surrounded by Jewish worshippers, he prayed about bridging the gap between his Messianic community and the Jewish world. “I prayed, asking, ‘Why can’t the Jewish people just receive us?’ We love the Torah. We’re not the church,” Cortes recalled.

About a decade ago, Cortes and his wife Alpha left Florida and moved to Show Low in search of a fresh start and a flock with which to share their creed. The town is known for its unusual name and as a summer destination for people fleeing the Sonoran Desert heat. (Show Low is named, according to legend, after a fateful game of cards in the Old West, which ended when one rancher beat another by showing a deuce of clubs.)

As he ran errands in town, people noticed the tzitzit, fringes of a Jewish prayer shawl, hanging from his clothes and the conversations that followed brought in some of his first congregants. Cortes ministered to them out of a tent located on the rural 10-acre property he had bought.

Richard Cortes cheers after his mikveh at Congregation Beth Israel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

The congregation, which he called Foundation of the Word Outreach Ministries, grew over time, eventually counting about 80 members, with more tuning in remotely. Followers came to witness Cortes teach, as the congregation’s website put it, the “Hebrew roots of the gospel” and help build a “Torah-based homestead community” devoted to the worship of Messiah Yeshua, the Messianic name for Jesus. Though they practiced Jewish customs and rituals and identified as Jews, no stream of Judaism regarded them as such.

Cortes’ congregation was a success story for the Messianic movement. He had come to a small town with no organized Messianic presence and well-established Mormon and evangelical churches and founded a thriving house of worship; usually, Messianic groups were organized as home fellowships and stayed that way if they didn’t fall apart quickly after forming. He was invited to join an online group of fellow Messianic leaders and regularly led workshops on his favorite topics for them.

Even as he preached, however, Cortes began to harbor doubts. “I was finding a lot of discrepancies,” he said. “So I decided to take my time and do an assessment.” He announced to his congregation that he would stop teaching the New Testament as he spent time studying it and focus in the meantime on lessons from Judaism.

The first time Cortes heard the name Tovia Singer, it was uttered in online conversations among leaders of the Messianic movement. They demonized the anti-missionary rabbi and warned that he was leading many of their followers astray. “I was already on the journey of saying goodbye to Yeshua, but of course, I didn’t reveal that yet,” Cortes said.

Singer’s name came up again a little while later. Cortes’ self-study was getting him only so far and he began seeking out a teacher or guide. He began following online content produced by Nissim Black, an African-American rapper and podcaster who has spoken extensively about being raised a Christian and turning to Messianism before converting to Orthodox Judaism. One day, Black’s YouTube talk show publicized a new episode featuring Singer as a guest.

For two days, Cortes couldn’t get himself to hit play. The voices cautioning against Singer kept bouncing around in his head. “I started talking to myself and asking, ‘Why am I so afraid?’” Cortes recalled. He finally decided to watch the video, “and that was the beginning of the end.”


A map showing the location of Show Low, Arizona.

Cortes reached out to Singer and they began studying together, dismantling lessons internalized over the years. Singer had supported many people making a similar transition but this situation stood out to him. For a leader of a congregation to make such a drastic change knowing how it would shake his followers requires “extraordinary heroism,” Singer said.

“Richard was a huge leader in the Messianic movement and he saw through it, that they’re masquerading as a Jewish sect and peddling in theological misdirection,” Singer said.

To Cortes it felt like he had been lied to twice, first by traditional Christianity, and now by Messianism.

“We came out of the church with a big disappointment,” he said. “Hatred for the Jewish people that is really encoded in all the church’s teachings. You come into Messianic Judaism and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this is amazing. More than likely, this is how Yeshua prayed. He prayed like a Jew.’ But then, you say, ‘Wait a minute. There’s still an element that’s the foundation of Christianity.’”

Cortes was terrified to tell Alpha of his change of heart because of how challenging it had been to drag her to Messianism. He put off the conversation for as long as he could.

He asked to talk and began by telling her about how he’d been studying.

“I really think we are on the wrong path,” he said.

She asked him to explain. He gathered his courage and continued.

He told her they had been right to follow the Torah but that they had “missed the mark on the messiah.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “It’s about time,” she said.

He was confused. What’s about time?

She revealed that she had been having the same kind of internal conversion with herself and was waiting for him to catch up. Both of them were deeply relieved at the meeting of their souls.

“I was waiting for him for two years,” Alpha later said.

“My wife and I have always been best friends but this has unified us in such an amazing new way,” Richard said.

Richard and Alpha Cortes, and their son Israel, 11, are prayed over by Or Tzion rabbi Andy Green after their Mikveh at Congregation Beth Israel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

They didn’t yet know quite where they would land religiously once they exited the Messianic movement. From Show Low, with the nearest Jewish presence hours away, Judaism seemed out of reach, but Noahidism was appealing.

They knew they needed to tell the congregation about their transformation and they knew they needed to do so carefully. The emotional turmoil that Cortes unleashed, however, went far beyond his expectations. With his Facebook announcement last December, most of his congregants immediately fell away.

Many of their former friends and followers accused Richard of heresy and betrayal. “How could you turn your back to Jesus?” they asked in agony, Cortes recalled. They said he defrauded the community for having fundraised for a new building under allegedly false pretenses. When word reached the wider Messianic movement, community leaders put out what Cortes calls an “APB,” an alert that he was an apostate to Messianic Judaism.

“And that word went out to all the Messianic synagogues in the United States,” he said. “How I know this is I started getting phone calls from people that I didn’t even know that were asking me, ‘How can you forsake Jesus?’”

Cortes said that in the reaction to his announcement, including a former congregant calling him a “Christ killer,” he recognized a certain strand of hatred in the Messianic movement he hadn’t allowed himself to see before: antisemitism.

While dozens abandoned him, a core group remained, eager to take their Torah journey with Cortes where it would lead. The congregants that would join him on conversion day included Alpha; their 11-year-old son Israel; Richard’s mother, Nellie Vienna; and a longtime family friend named Evelyn Lopez, as well as two other families, the Birds and the Mosts.

The Birds had moved to Show Low from Alaska a few years earlier and quickly discovered the Foundation of the Word. Peter Bird supports his wife Audrey and five children by working as an urban and wildland firefighter. Audrey homeschools the kids. The Most family left Utah and moved to Show Low specifically to join Cortes’ congregation. David Most and his son Joel build custom log homes, and are married to Linda and Stefani, respectively. The Most family includes five children, who were born to Joel’s late former wife, Danielle, and who are also homeschooled.

Left to right, the Bird, Most and Cortes families in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

As a group, they enrolled in an 18-week online class through the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University. Until recently, anyone interested in taking the course, typically a prerequisite for conversion, would have had to do so at the university’s Los Angeles campus or through one of the program’s synagogue partners. But during the pandemic, the program went online.

The Show Low contingent also began reaching out to rabbis online and in the Phoenix area, the closest major Jewish community. Singer would eventually visit the community for a daylong workshop in which he fielded questions and explained how Messianic claims about Jesus’s place in Judaism were deceitful.

Taylor, of the American Faith Coalition, would also pay them a visit and would be deeply impressed with Cortes. “Think of the amount of bravery and sincerity it takes to, as a community leader, admit you are going down a new line, which not only affects you and your family and their decisions, but your entire community,” Taylor said.

Not everyone was as willing to hear the Show Low group out. Orthodox Jews in Phoenix were especially reluctant to accept Cortes’ story, he said, because they had only recently fallen victim to a pair of undercover Christian missionaries who posed as rabbis and performed sacred rites. Cortes said he understood the suspicion: “I might be a threat, I might be a missionary.”

Eventually, Cortes found Rabbi Andy Green, who had taken up the pulpit at Congregation Or Tzion in Scottsdale in 2021. In Green, Cortes found the perfect person to welcome into Judaism a group of people with Messianic backgrounds. The rabbi had had a lifetime of experiences that would prepare him for this moment.

Already as a teenager, Green heard Singer, the counter-missionary rabbi, speak at his Jewish high school in Los Angeles. He also encountered Bentzion Kravitz, a rabbi working against the conversion of Jews to other religions, and in college Green became a volunteer for Kravitz’s group, Jews for Judaism.

“Rabbi Kravitz taught how to be proudly Jewish and not afraid to engage people with a distorted idea of Judaism,” Green said. “I had quality training in being able to understand missionaries and being able to be proud and articulate about my Jewishness even when challenged by missionaries.”

Green even developed a certain empathy for Messianics, as long as they were not proselytizing to Jews. He gave the example of a person from his college’s Hillel Jewish center whom he knew for years before learning of his Messianic belief.

“He was very secretive about his own background because he knew that if he outed himself as believing in Jesus as messiah he would be kind of uninvited and alienated from the Hillel Jewish space. But he never did anything that made us uncomfortable,” Green said. Today, the classmate is a clergy member in the Messianic movement.

Rabbi Andy Green, right, and Andre Ivory, Or Tzion’s educational director, during a recent visit to Foundation of the Word in Show Low, Arizona. (Courtesy of Andy Green)

Green’s first experience with how a welcoming attitude can create a congregant out of a Messianic came a few years ago, before he joined Congregation Or Tzion, while he was serving as an assistant rabbi in the Philadelphia area. A member of a nearby Messianic center began attending events at his synagogue. Some communities might have asked the visitor to leave, but Green’s congregation did not — and she ended up converting to Judaism.

When members of the Show Low group started reaching out, Green knew how to relate to them. Rather than put up defenses, he listened and was stirred by their humility and sincerity.

“When someone comes from that kind of background, that can be an alarming and dangerous thing in the American Jewish psyche,” he said. “But I was less threatened perhaps than a colleague who had never had encounters or experiences with this in the past.”

Cortes and others from Show Low began talking to Green on the phone and via email, sharing their spiritual journeys and asking questions about Judaism and the conversion process. They also began attending Or Tzion’s online Shabbat services weekly on Zoom and made spirited contributions in the chat box. Appreciating their energy, Green gave them shoutouts and began telling his congregants about the Show Low group. The Cortes and Most families each paid a visit to Or Tzion for Shabbat, spending a weekend with the congregation.

In Show Low, Cortes and his community began making changes. Dropping “Outreach Ministries” from its name, Cortes redefined Foundation of the Word as a Jewish learning center. And they would eventually donate to Congregation Or Tzion, becoming members once they were Jewish.

Before the conversions could begin, the men and boys had to arrive a day early for a special ceremony. They were brought into a private room at Green’s synagogue where a congregant who is a physician was waiting. One by one, he drew a drop of blood from their penises in a ritual, known as hatafat dam brit, that symbolizes the covenant of circumcision for converts who are already circumcised. A stained gauze and the doctor’s testimony were submitted as proof to the conversion court, formed by Green, with his synagogue’s cantor, Dannah Rubinstein, and education director, Andre Ivory.

The next day started at 7:30 a.m. with a prayer service, which took place a short drive away from Or Tzion, at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue that houses the only non-Orthodox mikvah, or ritual bath, in the area.

No one could recall a day with more conversions in a single mikvah, not in Phoenix and maybe not anywhere in the United States.

Linda Most hugs her daughter-in-law Stefani Most after her Mikveh at Congregation Beth Israel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

Throughout history, few groups of any kind have converted en masse to Judaism. Some evidence exists for a surge in converts in classical antiquity, but later, with the rise of Christianity and Islam, Jewish proselytizing was largely prohibited for centuries. In the early 2000s, rabbis formally converted hundreds of members of the Abayudaya community in Uganda, but the Abayudaya had already regarded themselves as Jewish for generations. In recent memory, the typical convert has been a single individual marrying into an established Jewish family.

It was the first day of the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, marking the birth of a new moon, and, Green noted, a propitious occasion for new beginnings. As the service went on, he invited two of his congregants to join him on the bimah, or synagogue stage, as he read from a Torah scroll.

“This is the last service where it isn’t your privilege quite yet and that’s exciting,” Green explained to the 21 men, women and children awaiting conversion.

Now came time for the prospective converts to appear before the conversion court and answer a series of questions about their intention and commitment. Only then, if the court was satisfied, would they be permitted to immerse in a ritual bath of living waters and emerge as Jews.

“I have confidence that we would not have reached this moment and that you would not be here if you weren’t going to pass that test. So don’t be scared. It’s not meant to be frightening,” Green said.

His words did little to dispel their sense of anticipation on a day that many described as among the most joyous and important in their lives.

David Most and Joel Most play shofars at Congregation Beth Israel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

For Audrey Bird, the excitement had kept her from sleeping very deeply the night before. The ding of a phone notification that she was usually able to ignore woke her up. Any desire to fall back asleep faded away as soon as she saw it was the result of the DNA test she had taken a few weeks earlier.

A former Seventh-Day Adventist, Bird sensed she might have Jewish ancestry, and the timing of getting the result, just hours before she was set to undergo conversion, seemed almost too improbable to be a coincidence. The mystery of her background, which was impossible to unravel using her family’s few genealogical records, was about to end.

She clicked through and learned that her DNA was 11% Ashkenazi. Elated, she woke up her husband, Peter, and shoved the screen in his face.

“I felt such a strong pull towards Judaism that there had to be Judaism in our background. It’s not a huge percentage, but it shows that somewhere down the line of my family someone stood at the foot of Mount Sinai,” she said, referring to the location of God’s revelation to the Israelites in the Bible.

For Alpha Cortes, who donned a festive pink hat for the occasion, the joy of the day was mixed with a reckoning about a profound change to her relationship with her Catholic mother and siblings. Although her path had taken her from Catholicism, she had always shared a belief in Jesus with them.

“Religion is what has bound my family together so this day feels like entering an abyss,” Cortes said. “I’m mourning the abyss, but not because I have left their religion, because this decision is actually making me very happy. I know I am choosing the truth.”

She was tearing up as she spoke, but where the makeup she normally wore on special occasions would have smeared, her face was bare: Green instructed everyone that no cosmetics, or fabric or jewelry, come between their body and the living waters of the mikvah.

Stefani Most with her sons, Jubal, 3, and Joel Israel, 7, center, and daughters Merily, 13, and Fiona, 10, as they await their turn in the mikveh at Congregation Beth Israelin Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

Each member of the Show Low group went through the traditional steps of a conversion: an interview with a court of Jewish law, a complete immersion in the ritual bath, blessings and the bestowal of a Hebrew name. Alpha became Malka Rena; Richard, Akiva.

Then, at a ceremony marking the end of the day, the group added their own flourish to the procession of rituals. Father and son David and Joel Most, sporting long bushy beards, took out the shofars they brought from Show Low on Green’s invitation and lifted them to their lips.

It was their first time blowing the ram’s horn as Jews, but from the quality of the four piercing blasts, which lasted nearly a minute, it was clear the instrument was not new to them.

The shofar is popular among Messianic groups precisely because it’s seen as a potent and authentic Jewish symbol, David Most said. But looking back, he regretted how his relationship with the shofar had developed.

“One of the things that we didn’t know when we were in the Messianic Judaism was that you’re not supposed to play the shofar on Shabbat — and we would open the services with it,” he said.

The conversion of the Show Low group and the unique perspective they bring to Jewish practice is both a cause for celebration and a corrective to narratives of decline that have taken hold in the Jewish community, according to Jeffrey Herbst, president of American Jewish University.

Herbst has been drumming up attention for a concept he refers to as the influx of “distant relatives.” Whether it’s groups like the one in Show Low, individuals who become curious about Jewishness after receiving the results of an ancestry test or people from the former Soviet Union who realize they have significant Jewish heritage that had been suppressed under communism, there are perhaps millions of people with a newfound affinity to Judaism, he said.

In that spirit, last year, AJU’s Miller Intro to Judaism Program started making its online course available in Spanish.

“For the first time since the Second Temple, people are coming to us,” Herbst said. “The Jewish narrative is in part about a beleaguered demography. We’re so small and maybe in some ways we’re shrinking. And I don’t want to trivialize those concerns. But this is another perspective: There are people who want to either join us formally or be related or be supporters and we should embrace that.”

Nellie Viana, who was first to be submerged in the Mikveh celebrates by hugging her son Richard Cortes at Congregation Beth Israel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Aug. 17, 2023. (Caitlin O’Hara)

For whatever changes this trend may bring to Jewishness, Herbst suggests getting over potential discomfort.

“There’s always been more diversity, perhaps, than we’ve accounted for,” he said. “Within the realm of people who are deeply committed, if they bring in somewhat different traditions, I think we should celebrate it.”

Much of the content at Foundation of the Word would be familiar to the average American Jewish synagogue member. The Show Low group studies classic Jewish texts and discusses the weekly Torah portion. They also read prayers from the Conservative prayer book provided by Green and continue to livestream the services he leads. His sermons call to mind the preacher he once was, but also the cadence of Orthodox rabbis who upload their lessons to YouTube.

“They’re adapting a kind of worship that’s more familiar to what they were doing before, but directing it toward the God of Israel and authentic Jewish learning,” Green said. “So instead of starting with the Christian rock songs that I’ve seen when I visited mega-churches, they’re singing Jewish pop and rock songs by artists like Benny Friedman and Mordechai Shapiro, and Nissim Black.”

For Cortes, who is an experienced religious leader but new to Judaism, the current moment is a bit daunting.

“We’re under a different order now. We are no longer pretending to be Jews. Now that we are part of the house, part of the people, we’re trying to figure out where we fit in now that we are in Judaism,” he said. “We’re more cautious in how we do things. We want to line up with traditional Judaism.”

One adjustment is that, in accordance with halacha, they no longer write on Shabbat.

“That was probably the day that we wrote the most because you come and you try to take down good notes about everything that you’ve learned,” he said.

Cortes thought he and others would go back to be with Congregation Or Tzion for Rosh Hashanah, but he decided against doing so for the first holiday after their conversion.

They instead embarked on a full High Holidays program in Show Low, complete with honey cakes. For Sukkot, the plan is to pitch a big Moroccan canvas tent with a roof that allows starlight to shine through and spend the holiday together outdoors. Green and Or Tzion’s educational director, Andre Ivory, hope to visit for a day.

Cortes said there’s also a scheduled visit to the Holocaust museum in Tucson, which should provide one element of a standard education for American Jewish youth.

The plan for giving the children a Jewish education throughout the year is still being formulated, but the parents have already begun integrating materials provided by Ivory into their homeschooling curriculum.

One source in the Talmud outlines the Jewish infrastructure that must be established before a community is suitable for a Torah scholar to take up residence: a synagogue, a mikvah, a charity fund, a school, a kosher butcher and more. Show Low has none of that. But their creation seems a lot less implausible today than it might have before.

Show Low is a small but growing community with a hospital, a regional airport and the most robust water resources in a parched state. Locals hope that with an influx of visitors coming for summer and winter outdoor recreation, the town can become another Flagstaff. People from Phoenix decamp for Show Low when it’s too hot, swelling the town’s summertime population. Show Low has also captured some of the remote work crowd and is poised for more.

It’s still remote enough that the Hasidic outreach group Chabad, known for its outposts serving Jews living in or traveling to in far-flung locations, has no local presence. But a small group from Chabad did visit the area a few weeks ago to meet local Jews. They arrived as part of Roving Rabbis, a program for young Chabad rabbis and rabbinical students during summer breaks and Jewish holidays. Their visit to the Show Low area happened before the conversion of Cortes’ group, and it’s unclear whether they would make a stop at Foundation of the Word in the future. As an Orthodox movement, Chabad has a complicated relationship with conversions by Conservative and other non-Orthodox rabbis.

For his part, Cortes says that while he continues to regard Green as a teacher and a leader, he has not committed to an exclusive relationship with Conservative Judaism. He’s already scheduled an introduction with Pinchas Allouche, the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Scottsdale.

Meanwhile, a small group of Jews living in the area showed up at the Foundation of the Word for Shabbat dinner recently after learning about their conversion to Judaism. Afterward, one of them, Jan Perry, wrote about the experience on a Facebook page for local Jews with 30 followers, gushing with praise about the community, service, and food.

Cortes, whose title within his community is now “moreh” or teacher, was elated by the visit.

“It turns out, there are a lot more Jewish people here on the mountain,” he said. “Jan is on a mission to let all of them know about us.”

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This Manhattan restaurant is serving a $95 latke for Hanukkah

(New York Jewish Week) — With movie tickets that cost $30 and apartments that can reach staggering, nine-digit figures, New York City is notoriously expensive. And yet, one restaurant’s new luxury latke is still pricey enough to make jaws drop.

For Hanukkah this year, Caviar Russe, an upscale seafood restaurant in Midtown, is serving an oversized latke topped with caviar, priced at a cool $95. 

The restaurant’s executive chef Edgar “Teddy” Panchernikov told the New York Jewish Week that this is the first time he has created a holiday-specific menu item, Hanukkah or otherwise, calling the pricey potato pancake a “one-off.”

The latke is an amped-up version of the mini potato pancakes the Madison Avenue restaurant serves year-round as one of the accoutrements to their caviar service, with prices that range from $65 for 25 grams of Pacific sturgeon caviar up to $10,445 for 500 grams of Almas osetra, an “exceptionally rare” caviar. 

The restaurant, which opened in 1997, is just one element of Caviar Russe, a caviar business owned by Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union that regularly appears on lists of the best places to buy the fish roe. The company consists of a wholesale and online business, a caviar boutique and two restaurants, one in New York City and the other in Miami. The New York eatery has been awarded a Michelin star every year since 2014. 

The limited-time latke consists of Yukon gold potatoes mixed with salt, pepper and chives — no egg, flour or any kind of filler is used. Chef Panchernikov, the 32-year-old son of Caviar Russe’s founders, then fries it all in clarified butter (no olive oil for these babies!). The crispy plate-sized potato pancake is then topped with creme fraiche, a creamy “egg jam” made by cooking the yolks in a sous vide bath, and one ounce of osetra caviar — which typically retails for about $100 an ounce at Caviar Russe and is one of their most popular varieties, according to a publicist for the restaurant.  

In a video shared with the New York Jewish Week of Panchernikov making the latke, he slices it into quarters — so, rest assured, the treat is designed to be shared. However, the latke needs to be ordered 24 hours in advance; interested customers should email

The idea for the luxury latke came from marketing consultant Elana Levin, who was hired by the Caviar Russe team three months ago. “I thought it would be a nice way to tap into his heritage with a potato latke to celebrate Hanukkah at the restaurant,” Levin said of Panchernikov. “He was immediately open to it — he was excited to get creative in the kitchen and to do something that represents their culture and heritage and have a way to celebrate with his guests.”

“The presentation and how he built the latke was the chef’s idea,” she added.

As it happens, the luxury latke isn’t the only Jewish happening at Caviar Russe: “My Unorthodox Life” stars and internet influencers Julia Haart and her daughter, Batsheva, are holding a fundraiser, “Caviar for a Cause,” at the Manhattan restaurant’s bar and lounge. Tickets to the afternoon event on Sunday — which are nearly sold out — are $300, with all proceeds going to Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross. 

The owners of the restaurant are donating the food – passed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres – and the space. And although Panchernikov describes his family as “not very religious,” he told the New York Jewish Week that he felt compelled to show his support. “Given the recent events, we want to support other Jews and Israel,” he said.

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The most Jewish moments from Barbra Streisand’s memoir

(JTA) — Throughout Hollywood history, many stars of Jewish ancestry have soft-pedaled that heritage, changing their names or speaking rarely, if at all, about their Jewishness.

No one can accuse Barbra Streisand of either.

The singer and actress of the stage and screen — one of the most beloved Jewish American icons of the past half-century — published her long-awaited memoir, “My Name is Barbra,” earlier this month. Throughout, Streisand references her Jewish background constantly, often peppering in Yiddish words and callbacks to her Brooklyn Jewish upbringing.

Here are the Jewish highlights from “My Name is Barbra.”

Brooklyn days 

Streisand was born in Brooklyn, in April 1942. In the book, she writes of her grandfather taking her to an Orthodox synagogue and of attending a yeshiva when she was young — an experience that later prepared her for her movie “Yentl.”

Streisand’s father died when she was 15 months old. She first lived with her grandparents, on Pulaski Street in Williamsburg. When she was eight, her mother remarried and they moved to a different part of Brooklyn.

“We pulled up to a tall brick building (one of many that all looked alike) on Newkirk Avenue in Flatbush, part of a big public housing project called the Vanderveer Estates (a very fancy name for a not-so-fancy place),” she writes in the book. “I remember being very impressed that there was an elevator. I thought we were rich now.”

Broadway bound 

The very first Broadway show Streisand ever attended, at age 14, was a 1950s staging of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and it activated ambitions to one day star on Broadway herself.

“I was mesmerized by the play,” she writes. “Anne is fourteen, I’m fourteen. She’s Jewish, I’m Jewish. Why couldn’t I play the part?” In an early theater role, she appeared in the same cast as legendary Jewish comedian Joan Rivers, then still going by her given name Joan Molinsky.

Later, Streisand’s first big Broadway part was in the musical “I Can Get It For You Wholesale,” in which she played a Jewish secretary named Yetta Tessie Marmelstein. While working on that show, she met Elliott Gould, the Jewish actor who would become her first husband and the father of her son Jason.

Streisand shown with her then-husband Elliott Gould, March 17, 1966. (Harry Dempster/Express/Getty Images)

Described by the author as “two Jewish oddballs who found each other,” Gould and Streisand married and divorced entirely prior to their respective movie star heydays in the 1970s.

Jewish food 

Streisand writes repeatedly about her love of food — from complaining about the subpar offerings at a Jewish camp she attended in the Catskills at age 8 to her inability to find New York-quality food while traveling overseas. She also discusses her habit of bringing food with her everywhere.

“Maybe it’s part a collective unconscious of European Jews, because what if a pogrom came and you had to get across the border fast?” she writes. “You have to have a little something to eat until you get to the next country.”

Later, she gushes about knishes from Yonah Schimmel’s on Houston Street in New York.

Jewish collaborators 

Streisand worked with many Jewish songwriters, directors, and arrangers during her Broadway days, including Jerome Robbins, Marvin Hamlisch and Jule Styne. “My Name is Barbara,” the song that provides the book its title (albeit with a slightly different spelling), was written by Leonard Bernstein, and she took it up after discovering a book of sheet music of Bernstein’s compositions.

“Can you believe it? I was amazed that such a thing existed,” Streisand writes of finding the song. “Now that’s bashert,” she added, using the Yiddish word for “meant to be.”

“Funny Girl,” on stage and screen 

“Funny Girl,” the 1964 Broadway musical in which Streisand played the Jewish comedian Fanny Brice, made her a household name.

“Obviously, we were both Jewish, born in New York City… she was raised on the Lower East Side… so there would be a similar cadence in our speech,” Streisand writes of playing Brice. “I’d already noticed that if I spoke in the Brooklyn accent I had heard growing up, with that distinctive Jewish delivery, people would often laugh… we both had Jewish mothers who were concerned about food and marrying us off.. not necessarily in that order.”

The Jewish Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, who had been considered to write “Funny Girl” but ultimately didn’t, had insisted that a Jewish performer play Brice. “And if she’s not Jewish — she at least has to have the nose!” Sondheim said at the time, according to Streisand. In 1985, Streisand would lead off her “Broadway Album” with Sondheim’s “Putting It Together” and include several other of his songs.

A troubled production that became a huge hit, the success of “Funny Girl” on Broadway led to a 1968 film adaptation, directed by Jewish filmmaker William Wyler, that won Streisand the Best Actress Oscar. In the film, the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif was cast in the male lead opposite Streisand. In a movie shot not long after the Six-Day War, Streisand writes, “Some people didn’t like the idea of an Arab man romancing a Jewish woman.”

When headlines stated that the reaction to the casting in Sharif’s homeland had been negative, Streisand joked, “‘Egypt angry?’ You should hear what my aunt Anna said.”

In 1973, another hit movie starring the actress, “The Way We Were,” involved a love story set against the backdrop of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, between a “Jewish girl” (Streisand)  and “gentile boy” played by Robert Redford.

A “nice Jewish girl” on the cover of Playboy 

A notable sex symbol throughout the 1970s, Streisand famously appeared on the cover of Playboy in 1977 with the headline “What’s a nice Jewish girl like me doing on the cover of Playboy?” She did not pose nude but did participate in a lengthy interview. The book, for the first time, includes a photograph, from that same shoot but unused, of Barbra in a Playboy bunny costume.

Barbra and Bella 

Streisand has been a supporter and friend of numerous Democratic presidents and other political figures. When she started to get politically active, around 1970, she became a close friend and supporter of Jewish politician Bella Abzug, when she ran for Congress.

“Here we were, two Jewish girls… Bella from the Bronx and Barbra from Brooklyn… who made good!” Streisand writes.

Streisand later discovered that both she and Abzug were included on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

“Yentl” stories 

In 1983, Streisand made her directorial debut with “Yentl,” an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy,” about a girl in 19th-century Poland who disguises herself as a boy to attend a yeshiva.

“I’ve always been proud of my Jewish heritage,” Streisand writes, about her desire to make “Yentl.” “I never attempted to hide it when iI became an actress. It’s essential to who I am… And I wanted to make this movie about a smart Jewish woman who represented so many qualities I admire.”

Her son, Jason, studied for his bar mitzvah around the same time that his mother was preparing to make “Yentl.”

The movie was filmed in what was then Czechoslovakia, beyond the Iron Curtain, at a time when the communist government was cracking down on Jewish worship. But Streisand wore a Jewish star on her cap while in that country — and “wore it defiantly,” she writes.

Streisand also clashed with her co-star, the famed Jewish actor Mandy Patinkin, on the set of “Yentl.” She hadn’t wanted to cast Patinkin, who at that point was much better known as a Broadway actor, and she considered Richard Gere for the role. According to the book, once filming started, Patinkin behaved in a hostile way on the set. When Streisand asked why, he answered: “I thought we were going to have an affair.”

Amy Irving, Streisand and Mandy Patinkin on the set of “Yentl.” (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

When Streisand replied “I don’t operate that way,” she writes, the actor, then in his late 20s, cried. She threatened to replace him, and they continued to clash after that, but Streisand ultimately praises Patinkin’s work in the film.

Many years later, Streisand writes, Patinkin asked Streisand to write a blurb on one of his albums, and she brought up what had happened on the set. As an explanation for his behavior, Patinkin told her that he was “scared.”

Barbra and Israel 

A premiere was held for “Yentl” in Israel in April of 1984, and on the same visit, Streisand dedicated the Emanuel Streisand School of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, named for her father. On the trip, she met with both the then-current prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and a future prime minister and president, Shimon Peres. Streisand was not daunted by a terrorist shooting that took place in Jerusalem while she was in the country and continued her trip as scheduled.

In 1993, during the negotiations that would lead to the Oslo Accords, Streisand was invited to a luncheon with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, through her close friendship with President Bill Clinton. Streisand was later involved with an effort to make a film about the lives of Rabin and Yassir Arafat, leading up to their handshake at the White House. The project remained alive even after Rabin’s assassination in 1995 but later fell apart due to a financial dispute between the Showtime network and the director.

Streisand returned to Israel in 2013, for her first-ever concert in the country, and also to sing at a 90th birthday celebration for Shimon Peres. On that trip, she drew controversy when she gave a speech about the treatment of women in Israel.

“It’s distressing… to read about women in Israel being forced to sit in the back of the bus… or when we hear about the Women of the Wall having metal chairs hurled at them while they attempt to peacefully and legally pray,” she said in a speech while receiving an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University.

Obama’s Jewish joke

In 2015, Streisand received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with fellow honorees Sondheim and Steven Spielberg. “Born in Brooklyn to a middle-class Jewish family,” President Barack Obama joked in his introduction speech. “I didn’t know you were Jewish, Barbra.”

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There’s a new Jewish Caucus in Congress. Its mission is still unclear.

WASHINGTON (JTA) — More than a dozen Jewish members of Congress gathered on Friday for the first meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives Jewish Caucus.

But following the meeting, held in the offices of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, an influential Jewish Democrat from Florida, it remains unclear what the caucus will stand for as the chamber’s Jews are deeply divided over the Israel-Hamas war and other issues. A statement from Wasserman Schultz’s office suggested the caucus was still finding its feet.

“We had a very-well attended, constructive meeting focused on how we can work together and develop our broader mission,” the statement said. “We did a lot of listening and considering one another’s opinions and thoughts. We left looking forward to continuing to engage in these discussions with our colleagues so that we can come together in consensus on how a secular Jewish Caucus can be most effective.”

The House has 26 Jewish lawmakers, all but two of them Democrats, and it is unclear which attended the meeting and whether either of the Republicans made it — especially because six congresspeople who RSVPed canceled at the last minute due to illness or sudden conflicts. Ohio Republican Max Miller had said he would attend, but he did not confirm whether he was there. Nor did Tennessee Republican David Kustoff.

Wasserman Schultz is alarmed at the spike in antisemitic attacks and rhetoric in the United States since Hamas terrorists massacred 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7, launching the current war in Israel and Gaza. She wants to formalize a united front among Jews in Congress to confront the hatred.

For decades, Jewish members of Congress had been gathering unofficially. Earlier this month, Axios reported that Wasserman Schultz got the go-ahead from House administrators to make the Jewish Caucus official — though it appears that not all Jews in the House believe the caucus should exist.

For the last decade, the unofficial gatherings were helmed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who is the longest-serving Jew in Congress. He told Axios that he would attend Friday’s meeting, but was concerned that the organizers — i.e., Wasserman Schultz — did not consult with all the Jews in the chamber before creating the caucus.

“In the rush to form this new group, by contrast, most Jewish members were left out of the discussion altogether,” he said. He also said the hurt feelings would be a distraction as the caucus seeks unanimity on the Israel-Hamas war.

There are currently official Black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific caucuses in the House, and there are formal Jewish caucuses in state governments; one of the most active is in California. But one issue that may have prevented the formation of a House Jewish Caucus until now is the age-old question of what “Jewish” means.

A concern reported by Axios — which has long been discussed among Jews in the U.S. Capitol — is that some Jewish lawmakers fear setting the precedent of establishing an explicitly religious caucus — especially because Jews tend to cherish the separation of church and state. That may be why Wasserman Schultz’s statement included the word “secular” right before “Jewish Caucus.”

Another fear is that the wide differences among members of a Jewish Caucus would undermine its purported purpose: Jewish unity.

In late October, Nadler wrangled all 24 Jewish Democrats into signing a statement backing the Biden administration’s robust support for Israel in its war against Hamas. Within weeks, that united front was crumbling, as a number of Jewish Democrats joined calls for a ceasefire.

Beyond differences about the war, there are vast differences among Jews in Congress over, well, everything. Wasserman Schultz sought, and got, Miller’s membership in the caucus, making it the only one of the ethnic caucuses to have bipartisan membership. But Miller is among the most enthusiastic endorsers of former President Donald Trump, while the caucus also includes Nadler and Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Dan Goldman of New York and Adam Schiff of California — all of whom played leading roles in one or both impeachments of Trump. Schiff and Trump routinely express the hope that the other is jailed.

Some members, such as Florida Democrat Jared Moskowitz (who hoped to attend but was unable to), see Jews as an ethnic minority subject to persecution.

“At a time when there’s people marching through the streets with signs calling to ‘Gas the Jews,’ it is absolutely critical that Jewish members form a united front against antisemitism and for the safety and security of the Jewish people,” Moskowitz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The sensitivity of the get-together made even the most voluble of lawmakers clam up about it. A number of spokesmen promised to get back to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about whether their bosses were in attendance but never did. A spokeswoman for Vermont’s Becca Balint, a Democrat who joined Congress earlier this year, simply said that she was not in attendance.

Kathy Manning, a North Carolina Democrat, attended the meeting and said it centered on the need to confront antisemitism.

“I’m pleased to join in the founding of the Congressional Jewish Caucus,” she said. “During this time of rising antisemitism, it’s imperative that the Jewish community have its unique experience and perspective represented at the leadership table in Congress.”

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