AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Monday, 1 May 2017

MY CHOSEN PEOPLE

Abraham Isaac Carmel was an extraordinary person who touched many thousands of people with the story of his spiritual search. He converted to Judaism in Great Britain, where he had been serving as a Roman Catholic priest, and soon thereafter went on aliyah. After a short time in Israel, he was forced to leave due to illness and came to the United States, where he taught English literature at the Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High SchooL. He died of cancer in 1982, a year after his retirement as a teacher, and was buried in Israel. Abraham Carmel was an intense but private person whose sincerity and strength of commitment could not but impress all with whom he came into contact. He had traveled widely throughout the country, bringing his story to hundreds of communities and campuses. Whenever he spoke, he stressed the importance of strengthening Jewish education.

I like to remember him here, because he was a special person indeed and a great seeker of God. 
The following is an article about Carmel published by Fred Bernstein on people.com of 26 March 1979:

Onetime Catholic Priest Abraham Carmel Celebrates His 25th Year as An Orthodox Jew

'Some people are born musicians,' says Carmel, 'I was a born believer'.

What do you want to be when you grow up? When Kenneth Cox’s English master posed this question more than half a century ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Episcopal schoolboy blurted, “A clergyman.” From then on, he was known as “Parson.”

Nickname notwithstanding, it was as a Catholic priest that Cox joined the clergy. And then, in yet another shift in faith, he became the first fully ordained priest, he claims, to convert to Judaism in more than 900 years. “I never doubted God’s existence,” explains Abraham Carmel (the Jewish name Cox took). “My problem was to find the best way to express it.” Now, at 67, Carmel has just celebrated the “silver jubilee” of his conversion (so, he points out, has Sammy Davis Jr), by tireless lecturing and work on his second book, My Chosen People, which he hopes will spread the word.

But Carmel isn’t really preoccupied with leading Gentiles to Judaism. “Converting Jews to Judaism is my chief concern,” he says. Carmel considers the nation’s college campuses “Jewish graveyards. Unless we reach out to them,” he continues, “we’ll lose more Jews through intermarriage and assimilation than through the Holocaust and all the pogroms put together.” Carmel’s own way of combating this problem has been 16 years of teaching at a Brooklyn yeshiva. Although he once considered studying for the rabbinate, Carmel felt he would have more freedom and influence that way.

Born to wealthy parents who left him an orphan when he was still young, Carmel describes himself as “precociously religious-minded.” A favorite childhood pastime was astounding his elderly guardian by reciting whole chapters of the Bible from memory. At 17 Carmel decided that “all was not well in the Protestant camp” and undertook an exhaustive search of the world’s religions. He settled on Catholicism. “I drank down the whole of the church’s consoling medicine,” he says, “bottle and all.” Ordained in 1943, he served as a World War II British army chaplain. But as the years wore on, Carmel had a second, more dramatic, religious crisis.

“I began to have doubts about the divinity of Christ,” he recalls. “I became convinced that Jesus was never anything but a practicing Jew” and that Christianity was “but an offshoot of that ancient mother faith. Judaism was not, as I had been taught, a has-been religion,” he says. “I came to the new conclusion that it had never really been improved upon.” So, 10 years after he was installed as a priest, Cox converted.

To spare his relatives embarrassment, he adopted a new name. He chose “Abraham, because the first Jew was a convert like me”; his surname came from Mount Carmel in Haifa. He lived in Israel (where he hopes to retire in three or four years) for 16 months. “I completed the circle,” he says proudly. “I returned home.”

His domicile is now a book-jammed hotel suite in Manhattan. Carmel hops the subway by 6 o’clock every morning for the 40-minute trip to the yeshiva. In keeping with orthodox tradition, he does not work, carry money or use gas and electricity on the Sabbath.

A lifelong bachelor, Carmel confesses that there is one more Jewish obligation he’d like to fulfill. Orthodox Jews take the commandment “be fruitful and multiply” literally and seriously. “The ladies in my congregation are working hard to find somebody,” says Carmel, winking. “It’s never too late.”


Carmel's spiritual autobiography is found in his book So Strange My Path. The following excerpts are from My Chosen People, a book he was working on at the time of his death. In it, he shares some of the frustration he felt as a convert, thoughts that he had not shared publicly before.

~ * ~

In July, 1943 I had been ordained Father Kenneth Charles Cox, in St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh Scotland, by the Most Reverend Joseph MacDonald, of the Order of St. Benedict, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Now, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, 1953, I was lying on an operating table in order to join myself through circumcision to the faith and people of Israel.

Thus I became the first fully-ordained priest in almost a thousand years to be received into Orthodox Judaism, I doubt whether any human being since the dawn of recorded history had felt more isolated, vulnerable, or utterly dependent upon the compassion of Almighty God. I was no less alone than the first men on the moon, One or two faithful friends communicated, as best they could, the goodness that was in their hearts, but they could not accompany me through the journey from earth's atmosphere, through spiritual space.

I had dared to cut history short in my own lifetime, and within a lifetime to encompass the whole of Jewish history. A proselyte, if he tries to live up to his calling, will relive within his brief span the
discrimination, hostility and callous cynicism experienced down the ages by those whom he has chosen as his people. Most cruel of all, he will find much of his suffering within that very family from which he had hoped to draw strength and consolation.

Students of Jewish history know very well that Jews are often embarrassed in the company of those who have presumed to claim as a privilege the "burdens" from which they themselves would gladly
flee. If a Gentile marries a Jew, toleration can be granted in the case of those who go through a ceremony of conversion, but why should anyone be so stupid or presumptuous as to seck out Judaism in preference to another faith? This all too common attitude stems from an inferiority complex which many "born" Jews have inherited from centuries of persecution.

It would be sad enough if this complex were limited to the rank and file among the Jewish people, but it is strongest in the Jewish layleadership, or should I say, the great mis-leadership that is only just
beginning to disappear.
[...]

The most unfortunate example of discrimination on the part of the Jewish establishment has been the persistent refusal of the United Jewish Appeal to use me on behalf of Israel. On one occasion, when a
community on Long Island insisted upon using me, I increased the sum from $32,000 to $65,000 over the previous year. So discrimination is not even profitable!

There is an incredible degree of arrogance in the Jewish autocracy and the time has come to challenge it. Many small men occupy very big jobs.
[...]

Most of my allies and truly genuine friends have been rabbis. They seemed to know from the clear message of Jewish tradition how greatly the proselyte needs encouragement if he is to survive, let alone succeed. The very few exceptions among rabbis have been those who were executives, rather than religious leaders or teachers.
[...]

I am particularly grateful for the opportunity of teaching, albeit humanities, to beautiful and gifted children, Perhaps the lay-leaders unintentionally did me a favor by excluding me from communal
affairs!
[...]

Teaching is a rewarding task, but in America a teacher is a long way down the community ladder. He has no prestige or vital influence. American Jews in particular find it difficult to respect a person who
is without financial backing. You are not quite kosher. If I were planning my life again, I would give more attention to material things and, above all, security. Idealism should be linked to a sense of financial adequacy.
[...]

I regret not having settled in Israel in 1960. When I take stock of my life since then, I doubt whether I have really gained anything by not remaining there. It is the proper place for an idealist, and the best of all places for a convert. Had I held on for a few more months, I might have recovered from my illness and continued my happy life. Even today I am constantly preoccupied with thoughts of her welfare and security.
[...]

My discovery of Judaism and my almost superhuman efforts to become one with the Jewish people constitute the only really worthwhile achievement of my life, It is the only area in which I feel no regrets, and if I had a thousand lives to live, I would want to succeed in this one goal at the expense, if necessary, of all others.

______________________

(Source: Excerpts made available by the Yeshivah of Flatbush via the publication TRADITION A Journal of Orthodox Thought 23(2), Winter 1988 ©1985 Yeshivah of Flatbush)

  • On conversion to Judaism see the article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ON CONVERSION.