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A member of the Malagasy community in the conversion process.

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Nelly Rachel Rabinowitz is a physician associate, doula, childbirth educator, and mother of five. Born in Morocco and raised in France, she now lives in Seattle with her husband.

My brother, a rabbi, invited me to Madagascar. He was going to do about 40 conversions for the Jewish community there with the organization Kulanu. He asked me to come because I spoke French, and they needed translation.

I wasn’t too convinced about the conversion, for sure. I trusted my brother, but I needed to ask myself a very deep question about conversion. I had to talk to the bet din (religious court) and say, “Hey look, what are we doing, why are we doing this?” I’ve never been in a position where I went in for massive conversion. Spiritually, I had a problem going and following a group of people who were doing conversions. My brother felt more comfortable; he understood what the halacha (law) was all about. Once we understood why we were going, I said, “OK, let me go, and let me experience what I don’t know yet. Who are those people?”

I had never been to Madagascar. I had no expectation at all about what it really meant. Not to have an expectation allowed me to experience different aspects of the life the people have in Madagascar.

As we drove away from the airport, I was struck by the poverty, which was indescribable. When I say indescribable, I don’t think I could really give you words. First of all, the pollution. Intense pollution and massive coughing. Among this sea of cars, you see mothers begging with babies on their back. You see people with no shoes. You move through a sea of poverty. Going outside of the town, it gets poorer and poorer with no roads and mud and huts and rice paddies and animals, but the countryside is stunning. The poverty changes, but it’s not modern. There’s no health care. There’s no health insurance or dental care or eye care, so you see people working without teeth. I thought, “Where am I? Who are the Jews? Who are the people who want to go through this conversion?”

That was my very first impression. The poverty. This sea of people. The river, which is blacker than black. There are people living next to each other, and garbage piled up. There are no boundaries. They live on the street, more on the street than in homes. I realized, I’m not in a third-world country. I’m in a fourth-world country. I wondered, are the Jews who want to convert this poor, and what does this mean spiritually?

Then we met the people going through the conversion. The ages went from 7 to 90 years old. You could see that they put on their best suits to meet us. There was such a grace. There was a quietness that came with it. A patience. The next thing I knew, they were asking me, “When will the conversion start?” They could not wait another minute. They already had mastered Hebrew, tefillah (prayer), they were studying with rabbis. There were two leaders, and one was clearly Hasidic. He had payot and tzizit and he was ready to convert. Time warped in front of me. Most women covered their heads, the men and boys wore kippot.

I found myself, in a way, starting to feel this sense of liberation. I knew I was doing the right thing, at the right place, witnessing a moment in time. Maybe, in ancient days, Jews had done the same thing over and over and over again. To learn that they had studied on their own, that they had formed communities, that they were kosher and Shabbat observant, again I felt another wave of awe. For every layer that I encountered their love for Judaism, I renewed my love for Judaism. That was the biggest impact.

When they had the conversion application done, they went through the process of talking to the bet din. We were going to do 40 people, but 120 people showed up — 120 applicants. I would just facilitate people going into the room and watch them come right out, almost like rebirth. I think I cried so many times, watching them, like ah, it happened, I am Jewish. I kept thinking, “I take Judaism for granted.” I was a Jew and I lived my life. You want to grow spiritually, but when you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew. This birth was like, I’m recognized, now I can live a Jewish life. I’m not split.

Some of them didn’t make it. They came out crying. The pain they had in their face said, I’m a Jewish soul, I know I’m a Jewish soul, this is very important for me. I had to take them back to the bet din, and they said, “Your reasons for converting need more thought. You have another year to work.”

When you go to a place like this, you don’t leave and say arrivederci and get on a plane and say, “I’ll send you some books.” You need to find a way to continue their learning. We sent two people to do shechita (slaughter) and brit milah (circumcision). We had a commitment in making a complete community, and we found a donor to help us build a mikveh and synagogue. I asked them, “Do you want to go to Israel?” They said, “No, we want to build a community in Madagascar. We want to develop their Judaism from the inside out.” The Malagasy came in and said, “Hey, we are Jewish. This is not just a conversion. This is not missionary work. We were Jewish. And if you didn’t do that, we would have lived a Jewish life anyway.”

When I came home, I opened my eyes, and it was almost a different lens. Everything was in excess. I took all my clothes and gave them away. I felt like I was living with too much, and not with a lot of spirituality around me. And they lived with more spirituality and fewer things. I feel like I would like to be a consumer of spirituality rather than a consumer of goods. I’d like to go back and use my skills in medicine. At this point, I’m establishing a Sunday school and sending material and finding people. It’s a process, and I know it doesn’t end. It doesn’t end. This is the commitment that I made, but when I made my commitment to the community, I renewed my commitment as an observant Jew. 

How to Learn More About Emergent Jewish Communities

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A Malagasy man undergoes conversion by dunking in the river.

Kulanu is an organization dedicated to working with Jewish communities around the world, many of which claim to be descended from lost tribes and are actively learning about and practicing traditional Jewish ways of life. Visit Kulano.org for details on each of these opportunities.

Volunteer Many communities are looking for help with Jewish learning, Hebrew and English language study, or professional skills.

Visit Connect with Kulanu if you’re going to be traveling near certain communities.

Learn Kulanu runs speaking tours and can help arrange to bring representatives of the organization to your organization or home.

Shop Kulanu hosts a small online boutique with items like Ethiopian baskets and Ghanaian challah covers. 

Make it a mitzvah project Kulanu can assist bar and bat mitzvah students with project ideas.

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