Can a leopard change his spots? Does he have to?!
About two months ago, I received a phone call at the JCC. I push the button that lights up when my line gets a call: "Melton Mini-School, how may I help you?" And the voice on the other end is not the typical voice that I hear on the other end of a call to the JCC. This young man was calling me from jail with a bible in his hand, reading various passages from the Prophets, especially Jeremiah, Isaiah and Daniel. I can't give a verbatim of our conversation, but in short it contained all of the following information.
1. Dareen had been in jail for a week because of an assault and battery charge. He implied that this was his first offense and would probably be home in a week or so.
2. He had just found out a few weeks before that that his maternal grandfather was Jewish.
3. He knows certain passages of the Hebrew Bible really well, and tends to think of them literally.
4. He is African-American and is considering converting to Judaism.
The question of his that lingers with me every day is based on a passage in Jeremiah where the prophet asks if an Ethiopian can change his skin or a leopard his spots. Dareen asked me if he had to change the color of his skin in order to become Jewish. Saddened and angered I insisted that in no way did anyone need to change their skin color in order to join the Jewish people. Did he know that over 90,000 Ethiopian Jews are living in Israel and Ethiopia today? Did he have any idea that there is no such thing as a Jewish skin tone! The subtle innocent racism struck a chord: he must be only one of many people who still think as all Jewish as a white subgroup tracing back to the ancient middle east. Dareen naive eugenics threw me back to World War II Germany as I considered what kind of a process he was thinking of.
But next is Dareen obsession with acquiring wisdom. Passage after passage about wisdom and fearing God and loving God and on and on. But only a small set of texts. Dareen seemed intent on pursuing wisdom and submitting to God. He was fixated on one passage that talks about eating butter and honey as a way to acquire wisdom. What I heard as allegory and metaphor he saw as a recipe for wisdom.
In the following weeks, Dareen has called me three or four times, still in jail. Our last conversation on Tuesday began right where our last one had left off. Since we had last spoken, I called Jewish Family and Vocational Services to get a handle on how to approach his should he get out of jail and pay me a visit. They gave me some great advice on working with Dareen.
He still wants to convert. So I gave him some homework. I told him that he needs to read more of the Hebrew Bible. I asked Dareen to reread from Genesis through II Kings and to be aware that he descends from the stock of Abraham, that this is his story. And that when he gets out of jail and is in an apartment that he can see himself in for a year or more, he can call me and we can talk about where he might go to work on conversion.
Would any of my colleagues work with him? Will he ever get to this place? Is he serious or stuck in jail with too much time on his hands, trying to figure out what it means to have one Jewish grandparent? I'll let you know later when he calls.