'And Then Mom Said: Don’t Convert, You're Already a Jew, Because I Am a Jew'

The rabbi of the Efrat settlement tells two stories that explain his belief in God.

Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
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Shlomo Riskin.
Shlomo Riskin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

Shlomo Riskin, from Efrat; arriving from New York

Hello, can I ask where you’re coming from?

I’m the rabbi of Efrat and I have many good students, congregational rabbis, who live overseas. Before New York, I was in Australia – in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth ... I lecture on all kinds of things. For example, in Melbourne, I gave a talk at a high school, and one of the students asked me, “Why should we believe in Hashem [God]?”

Why should we?

I told him, “I can’t tell you why you should believe in Hashem, I can only tell you why I believe in Hashem.” And then I told him two stories.

Share them with me, too, please.

I believe because of a snowflake. I had my first religious experience when I was 13, in a biology lab in Brooklyn. We looked at a snowflake through a microscope and I saw how each flake has six corners and all the colors of the rainbow. And each flake is different, each has a different design, and each is great art. I wept. “How manifold are thy works, O Lord.” That’s one story. The other is longer.

Okay, go for it.

When I started living in Efrat [situated south of Jerusalem, in the West Bank] I wasn’t yet the rabbi there – that entailed a voting process – and it wasn’t even certain that Efrat would come into being. I looked for employment, which was hard to find. My wife and the children and I were living in a small apartment. One day the security officer came over and told me, “Rabbi, you’re on guard duty tonight.” I look at him, and I look at the Uzi – an Uzi! I had never so much as killed a mosquito. My wife gives the children a look and whispers to them, “If Daddy has guard duty tonight, maybe we’d be better off spending the night in Jerusalem.”

So did you do guard duty?

Yes. There are woods in Efrat that I would call “Central Park, West Bank.” The guard says to me, “Let’s go to the woods, and you’ll see it’s easy to learn.” And he was right; it’s too easy to learn how to fire an Uzi – that’s the problem. But that night another guard was posted with me, someone originally from Scandinavia. He asks me what I did before immigrating to Israel. I say, with lots of nostalgia, “I was a rabbi in a New York synagogue.” I asked him what he did. “I was a goy,” he replied. “I went to church every Sunday. It’s not clear why, but I felt a very strong connection to Israel. Everything I could find about Judaism interested me. For example, when I did a compulsory year of military service and was asked what type of chaplain I wanted, I chose a rabbi. I wasn’t thinking of converting, I just wanted to learn.

“But after the army I started to work at the United Nations, and then came the Yom Kippur War, and there was a call for volunteers to go to Israel. I worked on a kibbutz, I learned Hebrew, I read a lot about Judaism and I wanted to eat kosher, so I became a vegetarian. And then I also wanted to observe Shabbat. I was told that the kibbutz isn’t religious, but that there was a conversion program in Kfar Etzion [a settlement near Efrat]. But before undertaking conversion, I thought: I am 20, and I have to talk to my parents first. I sent a telegram: ‘Need ticket, critical decision, want to talk to you.’

“When I told my parents that I wanted to convert to Judaism, my mother fainted on the spot. When she recovered, she said, ‘You don’t have to convert. You are a Jew, because I am a Jew. When the Nazis entered the town where I grew up in Poland and rounded up the children, my father, who was the local cantor, shouted ‘Shema Yisrael’ and tried to stop them. They shot him and threw me into a van going to Theresienstadt. I vowed that if I survived, I would not want my children and grandchildren to suffer as I did – because if there had been one Holocaust, there would be a second, too. I took a vow that if I came out of it alive, I would live as a Christian. Only your father knew. But if you want to link your fate to the religion and nationality of my parents and forefathers, God, in whom I cannot believe, will bless you.”

Interesting story.

Hearing that story, I could only think of Deuteronomy 30:4: “Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there he will fetch you.” There is no other nation in the world that was cut off from its homeland for 2,000 years and came through it. Because of him and because of the snow, I believe.

From left, Lidor David, Talia Ben Zikry, Talia Levy, Liron Ben Zikry, Ela Levy, Shelly Weinberg and Shaked David.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Lidor David, 34; Talia Ben Zikry, 13; Talia Levy, 13; Liron Ben Zikry, 14; Ela Levy, 13; Shelly Weinberg, 12; Shaked David, 27; all from Ra’anana, flying to London

Hello, can I ask what kind of group this is?

Shelly: We’re dancers and we’re on the way to a hip-hop competition.

Lidor: We are representing Israel in a contest in Manchester. There will be groups from all parts of London and all over Europe.

Do you stand a chance?

Shelly: We’re going to the competition to win – even though so far we’ve only competed here in Israel.

Lidor: We’ve been preparing these five girls for years. The group gives many performances each year. Last summer we were onstage in L.A. with all the A-list artists, all the big names of hip-hop: the choreographer WilldaBeast, who did the movie “Step Up 6,” and Janelle [Ginestra], who is also amazing.

Don’t know them.

Lidor: This group is our baby. We were with them one time in Thessaloniki, too. As far as we’re concerned, they are earmarked for competitions abroad. We have a hip-hop studio and lots of groups, but this is the one we’ve been cultivating from a very early age, since fourth grade.

Is that when kids start to dance hip-hop?

Lidor: We have children who start in first grade.

Isn’t that early for all the provocative moves of hip-hop?

Lidor: I get asked that quite a bit. I always answer that it depends where you take the question to ...

Where do you take it?

Lidor: When people say “hip-hop,” they don’t necessarily understand what they’re talking about. There are all kinds of styles in hip-hop: popping, locking, vibing, voguing

Just a minute, what is “voguing,” for example?

Lidor: It developed from a clip Madonna did for Vogue, but the origins are actually in prison life. Every style is completely different, and like any genre, it depends where you’re heading for, where you want to get to. We aim for a positive place, to take young people who are stuck in Instagram to a proper place. I think music does good things for many people, dance liberates the soul and hip-hop makes everyone move.

Lidor, how did you get involved with hip-hop?

Lidor: From the neighborhood. No, just kidding. Anyone born in 1982, and even before, will tell you that they grew up on Michael Jackson, and I did, too. The love developed from there. It’s not something I can explain, it’s been part of me from an early age. Since I was little, people who saw me dance said I would make a career of it. And I always knew that I would be involved with hip-hop.

Did you learn it here?

Lidor: I studied hip-hop in New York and L.A., because at the time that’s where the whole industry was concentrated. But today you can learn it in Europe and also here. There’s been great momentum in the hip-hop field over the past decade, but I was one of the first who introduced it into Israel. If you look for Studio Loud on YouTube, you can see a clip of ours that’s had more than five million views.


Lidor: It’s Shaked’s and my choreography for Eva Simons’ “Policeman.”

I take it that it’s not by chance you have the same last name.

Lidor: Yes, Shaked is my wife. I met her through the dancing. It may sound bad, but I was her teacher – though only when she was already an adult. She came to learn hip-hop and we fell in love.

Shelly: Hip-hop gives you energy.

I have no argument with you. How many years have you been dancing?

Shelly: This is my third year in the group. Before that I danced modern ballet and flamenco.

Why did you drop them for hip-hop?

Shelly: I wanted to try something different, and it turned out to be fun. It’s easier to connect when you have a background in dancing, and it’s really enjoyable to dance this style. I also dance hip-hop at class parties.

Friday evening in the salon?

Shelly: Sometimes.

Lidor: Some of the girls are from traditional families. We observe Shabbat in London and eat only kosher. We even brought electric hotplates.

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