Some mystics say that the souls of all Jews were at Sinai; the Torah text itself implies that, as we will read a few weeks from now, on Shabbat Netzavim.
That includes Jews by choice, those mystics say; people who chose to convert to Judaism are answering the call they hear within themselves, pulling them to become the people they were meant to be.
That was true for Aaron Jordan of Englewood, but it wasn’t his only truth. He was in love with Judaism, because his soul, his heart, and his brain all pulled him to it; he also was in love with Talia Mizikovsky, and she was Jewish. (She’s also the director of four campus Hillels for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.)
Everything moved him in the same direction.
This is the story of how Aaron Jordan formally became an Orthodox Jew.
Aaron — now he’s a dentist, Dr. Jordan, but back then he was just Aaron — is a twin, born in 1993. He and his brother, Jonathan, grew up in Harlem; their mother, Claudette, was a social worker and their father, Gerald, worked for Verizon. The family is Black. The twins’ parents value education; the boys went to middle school at the Salk School of Science downtown and then both tested into the Beacon School for high school. Beacon is prestigious and hard to get into, and it offers a progressive education. “It had an integrative educational approach; you had to make a thesis and defend it,” Dr. Jordan said.
From there, they went on to college. The twins did not want to go to the same college, but they managed to find remarkably similar ones; Aaron went to Williams and Jonathan went to Amherst.
But back up to their religious education.
The father was Roman Catholic and their mother was Methodist. Their mother was not a churchgoer but their father was, so until he was about 12, Aaron went to church with his father. “And then I thought that this was not for me,” Dr. Jordon said. “The communion, the transubstantiation, the concept of sin and hell,” and the idea that people who had not accepted Jesus could not get to heaven, no matter how good they were — it all bothered him.
In an odd but real way, however, Aaron was watching all this as an outsider. Because his parents did not agree on how they should be baptized, the twins remained unbaptized. That meant that they could not take communion; it might not have looked as odd to him had he been able to experience it himself.
Still, he always believed in God. “But organized religion just didn’t do it for me.
“But I would say that I had a personal relationship with God,” he continued. “I would talk with him. I would ask for help, for guidance, for strength.”
Dr. Jordan’s first exposure to Judaism was a good one. His parents enrolled him at Camp Yomi, the 92nd Street Y program that takes children to the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in Orangeburg. (Or at least they took them, every summer but this surpassingly odd one.) “We would have challah and grape juice, and I was like ‘What’s going on here?’ but I loved it. And we’d sing the songs — ‘Shabbat shalom! Hey!’ My brother and I were the only Black kids there, and at first it felt weird, but I loved the challah and the grape juice and all of it.
“I remember being whisked away to this magic place of greenery.”
Later, in high school, the Jordan twins would spend their summers, again at their mother’s urging, at the Summer Legal Institute, a program run by a group called Just the Beginning, which helps minority kids find their way to law school. It didn’t take for either of them — Jonathan works in finance — but it helped Aaron feel comfortable with public speaking, a skill he’d use later.
When he got to Williams, Aaron met Talia. She was a junior, “and it took some time to get her attention,” he said. But “I got to know her as a person” — their connection was not at all romantic at first — “and she is wonderful. Not only is she beautiful, she is brilliant.” Talia also is deeply Jewish, to-her-core Jewish, so “over the course of our friendship, and I got to know her and she got to know me,” they talked about Judaism. “We would talk, and eventually it got to the point where I would go to her Shabbat dinner at the Jewish student union, and we would talk about it.
“I would ask her questions. There was an eruv, so she would carry her key on Shabbat, and I asked her what’s with the key and can’t she use the keypad. She would walk around in a skirt all the time, and I would ask her why.
“She was unapologetic, and she didn’t paint an unrealistic picture. She revealed to me the best-kept secret of the world — that Judaism is a wonderful religion, and that mother Orthodoxy does a wonderful job of connecting us to God.
“I had studied a little about comparative religion, I had read some Nietzsche and some Kant, and we talked about it. I asked why Judaism is different. What is at its core? Are we all going to hell if we’re not Jewish? Why would God be interested in us? God is almighty, and we are only human, so why would God care if not for the heaven-and-hell relationship?
“And Talia presented what I now know to be true — Jewish people have a connection to God. We all have a connection to God. We are all created in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to look at the world with that understanding.
“We are created to look at life as a gift, and we have the responsibility to truly fix the world. That’s classic tikkun olam, but we actually have the responsibility to analyze our behavior and ask ourselves ‘What am I doing to help my fellow man?’
“This was an ongoing conversation that we had. I’d ask, ‘Okay, why are you lighting Shabbat candles?’ and that would lead to a discussion of time itself, of six days of work and one of rest. I’d ask how not using electricity helps that.
“I didn’t take all of this sitting down. She would bring something up and I would say ‘How about this?’ and ‘How about that?’
“And it got to the point where she finally said, ‘Aaron, I really think that Judaism is for you, and that you should read Tanach,’ and I said ‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’”
He’d gone to church where the Bible would be read, but “in my experience — and I know that this is only my experience — the pastor knew the Bible, but the congregation is just supposed to listen and accept his word for it. I know that rabbis also give shiurim and sermons, but I also know that the Torah is given to everyone, and that as Jews we read the Torah weekly, if not daily, if not constantly. It’s not just for the rabbis or the chachamim,” the wise men. “It’s for lay Jews. It’s for everyone.
“This was a welcome change.”
As the relationship between Aaron and Talia grew, “Talia made clear to me that she liked me, but she also was saying ‘I don’t want you to convert for me,’” Dr. Jordan said. “But I felt that falling in love with Talia was falling in love with Judaism. She embodied it. When you are a religious Jew, you don’t leave it at shul. It is embodied in your actions, in how you speak to people, in how you relate to the world. So I was falling in love with both Talia and Judaism. It was one and the same. One wouldn’t have made any sense to me without the other. It didn’t make any sense for me not to become Jewish. So it was — let’s get on with it. There’s been enough talk. Let’s put it into action.”
There is the concept of the pintele Yid — the tiny spark of Jewishness that nestles in the heart or soul of someone with even the tiniest fraction of connection to the Jewish people. Dr. Jordan tested his genetic makeup with 23 and Me, and “I have two percent Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, so I guess that somewhere someone was Jewish, way back,” he said. “And Hashem sent Talia to me to bring me back to Judaism.”
Soon, Talia introduced Aaron to her mother, Esther Chalom; before that, he had been learning about halachic Judaism, but at the family’s Shabbat dinner, he learned about community. “Talia came from somewhere, and when I met Esther I saw where she came from,” he said. “She is amazing. She has such an open heart. She made the Shabbat experience real. It was a perfect model for me; it showed me how hashkafa and halacha” — Jewish worldview and Jewish law — “are intermixed. The ultimate challenge for modern Orthodox Jews is to observe the halacha and also the middot.” The values. “Not just putting on tefillin but how you conduct yourself.
“I would look at Esther and say ‘This is amazing. I want to refine my character, to refine my experience with God, to refine myself, to learn about being a human being.”
When he began dental school, Dr. Jordan also began the conversion process. “It was in 2015, when I met Rabbi Joe Wolfson, and I started the process that would change my life,” he said. It took two years, and was done under the auspices of the Orthodox Union’s Geirus Protocols and Standards — GPS for short. Those were two extraordinarily intense years — the study was nearly full time, and dental school was more than full time, and that left little time for anything else. And that was a good thing, because Aaron’s relationship with Talia necessarily was on hold.
He completed his conversion in March 2017, and proposed soon afterward. They married in August, and their baby, Levi Azriel, was born a year and a quarter ago. He’s finishing his dental residency; for now the family is living with Talia’s mother in Englewood, they all belong to Congregation Ahavath Torah there, and the future is open to them. “I’ll work as an associate somewhere in New York and then get a license in New Jersey,” he said. “And pay off my loans and start to save for yeshiva day school tuition…”
Dr. Jordan is deeply immersed in the modern Orthodox world, but he also lives very much in the larger world, and he is very aware of being a Black man. He’s led public conversations about the murder of George Floyd with Ahavath Torah, with NYU Hillel, and with some of Ms. Mizikovsky’s Hillels. “I’ve talked about my background, about systemic racism, about a Jewish-Black perspective, and about the relationship between the larger Jewish community, Jews of color, and people of color.
“I speak as both a Jew and a person of color; I talk about what I think the Jewish community can do to ally itself better with racial justice.”
As a Black man, he’s had mixed feelings as a result of Mr. Floyd’s murder, he said; “it has been another statistic” in the long, terrible list of those dispassionate statistics, but it’s also “highlighted systemic racism, and people are asking what they can do.
“At least it is the start of a turning point,” he said. “It remains to be seen if people will be apathetic or if we can have a dialogue. There are ways that we can brainstorm. The role of the Jewish community and organizations like Black Lives Matter — how can we make heads or tails of it? How can we bring systemic racism to an end? How can we make a more righteous society?
“I know that Black Lives Matter has some anti-Semitic and anti-Israel associations, and it is appropriate to condemn that. It has no place. But Black Lives Matter has illuminated issues like systemic racism and the birth-to-prison pipeline, socio-economic discrimination and segregation. We shouldn’t defund the police, but we have to have careful talks, real discussion about microaggressions and inherent biases.
“Everyone is on edge now, because racial justice has become politicized.”
Jewish communities have invited him to speak because they are interested in his perspective, Dr. Jordan said. There are small things that they could do; for example, Jewish geography. “I’m often asked questions in an attempt to get at my Jewish status, and it is often to ferret out my conversion status, because I am a Black man with a kippah,” he said. “It is inappropriate. It is not appropriate to make someone who does not have the same background feel estranged. We have an obligation to make everyone feel comfortable.
“We should not abolish Jewish geography. It is comforting. But we need mindfulness in how we approach people. And this is not new. This is what the Torah talks about. Be careful about how you talk to people. The rabbis talk about that. This is not to put a practice down, but to see how we can tweak it to approach other people in a way that is respectful and does not cause them to be alienated.
“We Jews are a small minority. We have to make sure that people feel included in the community.”
He and Ms. Mizikovsky are true partners, Dr. Jordan said. “She is a strong proponent of racial justice, and she embodies what Judaism says. Tikkun olam is saying that we have a problem, and we have an obligation to fix it.
“We have a responsibility to be a light among the nations. That is why Judaism is so amazing. The best way for us as a Jewish community to go forward is to embrace these Jewish issues, and not shy away from difficult talks. It’s hard — but I think that Judaism is hard but also it is enriching.
“The Torah is with us. It is not in the shamayim” — the heavens — “anymore. We have it. It is hard. Hashem also said that the Torah is not so far away. It is always within our grasp.
“That is what guided me through dental school and conversion at the same time. It was insane, but God wanted this for me, and he will help me pull through. And God has given me Talia and enriched me, and as I stepped toward God, God stepped toward me. And thank God.
“If not for God’s grace, where would I be? I have truly been blessed.”