When you think of Shavuot, you might be reminded of staying up all night learning or eating cheesecake. A lesser known custom is reading the Book of Ruth. There are many reasons for this custom, the first being that Shavuot is a festival of harvest, and the setting for Ruth is harvest-time. Furthermore, Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David, who is said to have been born and died on Shavuot. But perhaps the most intriguing reason for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot is the similarity between Ruth and the Jewish people: just like Ruth became a Ger Tzedek, a sincere convert, and fully accepted the Torah and all its commandments, so too did the Jewish people accept the Torah and its commandments on Mount Sinai on Shavuot.
Ruth the Moabitess is a primary example of a righteous convert who embraced Judaism despite all the adversity and obstacles that she faced. But the concept of a righteous convert is definitely not an exclusively biblical one. Sincere converts can be in our day and age and even in our own community; Shariff Mordechai Hazan is one such individual.
Hazan, an executive music producer, was born and raised in a traditional African American household in the San Fernando Valley. He was the firstborn of Dwight, an insurance provider, and Angela, a USC professor. His grandparents were Christian preachers who practiced Sufism, a mixture of Kabbalah and Islamic beliefs. Hazan attended Calabasas high school, and with his outgoing personality and his interest in the entertainment industry, he became the talk of the class. “I guess you can say I was the popular guy that everyone wanted to be friends with. I was friends with everyone and socialized with every type of nationality during my high school and college years,” chuckled Hazan reminiscently.
So what was it that intrigued this music producer to convert to Judaism? One day after a business meeting, Hazan met up for coffee with his close friend Marci, a member of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles. Upon leaving the coffee shop, a curious Hazan went with Marci to the Centre, and what he thought would just be a few minutes of checking out the center turned into hours and his “daily agenda.” That same day, Hazan met Yehuda Berg, a mentor at the Centre who assisted him in learning the Bible and the Hebrew language.
Six years later, at a Friday night dinner at the Kabbalah Centre, Hazan — along with other worshippers — headed over to Aish HaTorah, a synagogue on Pico, to listen to a lecture by Rabbi Yitz Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs’ lecture reaffirmed Hazan’s decision of converting and inspired Hazan to further grow his spirituality and connection to Judaism on a more Orthodox level of observance. At Aish, he met Rabbi Menachem Weiss of Nessah Synagogue whose interest in music grabbed Hazan’s attention. After hours of talking, Rabbi Weiss told Hazan about a GoSephardic Shabbaton that was happening at Nessah in Beverly Hills. “It was just a regular Friday night dinner, but this dinner was one of the most powerful and experiential dinners I have ever been to in my entire life. Seeing family and friends gathering around a table on a Friday night eating, laughing and bonding with one another just touched my soul,” said Hazan.
At this point, Hazan still hadn’t fully converted. However, after six years at the Kabbalah Centre, Hazan decided to embark on the conversion process under Orthodox guidance. With the help of Rabbi Weiss, Hazan studied Hebrew while attending morning services and influential lectures to help him grow as a converting Jew. A few months later, Hazan was introduced to Rabbi Hafuta of Dat Torah in Los Angeles. Hazan explained, “Rabbi Hafuta was involved massively with the process of my conversion. He took me to the mikvah (ritual bath) and performed my brit milah (circumcision).” At last, after eight years of commitment and hard work, Shariff Mordechai Hazan’s quest to become a Jew was complete.
As a thirty-two-year-old African American convert, Hazan spoke about his treatment from other Jews. “I always considered myself Jewish before I converted. My friends in high school would call me the ‘Black Jew’ all the time, so I don’t feel out of place. The community is extremely loving and always makes me feel like family.”
Hazan has gotten involved in the Jewish community and is an active member of many organizations, such as Nessah’s LeDor VaDor group. Hazan also preaches and shares his story to many students at private and public high schools in Los Angeles. He shares his thoughts and reasoning behind his conversion at such a young age in his life. “I feel like the tools of Judaism can help me through life and to live the right way. G-d gave the Jews the Torah and took them out of Egypt. I feel like whatever we lack in life is a metaphor to the bondage of Jews in Egypt. Following the rules of the Torah is like getting out of our personal Egypt and obstacles we encounter. Judaism’s ideology guides us on how to connect to love, happiness and whatever our purpose is to grow as a person.”
Hazan reflects further on his beliefs on the way G-d works and communicates with Jews. ”Judaism made me realize that whatever G-d gives you at the time is for your own best, though we may not think so at the moment. Before I converted, I always felt like whatever happened to me had no reason. After converting I felt more spiritual and understood G-d.”
As a board member of LeDor VaDor myself, I closed the interview with my LeDor VaDor brother by asking what advice he has for people who want to convert. “Conversion is the most amazing spiritual journey someone can go on, and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. This was the greatest gift and I want to be there for anyone who has questions or thoughts of converting. It took me eight years to convert, but it was the best decision I made in my life. Judaism isn’t just a religion; it’s the way of life.”