A new face in Mea She’arim

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - ARRIVALS - • Text and photo: LIANE GRUNBERG

When Mordechai Yosef Ben Avra­ham walks the streets of Mea She’arim, he wears the somber suit of a Has­sid. “Dress­ing the way I did in LA is not where I’m at. My style is re­flec­tive of my en­vi­ron­ment and my path as a ben To­rah [ob­ser­vant Jew]. It’s how I need to ex­press my­self now. It’s a frame of honesty so the clothes I wear re­flect that.” Months away from com­plet­ing the smicha pro­gram at Bnei Brak’s Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim, Ben Avra­ham de­votes him­self to learn­ing To­rah — and de­liv­er­ing talks all around Is­rael about his unbelievab­le con­ver­sion from Is­lam to Or­tho­dox Ju­daism. “If you want to un­der­stand me, you have to know I had par­ents who didn’t want us to have in­tel­lec­tual shack­les on who we were. They wanted us to see ourselves as hu­man be­ings who could ac­com­plish any­thing we wanted to do,” said the To­rah stu­dent, who made his mark in US politics and the Los An­ge­les en­ter­tain­ment world with his birth name, Shar­iff Hasan.

“My par­ents had in­flu­ences that were out of the box. When they were in col­lege, Is­lam was a cool thing. It was like, you know what? We don’t want to be Chris­tian any more. The KKK hate black peo­ple in the name of Chris­tian­ity. For my par­ents, it was cool – very much a lib­er­a­tion thing from an African Amer­i­can per­spec­tive.”

Ben Avra­ham de­scribes his par­ents in the 1970s as Black in­tel­lec­tu­als re­think­ing life, spir­i­tu­al­ity and re­claim­ing who they were. “My dad went to a small col­lege in Ohio. My mother went to col­lege in Los An­ge­les. Af­ter they got mar­ried, a cou­ple of years later I was born, the sec­ond of five chil­dren. Ev­ery two years an­other of us were born. I could re­ally see that they were very much in love with each other – and look­ing at the con­nec­tion be­tween them, both were truth seek­ers. They were look­ing for greater an­swers in life.”

In the late 1990s, a turning point came when Ben Avra­ham found him­self at the Kab­balah Cen­ter, where his par­ents, his grand­par­ents and some of his sib­lings would become deeply involved – some in his fam­ily are members to this day.

“Now in the re­li­gious haredi world, you can’t even say the word Kab­balah Cen­ter,” Ben Avra­ham laughs. “But I con­sider my­self a loyal per­son to the peo­ple who helped me get to where I’m at.”

Ben Avra­ham went on his first trip to Is­rael in 2003 with the Kab­balah Cen­ter. He vis­ited the holy sites, and it was then that he knew he wanted to be Jewish. “Rabbi Ye­huda Berg – Rav Berg’s son – my men­tor at the Kab­balah Cen­ter, said: ‘Dude, you’ve got to go. You’ve got to become great. You’ve got to con­vert. This is your life. You can’t marry a Jewish girl if you’re not Jewish, and a non-Jewish girl isn’t go­ing to want to fol­low the things you’re doing.’

“It was a shock be­cause the Kab­balah Cen­ter doesn’t nor­mally push anyone to­ward becoming Jewish,” Ben Avra­ham ex­plained.

“Af­ter I left the Kab­balah Cen­ter, I met with a lot of dif­fer­ent rab­bis. If it wasn’t for my ex­pe­ri­ence there, I wouldn’t have been able to sep­a­rate Jewish cul­ture from the spir­i­tual sys­tem of the To­rah.

“What drew me to Ju­daism wasn’t the fact I was miss­ing something in life, per se. This was a spir­i­tual sys­tem that God gave to hu­man­ity that al­lows peo­ple to trans­form them­selves.

To­rah is ask­ing us to cre­ate this very deep sen­si­tiv­ity that al­lows us to un­der­stand who we re­ally are.”

Ben Avra­ham’s To­rah way of life has led to a mea­sure of success that he wants to in­spire other Jews to reach for. “I grew up with ma­te­ri­al­ism. My mother, An­gela Layla Hasan, a professor at USC, Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, is an ex­pert in school pol­icy and parental in­volve­ment. My fa­ther, Dwight Hasan, now re­tired, owned an in­surance company in which clients would gift their life in­surance poli­cies to­ward en­dow­ments funds. My first car was a 500 SL Mercedes. If you saw my prom in Cal­abasas, it was in­sane. I grew up with the Kar­dashi­ans. That was the high­est level – to have as much ma­te­ri­al­ism as pos­si­ble.”

Ben Avra­ham dropped out of UCLA Extension Pro­gram to es­tab­lish his first company, Planet Eggs Me­dia, when he was 19. He’s worn many hats, as a so­cial me­dia ex­pert, a film pro­ducer, and a rap and hip-hop pro­moter be­hind the vi­ral video dance move­ment called Jerkin. He also came up with the Skinny Jeanz move­ment, en­cour­ag­ing young inner city kids to differenti­ate them­selves from gang members by es­chew­ing baggy pants. The inner city at that time had a thing called gang in­junc­tions, so if you look like a gang mem­ber the po­lice could take you in.

Ben Avra­ham was tapped to become a writer for Vogue Ja­pan, re­port­ing on street fash­ion in col­lab­o­ra­tion with world renowned pho­tog­ra­pher Hedi Sli­mane.

De­spite his suc­cesses, Ben Avra­ham thought to him­self, what else is there in life? He felt, by his late 20s, that he had exhausted ma­te­ri­al­ism. “Am I sup­posed to get a house big­ger than my Dad? I have a Mercedes. Next do I get a Ferrari?

“When I’m asked how a per­son can go from Is­lam to Or­tho­dox Ju­daism, the an­swer is that if I wanted to find out who I am in this world, to find out who I can become, and to ex­pand my­self in­ter­nally, I had to ask my­self where is the spir­i­tual sys­tem that’s go­ing to get me there?”

In 2013, Ben Avra­ham com­pleted his Or­tho­dox con­ver­sion in Los An­ge­les. In 2015 he left the tele­vi­sion and me­dia world to go full time into politics and become the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for US Congress’s 37th dis­trict in Los An­ge­les, span­ning Cen­tury City to South Los An­ge­les. Af­ter los­ing to the Democratic in­cum­bent, Karen Bass, Ben Avra­ham took the advice of his men­tor, Rabbi Moshe Hafuta, of Da’at To­rah, to spend three months learn­ing at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yitzchak Sakhai of Nes­sah Syn­a­gogue was the Orh Sameach alum­nus who smoothed the way for Ben Avra­ham to come study at Ohr Sameach.

THREE MONTHS have become three years. Ben Avra­ham re­ceived a bach­e­lors in Tal­mu­dic Law and is presently months away from smicha [rab­binic or­di­na­tion].

“It makes no log­i­cal sense!” Ben Avra­ham laughs. “I could barely read aleph bet when I came to Jerusalem. Things that once seemed com­pletely im­pos­si­ble, I dav­ened for. I asked Hashem to please give me the abil­ity to learn and grow, crying my heart at the Ko­tel and ask­ing for as­sis­tance.”

He was re­cently standing at a bus stop. A young Jewish guy came up to Ben Avra­ham. “He had tat­toos all over the place, and he yelled, ‘You Jewish?’

“I said, ‘Of course.’

“But why?” he asked. “What’s go­ing on. Don’t get me wrong. You’re amaz­ing. But why?’”

“I re­peated back to the guy what he just said. You said it’s great. It’s amaz­ing. Why wouldn’t I?”

From pub­lic speak­ing to au­dio books, Ben Avra­ham de­liv­ers in­stru­men­tal To­rah les­sons, with and with­out hip-hop beats. Becoming the Unbelievab­le You is a three-part au­dio book avail­able on Amazon, where Jewish lis­ten­ers can come to a safe space to reeval­u­ate life and find To­rah in­spi­ra­tion to achieve their des­tiny. ■

MORDECHAI YOSEF BEN AVRA­HAM FROM LOS AN­GE­LES TO JERUSALEM, 2016

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