A new face in Mea She’arim
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