A conversion for the ages

“We haven’t done this in 500 years,” announced Joseph Wahed in his elegant Egyptian accent. “We’re a bit rusty.”

About 80 members of the 1,000-strong Karaite Jews of America (KJA) who were gathered in their Daly City synagogue laughed knowingly. Wahed was right: This was the first known Karaite conversion ceremony since 1465, when a group of Spanish Christians became Karaite Jews in a Cairo synagogue.

For the Daly City congregation and for Karaite Jews around the world, the July 31 ceremony was historic. After a year of intense study, 10 adults and four minors had come from far-flung places — the Czech Republic, Australia, Canada and the hinterlands of America — to swear fealty to Karaite Judaism.

Tracing its origins to eighth-century Persia, Karaite Judaism does not recognize the Talmud or other post-biblical rabbinic texts as authoritative. Though spread around the world, a sizeable number of Karaite Jews lived in Arab lands, especially Egypt. The sect, which numbers 35,000 adherents worldwide — most of them in Israel — has developed unique customs, from prostrate prayer to foregoing footwear in the sanctuary to observing different kashrut laws.

Mixing milk and poultry is OK. B’nai mitzvah and Havdallah are OK. Celebrating Chanukah, going to the mikvah or wrapping tefillin is not. Using any lights on Shabbat is not. Nor was accepting converts, at least not for the last 542 years.

Even other Jews were not entirely welcome. One had to be born into a Karaite family to be a Karaite Jew. But 15 years ago, the Karaite Council of Sages in Israel finally decreed a change, welcoming other Jews.

And last year, the council finally accepted the notion that conversion is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

“Isaiah speaks of gentiles brought in by God,” said Hakham Nehemia Gordon, looking on proudly at the converts. “This is a fulfillment for gentiles to embrace ‘Kara.'”

“Kara” is a Hebrew term meaning “scripture.” A Karaite is a person of the Scripture. “Hakham” is an honorific designating a person of great learning.

With the council’s change of heart, non-Jews were now welcome to convert to Karaite Judaism.

David Martin was one of them. In the presence of the Torah, Martin stood ramrod straight before a beit din (Jewish court) consisting of three Karaite leaders to sign conversion documents and recite the Ruthic vow: “Your people are my people, and your Elohim is my Elohim.”

Dressed in his best bolo tie, Martin was joined by his wife, Lisa, and daughters, Sarah and Joanne (both of whom converted through consent of the parents and the beit din). Their family conversion to Karaite Judaism culminated a seven-year spiritual sojourn, which included explorations with the Mennonites and Messianic Jews.

“The New Testament just doesn’t agree with the Old Testament,” says Lisa Martin. “We said, if it doesn’t add up, go with the commandments.”

When the Martins go home to Silver City, N.M., they will be the only Karaite Jewish family in the Land of Enchantment. “It’s daunting,” said Martin. “But we decided we’re keeping the commandments at home.”

After the Martins made it official, a few female congregants offered up a congratulatory Arab trill. Virtually all KJA members are of Egyptian extraction, and several chatted excitedly in Arabic as they watched the ceremony (the synagogue’s wall of honor features plaques stamped with names like Kheder, Marzouk, Moussa and Gamil).

The Jerusalem-based Gordon is not of Arab extraction. He grew up in an Orthodox home, the son of a Chicago rabbi. After concluding that Talmud was the word of man and not another revealed Torah, he was drawn to Karaite Judaism. He helped build the movement by launching a Web site, karaite-korner.org, and drawing curious Jews and non-Jews into conversation.

“This [conversion] is something we’ve been working for over a long time,” he said. “These people have been on a journey for the truth, and by truth I mean Karaite Judaism. They show a level of faith and conviction I wish all sons of Israel would have.”

One of those sons is Yochanan Labombarbe. A native of Iowa, he now lives with his wife, Leah, and daughter, Gavriella, in rural West Virginia. He grew up in a Christian home, but as an adult concluded the Christian Bible was “filled with fallacies. We rejected it, rejected the Christian Messiah and started on our own to keep and observe Tanach [the Hebrew Scriptures].”

He first exchanged emails with Nehemia Gordon in 1999, and joined a Web forum on Karaite Judaism. Like their fellow converts, the Labombarbes enrolled in Karaite Jewish University, an online program that teaches the tenets of the faith and helped prepare students for conversion.

“I’ve had this desire to become Jewish since I first contacted the Karaites and realized there were Jewish people who keep Tanach alone,” he said. “It’s really awe-inspiring to think HaShem has opened up this door to allow people to join the Karaite Judaism at this time.”

KJA is not just the largest Karaite congregation in the Bay Area, it’s the only one in America. Because of their small numbers and different practices, some of which are at odds with other Jewish denominations, the sect has faced a measure of disdain from fellow Jews. But Gordon is quick to mention that Karaites have a long proud history with the Jewish people.

More than 30,000 Karaite Jews live in Israel today, many in the Ashdod area. Most came from Egypt and Syria following the 1956 and 1967 wars. They are fully recognized as Jews by the state of Israel, serve in the Israeli military and are integrated into Israeli life, with at least 11 synagogues around the country.

“The oldest synagogue in Jerusalem is the [12th century] Karaite synagogue in the Old City,” Gordon noted. “The first known Bible commentaries are Karaite commentaries, and the early Masoretes [Torah scribes and scholars] were Karaites. We like to say Moses was the first Karaite.”

Though not quite a modern day Moses, convert Chad Walker, 24, does hope to lead his family to the Promised Land one day. Walker lives in Muddy Pond, a small town in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. He’s used to sitting on the porch harmlessly firing his shotgun in any direction.

Walker and his seven siblings were home-schooled and raised with strict fundamentalist Christian principles. But somewhere along the line, the family began to doubt the Christian creed.

The family “flipped” from church to church, eventually realizing “we couldn’t use the New Testament any longer. The Old Testament took precedence. We dumped Christianity and took fellowship with nobody. Someone told us we might be Jews.”

That led Walker to Gordon and Karaite Judaism. He is the first in the family to convert, but he believes his parents and siblings may not be far behind. He also intends to make aliyah as soon as the Israeli theo-bureaucracy works out the details.

Meanwhile, it was Walker’s night to shine. He, too, took the vow and accepted his new Tanach and tzitzit as he became “a child of Israel.” After a day of fasting, he and his fellow converts said the blessings over wine and challah, their first meal as Jews.

“For a community accustomed to losing members, this will reverse the trend,” said a beaming Rabbi Joe Pessah, who helped preside over the conversion ceremony. “Karaites had built around themselves a Great Wall of China. We may differ [with other Jews], but we are one people. Choosing to be a Jew is the most brave statement we can make.”

Pessah was one of the founders of Karaite Judaism of America. The native Egyptian left his homeland after years of persecution, including three years in an Egyptian jail simply for being Jewish. Once released, he fled first to France and then, with help from the Jewish Agency, to America. Because a steady stream of Karaites from Egypt had settled in the Bay Area, the region became a growing magnet for other immigrants.

Today, the Peninsula and Daly City area is home to the largest Karaite community outside of Israel.

Once all 14 had been formally converted, the congregation broke out in ululations and song. Then, four of the newly Jewish couples exchanged wedding vows, having this chance to be married again in a Jewish setting. Rav Moshe Firrouz, an Israeli Karaite Jew, chanted benedictions with musical trope that would not sound out of

place in a Cairo shouk.

A festive Middle Eastern kosher meal followed, with the new Karaite Jews congratulated over and over. One of them, Hadar Nichol, is a native of Montreal and now lives in a French-speaking community in Cornwall, Ontario. She will be the only Jew in her town, but not for long. Her goal: to make aliyah as soon as possible.

Raised Protestant, her initial encounter with Judaism had an almost other-worldly quality to it. In 1999, she noticed that her French-speaking neighbor was throwing out a perfectly good ham radio because “it only picked up English-language stations.”

She took it home and, while turning the dial, came upon a Jewish cantors’ convention. For the first time, she heard Jewish liturgical melodies and the Hebrew name of God. “It blew my mind,” recalled Nichol.

That led to further research, and once she came across Gordon’s Web site, she was hooked. “[Karaite Judaism] is what I understood Scripture to mean,” she said.

She, too, committed to the Karaite Jewish community, even though she was unable to convert for many years and her only shots at fellowship came online.

The Daly City event marked the first time she ever came face to face with other Karaite Jews.

Currently completing her studies to become a holistic healer, Nichol hopes to move to Israel as soon as she can. And not only because the weather is warmer there than in eastern Ontario. It’s because she wants to bring more Jews into the Karaite fold.

She says she understands “Israeli suffering as consequences of disobedience of Torah. There are tons of secular Karaites. If we don’t turn back, what more will happen?”

Because of complex laws governing conversion and the Jewish right of return, it’s not clear when the new Karaite Jews can make aliyah. But even if it takes years, that won’t stop them from visiting Israel in the meantime.

“We try to get together as often as we can and travel to Israel,” said Labombarbe. “We want to come out [to Daly City] yearly or more often if we can. We’ll continue our learning and progress.

Living in rural West Virginia, the Labombarbe family has reached out to other Jews in the region, including a Reform Jewish community in nearby Martinsburg. They hope to take classes and brush up their Hebrew, and they haven’t ruled out moving to nearby Washington, D.C., to be further connected to the Jewish world.

But they know that, for the time being, they are the extent of the Karaite Jewish community in their neck of the woods.

As the celebration went on into the evening, it was hard not to notice the unusual collision of cultures: French and Arabic-speaking Egyptian Jews rubbing shoulders with one-time Pentecostals and Baptists from Appalachia.

Still, space, time and language seemed to mean little to them. Tonight, they were all brothers and sisters.

After evening prayers, the congregation called it a night. The next day, all of the converts headed home, their short visit to California over. Gordon is confident he’ll be hearing from all of them soon as they resume their online community. It’s not the same as being together in person, but maybe next year.

In Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, said Gordon, the Karaite Jews of Israel hope to establish a seminary in the months ahead, and “we have a bunch of people lined up for the next conversion class.”

Cover photo by Joyce Goldschmid.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.