He was born in the tiny village of Kandilli, population 488 on September 27, 1978. He was given the name Erhan which in Turkish means a good, merciful, yet, heroic soldier. He would eventually live up to his name in ways no one could ever have imagined at the time of his birth.
He was born into a Moslem family as were all of the inhabitants of his village. He had never met a Jew in his life, he just knew that when you wanted to insult someone you called them “Yahudi” (Turkish for Jew).
There were two small groceries in the town. One did a brisk business, the other struggled to get by. He once asked his friend, “Why do so many people avoid buying from the “other” grocery?”
His friend’s answer was direct and to the point. “That grocer won’t give food on credit, so he is called a Yahudi. All Yahudiler (plural for Jew) are swindlers and greedy for money!” Erhan looked at his friend with a perplexed face, “But, he is not a Yahudi and there are no Yahudiler here at all!” “It doesn’t matter if you act like a Yahudi, we treat you like a Yahudi!”
This was Erhan’s first introduction into Judaism.
His father was not particularly observant however, his mother would take him to the local mosque every Friday. He was circumcised by the local Moslem sünnetçi who would travel from village to village. The rare times he saw a television, he was constantly exposed to the “Zionist Enemy” killing innocent Muslims. Erhan realized that Turkey was not going to be the place he would spend the rest of his life. It was a place of hatred and intolerance, however, he first had to find a way to leave. When Erhan reached the age of compulsory army service he decided to delay his enlistment and become a shipman. This was legal since by serving your country as a ship-hand, you could delay your active military service.
One day, there was a request for sailors to go to the United States. Erhan jumped at the chance.
He spent many weeks at sea as the boat took a circuitous route until it reached the United States. Finally, it appeared on the horizon, The Statue of Liberty. Erhan’s heart raced with excitement as knew he had reached the land where dreams could come true. When the ship docked, he decided he would never return and instead he dissolved into the Turkish/Muslim population of Patterson. It was November 18, 2000.
In many ways, his real journey was just beginning. There was a yearning in him. That same yearning which drove him to jump ship was now pushing him to find out more about G-d.
He looked deeply into his own heritage and was disappointed by what he found. He read books written by famous atheists, however, here too, he found no spiritual succor.
One day while searching for other spiritual possibilities he came across a lecture from a man with a long beard. This man was different. He didn’t preach hate. He didn’t speak about the destruction of other people. He didn’t call others infidels who deserved to be decimated. This kind-faced man spoke about being compassionate to others and helping others in need. He spoke about a loving and caring G-d who is involved in our lives. Quietly and secretly Erhan began to listen to more Torah lectures.
He dared not tell his Muslim roommates what was coming out of his headphones. After years of searching and listening, in the Spring of 2017, Erhan made a decision: Judaism was the true religion. It was in April of 2017 when I received the heavily accented call. “I am interested in converting.” I told him to come in and meet with me.
When he arrived and he casually informed me that he is a Turkish Muslim and wanted to become Jewish, I didn’t know if I should press the panic button under my desk to alert the police or welcome him. But Erhan persisted and so did I. In the beginning, many were suspicious of him and his motivations. Many insisted Homeland Security must be contacted to see if he is on any lists (we did and he wasn’t). Others maintained that I must bar him from the premises as certainly his only intention is to “case the joint” and prepare (Chas V’Shalom) for a future attack.
Erhan remained calm and persevered. And I continued to receive flak, hostility, opposition and even censure. However, after all of the hours I spent with him, I too was convinced of his sincerity. When one angry man said, “Would you feel safe with him in your house?” I calmly responded, “I sure hope so, he’s eating by me this Friday night!”
He learned diligently with the chavrusas I arranged for him and attended davening regularly.
Soon, his gentle nature and his kind soul was recognized and appreciated by all. Thankfully, although it took time, everyone came around and recognized his sincerity and soon he was a much sought after Shabbos guest.
Finally, after almost two long years, on the fifth day of Adar Beis 2019, Erhan Deri became Yehudah ben Avrohom as he converted under the strict standards of one of the most respected Batei Din in the entire Chareidi world. Indeed, they are a gold standard for conversions. I was proud beyond belief to be his rabbinic sponsor. His dream had come true.
I then asked him the one question I had been wanting to ask him for almost two years. “How and why did you choose my Shul? I mean you lived in Patterson, what made you come to my Shul in Passaic?” Yehudah smiled and said, “I did look at other Shuls, however, when I saw you, something about you connected to me. You seemed warm and sensitive and said hello to me right away, and that’s why I came here.”
One never knows how our most commonplace movements and appearances can change a person’s life. The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that all of those who became Geirim are descendants of those from when Hashem offered the nations the Torah, their ancestors voted yes, but unfortunately, were outvoted. Hashem manipulates the world so that those who voted to accept the Torah, their descendants eventually find their way home.
It was a long journey from Kandilli, Bozüyük to Passaic, New Jersey. However, Yehudah has finally come home. On Pesach this year, Yehudah sat next to me at the Seder table. As he ate the matzah he finally tasted true freedom. Freedom from false beliefs and non-beliefs, freedom to publicly and proudly declare to all, “I am a Jew.” He experienced the true freedom of being able to choose Torah and mitzvohs over hedonistic pleasures and false faiths.
Welcome home Yehuda, you are my brother and I love you.