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Posts Tagged ‘Orthodox Jew’

From Quaker to Shaker to Orthodox Jew

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

(Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from “Quaker, Shaker, Rabbi: Warder Cresson, The Story of a Philadelphia Mystic” by Frank Fox, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, April 1971.)

Throughout history there have been gentiles who decided the only way for them to come close to God was to convert to Judaism. Some of the more famous converts include Ruth; the prophet Ovadia; the biblical commentator Onkelos; and Bulan, king of the Khazars.

Converting to Judaism is not a step to be taken lightly, and may bring a host of repercussions for the convert and his family. The conversion of Warder Cresson to Judaism most certainly had wide-ranging implications for him and those associated with him.

The second of eight children, Warder was born in Philadelphia on July 13, 1798 to John Elliot and Mary (nee Warder) Cresson. Apparently his parents wished to preserve his mother’s maiden name, and so gave him the unusual first name of Warder.

The Cressons were prominent Quakers and Warder was raised according to strict Quaker principles. At age 17 he was sent to work on the family farms in Darby and Chester.

“He worked hard, saved his money and learned a great deal about agriculture. In 1819, when twenty-one, he rejoined his family, then residing in Byberry Township, north of Philadelphia. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Townsend of Bensalem.”

Within a few years he became the head of a very successful farming enterprise.

Cresson was not content with limiting his interests to farming and, by 1827, had begun to question some of the fundamental tenets of Quakerism.

“In his first religious tract, entitled ‘An Humble and Affectionate Address to the Select Members of the Abington Quarterly Meeting,’ he displayed a mind steeped in Scriptures as well as in the social issues of the day. He criticized religious leaders who based their teachings on an ‘outward form, order or discipline,’ attempting ‘to make an inward man as they would lay out a barn.’”

Cresson eventually broke with the faith of his fathers. By the 1840′s he had become, in turn, a Shaker, a Mormon, a Seventh Day Adventist and a Campbellite. The latter two denominations believed that the Second Coming of Christ was close at hand. He also became notorious in Philadelphia for religious “haranguing in the streets,” where he warned all within earshot of an approaching apocalypse.

Cresson became acquainted with Rev. Isaac Leeser, the chazzan of Philadelphia’s Mikvah Israel Synagogue. In his Discourses, published in 1836, Leeser wrote about the time of the messianic redemption “when the Israelites will be assembled from all the countries where they are now scattered.” Cresson was influenced by Leeser’s writings and also by those of Mordecai Manuel Noah, who espoused the belief that the Jews would soon return to Palestine.

By 1844 Cresson was convinced that God was about to gather the Jewish people to Jerusalem as a prelude to the “end of days.” He wrote, “God must choose some medium to manifest and act through, in order to bring about his designs and promises in this visible world This medium or recipient is the present poor, despised, outcast Jew. God is about gathering them again [in Jerusalem].” He decided he had to move to Jerusalem to personally witness this great event:

In the spring of 1844 I left everything near and dear to me on earth. I left the wife of my youth and six lovely children (dearer to me than my natural life), and an excellent farm, with everything comfortable around me. I left all these in the pursuit of truth, and for the sake of Truth alone.(Introduction to the “Key of David” by W. Cresson, 1852, available at www.theoccident.org/Cresson/cresson01.html).

JerusalemAnd Conversion

Before leaving for Palestine, Cresson went to Washington and applied for the position of the first American Consul to Jerusalem. Somehow he was able to get two influential men from Philadelphia, Dr. I.A. Birkey and Congressman E. Joy Morris (later American minister to Turkey), to recommend him for the job. Morris had recently returned from a trip to the Near East and in a letter to Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, dated May 1, 1844, wrote that “Jerusalem is now much frequented by Americans.”

Cresson volunteered to work without compensation and was officially notified of his appointment on May 17.

It turned out to be one of the shortest assignments on record. Barely a week after the commission was issued, Samule D. Ingham of New Hope Pennsylvania, who had served as President Jackson’s Secretary to the Treasury, wrote to Calhoun:

The papers have recently announced the appointment of Warder Cresson, Consul to Jerusalem. This man is the brother of Elliot Cresson, who is much distinguished for his activity in the cause of colonization, but the Consul has been laboring under an aberration of mind for many years; his mania is of the religious species. He was born a Quaker, wanted to he a preacher … and has gone round the compass from one job to another, sometimes preaching about the church doors and in the streets; his passion is for religious controversy and no doubt he expects to convert Jews and Mohammedans in the East – but, in truth, he is withal a very weak-minded man and his mind, what there is of it, quite out of order…. His appointment is made a theme of ridicule by all who know him….

As a result of that letter, Calhoun wrote Cresson: “I am instructed by the President to inform you, that, having reconsidered the proposal to establish a Consulate at Jerusalem, he is of the opinion it is not called for by public service, and therefore declines to establish it at present.”

By then, however, Cresson was on his way to Jerusalem carrying with him a dove and an American flag, blissfully unaware that his commission had been revoked. Cresson in fact did act as the American Consul to Jerusalem for about half a year after his arrival.

During the next four years Cresson found himself being increasing attracted to the Jews of Jerusalem and at the same time developing more and more doubts about his Christian beliefs. He noted many contradictions in the New Testament, and this led him to deny the divinity of Jesus. He was now prepared to take the most drastic step of his life, one that would have far reaching implications for him and his family back in America.

“I remained in Jerusalem in my former faith until the 28th day of March, 1848,” he later wrote, “when I became fully satisfied that I could never obtain Strength and Rest, but by doing as Ruth did, and saying to her Mother-in-Law, or Naomi ‘Entreat me not to leave thee … for whither thou goest I will go’…. In short, upon the 28th day of March, 1848, I was circumcised, entered the Holy Covenant and became a Jew….”

Cresson was forty-nine years old at the time of his conversion.

Family Woes

On May 7, 1848, Cresson began his return trip to Philadelphia. He was most anxious to see his family whom he “loved most dearly above anything else on earth.” During his stay in Jerusalem he had written a number of letters to his family keeping them informed about his activities and his religious conversion. He was confident that he could convince them to adopt his newfound faith. He was in for a rude surprise.

His wife, Elizabeth, had become a committed Episcopalian and wanted nothing to do with Judaism. In addition, Cresson, who now used the name Michael Boaz Israel, discovered that his wife, to whom he had given power of attorney in his absence, had sold the family farm as well as most of his personal effects. In short, Cresson found himself essentially penniless.

Cresson tried to resolve his problems with his wife amicably, but she was not interested. Together with some other family members, she lodged a charge of lunacy against him in front of a sheriff’s jury of six men; it did not take long for them to declare Cresson insane.

(A sheriff’s jury was one selected by a sheriff to hold inquests for various purposes, such as ascertaining the mental condition of an alleged lunatic. It is not normal legal procedure today.)

Cresson, who never spent time in an asylum, appealed the verdict and a trial on the charge of lunacy began on May 13, 1851 in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. It became one of the most celebrated court trials of the 19th century.

At the heart of Cresson’s defense was his claim that in addition to his family’s desire to seize his financial resources was their opposition to his conversion to Judaism. They were sure that anyone who converted from Christianity to Judaism had to be insane. Thus, at the heart of this case was the question of whether a man was free to choose his religious affiliation.

More than 100 witnesses testified at the trial. Ultimately Cresson was vindicated of all charges. Newspapers throughout the country were almost unanimous in their praise of the verdict. Reporters focused on the fact that the issue at stake was one of religious freedom. They noted that Cresson was indeed “a strange bird,” with an unsteady disposition as evidenced by his previous religious affiliations. They pointed out, however, that it was his conversion to Judaism that had triggered his family’s anger and let to the lawsuit.

“If he had become a Roman Catholic they would probably have acquiesced…. They could permit him to become a Shaker, a Millerite, or a Mormon, but when he became a Jew, all confidence in his sanity was lost.”

Return to Jerusalem

Cresson prayed at Congregation Mikveh Israel and lived according to halacha during the four years he spent in Philadelphia after his return from Jerusalem. Eventually he divorced his wife and, in 1852, returned to the Holy Land.

He became even more convinced that the Jews would soon return en masse to the land of Israel. He felt that a necessary precursor to this was the development of agricultural endeavors by Jews and so proposed a sophisticated plan for the establishment of Jewish agricultural settlements. Indeed, his vision for agricultural development was far reaching and anticipated later Zionist efforts.

In 1855 he acquired a tract of land near Jaffa with the intention of putting his plans into practice. But his planned model farm never developed due to insufficient financial support.

In the mid-1850′s he married Rachel Moleano and became an honored member of Jerusalem’s Sephardic community. They had two children, David Ben Zion and Abigail Ruth. Neither child lived to adulthood.

Warder died on October 27, 1860 and was buried on the Mount of Olives “with such honors as are paid only to a prominent rabbi.” His unusual life encompassed the almost unheard-of step of converting to Judaism, the issue of religious freedom, and the effect of national movements upon the Jews that eventually led to changes in their social and economic conditions.

Postscript: Meeting Melville

Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, at one point in his life “looked to Palestine as the source of human experience and a possible hope for the future.” He went so far as to borrow money in order to go to Palestine, and in January 1856 he and Cresson met.

What Melville saw in Palestine shattered any thoughts he had about its being the country of the future. He noted in his journal: “In the emptiness of the lifeless antiquity of Jerusalem, the migrant Jews are like flies that have taken up their abode in a skull.”

Melville also dismissed Cresson’s theories on how the Jews could establish an agricultural economy in Palestine as completely unrealistic:

“The idea of making farmers of the Jews is vain. In the first place, Judea is a desert, with few exceptions. In the second place, the Jews hate farming… and besides the number of Jews in Palestine is comparatively small. And how are the hosts of them scattered in other lands to be brought here? Only by a miracle.”

He did not have anything positive to say about Cresson either. “Warder Crisson [sic] of Philadelphia – an American turned Jew – divorced from (former) wife – married a Jewess, etc. Sad “

And yet Palestine and Cresson had a profound effect on Melville. Indeed, he wrote a long, spiritual poem titled “Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.”

One of the main characters in this work is Nathan, a Christian turned Jew. It is not hard to see that Nathan is patterned after Cresson.

Melville could not believe that Jews would ever return to Eretz Yisrael and turn it into a country where agricultural endeavors thrived. Cresson was convinced that this would happen. History has shown who was correct.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His regular Jewish Press column, “Glimpses Into American Jewish History,” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Orthodox and Israeli: When the Two Don’t Mix

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Aaron Klein is Jerusalem bureau chief for WorldNetDaily, co-host of ABC Radio’s national John Bachelor Show, and he appears throughout the week on other U.S. radio programs. Jewish Press readers know him best for his weekly Quick Takes column.


Two weeks ago Aaron and I drove to the scene after an Arab suicide bomber blew himself up in a shawarma restaurant near downtown Tel Aviv’s old central bus station. As we neared a police checkpoint blocking the entrance to the scene, Aaron took off his yarmulke and told me it would be best if I, with my black hat and beard, got out of the car and walked the short distance to the place so the police at the checkpoint would allow his car to pass without incident.


I did as he requested. Aaron flashed his press credentials and drove through the checkpoint without being stopped or questioned. At the bomb site Aaron kept his yarmulke off until he was able to get through makeshift barricades set up by the police.


On our return trip Aaron told me that if you wear a kippa in Israel, many don’t consider you a legitimate journalist. He went on to describe what brought him, an Orthodox Jew, to habitually remove his yarmulke at checkpoints and other hot spots in the Jewish state:




Several months before the Gaza evacuation, WorldNetDaily rented part of a house in Gush Katif and I went there regularly. Three weeks before the actual withdrawal the area was declared a closed military zone. Only documented residents and credentialed reporters were allowed in and out after passing through a series of intensive military checkpoints.


When I first started commuting to the area after the roadblocks were established I had on my yarmulke, as usual. I drive a Land Rover, a car commonly used by reporters here, and mine is clearly marked as a reporter’s vehicle. I had a lot of trouble getting in even after I presented soldiers with my press credentials. On several occasions I had to put a representative from Israel’s Government Press Office on the phone with a senior officer at a given checkpoint just to prove I was indeed a reporter and not a settler or Jewish protester. Imagine having to do this at four or five checkpoints in a row.


At first I didn’t realize why I had to go through this kind of hassle every time. Then one time I experimented. I took off my yarmulke as I approached a roadblock near Gaza. I was driving the same car as always and flashed the same press card. I wasn’t stopped at all. I kept the yarmulke off for the next few checkpoints and did not have any problems getting past. Many times they didn’t even look at my press card. They just saw I was driving a reporter’s car and looked the part. I tried again later with my yarmulke and indeed I had trouble.


Throughout the many protest rallies prior to the Gaza withdrawal, like the major three-day protest march that settled in Kfar Maimon, I noticed that when I was walking alongside the protesters, almost all of whom were religious, I often was treated poorly and yelled at. For example, on the first day of the protest after the marchers breached police lines and continued toward Gaza, I had my yarmulke on. I was shoved and grabbed by officers even after I flashed my credentials. In several cases the police held me back and wouldn’t let me get pst certain areas. But once I took my yarmulke off, I had no problems.


The latest such incident was last week when evacuation forces massed in Hebron. I was driving toward the city with a host from Israel National Radio. We both had our yarmulkes on. When we passed an area with troops we had some problems getting through. As we approached a second manned zone I said to my friend, I’m not going through this again; I’m taking my yarmulke off. He did the same and we had no problems. He told me of cases in which bearded, yarmulke-wearing reporters from his media outlet, Arutz Sheva, had trouble getting into areas.


So now most of the time I don’t even bother. I just take my yarmulke off at all checkpoints even though sometimes, perhaps at the checkpoint at the Tel Aviv bombing, it may not be entirely necessary.


People might argue that I am giving in; that I should fight it every time. But for me it is extremely important to get to these places for my job. I have been privileged with the opportunity to report news accurately to millions of people every day. I’d rather get to the areas so that I can report and people can read what is really going on and not what CNN is reporting. I don’t have the time to put up a fight at every checkpoint because I look religious.


Ironically, while Klein has had issues reporting as a religious Jew in Israeli-controlled territory, he had the opposite problem when interviewing a leader of a group sworn to Israel’s destruction.


“The first time I interviewed Hamas chief Mahmoud al-Zahar,” says Klein, “I did not bring my yarmulke. I wanted to get out alive. But during the course of our conversation I ended up talking about my Orthodox Judaism. Al-Zahar asked why I didn’t wear a yarmulke to meet him. I told him I’d been afraid to. He said he was insulted. He claimed he was a religious Muslim who only had a problem with the state of Israel and not with Judaism. He lectured me about not forsaking my religion or denying my Jewish identity. He said the next time we meet I had better be wearing my yarmulke. Since then I have interviewed him a number of times. Whenever we speak by phone or when he joins me on the radio, he first jokingly inquires as to whether I am wearing my yarmulke.”


Asked to explain the institutionalized anti-religious practices he’s encountered, Aaron replied, “It’s the new nature of the cultural war in Israel. The great divide used to be the so-called right wing versus the so-called left wing. Essentially, whether or not to give up land to the Palestinians. Now the mask is coming off and the real battle is starting to be waged openly – religious nationalism versus anti-religious post-Zionism.


“More simply, is Israel supposed to be a Jewish state based on religious ideals or will it be a state like all others that just happens to be comprised mostly of Jews? At its core, it is what all the land withdrawals and proposed land withdrawals are about, and it’s what my ‘yarmulke problems’ are about. That is the fight I am witnessing here. The victor will determine the future of Israel and the Jewish people.”


Klein hardly is the first Orthodox Jew to discover that sometimes it’s difficult being a religious Jew in the Jewish state. An Israel Broadcasting Authority crew traveling toward Kfar Maimon to cover the events surrounding the March to Gaza last summer was stopped en route by police for a routine inspection. One crew member, an Orthodox man wearing a yarmulke, was instructed to step out of the vehicle. Questioned about the purpose of his presence, he explained that he was a member of the film crew. He displayed his Government Press Office press credentials, but police continued to suspect his motives for traveling to Kfar Maimon.


It was only due to the intervention of co-workers that he was permitted to return to the vehicle and continue to Kfar Maimon.


This phenomenon works the other way as well. Yoram Ettinger, the veteran Israeli diplomat, is not religious and does not wear a yarmulke. He recounts how his political view can confuse those who equate a right-of-center position on specific issues with religious orthodoxy.


“One Shabbat prior to the Gaza disengagement,” he says, “I was driving over to visit a member of my family when I was stopped at a red light by a police officer and told to roll down my window. The officer asked whose car I was driving. I told him it was mine and wondered why he would even suspect otherwise. The officer said, ‘I saw a bumper sticker against disengagement on the back of your car and that does not conform with the secular community.’ “


Ken Burgess is a well-known musician from England who converted to Judaism some 20 years ago. He got the shock of his life when he witnessed how far the average secular Israeli Jew is from his heritage and tradition. To Ken Burgess, a convert, this was especially agonizing.


Burgess had been working with the biggest record company in Israel and had helped to significantly boost their annual sales. “One day,” he recalls, “after I had become Orthodox, I walked into the office with a kippa on my head. I was told that if I wanted to continue working with them I would have to remove it. This was so shocking to me. I could not understand how a Jew in the Holy Land could tell me not to wear a kippa.


Dr. Arnold Seid is a surgeon from Santa Monica, California, who came to Israel last week to attend the annual Herzliya Conference on security. He says he “was struck by the fact that in this Herzliya conference with thousands of people in the hall including professors, academics, military men and politicians, maybe two percent had on yarmulkes.”


He continues: “Friday night and Shabbat morning I went down to the synagogue in the hotel and found that with hundreds of Jews gathered to discuss the future of the Jewish state, we didn’t have a minyan. I have been to Israel enough times to understand that Herzliya is not exactly the center of Torah learning, but nonetheless I was astonished that there would be this degree of secularism.


“More surprising yet, when I asked at the front desk if there was a nearby minyan, they had no idea. Surely if a traveler in Paris or Buenos Aires or Rome on Sunday morning were to ask at the front desk of a large hotel where to find a church, an answer would be forthcoming.


“I would think that at a meeting of this importance they would want the religious or at least some diversity across the board. There was only one kippa-wearing presenter from Judea and Samaria but the rest were almost exclusively left-wingers or Arabs. It’s not a lack, but a virtual absence, of spirituality. There were no prayers over wine or over bread. Absolutely a lack of Jewishness.”


Rabbi Joseph Gerlitzky, the Chabad shaliach in Tel Aviv, relates the following story:




One Friday night as my family began our Shabbos meal, a neighbor from across the street stopped by and told us he had just returned from a year in Thailand. During that time, he said, he had spent every Shabbos at the Chabad House in Bangkok. He had regards for us from a member of our family who was active in that Chabad House.


When my wife told him he could spend Shabbos with us just as he’d done with Chabad in Thailand, he replied, “No, no – I only make Kiddush outside of Israel, not here.”


That reminded me of an old story about the Chassidic Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine some 300 years ago. Before he left Europe, he made up with his yetzer hara (evil inclination) that it would remain behind and not follow him to Israel. But shortly after his arrival in Israel, he discovered his yetzer hara in the Holy Land. When Rabbi Mendel protested that they’d made an agreement, the yetzer hara responded: “But I didn’t follow you! In Ukraine you spoke with my agents; Israel is my headquarters, and this is where I myself dwell.”


An item that appeared in the Israeli press during Passover two years ago shocked even many of Israel’s most secular citizens. An incarcerated Hamas terrorist observed his Israeli guard eating bread. When he asked the guard why he wasn’t eating matzah, the guard laughed and said that as an enlightened, modern man, he wasn’t bound by silly old traditions. The terrorist then assured his fellow inmates, “We will win after all. We respect and love our past, so we have a future, and we will win!”


In a 1959 letter to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote:




It was once fashionable in certain circles to suggest that the Jewish religion and religious observances are necessary for those living in the Diaspora – as a shield against assimilation. But for those who can find another “antidote” in the place of religion, particularly for those living in Eretz Israel, within their own society, where the atmosphere, language, etc. (apparently) serve as ample assurances, the Jewish religion was superfluous – what need had they to burden themselves with all its minutiae in their daily life? But the trend of developments in Eretz Israel in the last seven or eight years has increasingly emphasized the opposite view: That however vital the need for religion amongst Diaspora Jewry, it is needed even more for the Jews in Israel. One of the basic reasons for this is that it is precisely in Eretz Israel that there exists the danger that a new generation will grow up, a new type bearing the name of Israel but completely divorced from the past of our people and its eternal and essential values; and, moreover, hostile to it in its world outlook, culture and the content of its daily life; hostile – in spite of the fact that it will speak Hebrew, dwell in the land of the Patriarchs and wax enthusiastic over the Bible.


As an Orthodox Jew in Israel, I live with the reality of the Rebbe’s prescient words day in and day out.


In fact, after living in Israel for 24 years, I think the biggest surprise is that I still look Jewish.


Avraham Shmuel Lewin is the Israel correspondent of The Jewish Press.

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