With a black velvet kippah, tzitzit, and Hebrew name, Avihai Shanti looks like any other Orthodox Israeli Jewish man. But Shanti’s outward appearance belies his unique story and his journey as an Arab convert from Islam to Judaism.
Raised in the southern city of Beer Sheva, has been forced to flee his parent’s home, after members of his extended family responded with outrage to his decision to join the Jewish people.
Speaking with BeHadrei Haredim on Sunday, Shanti discussed his decision to convert and his family’s reaction.
“I was born to a Muslim family, and we lived in Beer Sheva. Since I was little I always saw Jews as being compassionate and forgiving people, and I always sensed a connection to the Jewish people.”
“We lived in a predominately Jewish area and I had a lot of Jewish friends in Beer Sheva, and we would hang out a lot. On Yom Kippur I respected [their practices] and wouldn’t smoke or eat [around them]. I always saw a connection with this people.”
It was only after Shanti moved out of Beer Sheva, however, and began working in the center of Israel that he decided to take the plunge.
“A while ago I started to work in the center of the country, and I would also sleep there. During the time I was working there I connected more and more to the Jewish people, and that’s when I decided: that’s it, no matter what, I’m going to convert and join this wonderful people.”
While Shanti’s parents warmly accepted his decision to become Jewish, his extended family was less than understanding.
“From that point on things were straightforward. I told my parents about my intention to convert and they accepted it and even were happy for me. But my extended family was extremely outraged.”
Despite his parent’s acceptance of his decision, Shanti was eventually forced to flee, fearing retribution from relatives upset with his plan to convert.
“After I started the conversion process I was still living in my parents’ house in Beer Sheva. But [when] some of my relatives didn’t take my decision [to convert] well – it came to the point where it was really dangerous [for me] and I decided to leave my parents’ house in Beer Sheva a few days ago”.
Following an appeal on social media, Shanti found work and housing elsewhere, and he is continuing the conversion process.
Rabbi Shimon Levy, who is guiding Shanti through the conversion process, noted his dedication.
“Avihai started learning with us for the conversion process about two months ago. He never misses a class, even though he’s coming from far away.”