September 15, 2019

From Christian to Muslim to Rabbinical Student

Mordechai Yosef ben Avraham

Mordechai Yosef ben Avraham is accustomed to being an outsider. He and his brother were two of only three African American students at his affluent high school in Calabasas. Today, between his Torah studies at Ohr Somayach yeshiva and a rabbinical ordination course, Ben Avraham is one of the only African Americans straddling the Bnei Brak-Jerusalem highway.

Ben Avraham’s spiritual journey, and eventual conversion to Judaism, began with his parents. His mother, a professor at USC, and his father, the owner of an insurance company, were always “truth seekers,” he said. In the 1970s, they left Christianity and converted to Islam. Ben Avraham’s birth name is Shariff Hasan. 

Later, the family became affiliated with the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, attending Shabbat dinners with the likes of Madonna, while he threw high school parties attended by Khloé Kardashian. 

Ben Avraham couldn’t shake the intensity of emotion he experienced during his first Friday night at the Kabbalah Centre. “The next morning, I just lay in my bed for ages thinking, ‘What just happened? How could salmon and soup and kugel and songs and Torah make me feel like this?’ It was like a drug.”

It would be years before he traded in the Hollywood Hills for the Judean ones. In the meantime, he donned a plethora of hats in both the entertainment industry and the political arena.

“‘How could salmon and soup and kugel and songs and Torah make me feel like this?’ It was like a drug.” 

In 2009, he went to work for Todd Moscowitz, then-CEO of Warner Bros. Records. While there, he founded Jerkin’ — a viral video dance movement that eschewed traditional hip-hop trends such as baggy pants in favor of skinny jeans. He collaborated with Dior and Yves Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane, to launch the Skinny Jeanz fashion line.

In 2013, Ben Avraham converted to Judaism, after what he said was a long period of resistance. “I couldn’t get over it. My soul needed it. Everything else became secondary.” 

A host of rabbis took Ben Avraham under their wing; he eventually became a board member of Nessah Synagogue’s LeDor VaDor organization.

Ben Avraham soon realized that his professional life was not conducive to the religious life he was trying to create. He left the entertainment sphere to pursue politics and in 2016, became the Republican House nominee for California’s 37th Congressional District. Even though he lost to the Democratic Karen Bass, Ben Avraham still views his bid as a victory. 

“No. 1, I got on the ballot, which is already a win,” he said. “And No. 2, I got to speak to a lot of important people about promoting my ideas.” Those ideas have remained consistent throughout all his incarnations, whether as a hip-hop promoter, politician or Orthodox Jew. “I’m about community organizing, promoting entrepreneurship, creativity and family values,” he said.

Soon after the election, one of his rabbis persuaded him to spend three months in Jerusalem’s Ohr Somayach yeshiva. Three months turned into three years.

“Living in Jerusalem is a gift. It’s part of the book of life and a continuation of the history that started thousands of years ago,” he said. “You see the hand of God so much clearer.”