In March of 1979 People magazine featured an unusual celebrity in one of its brief, punchy articles. While the story, titled “Onetime Catholic Priest Abraham Carmel Celebrates His 25th Year as an Orthodox Jew,” opened and closed with celebrity-style quotes (“Some people are born musicians … I was a born believer”), the substance of the account was remarkably sober. Before he converted to Judaism, Carmel had served as a Catholic priest for 10 years. And the Catholic Church was not his first spiritual home. He had grown up in London in an Anglican family and turned to Catholicism in his 20s. During his quarter century as an Orthodox Jew Carmel had been an influential educator, and in 1979, in his late 60s, he embarked on an American lecture tour to “convert Jews to Judaism.” Carmel’s claim that he was “the first fully ordained Catholic priest to convert to Judaism in 900 years” was perhaps an overstatement. But that hyperbole did not make the life story of Kenneth Charles Cox (for that was his given name) any less remarkable.
Cox was born in 1911 in London to a wealthy family. He was orphaned at a very young age and brought up by guardians. Occasionally he would visit his grandparents. He described himself as a “precociously religious-minded” child. By the age of 10 Cox had memorized large parts of the scriptures and loved to stage mock sermons in front of friends and their parents. In early adolescence Kenneth was determined to become an Anglican clergyman; his schoolmates derisively nicknamed him “parson.” In his 1964 autobiography, So Strange My Path, Cox remarked on “one very remarkable circumstance of my childhood … from also as far back as I can remember, wherever I saw a Jew I felt an affinity with him and a strong desire to become acquainted with him. … It might perhaps be traced to my realization, beneath the surface of my boyish Christian fervour, that Jesus had been a Jew and practiced the Jewish religion.”
By the age of 18, Kenneth Cox was serving as the superintendent of the Sunday school in his local Anglican parish. The differences of opinions within the Anglican Church were very confusing and disorienting to this sincere young Christian. “I loved the Anglican Church,” he wrote. “But however much the church had meant to me, and still did, the confusion of voices in what had, alas, become a religious Babel, distressed me beyond measure. … I wanted Truth, unvarnished, authoritative, and clearly defined beyond possibility of error.”
The young Kenneth Cox was in search of religious absolutes and was willing and able to move from the study of one religion to another. As he remembered it, he was “driven by a desperate urge to find an anchor of faith.” Cox tells of his attendance at many different types of English churches and his attendance at the sermons of the great preachers of his day. He soon moved to the study of non-Christian religions, and in London of the 1940s found a living laboratory of these religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Thus as a young man Cox became a self-taught aficionado of multiple religious forms. “I was struck by the fact of how few Christians realize that there are many great and worthy religions in the world besides their own.”
In his search for “absolute Truth” one of Cox’s greatest disappointments was with Liberal Judaism, England’s form of Reform Judaism. He spent six months “at considerable inconvenience” attending Saturday services at northwest London’s Liberal Jewish Synagogue. He found the ritual “anemic” and despite his enthusiasm for that congregation’s social activism, Cox was “bitterly disappointed. … The sole satisfaction I derived from these sessions was that of being among Jewish people, for whom, as I have earlier related, I felt so strong, though unexplained, an attraction even as a small boy.” “Consequently,” he wrote, “I was misled for a very long time into thinking that Judaism was as dead as a dodo, which is precisely what my teachers told me since early childhood.” Cox also attended the worship services of Christian Scientists and Quakers, and visited mosques and Hindu temples. But the Catholic Church, he wrote, did not appeal to him on any level.
Perhaps because of this very resistance, Cox decided to overcome his “strongly conditioned anti-Catholic prejudice,” and visit English Catholic churches. Cox read the tracts and books of Anglican converts to Catholicism and was deeply impressed. In May 1934, after a long period of study and reflection, Cox was received into the Catholic Church. “From the moment of my reception into the Roman Catholic Church I had started to make new, kind friends on all sides who virtually eliminated any sensations of strangeness I might otherwise have experienced.” He knew at the time of his acceptance into the Church that he wanted to be a priest.
In September 1934 Cox entered an English Catholic seminary, Campion House College. From there he moved to a Catholic university, St. Mary’s College in Birmingham, where he studied philosophy and literature. In 1943 he was ordained as a priest. Father Cox then served as a parish priest in Scotland in Stirling, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In his decade as a Catholic priest, Father Cox had to supervise many conversions to Catholicism by members of the Church of England and the Scottish churches. As he was himself a convert, his superiors considered him an ideal “preparer” of converts to the “True Church.” But as Cox’s faith in Catholic doctrine weakened he found it more and more difficult to receive candidates for conversion. He asked his superiors to relieve him of his “preparer” duties.
Father Cox described his spiritual crisis in this way: “The substance of my gnawing doubt … concerned the very cornerstone of authentic Christianity, the divinity of Jesus. … My work of hearing confessions became a terrible burden, because, if Jesus was not divine, he could not give me power to forgive sins in God’s name. … Physically I was still in the Church and its priesthood; spiritually I was moving towards a new home.” This crisis led Cox to consider leaving the priesthood. But he knew that doing so without adopting another set of beliefs and practices would render his life meaningless. From his childhood he recognized that he could not live outside of a strict religious framework.
In the midst of his spiritual crisis, Father Cox was influenced by reading Hebrew University Professor Joseph Klausner’s books Jesus of Nazareth and From Jesus to Paul. His encounter with Klausner’s work deepened his doubts about Christian doctrine. Written in Hebrew in the 1920s and translated soon afterward into English, Klausner’s volumes portrayed Jesus and his teachings as thoroughly Jewish. Paul, wrote Klausner, was the founder of Christianity, not Jesus. But Paul too in Klausner’s opinion, was thoroughly Jewish, though he deviated from normative Jewish ideas. In Father Cox’s words Klausner’s conclusion was that, “The education of Jesus was far more exclusively Jewish than is the education of most Jews today. … His was a strictly Hebraic upbringing. Jesus was not a Christian!” More important, for Cox, Jesus, as described by Klausner, was not divine. Reflecting on his Christian pasts, both Anglican and Catholic, Cox wrote that “my own rejection of Christianity was based essentially upon my rejection of the divinity of Jesus. The road to Judaism started from that point.”
In 1948 Father Cox met with Rabbi Israel Brodie, senior Jewish chaplain of the British Army. At the time Rabbi Brodie was a candidate for the position of chief rabbi of Britain. Would it be possible, asked Cox of Rabbi Brodie, for him to become a Jew? Cox hoped that his request would be met with sympathy and enthusiasm, as his request to study Catholic doctrine had. Rabbi Brodie told Cox that his request to convert would be met by his fellow rabbis on the rabbinic court with suspicion. “Brodie,” wrote Cox, “pointed out very strongly the serious problems and difficulties I should encounter.”
Not easily discouraged, Cox wrote to the London Beit Din expressing interest in becoming a Jew. He received a curt response: “Write again in six months,” he was told. There was no indication, said Cox, of “interest, help, or sympathy.” When he did write back, exactly six months later, he was invited to a conversation with Rabbi Brodie (who had since been appointed chief rabbi) and other members of the Beit Din. They were not encouraging. Skeptical as to whether Cox could live and work in a Jewish community, the Beit Din suggested that he “should obtain employment in a Jewish environment in order to give [himself] the opportunity of proving that [he] possessed the ability.” It would take at least two years for his case to be heard, he was told. If he were to be accepted into the Orthodox Jewish community, it would take a number of years for him to find a permanent place in it. In the meanwhile, he should embark on a course of study that included learning Hebrew, Jewish law, and the essentials of Jewish belief. “I was in a heartbreaking position. I had left everything behind to enter the Jewish community, yet here I was, compelled to live without its consolations and suspended in a vacuum, as it were, neither Christian or Jew.”
Cox experienced his conversion to Judaism as an ordeal. “Truly there is no other religion,” he wrote, “which places so many obstacles in the way of converts as does Judaism. My experiences in this respect had driven me to a firm conclusion that only the very sincere, or else the very insane, would submit to the tests and trials imposed by the Beit Din.” And let us not forget circumcision, the physical ordeal that all male converts to Judaism undergo. In Carmel’s case, the procedure was particularly painful, as the anesthesia was not complete. (According to some accounts, this was on Carmel’s insistence, as he wanted to fully experience the mitzvah.) And there were complications after the surgery. This trauma would stay with him for the rest of his life, and I am told that his students at the Yeshivah of Flatbush often heard him speak of it.
Once his conversion was “official” and confirmed by a document signed by the rabbis of the Beit Din, Kenneth Cox experienced a considerable letdown. In an essay written a quarter century later, he said, “In September of 1953, I had already joined myself to the faith and people of Israel through the rite of circumcision, and I doubt whether the first man to land on the moon could have felt more isolated or utterly alone.” Eventually he overcame that isolation, but his path to feeling fully accepted with the Jewish world was a difficult one.
Reflecting on his two conversions, Cox contrasted the warmth which he was received into the Roman Catholic Church with “the chilly indifferences with which the convert to Judaism is treated.” When he moved to the United States a decade later, Carmel experienced a warmer reception from the Modern Orthodox communities of New York City. But in 1950s England there was little enthusiasm in the Orthodox community for a convert from among the Catholic clergy. The British Beit Din, reflecting and shaping the attitudes of Britain’s Orthodox congregations, was not receptive or welcoming to converts, especially to converts from the Anglican or Catholic Churches. Unlike the United States, in which there was no state religious establishment with which the Jews had to negotiate their own religious identity, England had an established church. For an Anglican, converting to Judaism meant leaving the established church of one’s native land. In Kenneth Cox’s case, the interreligious dynamics were even more complicated. A decade earlier he had left the Anglican Church to become a Catholic priest. Now he sought to become a Jew. The rabbis of the London Beit Din were no doubt aware that by accepting Cox into the Jewish community they risked alienating both Anglican and Catholic ecclesiastical authorities. Perhaps this was why the rabbinic court took a full five years to declare Cox’s conversion valid.
Cox took his new name from the patriarch Abraham, and his new family name from England’s Carmel College. As a Jew, Abraham Carmel became an ardent Zionist. But he was critical of Zionism’s secular aspects and thought of himself as a Religious Zionist. “If we permit Zionism to be divorced from Judaism, we are building on shifting sands and copying the errors of our worst enemies—the materialist nationalists.”
With the help of the London Beit Din, the newly named Abraham Carmel found employment within the British Jewish community. He taught at Carmel College, a high school that has been described as “the Anglo-Jewish Eton.” He began to teach there before his conversion process was completed, thus assuring the rabbis of the Beit Din that he could function well in a thoroughly Jewish environment. Carmel was an Orthodox school that aspired to excellence in the teaching of Western culture as well as in the teaching of traditional Jewish culture. For the nine years he was at Carmel, Carmel taught English literature, with a focus on Shakespearean drama. He also offered classes in Latin and history.
In 1959, Abraham Carmel moved to Israel, where he hoped to settle permanently. After attending an ulpan for a few months, Carmel took a teaching position at Haifa’s prestigious Reali High School. By all accounts he was a popular teacher. In his second year at the school Carmel contracted a rare intestinal disease. He went to the United States for medical treatment and eventually made his home in New York City. His Israeli sojourn, though only a year and a half in duration, had a profound effect on him. He remained an ardent Zionist.
Soon after he settled in New York City, Carmel was invited to speak at a number of Jewish institutions, including Hadassah. Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a pioneer in intrafaith and interfaith relations, befriended Carmel and arranged a meeting between him and the members of the New York Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Tenenbaum described this meeting in an article in the Jewish Chronicle. “The New York Board of Rabbis, which represents some 700 Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform rabbis, saw the largest turnout in recent history at an executive board meeting when a lecture by Mr. Carmel was announced. Reports state that many skeptical rabbis came to mock, but left the meeting intrigued.”
As an experienced teacher of English literature, Carmel soon found employment in the high school of the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, a Modern Orthodox institution. He was to teach there for 22 years. During that period he taught hundreds of students and exerted considerable influence over many of them.
Some of his students went on to distinguished careers in literature and the arts. One of them, Dovid Katz, founder of the Yiddish programs at Oxford University and the University of Vilnius (and a Tablet contributor), told me that:
For generations of yeshiva high school students in New York, Abraham Carmel was the most exotic and amazing teacher you were ever going to have in all your years in the place. His Shakespearean British language, and accent and elegant mannerisms to match, were a rarefied kind of music to our Brooklyn ears trained on rather more local fare. When we learned from our Jewish-studies teachers that Mr. Carmel (as we would always call him) was himself a former Christian minister who had become a ger tzedek (full, or righteous proselyte) he acquired an even more unique place in our young imagination, fascinated to learn that his original surname was, I think, Cox.
Speaking of Carmel’s personal and professional lives, Katz noted that Carmel “seemed to many of us a lonely man, perhaps because the other teachers, both from the Jewish (‘Hebrew’) and secular studies (‘English’) programs seemed not to socialize with him much at events where we could see the teachers interacting.” Katz continued:
He himself was careful to keep theology out of class discussions, and he was singularly dedicated to making us literate in English literature, and he had infinite patience with the weaker pupils, and even those who would sometimes play the pranks that children play (the odd paper plane sprung across the room from an untraceable source; he was the last guy on the planet who would try to figure out who the culprit was). Precisely because literature was decidedly not a sacred text, Mr. Carmel made it his business to train us in critical thinking and the ability to see different sides of an argument.
Another student with vivid memories of “Mr. Carmel” was the artist David Schoffman, who described him as: “a world-class eccentric.” Referring to Carmel’s conversion to Judaism, Schoffman said the fact “that Mr. Carmel decided to join the tribe was the least odd thing about him. He was always disheveled and when he paced the room reciting passages from Shakespeare, his feet barely lifted off the floor and he always seemed to be on the verge of stumbling and falling in mid-soliloquy.”
Rather than live in Flatbush, Carmel chose to live in Manhattan and commute daily to Brooklyn. In Manhattan, he joined the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. And it was at that synagogue, in 1966 that he celebrated his bar mitzvah on the 13th anniversary of his conversion to Judaism. Rabbi Jakobovits, the British chief rabbi, spoke at a kiddush held in Carmel’s honor. To a British newspaper correspondent who interviewed him at the time, Carmel spoke of his pleasure in being accepted by the synagogue community. But, at the same time, he expressed some dismay that “the road had not been made easy” for him. Carmel told the Jewish Chronicle correspondent that “his advice to would-be converts would be a warning of what to expect: suspicion and alienation from the very community he suffered so much to enter.”
While teaching at Flatbush, Carmel accepted invitations to lecture at New York-area synagogues. It was at one of his early speaking engagements that I first heard him speak. The venue was Young Israel of Jackson Heights, Queens, an Orthodox synagogue. I was 15 at the time. Carmel’s English accent and dramatic speaking manner (influenced no doubt by his career as a teacher of Shakespeare’s plays) made a deep impression on me. I encouraged my high school friends to come to Carmel’s lecture too. As we were literary types seeking entry to the exciting world of Western culture, it was hard for us to see what the Orthodox world we knew from our eastern European-style yeshivas had to offer this cultured and sophisticated man.
A measure of Carmel’s eventual acceptance by what we would now call Modern Orthodoxy was expressed by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who wrote that, “In all of my experience I met very, very few converts to Judaism who made both leaps—intellectually and emotionally—as did Carmel. … He gave every bit of intellectual prowess and emotional fervor to deepen the religious commitment of Jewish youth and he did it at the same time that he sought to deepen his own knowledge of Torah.”
In New York, Carmel set to work on an autobiography. When Carmel’s book So Strange My Path was published in 1964 he embarked on a national book tour of synagogues and Jewish community centers. Sponsored by the Jewish Welfare Board, this tour enabled Carmel to speak at scores of Jewish community centers and synagogues. The publicity for this tour emphasized Carmel’s journey from the Anglican tradition to the Catholic Church, and from the Catholic Church to Orthodox Judaism.
In the mid-1970s Abraham Carmel embarked on yet another speaking tour of American synagogues. One New York-area newspaper announcing a lecture by Carmel told of a “priest who converted to Judaism … his topic will be: ‘Converting Jews to Judaism in Our Time.’ ” As a convert to Judaism, Carmel sought to bring American Jews closer to what he considered “true” Judaism—Orthodoxy. Most American Jews were then, as now, affiliated with the Reform or Conservative denominations. Carmel found this situation distressing, and like the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim he sought to make Jews “more Jewish.” Invoking his own two religious conversions he delighted in calling this “return” to traditional Judaism a form of “conversion,” one parallel to his own conversions.
Carmel’s quest for “absolute Truth” made him reject liberalism of all kinds. Jews who belonged to no denomination but described themselves as secular or cultural Jews were the object of Carmel’s disdain. Even before his conversion to Judaism was official he disdained “non-observant Jews.” Back in his first year of teaching at Carmel School, Carmel kept the laws of kashrut, though he was not yet bound to observe them. “I lived,” he wrote, “on vegetables and fruit. I was highly conscious, needless to say, of the paradox of the situation in which I, not yet a Jew, was straining every nerve to adhere to Jewish laws, while everywhere I saw those born as Jews happily stuffing themselves with ham sandwiches. Either I was crazy, I concluded, or else they were the last word in perversity.”
In the mid-1970s a strange encounter took place between Carmel and another Catholic convert to Judaism, Ruth Ben David. The place was Carmel’s place of employment, the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, Ruth Ben David, the former Madeleine Ferraille, was travelling in the United States as a representative of the anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta. Her group had many allies and supporters among Hasidic groups in Brooklyn. Among these supporters she was famous as the woman who had defied the Israeli government in the early 1960s by smuggling Yossele Schumacher out of Israel and hiding him in Brooklyn. The administrators of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, a bastion of Religious Zionism, were open-minded enough to invite Ben David to address the students. Perhaps they felt that Zionism was so intrinsic to their students’ worldview that they would be impervious to Ben David’s anti-Zionist message.
Carmel, who remained an ardent Zionist though he had moved from Israel to the United States a decade earlier, knew of Ben David’s theological and political arguments against the Jewish State and disagreed with the school’s decision to let Ben David address the students. As far as Carmel was concerned, Ben David and her supporters were heretics. But the school administration did not rescind its invitation. I was told by one of the high school teachers who witnessed the confrontation between Carmel and Ben David, two seekers of absolutes, that Carmel answered Ben David’s anti-Zionist arguments passionately. On hearing Ben David’s claim that the State of Israel was a “catastrophe for the Jewish people”—and that “Zionism bore culpability for the Holocaust,” which Ben David described as “divine punishment”—Carmel said: “I have searched my whole life for God, and if this was the God I found I would spit in his face.” Among the many ironies of the confrontation between these two passionate converts from Catholicism to Judaism was that Ben David, who lived in Jerusalem, was a passionate opponent of Zionism; Carmel, who lived in New York, was a passionate supporter of it.
In contrast to his tumultuous early decades, Carmel’s life in New York City was for the most part uneventful. Despite his total commitment to Orthodox Judaism, Carmel was never accepted fully into the community he embraced. There were a number of reasons for this. Though he was devoutly Orthodox, Carmel hadn’t fulfilled the basic social and religious norms of Orthodoxy: He never married, had no children, and he never fully mastered Hebrew. And this lack of Hebrew kept him from mastering the liturgy. Carmel’s position of liturgical and clerical authority in the Catholic Church was thus in sharp contrast to his situation within the American Orthodox Jewish community. When he joined the Catholic Church he knew that he wanted to be a priest. When he joined the Jewish people he did not have the education necessary for him to become an Orthodox rabbi. Not because he was a convert, but because he didn’t possess the rigorous educational background that is the prerequisite for studying for the Orthodox rabbinate. A few decades later “conversion” to Orthodoxy (both from within Judaism and without) became more common. Converts were no longer the anomalies that they once were. But in Carmel’s time and place he was probably the only convert that many Orthodox Jews would encounter.
Carmel knew that he couldn’t become a rabbi, but he did hope to become a spokesman for American Judaism. He felt that the American Jewish establishment, like its British counterpart, was somewhat embarrassed by his attempts to become a public figure. He wanted to feature his convert status; they wanted to obscure it. Carmel could be quite bitter on the topic. He claimed that “those who hold the reins of power determined an uncompromising policy to keep the proselyte under tight wraps, allowing him a few crumbs of fulfillment provided he, like Little Jack Horner, sat in a corner, pulling out the rare graciously bestowed plums of self-expression.”
On the 1964 publication of Nostra Aetate, the document on interreligious relations promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, Abraham Carmel hoped he might serve as interlocutor between American Jews and American Catholics. But his appeals to do just that were summarily rejected. “As one who has loved in both the Christian and Jewish worlds, I have more than an ordinary interest and knowledge concerning ecumenism,” he wrote. But his interest and knowledge were not put to good use by what Carmel termed “the Jewish establishment.” In an unpublished manuscript, Carmel complained bitterly about this perceived rejection: “Although the writer has not been permitted by the Jewish establishment to use his experience, we must hope that future proselytes will not be buried as he has been. Public relations are uppermost in the minds of our communal executives, whose servile attitude toward the Church is nauseating to Christian and Jew alike.”
Carmel went on to contrast his “burial” by Jewish organizations with the Catholic Church’s utilization of prominent churchmen who were converts to Catholicism from Judaism: Carmel singled out two Catholic priests: “Monsignor John Oesterreicher and Father Gregory Baum, both born Jews, are used by the Church frequently in matters ecumenical, and I have not yet to hear a word of complaint from the American Jewish Committee, or the multitude of Jewish groups who vie for the top rung on the inter-faith ladder.” Despite his disappointment at being blocked from participation in ecumenical activities, Carmel’s enthusiasm for Nostra Aetate’s teachings on the Jews was considerable: He noted that, “If the Vatican Council had produced no other result, this new attitude on the part of the Church toward Judaism would be worthwhile. It was not the official attitude during the time of my priesthood. … In the light of my own personal experience, this is a most revolutionary change in official Catholic thinking.”
At the time of his conversion to Judaism, a process that took place over the five years between 1948 and 1953, Carmel’s story was indeed unique. For centuries there had been no confirmed report of a Catholic priest who had converted to Judaism. Among the Jews of Eastern Europe there was a persistent folk tale of a late-18th-century Polish Catholic nobleman, Count Potocki, who underwent conversion to Judaism. But he was a Catholic nobleman, not a priest. According to this widely reported story, when the Polish authorities found Potocki—he was hiding in a small Jewish village in the countryside—they executed him by burning him at the stake in Vilna’s central square. Throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries, visitors to Vilna’s Jewish cemetery would be shown his grave. Though historians now question whether this story was actual or legendary, its persistence in Yiddish folklore and literature indicates both the pride and the attendant anxiety surrounding the very idea of Catholic conversion to Judaism. By the second decade of the 21st century, confirmed stories of Catholic and Protestant clergy having become Jews abound. One website lists some of these conversions. In the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, Judaism’s “stock” had risen remarkably, and the clergy of other religions found themselves drawn to its practices and ideas.
Excluded from the emerging Catholic-Jewish dialogue of the 1960s and ’70s, Carmel turned to other forms of expression and argument. He set his mind to write another book. His autobiography was well-received and was still being read a decade later. Carmel’s working title for his second book was My Chosen People: A Journey through Spiritual Space. On the title page of the manuscript he said that his motivation in writing the book was “to share with sincere seekers, non-Jews as well as Jews, spiritual values so sorely needed in an age of perplexity and doubt.” The manuscript copy that I have seen was 240 pages long. It was never published.
Carmel’s concern for the future of an “authentic Judaism” in the United States is the dominating theme of the manuscript. He was alarmed by the increasing appeal that Christianity, especially as preached and promoted by Jews for Jesus, had for young American Jews. Be he also saw an encouraging opposing trend, “The increasing interest shown by Christians in Judaism and Jewish custom is a welcome sign that the mother faith is about to experience a renaissance. Perhaps some of the young Jews, who in increasing numbers are accepting Jesus, will discover that beauty of Judaism.”
While it calls on Jews to embrace more traditional forms of Judaism, My Chosen People is decidedly anti-establishment. Just as Carmel derided those “Jewish communal executives” who excluded him from participating in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, he derided the “Madison Avenue-type rabbi, who sits in his elegant executive suite, representing the establishment in matters ecumenical, sociological or absurdly theological.” Rather than act as “executives,” rabbis and Jewish community leaders should focus, according to Carmel, on two objectives: “Converting Jews to Judaism, and converting anti-Semites to philo-Semites.” Carmel decried the emptiness of “establishment” religious life. He sought a more demonstrative and effective approach to bringing “Jews to Judaism,” though he admitted that some approaches, such as those of “charismatic rabbis and rebbetzins” “may be too emotional for the author.” Carmel’s modest aspirations did not find organizational expression. But in the 1970s and ’80s, through the work of other advocates of “Jews for Judaism,” many young American Jews were drawn back to the sources and practices of Jewish tradition.
Though he wrote at the end of the 1970s that “I am a fanatical Zionist; I look forward to spending my final years in Jerusalem,” Carmel was not able to make that wish a reality. In 1982 he died in New York City. In keeping with time-honored tradition, his body was flown to Israel, where he was buried in the town of Beit Shemesh. Students and colleagues from the Carmel School in England, the Reali School of Haifa, and the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn attended the funeral.
Perhaps the most moving obituary for Abraham Carmel was penned by Rabbi Abraham Levy of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Congregation: “With the death of Mr. Abraham Carmel, a righteous and saintly proselyte has departed from the world. He lived his Judaism passionately. He shunned materialism and he cared greatly for people.”
Read Shalom Goldman’s Tablet magazine profiles of eccentric Jews, converts, and apostates here.
Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.