Friday, January 21st 2022   |

From evangelical Christian to Chasid

By ALAN SMASON

It is a curious tale, a tale of religious fervor and a tale smacking of incredulity. A familiar-looking Chasidic figure clad in traditional black hat garb and wearing a long beard grabs a microphone in front of a crowd and proudly proclaims he is a Jew. But when Rabbi Yaakov Ephraim Parisi explains that he arrived at his present convention following a rite of passage as, first, a Roman Catholic and, later, a Christian evangelist minister, the crowd of Jews begins to pay close attention.

Yaakov Ephraim Parisi speaks about his road to Orthodoxy following a life as a Catholic and a Christian evangelist. (Photo by Alan Smason)

This scene has been repeated regularly for the past six years around the country as Parisi has been compelled by others to tell his story, very often at Chabad Lubavitch houses. He speaks of how he and and his wife Devorah completed their process to a complete Orthodox conversion following many years preaching the gospel of the Christian bible. Parisi spoke at the Chabad House on Freret Street this past Tuesday night, November 12, in front of a crowd of approximately 80 individuals interested in hearing his story.

“We came out of the mikveh (ritual bath) 16 years ago,” he beamed in speaking about his immersion, the final step in the conversion process. That conversion took place in Denver under the authority of Orthodox Rabbi Mordechai Twerski, who was Parisi’s spiritual advisor at that time. The beit din (rabbinical court) convened to interview the couple took six three-hour sessions held over the course of three months before the Parisis were allowed to bathe in the mikveh and be accepted as Jews.

“Nothing is an accident, especially when it comes to divine providence,” Parisi mused. “You were given a Jewish soul for a divine reason.”

In Parisi’s case, his Jewish soul was born in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, not far from the Crown Points area that is headquarters to the Chabad Lubavitch movement. But Parisi was the son of Italian immigrants, who emigrated from Calabria, the “toe” of the boot of the Italian peninsula. They were strict Roman Catholics.

It wasn’t long after that that Parisi became an altar boy, assisting the parish priests in conducting mass. He was enrolled in religious school and authorities there came to Parisi’s parents and said they spotted something in him that merited their urging the boy become a priest.

Despite his questioning of authority on a regular basis, Parisi continued in his studies until he became a teenager. As he recalled it, for no apparent reason one day, he decided he would become an engineer. He couldn’t explain how the thought had come into his head, but he decided he would follow this compulsion to wherever it took him.

Over the protestations of several Catholic nuns and his local priest as well as the wishes of his parents, Parisi elected to become an engineer. “‘If you let him do this, he’ll never amount to anything,'” Parisi remembered the priest saying to his mother and father. “‘He’ll always be a zero.'”

Rabbi Yaakov Ephraim Parisi (at podium) speaks as Rabbi Zelig Rivkin (far left) and Rabbi Mendel Rivkin (right) listen. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Parisi kept those words in his heart as he continued on his road away from the Church and towards a Jewish lifestyle. He graduated with an engineering degree and just prior to his marriage, left the Church for good.  He and his wife began to raise their family and gravitated to non-denomination evangelical Christianity as the basis for their faith and practice.

His work as a construction engineer had taken him to Israel, where he was offered a job while visiting as a tourist. In need of the work, he accepted immediately and spent several years developing the fuel systems that rapidly refuel Israeli F-16s in less than five minutes. He also worked on several housing projects and left Israel only when a job opportunity presented itself at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Parisi marveled that his unexplained decision to become an engineer might well have been divinely inspired. The rapid response of the Israeli Air Force was considered a turning point in the Lebanon war.

As Parisi recounted his story, he moved to Oklahoma to what he called “the buckle” of the Bible Belt. They became associated with a small church there and he became ordained as a minister. It was during this time, however, that he began to more closely delve into the Tanach (Jewish cannon), purchasing several books including the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and a siddur (prayerbook).

Although they had no one to instruct them in the practice of lighting Sabbath candles, making kiddush or beginning to keep kosher, the Parisis became more respectful and observant of Jewish religious practice. They began to read from the Jewish canon more regularly and began to encourage the members of their small church to do likewise.

Eventually, the Parisis and the local community’s relations became strained. They announced that they were closing their church and headed to Denver to study under Twerski.

He had no money to speak of and no job. When he showed up on Monday morning, Twerski was surprised. “‘What are you doing here?'” he recounted the rabbi asking him.

“You told me to come,” Parisi shot back.

“‘I tell a lot of people to come,'” came the rabbi’s reply, “‘but they never show up!'”

While trying to support himself and preparing for his conversion, Parisi took on a job working temporarily for United Parcel Service and, later as a house painter. He worked 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily, then studied Hebrew and Judaism, sleeping when he could. “I lost 40 pounds in a year,” he said.

When both he and his wife began to live their lives as Jews, their non-Jewish family members relations with them – including their own offspring – became strained. Over the course of the last several years, though, they have become much more respectful and understanding, he related.

Today, both he and his wife are proudly Jewish. Parisi is so busy on the lecture circuit that he and his wife sometimes don’t see each other for extended periods. But they are both happy in the practice of their chosen faith.

“We have a mission as Jews here,” he continued. “Our ancestors gave their lives so we could have a Chabad House, so we could learn Torah and so we could go to Israel,” Parisi said.

Parisi ended by encouraging everyone to cling to their observance of traditional Judaism. “When you don’t compromise your Torah, people change,” he concluded.

Rabbi Yaakov Ephraim Parisi lectures throughout the U.S. His website is here.

 

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