These were clearly suicide missions, but in the army you don’t question the orders of your superiors
discovered Judaism in my thirties while reading a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That book changed my life.
I was born in Namibia, a country in southern Africa, in 1967 — at least according to my official documents. Because I was born at home, in the customary native manner, and not in the hospital, my birth was registered several years after I was born, and my true year of birth is probably 1962, although no one knows with certainty how old I really am.
My tribe, the Ovawambo, passed down stories, from generation to generation, of how our ancestors were once in Egypt, after which they traveled to a place known as Great Lake (currently identified as Tanzania or Ethiopia). Traditionally, the Ovawambo practiced circumcision and other ritual practices associated with Jews, until, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Western missionaries — who identified our tribe with the nations of Israel — put a stop to these practices and pressured my people to convert to Christianity.
While I was growing up, Namibia — then known as South West Africa — was devastated by apartheid, which my tribe resisted. Although we were not, in principle, opposed to education and progress, we refused to have the white man impose his way of life on us by ensnaring us with the carrot of his advances while at the same time trampling on us through racial segregation and discrimination.
Twice during my teenage years — in 1979, and again in 1981 — I was imprisoned for a month for protesting the inhumane treatment of blacks in what was known as the contract labor system. (In the compound where the black contract laborers were confined, no one else was allowed to enter, and the native tribes considered this a new slave trade, which they protested through various uprisings.) During these incarcerations, I was brutally interrogated, flogged, and starved.
In the mid-1980s, I joined the Namibian liberation movement, SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization), and subsequently its military wing. After training as a soldier, I was sent on various combat missions inside and outside the country. Over the next few years, I ventured into the neighboring countries of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and finally Angola as a guerilla fighter against the massive and technologically sophisticated South African army. During that period, the South African apartheid regime would invade southern African countries that harbored freedom fighters from SWAPO or the African National Congress (ANC). Our poorly armed militia was no match for the South African forces, which boasted ground, air, and sea capability.
On many occasions, my fellow soldiers and I were dispatched on missions with just a few guns, after going days without food rations. “You’ll capture the guns and food of the enemy,” the commanders would assure us.
That enemy boasted armored vehicles and helicopters, while we were being sent to battle them on foot, practically starving, with minimal weaponry. These were clearly suicide missions, but in the army you don’t question the orders of your superiors.
After one too many of these doomed missions, I had an innocent discussion with my fellow soldiers about the issue of not being able to question our commanders. My words fell on the wrong ears, however, and I was immediately branded as an insurgent who was hampering the cause of the liberation. Soon, I discovered a shocking secret: the leaders of the liberation struggle were prepared to sacrifice their own people in order to advance their claim of victimhood on the international stage.
I also began drawing suspicion for another reason: during my travels as a resistance fighter, I had picked up some English, the language of the enemy. For that, and for discussing the orders of my superiors, I was accused of spying for South Africa and arrested, in 1987, by members of my own movement.
I was hardly the only one. Thousands of my Namibian compatriots were similarly accused and thrown into primitive detention camps in Angola for the crime of allegedly spying for the enemy.
The detention camp I was imprisoned in was basically an underground labyrinth of tunnels and caves with absolutely nothing inside: no chairs, no beds, no blankets or pillows, no lights. A single hole, with a ladder leading from it, led to the above-ground latrines, and that hole allowed some sunlight to penetrate during the day.
Many of the detainees were educated, intellectual people whose very education, combined with their dissatisfaction over the way they were treated by the leaders of the movement, was construed as proof that they were spying for the white man. For these people to share their knowledge with other inmates was considered a crime against the movement, and many of my fellow detainees were tortured or disappeared for the crime of either teaching or learning. Despite the danger, however, I approached some of these better-educated inmates and prevailed upon them to share their knowledge with me.
In detention, I continued to learn English, drawing letters on my arm and thigh with little sticks that I managed to smuggle in from the latrines. Much of my learning was done in a whisper, while listening closely for the vibrations of the guards’ footsteps.
Fortunately, I was never caught learning, but torture of various sorts was routine in the SWAPO detentions, and during the two years of my imprisonment I was subjected to unimaginable mental and physical torture at the hands of the interrogators and detention guards. Most of my fellow detainees did not survive; they went “missing” or insane as a result of the torture, or perished from disease. How I survived, I cannot explain.
My detention gave me plenty of time to think, and I began to ponder the meaning of life. What is life, I wondered. What is a person? What makes a human different from an animal? Where did I come from, and where will I go after I die?
In detention, there were no answers.
In 1989, the warring parties reached a ceasefire, and a number of Namibian detainees were released. I was not one of these, but by this time, the guards had tired of watching us, and I managed to escape along with 15 other inmates. Shortly afterward, the United Nations repatriated the Namibian refugees in Angola and allowed us to return to our home country. Once back in Namibia, I, together with three other former detainees, formed the National Society for Human Rights, which was recognized by the UN as a human rights advocacy group.
I returned to my homeland bitter and angry. For all that I had been oppressed by the white man, I had suffered far more at the hands of my own people, who, in their paranoia, had turned on me and so many other innocent members of our movement. Having seen people who considered themselves blameless victims becoming perpetrators of the same wrongs they accused their own oppressors of, I developed a deep loathing of politicians and a distrust of all institutions of power.
One of these institutions of power was the church. I knew how Christian missionaries had treated the African natives, devastating many communities in the name of religion in a pattern that traced back to the days of the Crusades and the Inquisition.
After my escape from detention, my disenchantment with the church spurred me to investigate various ideologies and religions, collecting and studying a plethora of scriptural literature in an effort to find answers to the questions I had pondered in detention. My readings included various versions of the Bible, as well as the Koran and literature of various Eastern faiths, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Hinduism.
When Namibia achieved its official independence, in 1990, I began working for the Namibia Institute for Democracy, an NGO that engaged in civic education regarding the democratic process. Eventually, however, the liberation movement, which was now the ruling party, flexed its muscles against our organization, which was giving power to the people and weakening the rule of its official leaders. Pressure from the ruling party resulting in my being fired from the organization, after which I got a job in the government, serving in various capacities from 1995 through 2007.
Having studied the Bible extensively, I knew that G-d had sanctified the seventh day, and I did not see any indication in the Bible that this had changed. Recognizing that Christians had moved the Sabbath to Sunday for reasons of convenience, in 2000 I became a Seventh-Day Adventist, which I thought was a more authentic faith. This religion also resonated with me because of its distrust of politicians, who were viewed as opportunists who manipulated people and religious institutions for their own benefit.
Well-versed as I was in the Bible, I became an elder of my church, eventually serving as deacon and de facto pastor of Seventh-Day Adventist branch in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. Yet I soon realized that Seventh-Day Adventism was nothing more than a thinly guised form of Christianity.
In the course of my extensive readings of the Bible, I had come across myriad references to the “Children of Israel” and the “Hebrews.” It was clear to me that these people were the true bearers of G-d’s word, but I had no idea who their modern-day spiritual heirs were. (I had never even heard of Judaism.) By this point I was prepared to go anywhere in the world to find these mysterious people, since every version of the Bible, as well as the Koran, pointed in their direction.
Interested as I was in world political machinations, at one point I purchased a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To my delight, this book revealed to me the identity of the Children of Israel, exposing them as the Jewish people! The book postulated that no matter how much the Jews are persecuted and decimated, they always remain dominant in world politics.
Later, I would learn that the Protocols is considered a rabidly anti-Semitic hoax, but at the time I found it inspiring. The idea that a chronically oppressed people could consistently rise to the top resonated deeply with me, since I, too, had survived despite suffering terribly both at the hands of foreign powers and at the hands of my own people. Yet my very survival fostered constant unrest within me, spurring me to question how and why I had survived while most other perished and to seek answers to the existential questions that continued to plague me.
Now that the Protocols had established for me the link between the Children of Israel and the Jews, I knew with certainty that the Jewish people and their Torah held the answers to my questions and the keys to the secrets of the universe.
I had no idea that there were any Jews in Namibia, but a search through the phonebook revealed an entry for the Windhoek Hebrew Congregation. I dialed the number listed, and a man named Zvi Gorelick, a businessman who serves as the leader of the tiny Namibian Jewish community, answered and invited me to meet with him. When I arrived at his house and saw him, wearing a little cap on his head, my first words were, “These are the people I am looking for!”
When I told him my story and described my exhaustive quest for the true faith, he was impressed, and invited me to attend services at his synagogue that Friday night.
Upon my arrival at the synagogue, I was shocked to discover that this congregation was located on a street I drove down every day! I had seen the six-pointed star outside countless times but had assumed it was a meeting place of freemasons, as I had read about the six-pointed star of that society.
Zvi handed me a Hebrew-English prayer book and a little cap like his. “We call it a yarmulke,” he explained.
From that moment in 2004, I have never been without a yarmulke.
Before leaving the synagogue that evening, I asked if I could borrow the prayer book, and I took it home to study. From then on, I regularly attended Shabbat services in the synagogue, as well as the Torah classes that Zvi gave during the week. Since many of the practices of Seventh-Day Adventists are very similar to Jewish observances, I was already familiar with many of the commandments that Zvi discussed; some of these were actually reflected in the ancient rituals of my tribe.
I asked Zvi where I could purchase a copy of the Torah, and he offered to order an English Chumash for me from South Africa, which took two weeks to arrive. When I started reading it, with the commentaries, it all made perfect sense. The Christian versions of the Old Testament that I had read were very different from the translation of the Torah that I was now reading, and it reinforced to me that Christianity was simply a cheap imitation of the true faith, Judaism.
I began buying any Jewish books I could get my hands on, ordering many from South Africa. Eventually, I amassed a personal library of some 300 Jewish titles, ranging from the Talmud and Zohar to Rambam, Derech Hashem, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, The Midrash Says, and the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. In these works, I discovered the true meaning of life.
At the same time that I was discovering the depth and beauty of G-d’s plan for the world, I again encountered the treachery of man. Although the nascent Namibian government I worked for was ostensibly democratic, in practice those who were not aligned with the ruling party were consistently sidelined.
In 2005, in my official capacity as chief control officer in the Department of Fixed Asset Management, I was falsely accused of corruption and suspended from my post, pending a disciplinary hearing.
The hearing dragged on until 2007, at which time my superiors told me that I had been found guilty and demoted in rank and salary. No official verdict was ever rendered, however, and that same year I was asked to resume working as chief control officer in the Department of Transport Policy and Regulations.
By this time, I had decided to convert to Judaism. Since the tiny Jewish community in Namibia had no beis din, they could not convert me, so they referred me to the beis din in South Africa. But the South African beis din told me they were not authorized to convert foreign nationals living outside South Africa, and they recommended that I convert in Israel.
When I submitted my conversion request to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, however, my application was rejected on the grounds that I was not part of a recognized community. Over the next few years, I appealed this rejection repeatedly, until finally, in 2016, I was approved to join a course of study in Jerusalem’s Machon Meir yeshivah that would end in conversion.
The conversion course was supposed to take up to a year, but my actual conversion was delayed because my background as a resistance fighter came under scrutiny; seeing that I had been incarcerated led the rabbinical investigation committee to conclude that I was a criminal. With the help of a rabbi who hailed from Russia and was familiar with the liberation struggles of southern African countries, the misconception about my detention was resolved. This rabbi advised me to have my story substantiated by an official body, so I wrote to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and another human rights organization in Namibia asking them to write letters on my behalf. They responded with letters explaining that I had been a political detainee, one of the few who survived the atrocities perpetrated during the struggle for Namibian independence. The rabbi arranged for these letters to be translated to Hebrew and submitted to the Chief Rabbinate, after which I was finally allowed to convert.
Following my conversion, in 2018, I returned to Namibia as a Jew. My aging parents did not understand why I had left my job, or why I had decided to convert, but a cousin of mine who is a pastor sat with them and explained that I had gone to the source of our people’s faith. “Without the people he is joining, we would not be here,” he told my parents. “Christianity is not the source — the people he is joining are the original.”
This past November, I made aliyah and returned to Machon Meir to continue my studies, while still serving as a member of the Namibia National Society for Human Rights and advising my tribe from afar regarding traditional matters.
Is this my happy ending? Well, aliyah has presented me with a number of challenges, including loneliness, a language barrier, and the difficulty of finding employment. I also suffer from chronic pain, which probably stems from being tortured in the detention camp. Yet it is in Israel, and with the Jewish people and their Torah, that I have found my place in this world. Today, I feel a sense of contentment and belonging; I feel that I am alive.
In the Torah, I have found the answers to my questions. What is life? Life is an opportunity to develop a relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. What is a person? A person is a fusion of body and soul, a soul that infuses him with free will and differentiates him from animals, who are creatures of instinct. Where did I come from? From the World of Truth, to which I will return after refining myself in this world through overcoming the challenges I face each day.
I have also discovered the true meaning of freedom. A man who follows G-d is free; a man who follows other men is a slave. A man who identifies with his soul is free; a man who identifies with his body is a slave.
I became a freedom fighter to resist the oppression of the white man, only to be imprisoned by my own compatriots. But just as the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt was the stepping stone to their redemption, my imprisonment led to the awakening of my soul. My liberation struggle has brought me to Jerusalem, where today I am studying Torah as I, along with the rest of the Jewish people, await the final redemption.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 772)