Ali/Eliya Hassan: A shock wave In Brooklyn's Syrian Jewish community

This is an appalling tragedy of errors of Shakepearian proportions that has pierced the hearts of many. Opinion.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin ,

Eli Kobin

Flatbush, Brooklyn, USA, in which a large Orthodox Syrian Jewish community resides, is reeling in shock at the fact that an Orthodox young woman from its community was fooled by a non-Jewish Lebanese Arab into marrying her because he lied so convincingly to her, her family and community that he too was just as Orthodox and Jewish as they were. They fell for his gamble and gambit, hook, line and sinker only to discover days AFTER the wedding, too late - but better late than never - that it was all an elaborate ruse and charade to find a way to enter, smuggle himself into, the larger Orthodox Jewish world.

The story has had tragic consequences for all concerned. For the Chabad Rabbi and Jewish organizations in Texas that hosted the young imposter after he arrived from Lebanon posing as a Jew about seven years ago, to the young woman he duped into marrying him, to the Jewish Syrian Rabbis he thoroughly deceived into accepting him as a "bona fide" religious Jew, to the family of the young woman he married and the welcoming Syrian Jewish families that hosted him thinking he was genuine about his Jewish observance and invited him to spend Shabbat meals with them.

To all of them he lied continuously and abysmally, until his bubble was burst, when it was discovered by the young woman's parents, after the wedding, that he really was not Jewish. Caught, he admitted to all the lies, but in a bizarre turn of events he was invited by Jewish radio host Zev Brenner to tell his side of the story at which point Ali aka Eliya Hassan Hawila/Haliwa/Haliba (there are various variants of his name on the news sites that reported the story) admitted to not being a Jew and never having undergone a proper conversion according to Orthodox Jewish Law (Halakha). He then went on to paint himself as the victim of circumstances, "forced" into lying because if he were discovered he would be either endangered or rejected or both.

Based on his admissions in the above video during an interview onTalkline with Zev Brenner, America's premier Jewish broadcast. (if they can be believed), he began studying Judaism online and wanted to become a Jewish while still in Lebanon. Then, along the way, in order to convince the religious Jews he met that he was one of them, he taught himself to read basic Hebrew and prayers, joined Jewish organizations at the college in Texas, USA where he studied, including the local Chabad House where he was welcomed by the Rabbi and Rebbetzin.

He began to study Talmud with a Chavrusa (learning partner), dressed like a religious Jew with a big kippa, grew a beard, learned many "frum' (religious) buzz-words and idioms, and to prove his "Yichus" (Jewish genealogy) he concocted and designed his own fake "family tree" alleging an Ashkenazi mother and Sefardi father. He was befriended and hosted by sincere Jewish Syrian families in Brooklyn who assumed he was a true religious Jew and one of them.

He found ways to explain, even to his fiance, why the name on his identity documents was an Arabic name and not the Jewish sounding name he was using, even concocting an alibi that he was an undercover agent working for the USA National Security Agency. He studied in a famous Syrian Sefardi Yeshiva in Flatbush for a time, convinced a top Syrian Rabbi in Lakewood, New Jersey that he was a "real Orthodox Jew" and kept finding ways to explain why he had absolutely no family connections!

That is some heist to pull off! He is evidently a very clever and even diabolically brilliant operator who should have applied for spy school somewhere and not acted as an impostor to every religious Jew he happened to meet along the road to infamy.

This is a tragedy of errors of Shakepearian proportions that has pierced the hearts and frightened many people. The Syrian Orthodox rabbis who approved of and assisted in the actual "Kiddushin" ("Jewish marriage -- which in reality cannot take place in Orthodox Jewish Law if one of the spouses is not Jewish) have issued a heart-rending public apology to the young woman and to her family and have blamed themselves for making a huge mistake! The Chabad Rabbi from Texas who, together with his Rebbetzin was also fooled into walking the deceitful groom down the aisle has also issued a detailed explanation of how he was hoodwinked and his serious suspicions about Ali/Eliya before the wedding.

This event has thrown more than the proverbial hand grenade into the Syrian Jewish community in New York and New Jersey, and has been a wake up call to the larger Orthodox Sefardic and Ashkenazic communities to "beware of the strangers in our midst" especially those prowling around on Jewish dating websites, where Ali/Eliya and the girl met, and even at live singles events. There are predators lurking not just in the shadows but hiding in clear daylight in front of their noses.

Many years ago when I first started doing Kiruv (Jewish Outreach to secular Jews) in Manhattan I met all sorts of people who would come to classes that I would either teach or arrange to host guest speakers. One day a young lady came to a class, and afterwards as I would often do, I would chat with the attendees or "students" as they were called, and I casually in a friendly manner asked this young lady if she was Jewish, since every now and again non-Jews would pop in and one had to find a way to recognize them and tell them that the Kiruv classes were intended for Jewish people with little or no formal Jewish Education.

She told me that she was a "Jew by Choice" I looked at her and asked if that meant that she was converted to Judaism, and she said that "No, I am just a Jew by choice because I like to study Judaism and I identify as Jewish"!

The term "Jew by Choice" is confusing, To some people it may mean that it refers to a fully fledged Jewish convert who has undergone a legitimate, and presumably lengthy, conversion process. However there are those, including the Reform movement,, that simply accept that a "Jew-by-choice: [is] one who has, through a process of study and Jewish living, joined the Jewish people" (according to in a process that has no actual conversion. So anybody can wake up one day, or become inspired over time, and start "a process of study and Jewish living" alone, without ever meeting any kind of rabbi, and without ever going through any sort of Geirut (conversion to Judaism) just simply "join the Jewish people" and thereby consider themselves Jewish and seek to join the Jewish community in all senses of the word. This is exactly what Ali/Eliya did with tragic and ongoing harmful ramifications.

Ali/Eliya is good example of a "Jew by choice" up until the point when he decides to take it to the next level of not just studying Judaism and being around Jews, but of wanting to (inter)marry with them,the point when he starts to date Jewish women and eventually meets one online that he marries in Brooklyn in a Jewish religious ceremony.

It is possible that this kind of thing happens in non-Orthodox circles where or when the Jewish spouse is not serious about their own Jewish observance and marries for "love" and "chemistry" and "clicking" with the "Jew by Choice". But to go so far as to assume an Orthodox identity and become an "Orthodox Jew by Choice" and using that as a platform to marry into an Orthodox Jewish family is a lie on a different level, hurting people to whom being halakhically Jewish is paramount. It was beyond shocking once Ali/Eliya's cover story was blown to smithereens with the discovery that is he is neither Orthodox nor Jewish according to Jewish Law (Halakha).

The floodgates of assimilation and intermarriage are widespread in America, affecting millions of Jews, and even beginning to take hold in Israel - based on recent surveys anywhere between 85,000 to 105,000 Jews in Israel are married to non-Jews mostly with parentage from the former Soviet Union. That is a huge amount of Jewish human traffic moving in one direction, breaking the golden chain of Jewish ancestry by marrying and even in many cases no longer identifying as Jewish, some even becoming Christians.

But there is another stream of traffic of non-Jews going in the opposite direction. Some of them convert legitimately to Orthodox Judaism through Orthodox Rabbis and Orthodox Batei Din (Courts of Jewish Law). Others choose to convert to the "movement of their choice" such as Reform, Conservativer, Reconstructionist, Humanistic or Renewal, there is a wide choice for them to choose from, but they are not halakhically Jewish.

However, as we now see from the sordid Ali/Eliya affair, there are also dishonest, lying, deceitful, scheming, and even delusional and misguided non-Jews out there who are willing to take the notion of "Jew by Choice" to the next level of falsehood and trickery with catastrophic consequences for all concerned once the truth is discovered and their lies are revealed. The Jewish people are in a perilous situation in this era of Jews assimilating out of Judaism as simultaneously, gentiles seek to enter into the Jewish mainstream, and we are not talking about the Christian Evangelical missionary danger which is a whole sub-division of the dangers modern-day Jewry faces.

We are talking about plain non-Jewish John and Jane Does who have some sort of epiphany and for whatever reasons decide to connect with the Jewish people as so-called "Jews by Choice". American popular culture, in particular the TV and entertainment world, has an oversize number of Jews and interest in Jewish topics that in turn spurs many people on to go on a personal quest to try to join up with the Jewish people, not always with happy endings. Conversion to Judaism is not a do-it-yourself project - it is a process with laws and limitations.

Perhaps this is a modern-day version of an ancient problem that appears in the Bible as an Eiruv Rav ('mixed multitude') wanting to join up with the Jewish Children of Israel during the time of the Exodus, as history tends to repeat itself. That episode ended with tragic consequences when the 'mixed multitude' caused the Children of Israel to sin by worshipping the forbidden Golden Calf!

As the old proverb says: To be forewarned is to be forearmed!