I spent most of Monday and Tuesday immersed in the inspirational tale turned tragedy that was the life of Yoseph Robinson. In case you missed the story, he was the young Jamaica-born man who came to America, was sucked into a life of crime, gave it up to become a successful music impresario and later turned to Orthodox Judaism. In recent weeks he was trying to generate interest in his memoir and was lecturing about his experiences, but his life was cut short by a gunman during a botched robbery at a Brooklyn liquor store.
There was no shortage of people to interview for this story: The girlfriend he dated only a few weeks but died defending her from the robber. The rabbi who welcomed him to the Young Israel of Flatbush; the radio host who interviewed Yoseph and was so impressed he invited him to his shul; the man who hosted Yoseph for his last Shabbos meal and volunteered to say Kaddish for him; the new friend and publicist who volunteered to edit his memoir. Given the time, I could easily have found dozens more people whose lives were touched by Yoseph. Hundreds gathered at his funeral Tuesday night.
But what struck me most was one line from Yoseph himself that he posted on his website bio, that he chose Orthodox Judaism "as a means to surrender control, accept humility, and educate." Many would disagree with the former part, seeing Orthodoxy as a way to maximize control in their lives, seizing the opportunity to strenghthen a relationship with God in almost any daily task. But the words suggest that Yoseph, who dropped out of school and seems to have had a difficult childhood, saw strict religious life as a means of rejecting the abundance of freedom that led him to make bad choices.
Yoseph’s story reminds me of Yisrael Campbell, another Orthodox convert, who tells his story in the hilarious one-man show "Circumcise Me." Both men faced the challenge of proving themselves as strangers (Orthodox rabbis require years of study and commitment before granting conversion status) and sought refuge from the havoc of their lives in fervently observant Judaism.
Orthodox Jews face the brunt of anti-Semitism because they’re so easily identified; they face discrimination and resentment in the workplace because of their strict limitations and worry constantly about chillul Hashem, sending a negative message about their faith to the outside world by faililng to live up to their principles.
The Yisroel Campbells and Yoseph Robinsons in the fold may have had to undergo years of instruction in Jewish teachings, but they also have an important lesson of their own to impart to the Orthodox community: That, clearly, they are doing something right.