Outreach to African, Asian Jews is music to rabbi’s ears

When it comes to the eclectic, no one is going to match Moshe Cotel’s resume.

At age 13, he penned his first symphony. After attending Juilliard, he entered into a wildly successful career as a classical composer and pianist, eventually assuming the position of chairman of composition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music at the Johns Hopkins University.

So, for his next act, he became a rabbi, with an emphasis on Jewish outreach – in Uganda.

“Whenever I talk to rabbis and Jewish professionals, they tell me, “Moshe, you’re naive. You want to go into the Third World and make converts? We have a hard enough time keeping Jews in America Jewish.” said Cotel in a phone interview from his Manhattan home.

But, he added, “I see a tidal wave of conversions to Judaism in this century. In 100 years, I see one face out of every three Jews in the world being African or Asian.”

Cotel came to the Bay Area this week to perform his “Chronicles – a unique blend of rabbinical wisdom and piano pieces by Bach, Mozart, Gershwin and others – at Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar. He will perform at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El on Sunday afternoon, May 23, and at Los Altos Hills’ Congregation Beth Am later that evening.

Then he’s back on a redeye flight to New York where he’ll lead Shavuot services at Brooklyn’s Conservative Temple Beth El, where he is the spiritual leader.

Cotel, 61, is living the busy life of a pianist and pulpit rabbi, but nothing gets him talking like his work with Kulanu, a volunteer organization dedicated to outreach for Jewish communities in Africa and Asia.

In 2002, Cotel traveled to Uganda with Conservative rabbis in a visit to the Abayudaya (literally “People of Judah”) who converted to Judaism en masse in 1919.

Under Idi Amin, the African Jews were brutally persecuted, and perhaps 320 of their original 3,000 members remain. Though not yet an ordained rabbi, Cotel served in a beit din that helped to convert the Abayudaya to Conservative Judaism.

Incidentally, Abayudaya leader Gershom Sizomu is currently a first-year rabbinical student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where he caught an L.A. performance of Cotel’s “Chronicles.”

Cotel predicts a cavalcade of Third World converts because the story of Exodus resonates so powerfully with those in less-developed civilizations. He disdains what he refers to as “street-corner evangelizing,” believing spreading the word of Judaism in developing countries is as simple as “opening the door for people clamoring to get in.”

But he thinks many in the organized Jewish community, both in America and Israel, are uncomfortable with the notion of black, brown and Asian Jews.

“Frankly, there’s a certain racism involved. People are not the right complexion, not from the right socioeconomic bracket and might be seen as a drain on Jewish resources,” he said.

“I see it the other way around. Judaism is a universal religion. There’s so much they can give to us so we can revivify our connection to Judaism.”

Cotel is particularly critical of those who would write off Third World Jews as simplistic and illiterate in Jewish tradition and culture.

Not so, he says. Shabbat services among the Abayudaya remind him of Conservative services at home – except instead of Hebrew and English they are in Hebrew and Luganda. “These are not ignorant people. They are poor, yes, but not ignorant. Growing up in Uganda, a country that has about 80 languages, you need to speak a dozen of them. And now they’re adding Hebrew.”

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