‘Family, community, God’ brought young black Christian to Judaism and Wash U Hillel

Jasmine Furr and Tony Westbrook head the procession into the auditorium during Cultural Leadership’s Class 1 Graduation. Westbrook would later convert to Judaism and in 2016, he became an Israeli citizen and enrolled at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.File photo: Kristi Foster

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Tony Westbrook says he grew up in a “really loving, warm” Pentecostal Christian household. 

He couldn’t watch most secular movies. Cartoons such as Batman and Superman were OK; Pokémon was not. That was witchcraft.  

Despite those pop culture restrictions, his parents still wanted to expose Westbrook and his six younger siblings to “as much of the world as possible,” he said. That meant piling into a minivan for road trips across the country, supporting Westbrook in violin lessons, rollerblading, horseback riding and, eventually, learning more about a different faith: Judaism. 

Westbrook, who is African American, was in the city’s desegregation program, which meant he lived in the Shaw neighborhood and went to public school in Webster Groves. During high school in 2004, he participated in a new program called Cultural Leadership in which Jewish and African-American students were exposed to their respective cultures and learned about the history of systematic oppression in the country. The program’s goal was to inspire a new generation of civil rights leaders.

That experience started Westbrook, 31, on a journey to eventually converting to Judaism and becoming assistant director of Washington University Hillel.  

Along the way, he received support not only from his mom, a Pentecostal minister, but also from a nonprofit leader and rabbis, among others. Westbrook’s story reveals the impact that Judaism and caring mentorship can have on a person.

“I think one of the things that I really try to learn to do is to learn from everyone,” Westbrook said. “I think everyone has value in this world, even if we might have vastly different political views. I think [my mentors] all helped me form how I interact with the world.”

For a higher purpose

While in Cultural Leadership, Westbrook and his mother attended a Passover seder at a Jewish family’s home.

“It was just fascinating that here we were in 2005 retelling the story that generations of their family had constantly told … and many of their family members perished in the Shoah, but for the ones who survived, while they as a result [of the Holocaust] became more secular, Pesach (Passover) was the thing that they constantly kept doing, and so it was really interesting and beautiful to see that,” he said.

After graduating, Westbrook enrolled in the University Missouri-Kansas City’s combined bachelors and medical school program. While there, he attended services at synagogues and churches.

“I wish I could say that I was going because I was seeking the meaning of life or seeking God or seeking some sort of holy knowledge, and that was not the case at all,” he said. “I knew that on Friday and Saturdays, the synagogues hosted students for meals, and on Sundays, churches did the same thing.”

Westbrook ultimately dropped medicine and studied communications, and he felt more at home in synagogues than in churches, so at some point he stopped going to churches.

“The thing that kept me coming back, besides the food, was the deep sense of connection and meaning and people leading meaningful lives that came back to family and community and God,” he said.

During his junior year, Westbrook returned to St. Louis and started attending Fontbonne University. He lived at home, which meant he had to follow the rules and go to church. 

He told a friend from Cultural Leadership that “I think I’m supposed to be Jewish. I’m not sure what that means.”

The friend connected him with Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation. Westbrook expressed his interest in converting. 

Judaism is not a religion that proselytizes. In fact, there is a tradition for rabbis to turn away someone seeking to convert three times to ensure that they are serious about it.

“As rabbis,” Talve said, “we are obligated to make sure that people who attempt to join the community understand the depth and gravity of that choice. But Tony knew that, and Tony exuded the joy of Torah from the first moments, so I wasn’t going to turn him away.”

She did, however, advise that he explore the various synagogues around St. Louis. Westbrook visited 11 synagogues. He ultimately felt most comfortable at Congregation B’nai Amoona, a Conservative synagogue, where he studied with Ari Kaiman, who was then an assistant rabbi there. The two learned about Jewish values, history, prayers and holidays.

Westbrook would record himself practicing prayers and post them to Facebook.

“It always made me smile to know how hard he was working, how dedicated he was,” said Kaiman, who now leads a synagogue in Atlanta. 

Kaimansees the rabbinic tradition as “all about mentorship, rabbi and talmid [student].”

“It’s the central model for how Judaism is passed from generation to generation, l’dor v’dor,” Kaiman said.

After about two years of learning, Kaiman told Westbrook that he was ready to go to the beit din, the rabbinic court for conversion.Westbrook disagreed; he still had so much to learn.

Kaiman said that’s a common reaction among people seeking to convert because “Judaism is really, really vast, with lots of particular knowledge, and to become Jewishly literate takes many, many years.”

But Westbrook did end up converting about that time and later had a bar mitzvah at B’nai Amoona at age 28, with rabbis and leaders from throughout the Jewish community in attendance. His mother also spoke.

When he first told her that he was interested in learning more about Judaism, Phyllis Westbrook said she “just told him to be careful and make sure he was doing it for the right reasons.”

She thought he was converting for a girl he liked. But now, years later, she saw that he was serious about it, and she asked God for guidance. She said God “showed me in his scriptures that he had formed Tony — I call him TJ – that he had formed him in my womb before the foundation of the world and that he was leading him this way for a higher purpose.”

Finding where he belongs in the Jewish community

It wasn’t just clergy like his mom or Kaiman or Talve who helped Westbrook. He also remained close over the years to Karen Kalish, the founder of Cultural Leadership. He has lived with her on and off for years and describes her as “his other mom.”

She accompanied him for his conversion and waited outside the room as he went into the mikvah, the ritual bath, as part of the process.

“It’s a win for me to have young people in my life and not just people my age, and a win for them to have someone older, like a grandmother, to count on,” said Kalish, 74.

Kaiman sensed that the “spark of learning” was within Westbrook and that he would not cease his studies after converting. And indeed, in 2016, Westbrook became an Israeli citizen and enrolled at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

He learned from teachers at the yeshiva and from Israelis in other sectors. Westbrook decided that he would do all his grocery shopping at the Jerusalem shuk, an outdoor market. But on one of his first trips there, he arrived before it opened, so an egg dealer, who Westbrook suspected thought he was  “a dumb American,” invited him to his home for breakfast and the two became friends. He noticed how the vendor would give people eggs on credit or for free if they were short on cash. 

While Westbrook has had some rude encounters in Jewish contexts that he suspects were because of his skin color — one person at a synagogue thought he was the plumber despite the fact that he was wearing a suit and a yarmulke — they all occurred in the United States, not Israel.

After graduating from Pardes in May with certificates in Jewish Studies and Jewish Experiential Education, Westbrook, now living an Orthodox lifestyle, was more interested in serving in the Israel Defense Forces than in returning to the United States. Still, his adviser at the yeshiva suggested he explore his options and apply for an opening at Washington University Hillel.  

Westbrook went through several rounds of interviews and got the job. And now he’s back rooming with Kalish. 

“We think it’s like a sitcom: a white, 74-year-old Reform Jewish woman living in the same house as a black, Jewish convert to Orthodox [Judaism],” Kalish said.  

Despite his initial reluctance, Westbrook describes the Hillel job as a perfect fit.

“I want to inspire Jews of all ages, of all backgrounds, of all knowledge bases,” he said.

Alex Brodkowitz, a sophomore and co-president of WU Students for Israel, said Westbrook is successful in that mission. The two not only interact at Hillel but also worked at a Jewish summer camp in Pennsylvania.

“He’s one of the most spirited people I’ve ever met,” Brodkowitz said. “So when you walked into a room with Tony, he would fill the room with energy. On Friday night services, he would get very excited and get the campers energized, which as a counselor was helpful, and he also shared such cool stories with them, of how he grew up being Christian and how he converted to Judaism, and you could see his passion for Judaism, which made the Friday night services extra special.”