As a child in Kuwait, Mark Halawa said he “grew up hating Jews.” In school, he was taught that “the United States was the big Satan, and Israel was the small Satan.”
But he also knew that his maternal grandmother, Rowaida Mizrahi, was born Jewish and converted to Islam after marrying a Jordanian soldier.
That knowledge inspired Halawa to become a religious Jew. At the age of 38, Halawa — also known as Mordechai — lives in Jerusalem, is married to a Jewish woman, and is the father of a baby daughter.
He will discuss his spiritual journey on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills in Short Hills.
Halawa’s family settled in Canada after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, when Halawa was 12.
His transition from a young anti-Semite to a proud adult Jew began when he learned that his grandmother was Jewish before converting to Islam. “My childhood teaching no longer made sense,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “I always heard bad things about Jews in school, but she was a nice lady, and I didn’t see anything bad about her.”
Halawa’s interest in Judaism intensified in 1998, while he was a student at the University of Western Ontario. There he met Rabbi Yitzchok Block, a retired professor of philosophy who was affiliated with Chabad.
“He asked me if I was Jewish, and I said my grandmother was. He asked me, ‘Which side of the family is that grandmother from?’ I replied, ‘My mother’s side.’”
In that case, he said the rabbi told him, “‘then by Muslim law you’re Muslim, and by Jewish law you’re a Jew.’” Block led him to his first Shabbat service and lunch at a synagogue in London, Ontario.
After that first Shabbat experience, Halawa said, “I went home, waited for the Sabbath to end, and turned on my computer” to read about Judaism. “I wanted to be a Jew and be a part of this world that everybody wishes harm on.”
After moving to Toronto, Halawa attended a Chabad yeshiva, taught himself Hebrew, and became more observant of Shabbat laws. “Life started to have more meaning for me, and I felt comfortable telling my friends and family I was a Jew,” he said.
“My mother said, ‘I am very happy you are hanging out with nice people and not going to bars but be careful: Zionists and the Mossad might be after you.’” His father, he said, “didn’t like it.”
Because he had no written proof of his grandmother’s Jewish identity, becoming a Jew meant Halawa had to undergo an official conversion. He started the process at the beit din in Toronto, where he was advised to study at a yeshiva in Israel.
During his studies in Jerusalem, Halawa joined a student group on a trip to visit concentration camps in Poland. “My eyes were opened to a reality I never imagined,” he said. “Growing up in the Muslim world, the Holocaust and World War II were not part of the curriculum.”
But after announcing his intention to convert, “my family didn’t want to speak with me,” he said. “I had shed the skin I’d worn for the past 26 years of my life to become a completely different person. So I reminded myself that deep inside, the main reason I wanted to be Jewish was to marry a Jewish girl and continue the family line.”
In 2014 he married Linda Brunnel. Eight months ago they had a daughter, Atara.
Although he was made aware of his Jewish heritage by a Lubavitcher rabbi and many of his speaking engagements are sponsored by Chabad, Halawa does not consider himself to be a hasid.
“I don’t know what ‘Orthodox Jew’ means. I hate those labels. I go to synagogue sometimes and sometimes I don’t go. But I love Judaism,” he said.
He is critical of the Orthodox domination of much of Israeli life, including the military and tax exemptions for yeshiva students.
“Everybody here should be a part of the army,” he said. “Everybody here should pay taxes. If you are not paying taxes you are a thief. It doesn’t matter how much you pray to God. Jewish values tell you to stick to the law of the land.”
He remains troubled by his relationship with his parents. His father is a secular Muslim who drinks alcohol and eats pork. “He taught me that fanatics brainwash children into becoming suicide bombers, but when the topic involved Jews, the narrative suddenly changed. He threatened to remove me from his will.”
Halawa said his mother “became an extremist Muslim after a bunch of criminals, Jewish terrorists,” set a Palestinian family’s house on fire in the West Bank village of Douma last July. A Palestinian baby and his parents were killed; his older brother was seriously wounded.
After the incident, his mother, said Halawa, “flipped on me and wished death upon my daughter. I would still help her financially and do anything I had to do, but I don’t want to deal with her. Her mind has been hijacked.”
Besides being a public speaker, Halawa calls himself a “conduit,” which he defines as a marketing consultant for businesses who wish to reach clients, especially in parts of the Middle East where others hesitate to enter into agreements.
As a person who is essentially fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, Halawa said, “It has been my goal to be a peacemaker. I think there is a lot to be offered to young disgruntled Arab men and women and I would like to be one of those people someday.”