Rabbi Yehoshua Alt
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Rabbi Alt merited to learn under the tutelage of R’ Mordechai Friedlander ztz”l for close to five years. He received Semicha from R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg ztz”l. Rabbi Alt has written on numerous topics for various websites and publications and is the author of the books, Fascinating Insights and Incredible Insights. His writings inspire people across the spectrum of Jewish observance to live with the vibrancy and beauty of Torah. He lives with his wife and family in a suburb of Yerushalayim where he studies, writes, and teaches. The author is passionate about teaching Jews of all levels of observance.
The Chassam Sofer among others tells us that when the non-Jews were offered the Torah, they refused to accept it. Nevertheless, although the nation as a whole refused to accept it, there were individuals who did want to accept it. The souls of these people are the souls of those in each generation who come to convert to Judaism.
The following are some fascinating accounts of converts in recent history.
Donato Manduzio (1885-1948), from San Nicandro, Italy, was a farmer’s son who had never set foot in a school. During World War One, he was drafted into the army and wounded, and then hospitalized in a military hospital. In the bed adjacent to him lay a wounded man who taught him to read and write, and so he began to read books. When he returned to San Nicandro he read a great deal of Italian literature. On a night in 1930, he had a “divine revelation” which spurred him to study the Old Testament. He came to the conclusion that Judaism is the true religion. He then began observing Shabbos and gradually other mitzvos. More and more of his neighbors joined him in his spiritual quest, and he established the San Nicandro Jewish community, which at its height numbered 80 people. When he learned that there were thousands of Jews living in Rome, Milan, and Florence, he was stunned because he was convinced that the people of Israel he had read about in the Old Testament were extinct and no longer existed. He then sent them letters. After a lengthy exchange of correspondence, where among his requests was to have recordings (through a gramophone) of all the songs sung in the Temple because he wanted to sing them that way, the Jewish community of Rome concluded that the San Nicandro community was serious and worthy of being converted. The Chief Rabbi of Rome dispatched a messenger to visit these people and on that visit, the village’s first shul was dedicated and the community received Tallasim (prayer shawls), a menorah and several other religious articles. Despite the rise of fascism and hatred towards Jews at that time, they adopted a Jewish lifestyle with courage and determination and did not give up even after Mussolini (fascist dictator of Italy from 1925 to 1945) decreed the racial laws against the Jews in 1938. The racial laws against the Jews of Italy were not applied against Manduzio and his followers, due to their Italian Catholic origin, despite their insistence on telling Italian fascist policemen and later the German Nazi soldiers who entered the village that they were Jews. Luckily, no one believed them. In October 1943, after Allied forces had invaded Italy, members of the Jewish Brigade passed through the village, with Stars of David emblazoned on their jeeps. The Jewish soldiers were astonished to meet Jewish farmers in the remote village. For Donato and his followers, it was their first encounter with real, live Jews. Members of the Jewish Brigade urged the people of San Nicandro to immigrate to Israel, telling them a Jew’s place was in the Land of Israel. In 1946, the rabbinate in Rome converted the community. In the years 1947-1949, 74 members of the San Nicandro community immigrated to Israel on ships. They settled in three communities: Ashkelon, Bat Yam and Tzefas. A few months prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Manduzio passed away and was buried in the Jewish section of the small cemetery in San Nicandro. On his grave is a Star of David and the inscription: “Here is buried he who lived under the delusion of worshipping foreign gods until 1930, but on August 11 of that year, by Divine inspiration, called himself Levi, proclaimed the unity of God and the observance of the Shabbos.”
In Brazil today there are many converts to Judaism. From 2015 until 2018, at least 400 people with Sefardic ancestry have undergone Orthodox conversions to Judaism in northern Brazil – the area where their ancestors first arrived from Europe.
And let us not forget the many converts in Bello, Columbia. How did this come about? A minister of an Evangelical church visited Israel in 1998 and in 2003 and felt a pull to Judaism. He returned to the city of Bello and told his people that he plans to convert to Judaism! Not only did he convert but 150 families joined him!
Let us conclude with recounting the episode of the righteous convert Avraham ben Avraham (1700-1749) whose Yartzheit is on the second day of Shavuos. Logically, this man should have been forgotten as he died long ago, leaving behind no wife, children or any sefer. Yet this great man is surely remembered. His father was a Polish nobleman, yet he did the unthinkable: convert to Judaism. This former Count Valentin Potocki became known as the ger tzedek of Vilna, the righteous convert of Vilna. He was a single convert which was done without ulterior motives, as there was no renown or power involved. He needed to hide because if his father discovered him, he would kill him. And so Avraham ben Avraham lived and served Hashem quietly, avoiding notice. He was eventually discovered and told that if he renounces Judaism, all his glory, wealth and prestige of the counthood would be his. He refused and was condemned to die. On his way to the stake, he passed by the Vilna Gaon’s house where he had a second as he was being led to his death. He asked the Vilna Gaon: faster or slower. That is, should he hasten to the gallows to fulfill the mitzva of kidush Hashem as it is a mitzva to perform the commandments with enthusiasm and alacrity or should he slow down as it is a mitzva to live and extend life every possible minute? The answer: faster. He followed the answer enthusiastically. He was killed on the second day of Shavuos when yizkor (prayer for the dead) is recited. Thereafter on every Shavuos in the main shul in Vilna, a separate yizkor was recited for Avraham ben Avraham as he left behind no family or descendant to say yizkor for him.
In defiance of an order that no one dare collect this ger tzedek ashes to bury them, the Vilna Gaon sent R’ Leizer Shiskes, a beardless Jew disguised as a gentile, to try to gain possession of his ashes. R’ Shiskes bribed the guard to hand him the ashes. It was placed in an earthenware vessel and buried in the Vilna cemetery. The Vilna Gaon blessed R’ Shiskes with long life, and he indeed lived until 112. In fact, it was inscribed on the grave of R’ Shiskes, “[Because of] the blessing of the Gaon, the number of the years of his life was 112.” When the Vilna Gaon passed away, he was buried in the plot adjacent to Avraham ben Avraham.
The elder Jews of Vilna, who lived at the time of the ger tzedek’s martyred death related some strange happenings in connection with that event. Those who had what to do with the ger tzedek’s death came to a sorry end. The peasants of a village near Vilna, who happily added wood to the pile, became the victims of a raging fire that burned down their homes and barns. A woman who made a jeering expression at the ger tzedek, suffered a stroke that left her face distorted for the rest of her life. A building adjoining the Town Hall, facing the place of execution, was blackened by the smoke of the pile and no amount of washing could erase the black stains. It was then painted over, and the black stains resurfaced. It was given another coat of paint, of a different color, and the black stains reemerged again — a silent reminder of the horror that had been perpetrated there. This struck fear and shame in the hearts of the Vilna residents, until the authorities finally had to demolish the building.
 See the Agudas Azov in his Haggada, p. 14b, s.v. אשר.
 See Devarim 33:2, Rashi.
 Here is a contemporary written account from 1755 (six years after the execution) by R’ Yaakov Emden (ויקם עדות ביעקב, p. 25b) who lived from 1697-1776: “A few years ago, it happened in Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, that a great prince from the family of Pototska converted. They captured him and imprisoned him for many days thinking they could return him to their religion. He knew that he would not escape harsh tortures and a cruel death if he would not return. They wanted to save him from the death and punishment that would await him if he held out. He paid no attention to them or to the begging of his mother, the countess. He was not afraid or worried about dying in all the bitter anguish they had done to him. After waiting for him for a long time, they tried to take it easy on him for the honor of his family. He ridiculed all the temptations of the priests who would speak to him every day because he was an important minister. He scorned them and laughed at them, and chose death of long and cruel agony, to the temporary life of this world. He accepted and suffered all from love, and died sanctifying God’s name.”