Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Chaim Kiss, left, with David White.

What brought Teaneck resident, gabbai rishon at Bnai Yeshurun, chazzan of the West Side Institutional Synagogue for 12 years, Jewish singer and entrepreneur Chaim Kiss and African-American, blind, former Christian turned Muslim David White together to form an unlikely friendship? Why, their love of Jewish music of course! While on his journey to discovering Judaism, White first listened to the Jewish radio station which in his youth was known as The Art Raymond Simcha. Eventually he discovered JM in the AM, through which he was further exposed to traditional Jewish and Chassidic music, Klezmer and Chazzanut and individuals such as Shlock Rock and Country Yossi—all of which strengthened his attraction to Jews and Judaism. One late Saturday night, he tuned into Zev Brenner’s Talkline and heard an interview with Chaim Kiss, which so captivated him that he decided to call Kiss directly—and thus began their friendship. Kiss and White are phone friends, but Kiss also tries to visit White in his Irvington home as often as possible.

Beyond his appreciation of Jewish music, White has a deep appreciation of the tenets of Judaism which he has been studying through his Braille siddur and books as well as through his meaningful interactions with the Chabad rabbis of West Orange, Rabbis Herson, Klar and Kasowitz. After White decided to take a new spiritual and religious path, he was directed to Chabad as a welcoming venue. As he already had memorized most of the Jewish liturgy, he quickly became ensconced in the weekly Shabbat minyan. White’s Jewish connections also include a personal relationship with both the Skulenar Rebbe of Lakewood and Conservative clergy in and around West Orange.

What does Judaism mean to White, who is a recent convert to Islam? On a personal note, White was born on Friday night, February 9, 1962, at Newark Presbyterian Hospital. When his mother developed complications during his delivery, Dr. Zuckerberg, an Orthodox Jewish doctor, came to her aid and helped her successfully deliver her son. The message he heard throughout his childhood was “I never want to hear about Jewish hatred because a wonderful Jewish man saved our lives.” This background coupled with his “calling” as a civil rights worker for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in Newark and Irvington, formed the backbone of White’s mission. “I want to promote understanding between diverse racial and religious groups.” In carrying out this mission, White speaks to church groups, professional organizations, schools and synagogues.

White’s message to his Jewish audiences is very specific. Firstly, he wants to assure them that they have more friends than enemies in the black and Muslim communities and they should not be convinced otherwise by the left-wing media. He encourages all three communities to engage in projects of mutual benefit. “We each have our roles to perform within the framework of our religious and cultural beliefs. This is healthy segregation. But we should not be segregated in our efforts on behalf of our joint communities.”

White is very careful to ensure that his presentations are never viewed as attempts at proselytizing. “On the contrary, my mission is to strengthen the beliefs of non-affiliated Jews by illustrating to them that they have a special connection to God and as such are a ‘light unto the nations.’ As God said to Abraham, ‘I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.’ My message to my Jewish audiences is to be more Jewish.”

White is comfortable as a Muslim “davening” in a Chabad shul. He explained that he has not yet converted to Judaism because as he is completely blind, he is living in his father’s home where he would not be able to keep kosher properly. He does eat only halal. He is always on the lookout for similarities between the two religions which can bridge the gaps between them. Most of all, he is grateful for the warmth and caring of his many Jewish friends.

As for Chaim Kiss, he is delighted that at this point in his life he was able to connect so strongly to an individual whose mission is to solidify relationships and bring people of diverse backgrounds closer together in meaningful ways.

By Pearl Markovitz