The most breathtaking panoramic view of the Old City opens up from the balcony of the Aish HaTorah yeshiva. The building is located almost at the foot of the Western Wall Plaza, which makes it a perfect location for viewing the holy city.

But 15 students, who are sitting right next to the big panoramic window, are not paying any attention to the view. They have completely lost themselves in study, listening carefully to the rabbi’s explanations, holding Gemaras in front of them.

The rabbi speaks in English, the common language among all the students, who make an incredible mix of cultures and origins.

One of the students, a smiling young man with a small beard and a black kippa, is totally focused on the lesson. It’s not the first time that he has confronted a complicated religious text: He did so many times back at school. Only back then the texts were Koranic verses in Arabic, and the school was in Kuwait.

Mark Halawa, 33, who now calls himself Mordechai, was born in Kuwait and grew up as a Muslim in a nonobservant family.

The people at Aish thought that they’d seen it all, until they heard of Halawa.

“Many amazing people come to study here from all over the world. They discover Aish HaTorah via our website, or through their rabbis at Aish HaTorah branches worldwide,” says Ephraim Shore, one of the directors at the yeshiva.

“We were very surprised by Halawa’s story, although now we also have many other interesting stories of Jews whose families were out of touch with Judaism for three generations. Now they are seeking knowledge about their origins and traditions.”

So how does a guy who grew up in Kuwait end up in a Jerusalem yeshiva? As a matter of fact, Halawa’s Jewish adventure began in Canada, where he traveled alone to attend university in London, Ontario. His family had wanted him to study nearby, but after a brief stint at a university in Syria, Halawa decided that the environment there did not suit him, and he made the move to Canada in 1998. There, he studied psychology and industrial organization, only realizing he was Jewish toward the end of his time there.

“There was a rabbi at my university, a professor of philosophy. I just felt I wanted to approach him and talk to him,” he says. “Although there is a lot of prejudice against Jews in Kuwait, I never felt that I hated them.

“I told the rabbi about myself and where I come from. Since my early childhood I have known that my grandmother on my maternal side used to pray in Hebrew. Her last name was Mizrahi. He asked me who my father was. I answered that he was a Muslim.

“So you are a Muslim, if your father is a Muslim, I thought to myself. And then he said, ‘Since your Mom is Jewish, you are Jewish.’ I was astonished at his words.”

Halawa admits that at first he met the words of the rabbi with some skepticism, thinking that he was a sort of missionary looking for lost souls. But after researching the subject, reading a lot and discussing the matter with his mother, the young man was convinced that according to Jewish law he indeed was considered a Jew.

“It made me think, What does it mean? Who are these people to whom I am linked through my grandmother?” After some searching and questioning he confirmed that his grandmother was in fact a Jew who married a young Jordanian soldier back in 1946, ran off to Nablus with him and converted to Islam.

Later the family emigrated to Kuwait, where employment opportunities were vast. The Jewish past of the grandmother was never publicly discussed.

Although the history of Jews in the Arab peninsula is well documented and stems back to biblical times, not much data exists about the history of Jews in Kuwait, according to Dr. Yaron Ben Naeh, from the department of History of the Jewish People at the Hebrew University.

“Some Jews of communities in Iraq came to live in Kuwait during the second half of the 19th century, but there were merely individuals there, not more,” Naeh says. “By the time of Muhammad’s birth, Jews had lived in the Arabian peninsula for centuries, mainly in the area of Medina. It’s doubted whether there was ever significant Jewish presence in the territory of modern Kuwait.”

Meanwhile, Halawa’s interest in Israel and Judaism continued to grow, and soon he considered a trip to Jerusalem.

His next move was booking a flight to Poland, where he decided to pay a visit to concentration camps, and then travelling to Israel.

“After visiting concentration camps, I felt like I was part of the Holocaust myself, and I was very much relieved to travel to Israel, where Jews could walk freely,” he relates. “But still, you have to remember that although I’m a Jew, I’m also a Jew from Kuwait. So I didn’t know what to think and what to expect.

“But at the airport they just asked the regular questions – ‘Where are you heading?,’ ‘How long will you stay?’ and so on. And then they said ‘Welcome to Israel,’ stamped my passport and I was on my way to Jerusalem.”

To this very day Halawa remembers the anxiety that he felt when strolling on the streets of the Old City for the first time.

“It was Friday noon, and I saw Muslims coming out from prayers and Orthodox Jews shopping for Shabbat going side by side, not even looking at each other, just walking along. We don’t see these sort of pictures in the Middle East often, so in a way I was completely unprepared for this experience. Soon after[ward], I completely relaxed and fell in love with the city.”

It’s not hard to understand why Halawa, making this unbelievable leap between Kuwait and Jerusalem, was feeling anxious about his trip to Israel. Although generally more liberal than nearby Saudi Arabia, Kuwaiti society has a rather negative image of Israel and Jews, and that’s what Halawa remembers from his childhood.

“You are told that the Israelis and the Jews are like monsters, they are all soldiers who just want to tear everything apart and kill innocent Arabs,” he says.

Halawa says that he feels obliged to learn more about his Jewish roots since he will probably be the only one in the family to do that.

“I’m certain that there are many Jews living in Arab countries.

There was a girl who studied with me in high school in Jordan – her father’s mom was Jewish. I also know [of] many other cases. Technically, my mother, my aunt and her daughters are all Jews, but they have chosen to live as Muslims and I respect them for that. As for myself, I feel that I have to explore my origins and my religion.”

Aside from studying at Aish HaTorah, Halawa works as a public relations consultant and engages in creating media content to promote Israel. He is aware that not everyone in Kuwait might be thrilled with his choice. According to Shari’a law, a Muslim who converts to another religion must be executed. However, Halawa doesn’t feel haunted or afraid.

“I believe in tolerance,” he says. “People should be able to choose what they believe in.”
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