At two meters tall, Mordechai Frankewich towers over most everyone he meets.
The towering frame comes with a deep voice, a quick smile, and a long white beard.
Born and raised as Christians, he and his wife, Avigayle, lived in the Deep South and at various times were Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and Charismatics.
Today, he, his wife, two of their three children and nine of their 11 grandchildren, live as full-fledged Jews in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Ever since his childhood in Florida, Frankewich, whose first name was originally Mark, sought answers to questions of religious belief. His parents pushed him into attending church when he turned six, yet he wanted to know about his real origins. He knew that his father was Jewish and there were certain practices – such as a family dinner every Friday evening – that aroused his curiosity.
By the time he turned 11, he was reading the Tanach (Bible) and the Christian New Testament.
“When I got to Leviticus and Numbers, I said, ‘This is the most boring stuff in the world,’” he recounts. “My father said, ‘Those are your roots’ and walked away. I was confused. My roots?” Despite his suspicions, he continued his religious life as a Christian.
In 1976, Frankewich met Peggy Chadwick on a blind date. They married and moved to a spacious home in Macon, Georgia – a small farm with chickens, geese, goats and a vegetable garden.
Frankewich worked for Boeing as a tool and die maker; the couple educated their three children as Christians.
Frankewich and Peggy (later Avigayle) shared an ardor for religion, yet each time they joined a church, the same experience repeated itself.
“We went to church after church,” he says. “We’d sit for two or three months and then be put in a position of leadership.
We’d be happy for a while and then we’d say, ‘This doesn’t make sense. There’s something wrong.’ We’d question a pastor or leader and say, ‘That’s not what the Bible says.’ He would respond, ‘No that’s not true.” Then I would pull out the Bible and show him and then we would be told to leave and not come back. This happened at every church we went to.”
Frankewich estimates that they were thrown out of about 30 churches.
In 1996, Frankewich, studying at a Christian seminary in Georgia, visited Israel on a 10-day tour.
“I fell in love with Israel.”
After his father died in 1997, his job with Boeing ended. At the same time, his son went into the US Army. Amidst the family turmoil, “I had to grab a hold of God,” he says. Frankewich began to concentrate his studies on the Tanach and taught his children as well.
By 1998, the family began to practice Jewish rituals. Mordechai began wearing a kippa and tzitziot (ritual fringes), and his wife started to cover her hair.
In 2004, they visited Israel, but his wife was still not interested in moving.
By 2005, Frankewich was working at Boeing again. He and his family were now keeping kosher. Of their three children, the oldest and the youngest were participating in Jewish observance. The fast of Tisha Be’av was approaching, and Mordechai wanted to pray with a minyan, even though he wasn’t sure what that meant. He drove to an Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, and began attending the local kollel, where he studied in the beginners’ Talmud class.
No one there knew that they were not Jewish. Eventually, Mordechai spoke with the associate rabbi. He told him that while he suspected that both of his parents were Jewish, and that his wife’s mother was Jewish (she had told them this on her deathbed), he could not corroborate these claims. The rabbi told him that he was most certainly not Jewish, and that he could no longer attend services or study there.
“I knew the rules of pushing away and discouraging converts,” Frankewich says, “but he was pushing away and not trying to draw us back.”
Devastated, the couple turned to the rabbi at the Conservative synagogue near Macon. She agreed to study with them and prepare them for conversion.
In 2008, they converted to Judaism, as did two of their three children along with their spouses and Frankewich’s grandchildren. While they were happy that they had finally converted, they felt uneasy about the Conservative conversion that they had undergone and eventually stopped attending the Conservative synagogue.
Then their lives changed dramatically.
Their son, who was selling knives online, received from a customer an audio CD recorded by Rabbi Shalom Arush, an Israeli Breslov hassid, about faith in Judaism. Inspired by its contents, Frankewich and his son visited Rabbi Lazer Brody, a student of Arush, who was in Memphis at the time. They told him of the difficulties that they had encountered in converting. Brody sent them to an Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta who convened a beit din (religious court) and converted the entire family for the second time, in 2010.
Several months later, Frankewich and his wife decided to move to Israel. Their application for aliya languished until it was determined that the Orthodox conversion they had undergone in Atlanta was not accepted by the rabbinate here in Israel, and was therefore not acknowledged by the Jewish Agency.
However, their Conservative conversion was accepted by the Jewish Agency, and in July 2014 they arrived in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Mordechai began to make friends and acquaintances. He was befriended by Rabbi Donniel Channen of Yeshivat Keter HaTorah. With Channen’s encouragement, he studied in the smicha (rabbinical ordination) program there and began working as a calibration inspector at Beit Shemesh Engines, checking gauges and tooling.
Though he had received rabbinic ordination from Keter HaTorah and was Jewish according to the US Orthodox conversion, he wanted a conversion for himself and his family that would be completely accepted in Israel. So in 2015, he and his family went to a beit din in Bnei Brak, which converted them for the third time.
Today, he remains happily employed at Bet Shemesh Engines, while Avigayle works as a medical massage therapist.
His daughter and son live nearby, leading productive and successful lives.
What do they miss the most about life in the United States? Good manners.
“We are from the South and are used to courtesy, kindness and service. A man would never leave a woman or an elderly person standing on a bus,” says Avigayle. Lapsing into a southern drawl, she adds, “Anyone’s got gray hair, honey, they’re on that seat.”
Advice for newcomers? “Make sure this is really what you want to do. Have thick skin. You need to be committed. Make sure your spouse is committed – and of course, make sure you have enough money.”