From Mafia ‘associate’ to Christian supporter of Israel

According to official 2018 statistics from the Tourism Ministry, no less than 61% of tourists visiting Israel last year were Christian, while only 22% were Jewish.

The statue of Jesus and the 12 Apostles on the Mount of Beatitudes in the Galilee (photo credit: PAUL ALSTER)
The statue of Jesus and the 12 Apostles on the Mount of Beatitudes in the Galilee
(photo credit: PAUL ALSTER)
During an overnight stay on a recent visit to Italy, a brief conversation with a charismatic American guest sparked my interest. It led to the remarkable story of a man who grew up, thrived, and made his fortune through his connections to the Chicago mafia, found God while serving time in state prison, then became a Christian and a steadfast supporter of the State of Israel.
It may not have escaped your attention when flying in and out of Israel in recent years that the number of Christian pilgrims coming to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and by extension to support the world’s only Jewish state, has markedly increased.
According to official 2018 statistics from the Tourism Ministry, no less than 61% of tourists visiting Israel last year were Christian, while only 22% were Jewish. The gap has widened greatly in recent years, a point that will be considered a little later on.
“Christians like myself have a real affinity for Israel,” Jim Hall tells The Jerusalem Report. “We really believe and support Israel because we believe in the words of Moses and the prophets who said the Jewish State was the Promised Land and was ordained by God. We believe in this because the scriptures tell us that Israel is a blessing for all nations. It’s hard for us not to support Israel. The fact is, the person we totally believe in was a Jew. He was the Messiah, so to not support Israel would be wrong.”
The remarkable story of James (Jim) Hall was told in his autobiography, Connected: From Godfather to God the Father.
Seventy-two years old and happily married to Judy for the best part of 40 years, Hall, soft-spoken and erudite, grew up in Chicago, the son of a father who was in and out of jail and was associated with the infamous John Dillinger gang. His father acquired the numbers of the safes that Dillinger and his gang so famously specialized in relieving of their contents during their rampage in the mid-1930s.
Hall’s family went on the run when he was just seven years old, changing names many times and living in a variety of locations as federal agents began to close in. His father, who at one time worked as a pastry chef, was rarely around though, and by his mid-teens he faced the first crossroads on his life path.
Hall decided to train for the priesthood, having been influenced by seeing that Catholic priests, in many ways, were more powerful than the mafia.
“I mention in my book how I saw a guy who was very high up in the mafia in the neighborhood where I lived, and how a priest cut him down to size. This powerful mafia guy bowed to the priest. When I grew up you were either going to be a member of the mafia or be in the priesthood, so I went to the seminary. The priesthood didn’t work for me though for two reasons: 1) I didn’t have a relationship with God, and 2) I liked women too much!”
After dropping out of the seminary to pursue his interest in 2), he received a sports scholarship to the University of Illinois, and then graduated from UCLA with a degree in accounting before going on to work for a while as a movie stuntman. It was at this time that he got into sales, and found he was very good at it – even if many of the sales he closed were “borderline legal.” It was for one of his burgeoning businesses that he used the services of a well-known attorney who became a close friend. His attorney’s father was a very senior figure in the Chicago mafia at the time and heavily involved with the Teamsters Union during the period when Jimmy Hoffa was at the helm.
“The mafia, as with many crooks, started having their kids go to law school and become lawyers and judges. In Chicago, it was a big thing. My friend was a consigliere for them. Everybody knew him. His father eventually went to prison after skimming money” from Las Vegas casinos.
Hall admits that by age 27 he was a multi-millionaire and had all the trappings that go with such a lifestyle.
“I was wealthy and living the ‘good life’ – or what others might call a good life. When you’re living that kind of life and the material stuff is coming your way you find yourself feeling empty. So what happens? Most people want more, because they think that more will make you feel better, but it never does. Something’s missing inside. I wasn’t a good person to others. I was a womanizer. I couldn’t care less. I look back now and say, ‘Who was that person?’
“People that are true mafia members take a blood oath. They’re called ‘made men’; a lot of folks might know that from the movies. Then you have the ‘associates’ who do each other favors, coming to you for money laundering and other things etc.” Hall readily admits that he fell into the ‘associate’ category.
“I moved [from Chicago] to Atlanta and had offices all over the country. I had the most popular bar restaurant in the Atlanta area, called Carlos Magee’s. In some ways I became a minor celebrity in this area. I liked the attention, but I was never happy.”
One particular story Hall recalled about his time around the mafia scene brought back comical memories of some of the great George Raft scenes from “Some Like It Hot.”
“My friend was chairman of the Italian American Hall of Fame. I used to give money to it. It was in Chicago and it was an election year, 1980. My friend’s father [the mafia boss] had just got out of prison. Lots of famous people were there, including baseball coach Tommy Lasorda and other big-name sports people. Then, all of a sudden a bunch of guys just disappeared, including a number from my table. I said, ‘Where’s everybody going?’
“Then the music starts and it’s ‘Hail To the Chief,’ and someone said, ‘Here’s Jimmy Carter.’ I laughed, assuming it must be a double – but it was Jimmy Carter! He came and shook hands and we got pictures. Then when Carter’s group eventually left, the guys that had disappeared from my table and the rest of them came back in. I said, ‘Where did you guys go? You just missed the president!’ Then my friend said they were told ahead of time that anybody carrying guns needed to get out of there – so half the guys in the room got up and left! It really made me laugh.”
I was interested to know what he recalled of the Mafia’s attitude to Jewish people, given that these days he has become such a staunch supporter of Israel.
“I grew up in an environment [in Chicago] where they spoke about Jews being nothing other than bankers or being cheap – but I’d never met a Jew,” he admits. “If you’d asked me at the time, ‘would you rather be hanging out with some Jews or some Evangelical Christians,’ I would definitely have chosen the Jews. I made fun of Evangelical Christians. If you look at the Chicago mafia, they were very prejudiced against blacks, but not the Jews. Indeed, [they were more prejudiced] against blacks than the people down here in the South, which kind of shocked me. The mafia thought the Jews were smart.”
By mid-1982, the FBI net closed in on Hall and his various business dealings, and despite employing noted celebrity attorney Judah Best there was no escaping justice. He was asked to help the authorities pursue people he had known in the Chicago mafia, but he wouldn’t play ball.
“I’d just got married to Judy, had three wonderful daughters, and I just thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ I decided to plead guilty to wire fraud, but part of my plea was that I wouldn’t talk about anybody. That led me to being sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison.
“My first day in prison was just like you’d imagine. You’re processed, they show you to your bunk, then they assigned me to toilet jobs. I was miserable, I was scared, and when I finally got to my bunk I didn’t want to eat or do anything. I just wanted to isolate myself and was on the upper bunk in a cell with a tattooed dope dealer kind of a guy in the bunk below.
“I asked what I could bring in, and my lawyer, who was a Christian, told me you could only bring a toiletry bag and the Bible. That wasn’t the case I found out later; you could bring in whatever book you liked. So I ran around home looking for a Bible to take with me. I found it, but I’d never read it or paid attention to it. On the first night, I got in the bunk and started reading. Just before the lights went out I read that God said, “I am the father to the fatherless” and another Psalm said, “I set the prisoners free.” And that night, with the lights out, I really felt I heard God speak to me and say, “Jesus loves you. He is my son, you should just accept him.”
The man who for so long had led a hedonistic, corrupt lifestyle was transformed on that first night in prison, and through the rest of his time was closely involved with the prison chapel.
“I was in prison, but I was set free,” he recalls.
On his release he was warmly received by the local Baptist church his wife had attended, and over the following decades Hall’s life underwent a transformation as he worked with a number of Christian organizations that he says are very supportive of Israel, including the Walk Through the Bible Ministries, and more recently the Word For You Today ministry, with whom he has worked with orphans and on other projects in different parts of the world. He points out that virtually all the churches and organizations he knows or works with organize a visit to Israel at least once every couple of years.
It was the forgiveness shown to him in these communities that changed his life, but given all he’d done – and we’ve only skimmed the surface in this article – I wondered if it had been easy to forgive himself for how he behaved earlier in his life.
“You know, when I became a Christian I understood that forgiveness comes from God, and if He forgives me, who am I not to forgive me? He’s got all the reasons not to forgive because he knows it all… Our life is so much better today. We have a lot less things, but we have a lot more.”
As for the many more Christians coming to Israel these days than Jews, Hall has an interesting observation on the situation relating to US Jewry.
“So many Jews are against Trump, even though he’s tried to support Israel as much as can be. But many Americanized Jews have become so liberal that Israel seems not as important to them anymore. They’ve been indoctrinated from a certain age. It’s mostly a spiritual problem. It seems to me they are not attuned to your faith and don’t look at Jerusalem as what it’s supposed to be, or Israel as what it’s supposed to be. That’s why you see so many more Christians coming to Israel wanting to support and help, because the Evangelicals get it better. They’re getting it through the spiritual page.”
It’s an opinion that may strike a chord in some parts, and hit a raw nerve in others.
And finally, how about an inside view from a former Chicago Mafia ‘associate’ on how best to deal with Israel’s current blight of rampant organized crime and corruption?
“If Israel is suffering from organized crime, then it’s a sign you’re doing well, because whenever you’re doing well there’s always going to be people who come along and try and take advantage.
“Hopefully, you’ll be able to control bribery and how [organized crime] can control even governments through bribery. Once you get a hold of the [corrupt] politicians you’re going to thrive, if you can find the honest politicians and the honest cops. I don’t know any country that has a better spying and intelligence structure and is more respected on that front than Israel. They should be using that.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: