But the Forward asks an interesting question (related, I think, to our discussion on what we want Judaism to be): what if he really did want to? Should we let him? And in the midst of answering, this fascinating anecdote of a former KKK leader converted to Judaism by the very Rabbi he threatened to bomb was revealed:
One person who knows firsthand about the spiritual transformation of people with evil pasts is Rabbi Michael Weisser. When he was working in Lincoln, Neb., a white supremacist named Larry Trapp began threatening and harassing him and his family. Trapp, state head of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan, had a long history of terrorizing black, Asian and Jewish families in the area.
Weisser decided to confront Trapp. He called the KKK leader’s racist hot line and left messages, until one day, he finally got Trapp on the phone and managed to strike up a conversation. Eventually, Weisser and his wife met with Trapp and inspired him to renounce racism and antisemitism. Eventually, Trapp converted to Judaism at Weisser’s Reform synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun — the very synagogue that Trapp once had planned to bomb.
Anyone can change, and therefore, anyone can be a candidate for conversion, Weisser told the Forward — even someone as bad as Larry Trapp or Charles Taylor.
“There’s a spark of decency in everybody, no matter how bad they’ve been,” Weisser said. “The truth is, human nature is good, not bad.”
In Trapp’s case, Weisser said, the former KKK Grand Dragon truly repented for his many sins and expressed remorse, asked for forgiveness from those he’d wronged and tried to set things right. Trapp called and met with people he used to harass to apologize and beg their forgiveness, and he spoke publicly to high schools and other groups about how he had repudiated bigotry and hate.
When Trapp first mentioned converting to Judaism, Weisser said he was concerned that guilt was the motivation. But Trapp studied hard, reading about 50 serious books on Judaism, and showed a genuine desire to join the faith for positive reasons.
“If we believe what we say we believe [as Jews], how can you go against it?” Weisser asked. “I think when Larry died, he died a good Jew.”
Obviously, when dealing with the sort of supreme evil of a Charles Taylor, we test the extremes of our principles. But there is a large part of me that wants to believe that nearly anyone could be a viable convert to Judaism, so long as their conversion path incorporated sufficient atonement and restitution for their sins.