Weekly Chasidic Story #827 (s5774-05 / 26 Tishrei 5774)
From Benedictine Monk to Rebbe’s Assistant
For three years, Aharon Calderon was a monk at a Catholic monastery, living an austere existence of contemplation and introspection.
Connection: Weekly Reading – The Laws of Benei Noah.
by Michael Freund
For three years, Aharon Calderon was a monk at a Catholic monastery in South America, living an austere existence of contemplation and introspection. But amid all the silence, he heard the call of eternity, leading him to embrace Judaism. This is his story.
Aharon Calderon was born 36 years ago, in the city of Parana, capital of Argentina’s Entre Rios province. “I was born into a Catholic family, though it was not a very religious one,” Calderon says. “But my parents did send me to a Catholic high school.”
The ideal of helping people greatly appealed to him. At school, Calderon found himself taking a growing interest in religion, confident that it would offer him a framework in which he could give to others while also achieving his own sense of spiritual satisfaction.
After high school, he attended a Catholic seminary for two years, where he had his first experience with missionary activity. Along with his fellow students, Calderon was charged with assisting a group of Indians from a less affluent part of Argentina. At the time, he enjoyed it immensely. It seemed to embody the idea of universal love that he was always hearing about in school.
In retrospect, however, Calderon says it proved to be an important moment, one in which the first seeds of doubt regarding the Church were planted in his mind, albeit subtly. “The work gave me a great deal of satisfaction because I was helping people. However, it also created a spiritual vacuum within me, because it was to a certain extent superficial.”
Continuing, Calderon asserts that, “To give can also be a form of falsehood. And this, by the way, was the first intuitive criticism that I had regarding the Church: we would help the poor, give them second-rate food and drink, and then go back to our comfortable institution, where we would take a warm bath, relax and eat expensive delicacies.”
At the age of 19, Calderon sought out what he terms “a more archaic, more ancient order, one more connected with Catholicism’s roots.” He found and joined a Benedictine monastery.
“It was a contemplative order, where the monks were forbidden to speak most of the day,” Calderon says. The enforced silence, he says, was a powerful experience, and it gave him an opportunity for self-exploration and discovery.
Among other things, Calderon spent a lot of time engaged in inner reflection and in reading the Bible. “When a person connects to their true self,” he says, “they can then discern the existence of the Creator, of a solitary being Who protects, creates and sustains the universe.”
It was during this period that Calderon began to develop a sense of unease with basic Catholic doctrine. One evening, Calderon was reading the Bible when he came to the verse, “Hear O Israel, the
L-rd our G-d the L-rd is One.” As he thought about the text, he wondered why his own faith contradicted this most fundamental of principles.
Calderon’s doubts persisted. Eventually, he decided to leave the monastery. But he remained intrigued by the world of the spirit and went to study theology at a Catholic university. While there, he decided to learn Hebrew. He found an adult-education institute where Hebrew was taught, and through the classes Calderon first met Jews.
The turning point came one day when, “I said to my friend, ‘The Jews say every Friday, “The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations.” If it is an eternal covenant, then G-d would not go back on it. So if we move it to Sunday, then we are making a mistake!’
“I understood then that there was no turning back. This was the spiritual point at which I decided to join the Jewish people.”
Calderon had heard that an Orthodox rabbi had recently arrived in the city. One day, Calderon saw the rabbi walking in the street, so he introduced himself, and said that he wished to convert.
They later arranged a meeting, where Rabbi Moshe Blumenfeld, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Argentina, said something that made a deep impression on Calderon. “He explained to me that I did not need to convert to achieve redemption… it was sufficient for me to keep the seven basic commandments required of a gentile.”
“This,” Calderon explains, “led me to understand that the G-d of Israel is a G-d of love Who accepts all of mankind. By contrast, according to Christianity, anyone who does not accept their way of thinking is condemned to hell.”
Calderon found Rabbi Blumenfeld to be warm and hospitable, and for the next two years, he spent a great deal of time with him studying Judaism. “I wanted to learn how Jews live. In the process, I watched, internalized and then connected to it.”
Calderon decided that he wanted to go to Israel to convert.
“From the moment I arrived in Israel, I felt a connection with the Land and with the Jewish people.” He began to study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.
A few months later, a friend of Calderon’s took him to see the Rebbe of Stropkov, of the Sanz dynasty. Calderon was immediately captivated by the Rebbe and by his personality. He found himself drawn to the Chassidic lifestyle.
Eventually, he went before a rabbinical court in Jerusalem and converted. After his conversion, Calderon continued to study while working. He married, and he and his wife Anya have three children. Calderon remains close to the Rebbe of Stropkov, serving as his assistant in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood.Looking back, Calderon remembers something that Rabbi Blumenfeld told him. “He explained to me that the conversion must be like a fruit that ripens and falls by itself from the tree when it is ready. That is how I view my Judaism, as something natural and integral to me.”
Calderon is proud of his spiritual journey, and he hopes that it will inspire more Jews to cherish their heritage. “Generally speaking, once people know that you have converted for no reason other than love for G-d and for the Torah, it causes them to feel proud and gives them yet another reason to appreciate their Judaism.”
Source: Reprinted from //lchaimweekly.org (#979), with permission.
Michael Freund is the founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel (//shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Avraham Shalom Halberstam, a descendant of the Devrei Yehezkiel, son of the Devrei Chayim of Sanz, is the present day Stropkov Rebbe in Jerusalem, living in Meah She’arim. He runs several yeshivas and kolels in Jerusalem and other cities in Israel. He is known for devoting himself to helping many who need to return to their Jewish roots.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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