There mightn’t be a more eclectic Jew than Menachem Mendel Davis of Owings Mills.
Born to an African-American Chabad rabbi father and an Egyptian Sephardic Orthodox mother, Davis’ experience being raised Jewish is unlike that of most African-American men in the United States. And having been an African-American boy at an otherwise all-white Jewish day school, Davis’ early life experiences are also quite unlike those of most men sharing his faith.
But his continuing search for his place in Judaism, and Judaism’s place in his life, mirrors that of any number of Jewish Americans.
For Davis, the search for self, place and belonging has been present throughout his life. From first to 12th grade, he attended the Talmudical Academy on Old Court Road. Davis said at a very young age, he had a naiveté that prevented him from seeing the difference between himself and his classmates. But as early as third grade he remembered boys calling him “schvartze,” a derogatory Yiddish word for an African-American.
“I didn’t know why they were treating me differently,” said Davis, who remembered one occasion where he was so upset about his classmates teasing him he locked himself in the principal’s office and refused to return to class.
These experiences in a close-knit community that wasn’t always the most accepting of him affected him at a young age. A terrorist attack on a yeshiva in Israel would catalyze his questioning of his faith, all while the issue of race continued to disillusion him.
Davis’ race has also provided him with many meaningful opportunities to bridge the gap between the black and Jewish communities.
“Black people would come up to me and in the politest way say, ‘You’re a Jew, right? What are those strings you guys always wear? What are those things you wear on your head? Why do you twirl your sideburns like that?’” said Davis, 23.
“Those were great times to make a kiddush hashem, because they’d probably never spoken to a Jew before.”
Davis said he’s “been through hell” but admitted the struggle against racism must have been even harder for his father, Rabbi David Reginald Davis.
For many, the younger Davis’ name should sound familiar. His namesake is the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh rebbe in the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic community. Schneerson is widely considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century. Davis was born only a few months after the rebbe passed away in 1994.
Davis’ father grew up Christian in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Although he converted to Judaism, his father, Davis said, believes he was Jewish all along, tracing ancestry back to his great-grandmother who was a German-Jewish woman who married a black man and fled to the United States before the Holocaust.
According to Davis, his father took a liking to an Israeli woman, after which he began taking Hebrew-language courses. The elder Davis briefly moved to Israel and upon his return began studying to be a rabbi. Davis claims his father was the first African-American Jew to study under the rebbe at the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn.
Like Davis’ father, his mother, Gila Davis, who was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, also has a unique story.
Her father was the only kosher butcher in Cairo, a city with a very small population of Jews. It was during the Six Day War in 1967 when Gila and her family fled from Egypt, settling in Paris for two years before coming to the United States. Gila had two sons, Daven and Albi, from a prior marriage; with Rabbi David Davis, she had daughter Devorah and son Menachem Mendel.
In describing his relationship with his parents, Davis alludes to the story of Jacob and Esau, in which Esau, despite his tendencies toward evil, “always did one thing: kibud av v’aim (honor his mother and father).” In return, Isaac — Jacob and Esau’s father — was always willing to give blessings to Esau to empower him.
“Esau always had respect for his mother and father no matter what. I always try to embody that,” Davis said.
In the spirit of kibud av v’aim, Davis, a licensed financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, always wears a yarmulke in either of his parents’ homes (they divorced when he was 3).
“Both of my parents, and really my entire family, are Orthodox. Deviating from that was very hurtful for them, you can imagine,” said Davis. “They sacrificed their entire lives to be able to send me to a good private school. My dad, he converted. He chose this, and for his only son not to continue in his lineage, I can imagine what that would feel like.
“Having to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t me anymore,’ was very tough.”
While Davis has let go of some ritual observance recently, he says there were other times when he was “completely off the path.” He can specifically remember the incident that caused him to start doubting his faith.
Davis was in eighth grade when the Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav massacre occurred in Jerusalem on March 6, 2008. While a class of teenage boys was studying, a lone Palestinian gunman came into the school and opened fire. Eight students and the perpetrator were killed, and 11 students were wounded.
“That week, we were learning in class that if you are doing God’s will, he would protect you. When I heard about it and saw photos of what actually happened, it planted the seed,” he said. “These boys were engrossed at the time in God’s book when this happened to them. And I could only think, ‘How could this be?’ I couldn’t find a rational explanation for it.”
The issue of race reared its ugly head again.
“You would think that after graduating from Talmudical Academy people would be more accepting,” he said. “But people will deny you just for the color of your skin. ‘You’re not gonna date our daughter because we don’t want to be associated with that.’ That really hurt. That was the turning point to ‘This is not for me.’”
Davis described the slow diminishment of Jewish traditions that occurred for him over the next several years. He began by not waiting six hours between having meat and dairy. Instead, he’d wait three hours, which turned into one hour, which turned into not keeping kosher at all.
“It was like slowly unpeeling an onion,” he said. “Then came Sabbath. Then I thought, ‘Do I even believe in wearing a yarmulke anymore?’”
These days, Davis describes his faith as “traditional” rather than Orthodox.
“I don’t wear a yarmulke. I don’t keep Shabbos,” he said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he is through with Judaism. “I’m still trying to figure out where I feel comfortable.”
By all appearances, Davis is quite comfortable and confident with who he is. When the JT arrived at his apartment on the evening of June 13, Davis leisurely greeted the reporter wearing a red Bank of America T-shirt and gray jogger-style pants, although Davis is known to wear suits for his day job as a banker. He also wore sleek, tailored clothing in the time that he dabbled in the modeling industry.
“Growing up, I only wore black and white. Modeling gave me a release,” said Davis. “It gave me an avenue to be me in a Jewish and non-Jewish world. It gave color in a world of black and white.”
On the door frame of his basement apartment, there is a mezuzah, not bolted or fastened tightly to the metal frame, but hanging on by Scotch tape. It’s illustrative of Davis’s current in-between phase. He still thinks in Jewish terms, and goes through life informed by Jewish values.
Davis is far from the only young Jewish adult who is currently unaffiliated with a sect of Judaism. He was a young leaders fellow with J Heritage, a nonprofit organization that networks young Jewish professionals and graduate students.
“Sort of like what Hillel does for undergraduates, we do for graduate students and young professionals and young adults,” said Rabbi Ariel Fishman, the director of J Heritage. Fishman said Mendel was one of the most engaged fellows.
“For some people, post-bar and bat mitzvah, Judaism becomes more of a social, cultural thing,” said Fishman. “With J Heritage, we want people to continue questioning things. Judaism is not just a book that you finish at 13. It’s an engaging tradition that lives through you.”
After graduating from the Talmudical Academy, Davis studied in Israel for two years at the Ohr Somayach Tenenbaum College. It was during his second year there when Davis created what he calls the biggest accomplishment of his life. Along with one of his teachers, Rabbi Chaim Goldsmith, Davis wrote a Haggadah called “Building Emunah Through the Seder.”
“I wanted to write a Haggadah for a while, but need ed the nudge to do it. I am also not so computer savvy,” said Goldsmith. “That year, Mendel was a student of mine and I pitched him this idea. He jumped at it, and we produced the Haggadah. It was really a pleasure working with him. He was very motivated and driven to see the project through.”
When Davis returned from his second year at university in Israel, he described “losing it” again. But Davis always stayed in touch with his rabbis.
“Mendel is someone who has kept up his connection with all of the rabbis that he was close with while he was here,” said Rabbi Mordechai Levine, the director of the Yesod Chai Israel gap-year program of Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem. “He visited a few weeks ago and he made it a point to visit with all of them. I went out with him for a coffee and we reconnected as if he never left.”
Levine had high praise for Davis.
“Mentoring Mendel was a great experience for me,” he said. “His inquisitive questions and truth demanding attitude always made our conversations lively and an intense search for the truth.He wouldn’t let things slide and he would challenge any idea that wasn’t explained fully. He is a very intelligent and intuitive person.”
Even in Davis’ deepest moments of doubt, his instincts lead him to discuss or debate the existence of God, rather than run away from the topic. His search for such discussions put Davis in touch with local Rabbi Boruch Leff.
“Mendel and I have a warm, close relationship,” said Leff, menahel of Yeshivas Toras HaLev in Baltimore. “I have been his mentor to some degree but I end up learning the most from his general drive and tenacity to succeed in everything he touches. His drive to get closer to God and Torah is something that has inspired me in my own service of God.”
Unbeknownst at the time to Leff, an email he sent to Davis in July 2016 shortly after the death of author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was pivotal in bringing Davis’ attention back to Judaism.
“There was a particular op-ed that Eli Wiesel wrote in The New York Times back during the High Holiday season in 1997 that I dug up for him once after we had discussed the issue of the Holocaust and suffering in the world,” Leff said. “This issue was at the crux of Mendel’s spiritual journey and what Wiesel wrote then really touched Mendel’s soul deeply.”
Wiesel’s op-ed moved Davis so much, he wrote an open letter to Wiesel that ran in a July 2016 issue of the Jewish Times.
In the letter, Davis writes: “Not too many people know this, but at one point in time, I too was angry at G-d. So much so that I threw the whole entire way of life out the window. I couldn’t fathom how he could let so much evil into the lives of so many innocent people. Tragedy after tragedy, my despair got worse and worse.”
“This guy is incredible,” Davis said of Wiesel. “Here I am complaining about my life and not believing. Meanwhile, this guy literally saw his family slaughtered in front of him in the most horrific, gruesome way, and his faith was still strong after all these years. And finally reconciled with God. And I said, ‘If he can do it, so can I.’”
For Davis, maintaining a strong sense of perspective has allowed him to avoid resentment when it comes to looking back on his upbringing.
“A lot of people who turn away from Orthodoxy are very bitter and sour. I’ve seen that and I’ve always tried to be the antithesis of that and not put people down,” said Davis. “I don’t get angry anymore. You have to see things from their perspective.
“Knowing what I know now, if I could go back to the kid I was who was struggling with his belief, with who he is as an individual, I would tell him ‘calm down. It’s going to be okay. Right now you think your color is holding you back, but as soon as you get out of this place your whole world is going to open up. The thing that you think is holding you down is going to give you the advantage to succeed.’”