Jewish Journal

One Man’s Journey to Judaism

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Oct. 23, 1997 at 8:00 pm


There is nothing tentative or half-way about MarkC. "Moshe" Hardie.

For instance, when the 26-year-old African-American decided tobecome a Jew, he underwent three conversion processes, with aConservative/Reform rabbi in San Francisco, at Chabad House inBerkeley, and with the Orthodox Beit Din in Los Angeles.

When Hardie shows up for a newspaper interview, he comes prepared.He brings a biography, photos, copies of his conversion certificates,a long list of references with phone numbers, and a self-addressedenvelope for mailing the story-to-come.

He even furnishes his own headline, "From the Crack House to theStatehouse," for the reporter's consideration.

The crack house was part of the neighborhood scene in north LongBeach, "the most impoverished place in California," as Hardiedescribes it, where drugs, gang shootouts and teen-age mothers werecommonplace, and where young Mark grew up in a single-parent home.

The statehouse stands in Sacramento, and its resident is Gov. PeteWilson, for whose policies and good name Hardie now works ceaselesslyas a special assistant to the California chief executive.

Between the crack house and the statehouse, Hardie has crammed inenough experiences to last most men a lifetime. He relates hisaccomplishments with the easy assurance of a man who characterizeshimself as "always completely confident."

"I never question my own identity," he says. "I feel settled andstable."

Let's take one example of his aplomb, perhaps seasoned with atouch of chutzpah.

In 1996, while taking a summer law course at the Hebrew Universityin Jerusalem, Hardie decided to intervene personally in the ragingconfrontations between haredim and secular groups over whetherBar-Ilan Street should be closed to traffic on the Sabbath.Sauntering in where angels might fear to tread, Hardie printed up10,000 leaflets, in English and Hebrew, which pointed out thatIsrael, as "the spiritual homeland of the Jewish religion...has theduty to protect the rights of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews."

Left, Hardie traveled the lengthand breadth of Israel, along the way picking up -- apparentlyeffortlessly -- a colloquial Hebrew that he demonstrated during theinterview.

Therefore, he reasoned, Bar-Ilan Street should be closed, exceptfor emergency vehicles, during the Shabbat.

Every Shabbos, Hardie would go to Bar-Ilan Street and circulatebetween the barricades restraining the opposing sides, pass outleaflets, and earnestly lecture both sides that "we're all K'lalYsrael, which must remain unified and be a light unto the nations,"he says.

This was Hardie's second visit to Israel. The summer before, hehad studies at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, and he lived at the nearbyHeritage House.

"You could stay there for free if you were Jewish," says Hardie."Actually, this was before my conversion, but no one could tell methat I wasn't Jewish."

He also traveled the length and breadth of Israel, along the waypicking up -- apparently effortlessly -- a colloquial Hebrew that hedemonstrated during the interview. This new acquisition complementshalf a dozen other languages, from Afghan to Polish, which Hardielists on his curriculum vitae.

His path to Judaism began as a child, when his Southern Baptistgrandmother made him read a biblical chapter each day.

"I became fascinated with what she called the Old Testament,"Hardie says. "I immediately identified with the people of Israel; Ifelt that I had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.

"Later, when I turned 18, I decided to give myself free rein forthe next eight years to explore different religions, cultures andlanguages. On the basis of my religious studies, I concluded that theTorah was the true original, and all the others were merely copies."

Before his Israel excursions, Hardie had earned a bachelor'sdegree in political science at UC Riverside, and then entered UC'sHastings College of Law.

Most law students barely find the time and energy to cope with thecompetitive pressures of their classes, but Hardie concurrentlyembarked on his conversion to Judaism at Temple Beth Israel-Judea inSan Francisco. He also pulled off the noticeable feat of activemembership in the Black Law Students Association while serving at thesame time as president of the Hastings Jewish Law StudentsAssociation and as communications director for the nationwideassociation of Jewish law students.

During his conversion studies, furthermore, he was advised by hismentor, Rabbi Herbert Morris, to go out among the Jewish people. SoHardie became a volunteer at the Jewish Home for the Aged in SanFrancisco. Earlier this year, he interned at the Israeli Consulate inSan Francisco, programming a computer network for Israelis working inthe Silicon Valley's high-tech companies. His supervisor was ShiraSkloot, director of public affairs at the consulate. She said thatHardie was actually overqualified for his assignment, but that "heworked hard and was a pleasure to work with."

Hardie received his law degree, with a specialty in internationallaw, from Hastings, and then took the state bar examination. He won'tknow the results until December.

During the bar exam, he wore his Hebrew University sweat shirt,not so much as a good luck charm but because "I want Hashem with me,"he says.

The ink on his law degree and his final conversion certificate washardly dry when Hardie landed his present job as a special assistantto Gov. Wilson.

He works within the Office of Community Relations, and his job isto present the governor's views and goals to African-American andother community groups. He plies his beat always wearing his kippahand tzitzit, and as both an African-American and a Jew, he representstwo ethnic blocs that have consistently opposed the Republicangovernor.

Hardie is unfazed. He passionately backed the governor'ssuccessful campaign to eliminate public affirmative action programsand praises his boss for leading the way to a "colorblind"California.

"I tell inner-city audiences that the governor is a deeplycompassionate man who wants to include everyone in the Americandream," says Hardie. "I believe his is a tzaddik [most righteous man]and a mensch."

Some of Hardie's other icons are even less popular among theliberals in Tel Aviv and San Francisco.

"My role models are Ze'ev Jabotinsky [founder of the ZionistRevisionist movement], Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu," saysHardie. His admiration of the prime minister and his knowledge ofIsrael's security needs are such that "in Israel, I'm called 'TheBlack Bibi.'"

Less controversial members of his pantheon are Dr. Martin LutherKing Jr., Gen. Colin Powell and Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson.

A large photograph of the Lubavitcher Rebbe will grace Hardie'splanned office in the governor's Los Angeles headquarters, togetherwith a mezuzah and a small refrigerator for kosher food supplies."Then I'll feel really at home," Hardie says.

He also looks forward to learning about state government fromRosalie Zalis, Wilson's senior policy adviser and liaison to theJewish community, whom Hardie also designates as a role model.

There seems to be no limit on how far Hardie can go, but at themoment, all his energies are bent toward advancing Wilson's agenda.Nevertheless, he finds time to support such organizations as Hadassah(as a male associate), American Friends of the Hebrew University,Jewish National Fund, Jews for Judaism, and the National Anne FrankCampaign. He is a member of the American Israel Public AffairsCommittee, and his car's license plate bears the letters AIPAC.

But pressure of work has forced him to divert three writingprojects -- a book titled "Zionists Come in All Colors," a children'sbook on the life of Anne Frank, and a story about a ferventlyOrthodox couple who unexpectedly become the parents of a black baby.

Even a workaholic has a private life, and every Shabbat and manyevenings, Hardie walks through his Los Angeles neighborhood, theOrthodox enclave of Pico-Robertson, dropping in at his favoritefalafel and schwarma joint, chatting with Israelis, or just revelingin the ambiance of Yiddishkayt.

Any romantic interests? As a public figure, Hardie begs off, hemust be circumspect about his private life. But he admits tocurrently "laying the foundation" of a serious relationship. Is sheJewish, he is asked. "Of course," he says. "I can only marry a Jewishgirl."

What makes Hardie run, what propels his drive? Hardie creditsmainly his father, who, though divorced from his mother, suddenlyreappeared in his life when Mark was 8 years old.

The father, a certified public accountant and business executive,passed on to his son the motto, "If you believe it, you can achieveit."

He instructed the boy to stand in front of the mirror everymorning and repeat 100 times, "I like myself." And when the fathersaid goodbye, he invariably added, "See you at the top."

When Mark Hardie says goodbye, he closes the interview with ajaunty, "Sei gesund."

Tracker Pixel for Entry


View our privacy policy and terms of service.