Newest Jewish Resident of Israel: Barack Obama

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Hopefully, the world is big enough for two Barack Obamas.

One, of course, is the President of the United States. The other, however, is an African-American Jewish convert who recently changed his in an effort to spread awareness about his religion.

According to the Times of Israel, Obama (hereafter referring to the convert, not the Commander-in-Chief), converted to Judaism initially in 1995, eventually converting to Orthodox Judausm in 1997. Three years after becoming an Orthodox Jew, he moved to Israel and started working on getting his name changed.


According to The Washington Free Beacon, Obama’s goal in changing his name to mirror such a well-known public figure is to allow him to be “an advocate for Israel” and to provide him an avenue “to speak out in support of Israel.”

“I want to help build a strong Israel,” he says in the article. “[I want to speak about the important issues,] such as the peace process and the ultra-Orthodox draft.”

Obama didn’t take the President’s full moniker, however. According to the Times, he decide to leave out, “Hussein” in the name change, as it just didn’t “jibe” with the Jewish spirit.  While this might seem like a curious omission, Rabbi Mahir Reiss says

the decision is reflection of how serious conversion is.

According to a story from Rabbi Tzvi Freeman on, converting is not as simple as taking up the main beliefs of Judaism and going about life. Simply believing is not enough, he says, because Judaism is built on a mutual covenant, or agreement, between an entire nation of people and God. It is entered into by two parties and must be upheld by both parties. Even if a convert lives in a different place, speaks a different language and serves under a different government, the covenant still applies.

“You have to become part of the people,” he says.

In his efforts to become “a part of the people,” Obama reportedly moved to Israel in order to live closer to the faith’s origins. Additionally, he created a new persona for himself, which he believes might generate more opportunities to share his faith and support his new-found people.

Though converting to Judaism can be a lengthy undertaking, Rabbi Mahir Reiss says that anyone interested or new to the Jewish faith should ask questions. In a post on, he says  that Jewish people are welcoming and will assist anyone who is curious. Though it can be confusing, he says, because many services include segments that are conducted in Hebrew, it is easy to find opportunities to learn the language and after time these parts of the service will become familiar.

A common question people ask, according to Rabbi Mahir Reiss, is in regards to the various branches of the Jewish faith. There is not just simply one type of Jewish belief. He says that there are three major branches of Judaism, including Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism, though other sects, like Reconstructionist and Humanistic Judaism, exist as well.

In regards to converts choosing an aspect of Judaism, Rabbi Reiss says it depends on the unique individual to build up his or her belief system and decide exactly what he or she will practice.

“Jewish faith is a highly personal and private affair,” he says.

Given Obama’s interest in a united Israel, the Rabbi says his Orthodox faith makes sense.

“It is certainly an unusual strategy, but I feel the man’s heart is in the right place,” Rabbi Mahir Reiss says. “He’s sincere in his beliefs, and his desire to help the Jewish people. His fervor is admirable.”

Though Obama is still waiting for his lawyer in the United States to be successful in officially changing his name there as well, he is enjoying his new moniker.

“Everybody, when they see my ID card, at the bank or on the street, they go, ‘wow! Barack Obama,’” he says.

While his conversion is an unusual one, Rabbi Mahir Reiss says Obama’s decision to change his name in pursuit of his new faith is an expression the personal choice to accept Judaism.