What do you want to be when you grow up? When Kenneth Cox's English master posed this question more than half a century ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Episcopal schoolboy blurted, "A clergyman." From then on, he was known as "Parson."
Nickname notwithstanding, it was as a Catholic priest that Cox joined the clergy. And then, in yet another shift in faith, he became the first fully ordained priest, he claims, to convert to Judaism in more than 900 years. "I never doubted God's existence," explains Abraham Carmel (the Jewish name Cox took). "My problem was to find the best way to express it." Now, at 67, Carmel has just celebrated the "silver jubilee" of his conversion (so, he points out, has Sammy Davis Jr.), by tireless lecturing and work on his second book, My Chosen People, which he hopes will spread the word.
But Carmel isn't really preoccupied with leading Gentiles to Judaism. "Converting Jews to Judaism is my chief concern," he says. Carmel considers the nation's college campuses "Jewish graveyards. Unless we reach out to them," he continues, "we'll lose more Jews through intermarriage and assimilation than through the Holocaust and all the pogroms put together." Carmel's own way of combating this problem has been 16 years of teaching at a Brooklyn yeshiva. Although he once considered studying for the rabbinate, Carmel felt he would have more freedom and influence that way.
Born to wealthy parents who left him an orphan when he was still young, Carmel describes himself as "precociously religious-minded." A favorite childhood pastime was astounding his elderly guardian by reciting whole chapters of the Bible from memory. At 17 Carmel decided that "all was not well in the Protestant camp" and undertook an exhaustive search of the world's religions. He settled on Catholicism. "I drank down the whole of the church's consoling medicine," he says, "bottle and all." Ordained in 1943, he served as a World War II British army chaplain. But as the years wore on, Carmel had a second, more dramatic, religious crisis.
"I began to have doubts about the divinity of Christ," he recalls. "I became convinced that Jesus was never any thing but a practicing Jew" and that Christianity was "but an offshoot of that ancient mother faith. Judaism was not, as I had been taught, a has-been religion," he says. "I came to the new conclusion that it had never really been improved upon." So, 10 years after he was installed as a priest, Cox converted.
To spare his relatives embarrassment, he adopted a new name. He chose "Abraham, because the first Jew was a convert like me"; his surname came from Mount Carmel in Haifa. He lived in Israel (where he hopes to retire in three or four years) for 16 months. "I completed the circle," he says proudly. "I returned home."
His domicile is now a book-jammed hotel suite in Manhattan. Carmel hops the subway by 6 o'clock every morning for the 40-minute trip to the yeshiva. In keeping with orthodox tradition, he does not work, carry money or use gas and electricity on the Sabbath.
A lifelong bachelor, Carmel confesses that there is one more Jewish obligation he'd like to fulfill. Orthodox Jews take the commandment "be fruitful and multiply" literally and seriously. "The ladies in my congregation are working hard to find somebody," says Carmel, winking. "It's never too late."
'Some people are born musicians,' says Carmel; I was a born believer'