Christian founder of Holocaust Centre converts to Judaism: “I am no longer alone”

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Christian founder of Holocaust Centre converts to Judaism: “I am no longer alone”

Former head of Shoah Foundation Stephen Smith converted following 30 years as a Holocaust scholar and advocate against Jew-hate

Former USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith with survivor Edward Mosberg and Institute founder Steven Spielberg. Pic: USC Shoah Foundation
Former USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith with survivor Edward Mosberg and Institute founder Steven Spielberg. Pic: USC Shoah Foundation

The founder of the UK’s National Holocaust Centre and one of world Jewry’s greatest allies for the past three decades has converted to Judaism.

Stephen Smith was born and raised in Nottinghamshire to a family of devout Christians; together with brother James and mother Marina, they established England’s National Holocaust Museum and Centre. It is the only site of its kind in the country.

Internationally esteemed as a scholar, theologian and a staunch supporter of the Jewish community, Smith ran the centre from 1995 until he left for LA in 2009 to head up the USC (University of Southern California) Shoah Foundation, the archive founded by Steven Spielberg to document and teach from the testimonies of survivors of the Holcoaust and Genocide.

Stepping down in 2021 after 12 years, it seemed only fitting that it was on a visit to Israel that he had his ‘Hallelujah’ conversion moment as a Christian at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Stephen Smith and family. Pic credit: Jillian Edelstein, National Holocaust Museum

It was there, as his Jewish wife Heather Maio-Smith returned from her own prayers, that he told her he had decided to convert. “What, now?” she asked incredulously.

Smith embarked on a conservative type of conversion (“probably closest to Masorti in the UK”, he says) before officially becoming an ‘MOT’: member of our tribe.

By his own admission, his journey has been both a mission and a calling.

Shortly after deciding to convert, he was invited to write a book on Jewish ethics as a Christian theologian.

Former USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith with survivor Edward Mosberg and Institute founder Steven Spielberg. Pic: USC Shoah Foundation

“I went into my study, and came out later in the day, saying to my wife, ‘I think I just wrote my first chapter as a Jewish theologian’.”

‘What do you mean?’ she replied. “You only decided to convert two weeks ago.’

Smith said his perspective had changed: “‘They’ became ‘we’. And so when I think about Jewish ethics now, I’m not talking about the ethics of the Jews, I’m talking about my ethical universe.”

He says that suddenly seeing it as this is ‘our history’, this is ‘our story’ was “life changing”

There were “no rituals. No synagogue. No classes. No bris. No mikva. But a complete change of perspective.”

Smith notes that he began seeing things from the inside out, rather than the outside in: “I know a lot about Jewish history,” he says. “I could probably teach my conversion class, more or less. Before I studied the Holocaust I immersed myself in Jewish studies, I learned some Yiddish, I learned some Hebrew.  I really always appreciated Jewish history and culture, not looking at it through the lens of death and mass murder but being on the inside of that experience and being able to make a commitment to it.”

He says he now feels safer than when he wasn’t Jewish, “which is confusing to most Jewish people because everyone feels so unsafe in a world of antisemitism”.

The epiphany was the realisation he had “16 million new friends with whom I can collaborate and defeat the scourge of anti-Semitism. I have been alone for thirty years. Try that. Try facing anti-Semites and being rhetorically beaten up every single day and feeling that you have to fight the world alone.”

Smith tells Jewish News that he no longer feels alone. “I feel very much a part of something. And I have never felt safer in my life being Jewish. And Jewish people need to know that. That they are safe because they have one another. If I do one thing with my conversion, I’m going to remind Jews just how special it is to be Jewish and to have one another.

“And the fact that we can defeat these good for nothing people, these anti-Semites who actually don’t even know how to collaborate and don’t have the benefit of community.

“Most of them are acting out of fear and ignorance. And we are not ignorant. We should not be fearful. We have nothing to fear. And I say that as a genocide scholar and a scholar of the Holocaust. We have nothing to fear because we have one another. And we have to use that to our advantage. That’s what’s changed for me.”

Marc Cave, Director, National Holocaust Museum told Jewish News: “Stephen has been a remarkable friend to the Jewish community. I can only imagine what he’ll contribute now. Mazal Tov, Stephen, from all of us at the National Holocaust Museum. I’d just like to know: was it the shmalz herring that tipped you over?”

Smith is most recently co-founder and CEO of StoryFile, a conversational video AI company providing digital innovation for high-profile figures and those less well known to share their stories in future generations.

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