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Forest Hills Man Finds New Spirituality In Old Testament

Local Jewish convert comes from multi-faith background.

Question: If a boy is born in South America to a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, undergoes baptism in the Catholic faith at a young age and then becomes a Protestant minister, what does he do when he retires?

Answer: Convert to Judaism and join in Forest Hills, of course.

At least, that's true for Yochanan Deodat John, whose career has been as multi-faceted as his life's spiritual journey.

Born in a small town in Guyana's jungle in 1951, John grew up hunting, fishing and paddling his way to school in a boat — the only way to travel. His great grandparents had voluntarily immigrated from India to Guyana to work as indentured laborers.

John moved to the country's capital, Georgetown, and became a Christian while in his teens. Before he knew it, he was lecturing in seminaries, giving long talks on religious radio and officiating at wedding ceremonies on his way to pastoring 14 churches.

But John also drew attention from high-ranking government officials, and he got involved in development projects, gave radio talks on energy and even helped certain indigenous groups resettle.

In 1965, John was on a project in a dense jungle area. He joined the Book of the Month Club to help jazz up his solitary existence. One of the first books he received was Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, which chronicles the events leading up to the Battle of Berlin in World War II. Though he always knew about Jewish people and culture, the book opened his eyes to their history.

"It was like: 'These are my people, but I don't know them,'" he said. "This story gripped me. The plight. The plunder. The no way out. I would be alone and I would cry."

John continued leading an observant Christian life with his wife and two children and even running a few Christian organizations. But he had some questions he couldn't answer, including nagging doubts about his faith's insistence on indoctrinating converts.

In 1985, John moved to the U.S. to work as an environmental engineer, mostly managing asbestos-removal projects. In 2003, he was working in Far Rockaway when he received an invitation to attend a Sukkot celebration, which recalls the Jewish exodus from Egypt. At dinner, he had a flashback.

"All these things I felt in 1965, they came back to me," he said. "I saw how regal and how royal these people were. ... The respect for food and the table, that was never going to leave me."

John started attending the Young Israel of Far Rockaway on Beach 9th Street. Closer to home, he also went to the , Havurot Yisrael and Yeshiva Dov Revel.

"Whenever I got the opportunity, I would go," he said. "There were giants who helped me."

John spent countless hours discussing Judaism with Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Goodman, Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, Alex Klein, a Forest Hills resident and Holocaust survivor who has since passed away, and local internist Dr. Daniel C. Korman. He always felt accepted and after the death of John's wife in 2003, his children embraced his newfound spirituality, as well.

Enter Rabbi Manfred Gans, who is semi-retired now, but was at the time head of Machane Chodosh.

"There came a time in my life when somebody had to take charge of my conversion," John said. "Rabbi Manfred Gans is like my father. I talk to him like he's my father. I am a permanent guest at his home."

Fast forward to February 2011, and John attends Machane Chodosh on an almost daily basis. He has problems speaking Hebrew, but he can read the language. He wears a yarmulke and easily refers to the Torah. He even touches the Mezuzah before entering the sanctuary.

But most important, he feels spiritually fulfilled.

"I feel so very, very strong, and every day I feel stronger," he said. "This thing called 'worshipping G-d' is so real."

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