Christian founder of Holocaust center undergoes Conservative conversion to Judaism

“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.”

By World Israel News Staff

Founder of the UK’s National Holocaust Museum, Stephen Smith, who was raised in a deeply Christian family, has converted to Judaism, calling it a “complete change of perspective.”

Smith, who, together with his brother and mother established the Holocaust Center – the only site of its kind in the country – told the UK’s Jewish News that he came to the realization that 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.”

His role as a steadfast advocate for the Jewish community gained him international recognition and eventually led to his relocation to Los Angeles in 2009, where he assumed leadership of the USC (University of Southern California) Shoah Foundation. The foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, is dedicated to recording and teaching from Holocaust and Genocide survivor testimonies. After serving for 12 years, Smith stepped down in 2021.

During a trip to Israel, he experienced a profound spiritual transformation at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He conveyed his decision to convert to Judaism to his Jewish wife, Heather Maio-Smith, who questioned him in disbelief, “What, now?”

Smith, who converted under the Conservative stream of Judaism, described his spiritual journey to the newspaper as both a mission and a calling.

Not long after his decision to convert, Smith was asked to write a book on Jewish ethics from a Christian theologian’s perspective. He shared that he told his wife, “I think I just wrote my first chapter as a Jewish theologian” just a few weeks after deciding to convert. His shift in perspective was fundamental, turning “they” into “we” and thus altering his understanding of Jewish ethics as part of his ethical universe.

Smith began reframing Jewish history as ‘our history’ and ‘our story.’ He highlights that his shift to Judaism involved no rituals, synagogues, classes, or traditional conversion rites, but rather a complete shift in perspective. This allowed him to view Jewish history and culture from within.

Smith further expressed feeling safer as a Jew in a world grappling with anti-Semitism, a sentiment that may confuse some in the Jewish community. His conversion brought him a sense of companionship in the fight against anti-Semitism, with “16 million new friends” to join him in this struggle.

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“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,” he told The Jewish News.

“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.”