Afrikaans, Jewish, and on YouTube, advocating for Israel
A YouTube channel detailing the facts behind the conflict in Israel is going viral for its assertive unpacking of the context behind the headlines. However, the life story of its creator, Theo Kriel – an Afrikaans South African who was inspired to become an Orthodox Jew by two German Muslim converts he met in Saudi Arabia – is the most epic tale of all.
Born in Louis Trichardt, Limpopo, to a staunch Christian family and growing up in George, Kriel said that while he “always believed in G-d from a very young age”, he didn’t believe in Christianity. In fact, he always felt a particular affinity for Moses, and was nicknamed “Klein [little] Moses” by those around him.
Kriel’s childhood was riddled with illness, including cancer as a result of which his leg was amputated at the age of seven after a year of chemotherapy. It was an experience that would later inspire his choice to become a medical prosthetist orthotist and help others in a similar position.
His career path opened up opportunities to work overseas, and by exposing him to many different cultures, would even ultimately lead him to Judaism.
Coming from quite an insular Afrikaans context, his first travels to work in Malaysia, where he lived with a Hindu family and then Buddhist friends, were eye-opening, he said, although he remained secular.
He then went to work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, dealing mainly with the royal family. At the hospital where he worked, he met two German brothers who had converted to Islam. The trio would often debate religion. Eventually, these friends told him that his views reflected Judaism, and that he should investigate it further.
At the time, he didn’t even know that one could convert to Judaism, as he understood it as a “tribe, a bloodline”.
Nevertheless, he consulted – as he jokes – “Rabbi Google”, and started researching the religion online, discovering that converting was possible.
In 2012, when he returned to South Africa, he moved to Port Elizabeth and began the process of an Orthodox conversion. At the time, coming from a totally secular lifestyle, he found the switch to a “black and white Haredi vibe” too hectic. He left for England, deciding to practice the religion on his own.
In 2014, he returned to South Africa and settled in Cape Town. He briefly tried Reform Judaism, but felt it didn’t suit him, and eventually found a religious home under Rabbi Sam Thurgood at the Beit Midrash Morasha in Arthur’s Road, Sea Point. In 2017, he completed his conversion.
Kriel made aliyah in 2019, and is now a part of the Hardal community. In Hebrew, Hardal literally means “mustard” and represents a level of observance between Haredi and Dati Leumi – the national religious.
“We are very strict in our observance, praying three times a day, and in our learning of between three and four hours a day, but we also believe that you should work like everyone else,” Kriel said.
Although his mother asked him to speak to a panel of dominees before becoming Jewish, after four of them approved the conversion, she did too. Since then, his family have been supportive and remain close.
Even before his conversion was complete, Kriel launched his YouTube channel – The Jewish Convert. At the time, while many converts had social media channels, they were often more concerned with blending in, “even trying to alter their accents. So, I went the opposite direction. I believe converts should be very proud that they are converts.”
The information the channel offers is a mix of discussion about Judaism including dispelling some Christian ideas about it, conversion, and now commentary on Israel.
For the first few years, the channel was quiet, with about 100 subscribers joining a month. However, recently, about 100 people have joined a week, and Kriel now has more than 5 000 subscribers as well as more than 500 000 views in total.
There is an eclectic mix amongst those interested, Kriel said, including Jewish baal teshuvas (secular Jews who have become religious) and Christians. The majority of subscribers are from America and also represented are South Africa, Israel, and even India.
The function of his channel, including the commentary on Israel, is “to show what things are really about, without the media or what people say or believe, because with belief, you can believe in anything. I’m pro-Israel but I’m also pro-facts, so if Israel does something that isn’t sababa [cool], I will also report on it.”
Most recently he has made videos discussing what really happened at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as filming and explaining rocket attacks on civilians in Israel. He has also discussed comedian Trevor Noah’s comments about the situation.
When it comes to the situation in the region, “I wish people would fact-check more. I say in all my videos on the matter: ‘Don’t believe what I’m telling you: I’ve got an Israeli flag in my background, I’m ultra-Orthodox, I’m going to give you the religious pro-Israel opinion, but fact-check me – go google it’.”
He says making aliyah “isn’t as advertised” because of some of the logistical complications but nevertheless, Israel remains the “land of the Jews for centuries, and where we should be”.
“It’s not Lalaland, but it’s our land,” he posits.
Now aged 35, Kriel said on reflection, he appreciates the inner growth his conversion has nourished. His connection to Judaism is profound. “You are joining a very long history: the longest history in the world of a people that have survived. There is no older civilisation still in existence. You can read about them in books, but you can’t come out in the streets of Ra’anana [where he now lives] and speak to them.”
At its heart, converting has been about connecting with other Jews. It’s not, said Kriel, a religion that can be practiced alone. “Ruth [a convert herself] didn’t say, ‘Let your G-d be my G-d and your people my people’. She said it the other way around. First you must join the people. You need a community. This is the greatest thing about being a Jew.”