Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Former Mormon Bishop Who Teaches Torah Today
The unbelievable story of Rabbi Yosef Fontana of Jerusalem

by Chaim Arbeli

When thousands of faithful Jews protested the building of the Mormon Center in Jerusalem, he was establishing new Mormon congregations worldwide: a successful bishop (!) in the French Mormon Church who discovered Judaism. His sudden departure from the Church left the priests astonished. He now thanks Hashem for the persecution he suffered from the Argentinean authorities, which led him to discover Judaism. The following interview was conducted in Spanish through an interpreter, because although Rabbi Fontana knows loshon hakodesh, he felt more comfortable telling his life's story in his mother tongue.

"No hay tiempo para ferdar tiempo (There is no time to lose time)," Rabbi Yosef Fontana admonishes. Behind this wise statement, which he created, lies a long life experience.

Born in Argentina 62 years ago to a Catholic family of Italian descent, he entered a Catholic elementary school and progressed to university, where he majored in philosophy and psychology.

His Catholic upbringing did not provide him with answers to the basic questions he began to ask at age eighteen: "Who am I? Where do I come from? Where is G-d?" He discovered the Mormon Church, which considers itself the "real Christianity." However, it is considered by the rest of the Christian world as a new religion.

Yosef Fontana felt the Mormons had an answer for all his questions. However his family was firmly opposed to his involvement with the Mormons. He understood their opposition; the Mormons were always persecuted. The cult's founder, Joseph Smith, was killed by a violent mob that attacked the Mormons. The persecutions drove the Mormons to Utah where they founded an independent state, which later united with the U.S.A.

After a year in the Mormon Church, he was sent from Argentina to the Mormon center in Utah to be trained to serve as a missionary. "The role of a missionary," he explains, "is to grab people everywhere possible and to bring them into the Mormon Church."

Upon completing his training, he went on missions in Argentina and Mexico. Rabbi Fontana noted an astonishing phenomenon, "I never tried to convert a Jew to the Mormon Church."

Later in the course of his life he would come to understand why.

Fontana was very successful in Argentina and became the leader of a group of young missionaries. He was sent to churches in Mexico and America in order to strengthen them. He was elected to the Argentinean parliament and served in diplomatic missions to Russia, Poland, and Bulgaria.

In 1973, hundreds of thousands of Argentineans flooded the streets and chanted: "Peron! Peron! Ca grande sas!" Juan Domingo Peron, who led a military coup in 1943 and was forced out in 1955, had returned to the Presidency. Peron died a year later. Isabel, his wife, succeeded him, but a military junta overthrew her in 1976. A tyranny of fear ruled over Argentina. "It was a Nazi dictatorship," Rabbi Fontana says. (Argentina was a leading haven for Nazi war criminals.)

As a member of the parliament, Fontana was imprisoned. Thousands of people disappeared during this period; many were imprisoned without trial. "I was imprisoned together with my mother. I was severely tortured there," he told us. He managed to be released miraculously from prison, and decided to immediately flee from Argentina.

The neo-Nazi regime did not like missionaries.

Move to France

Penniless, Fontana escaped to France, where he lived for the next twenty-two years. "If I would not have escaped," he said, emotionally, "I would have been dead in a couple of days."

Today, he is not sorry about the afflictions he suffered in the Argentinean prison: "If not for the torment I suffered, I would not have fled to France, and I would not have sought Torah. Only G-d knows why I had to suffer so much until I came to Judaism. I didn't receive it as a gift. I had to struggle for it."

The French Mormon Church received Fontana with great honor. He began to climb the ladder of church representatives, until he was appointed as the bishop's assistant. (A bishop has authority over all the priests). He was instrumental in founding many new congregations and aroused the jealousy of some of the other church workers.

In time, Fontana was appointed as the new French bishop, although he was not born in France and did not have French citizenship! This was a very unusual step, but Fontana's strong character and leadership abilities warranted it.


Question: You reached the height of your desires,. You were appointed as a bishop! What could have caused you to give it all up?

Rabbi Fontana: "I was chosen to be the bishop but I was not at peace with myself. The questions I asked myself at age eighteen — the same questions that originally led me to the Mormon Church — were still not answered. I was not whole with what I was doing. I simply did not know the meaning of life.

"Seemingly, everything was fine; I was a bishop! But I did not have fulfillment in my life. I saw how people suffered in the world and I would say to myself: `What can I do in this situation? What am I supposed to do?' I did not have any answers. I looked for answers in all the Church's books and I did not find them.

"From an economic point of view, I was doing well. The Mormons are very well organized in administration. But I was lacking spirituality; I was missing the heart. The system worked with admirable order, but I felt that something was missing . . . as if nothing was there at all!

"All I had to do in my role as a bishop was to follow the `operating instructions.' When you buy a washing machine, you receive the manufacturer's instructions, right? I also had them! Whatever was written in the books that a bishop is supposed to do, I did. But where was HaKodosh Boruch Hu in the picture? Afterwards, I understood that I was lacking recognition of Hashem! I had a small amount of recognition, but not like now. In that period I was thirsting to know where was this G-d that everyone was talking about . . ."


He continued to seek the truth, until he had the idea to investigate Judaism. At this point he did not dream of conversion. Paris has a Midrashiah for learning about Judaism and he wanted to attend classes there, but he had to wait for the rabbis' approval to attend. "This was the period after the High Holidays," he remembers. He began to attend classes in the Midrashiah after Succos.

Rabbi Fontana: "At first, it was not easy to digest what I saw there. I really did not understand anything. I bought a small set of the Chumash with a French translation, and every day I read it during my commute.

"I had many questions as a result of what I read. I would speak about them with an important figure, who became my Rav after I converted. As I read the Chumash I discovered I did not know anything.

"The world is blind. They do not know anything; they have no concept of the Torah beyond what is mentioned in their `New Testament.' People might have a bit of knowledge of the Written Torah, but they know nothing about the Oral Torah, and without the Oral Torah it is impossible to understand anything about the Written Torah.

"The only ones who understand the meaning of the Torah are the Jews. One needs a lot of patience to learn the Torah and a lot of enlightenment from HaKodosh Boruch Hu to understand the holy Torah!

"As I progressed I understood that everything is in the Torah, everything that was and everything that will be. Even the storm of protest over the cartoons of Mohammed is in the Torah. What the President of Iran says about Israel, what Hamas is doing in the territories—it is all written in the Torah! Even our internal problems and politics are hinted at in the Torah."

Why were you interested in Judaism in the first place?

"I actually thought that I had nothing to lose. I had an inner push to search; I felt that I had many questions but I did not succeed in expressing them. As I first began to learn, I did not understand anything, but afterwards, I enjoyed it very much. I consulted my Rav about everything, and at that time he was my best friend."

Can you describe your feelings at that time?

"I felt like a blind man who received a bandage to cover his eyes. Little by little they removed the bandage and he began to see . . ."

After a year of being acquainted with Judaism, Fontana did not know how to continue. After a difficult decision-making process he made a fateful decision: He resigned from his position as bishop and informed his Rav that he wanted to become a Jew.

At that moment he lost all his friends, and in fact, his entire previous life. He had to move so they would not chase after him. He had to change his phone number three times! Finally, the Church workers stopped pursuing him.

"I just disappeared," Rabbi Fontana says, but it was not easy. "I suffered very much because I lost all my friends in Paris. I was all alone. Alone. My only friend was the Rav from the Midrashiah.

"On top of this, it was not easy to become a Jew. I had to learn a lot. I had to bear a lot; I needed a lot of patience, because all the time they were trying to push me away from my resolve to become Jewish."

At this point he began to join the Parisian Jewish Kehilloh, although he knew he was still a non-Jew. "I learned with rabbonim, but they did not count me for the minyan."

He had no rights in the Kehilloh. He had to learn Judaism for another six years.

For fourteen years Fontana had not visited Argentina. During this period his mother was on her sick bed in Argentina. She was very sick as a result of the afflictions she suffered during the reign of terror. He managed to visit her just before she died.

"I was able to see her moments before she passed away. She really suffered. She knew I intended to become Jewish and just before she passed away I received her blessing. My mother wished me all the best if I would be a Jew. This was the only thing that strengthened me during that period."

A Visit to Israel

A year later Rabbi Fontana came for his first visit to Israel. He stayed in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City for Shabbosos. On his Shabbos afternoon walks he noticed the externally magnificent Mormon Center. Its wealthy, impressive architecture did not appeal to him at all. He was looking for fulfillment, not wealth.

Who does not remember the struggle against the building of the Mormon Center in Jerusalem twenty years ago? A struggle that failed.

Were you involved with the building of the Mormon Center in Jerusalem?

"No. In those days I had no connection with Israel. I always felt a connection with what happens here, though. I felt very bad about the suffering that the Jews bear; I saw such a small nation, such a small country, which bears so much suffering. At one point I learned about the battle of Dovid and Golyas, and then I understood the secret of this small nation's power, of Am Yisroel. But as I said, at that time I had no actual connection to the events in Israel."

If you knew about the Jewish people's suffering, why did you choose to become Jewish?

"What do you mean? I was at Har Sinai . . . The souls of the converts were there. The Revelation at Har Sinai was so uplifting and exiting that the Sages said there was never a moment like that in all of history."


After his visit to Israel he returned to France. When he arrived they asked him, "Did you like Israel?"

He answered affirmatively, and was told to complete the process of conversion in Israel and to move there permanently. This was not an easy step for him to make, but he went home and began to pack his belongings. "I packed my bags. I took a plane and immigrated to Israel."

"I merited to live in Eretz Yisroel!" Rabbi Fontana exclaims, joyously. "Not everyone merits that. I feel that I merited to the calling of HaKodosh Boruch Hu to come and live here. This is the place chosen by Hashem and it is my home. I think that Hashem chooses selected people who will merit to live here. It is a great merit to live in Eretz Yisroel, even if one is lacking money here, even if there is no work and there are problems. We have to feel that despite all the troubles Hashem chose us to live here."

The Jews in the Diaspora also have troubles!

"Certainly, we are fourteen million Jews amongst millions and millions of people who hate us. But I have noticed that a Jew who keeps Torah and mitzvos cannot live in another place, not in France or Argentina. It is difficult to wear a kippa all day at work; there are problems with keeping Shabbos. No place in the world has a Shabbos atmosphere like here in Eretz Yisroel. Here Shabbos is Shabbos! The family is family!"

Rabbi Fontana warns about one current phenomenon, though: "In Israel there are many church frameworks that are in essence missionaries. People who are distant from Torah and mitzvos, Jewish Israelis who have no purpose, are the fish that these missionaries are fishing for!"

In Conclusion

"I am not so young today. When I made aliyah I was also not so young, but I had to go to learn in a yeshiva. I learned for a year in a yeshiva in Jerusalem; I had a temporary visa and I could not work. I had to be the whole time in the yeshiva. In order to live, I waited on tables within the institution.

"This was not an easy time. I had to learn a lot of material. At the end of the year they brought me to a Beis Din in Jerusalem. They tried to dissuade me from converting, but at the end of seven years of learning they approved my conversion. The process took exactly seven years. I received permission to learn in the French Midrashiah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I received the permission to convert between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seven years later."


On Tuesday, 30 Tishrei 5759/1999, Rabbi Fontana immersed himself in the mikveh and became a part of the Jewish people.

When he hears the Torah reading from Parshas Mishpotim: "You shall not prostrate yourself before their gods, and you shall not worship them" (Shemos 23:24), Rabbi Fontana silently nods his head. Only he, and the other congregants who know his personal story, know how much he gave up to distance himself from serving the Christian gods!

"When I first sought to be a Jew," relates Rabbi Fontana, "they told me that it would not be simple at all. This was so true... but I am not complaining; I am happy now!"

"I knew what lay before me, and despite it, I agreed to the long path that lay ahead."


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