'I lied because I was in pain. I want to correct my mistake'

Lebanese Muslim who posed as Orthodox Jew to wed: I loved her and they took her away

Eliyah Hawila tells Israeli TV how he was drawn to Judaism as a teen in Lebanon, his regrets and guilt over deceiving his Brooklyn bride, his desire to come to Israel and convert

Eliyah Hawila, born to a Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon, posed as an Orthodox Jew to marry an ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn woman, seen here on his wedding day (Screencapture/Kan)
Eliyah Hawila, born to a Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon, posed as an Orthodox Jew to marry an ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn woman, seen here on his wedding day (Screencapture/Kan)

The stories that emerged this month of a Lebanese Shiite Muslim man who impersonated an ultra-Orthodox Jew for several years and was uncovered only after he recently wed a member of the insular Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community, sent shockwaves through both the Jewish and Arab worlds.

The revelation sparked fears, and an FBI investigation, that the man, Eliyah Hawila, 23, was working for a terror group to infiltrate the Jewish community, and also outrage that rabbis overseeing the wedding had failed to spot that he was an imposter.

But speaking to Israeli media for the first time in an interview broadcast Sunday, Hawila presented his side of the story, claiming that he was motivated by his desire to live a Jewish life, hurt at being rejected for conversion and his love for the woman.

“I want to just tell you my story from A to Z, and I want to just come out and tell you the truth. I can’t lie about anything anymore,” he told the Kan public broadcaster, speaking in fluent English.

“My lying is not justified, but at the same time, I lied because I was in pain, but I want to correct my mistake. I want them to understand where my pain is coming from,” he said.

“Things started coming out and the rumors started and they took her away from me, they separated her away from me,” he said with a sob.

Two weeks after the wedding, the bride’s family discovered documents in his home including a Lebanese passport under a different name.

Eliyah Hawila, born to a Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon, posed as an Orthodox Jew to marry an ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn woman, holds up his Lebanese passport in the name of Ali Hassan Hawila (Screencapture/Kan)

He was born Ali Hassan Hawila to a Shiite family in southern Lebanon, he confirmed to Kan, holding up a picture of the passport.

“I was born in Lebanon, to parents who were born to Muslim Shiite families. I lived in a town called Tyre. My dad used to pray and fast like regular Muslims, but my mom, she never was religious. I had no connection to Islam, I had no connection to religion,” he said.

Hawila described feeling no kinship or connection with his peers during his time in high school in Lebanon,  so he began to explore other religions.

“The first thing I remember googling was Jewish Bible, and I got a copy of the Tanach, a PDF. I felt, you know what, this is right, this feels like the word of God. So I started looking up even more and more, Jewish laws, Jewish prayers.”

Hawila describes making his own kippa out of cardboard and cloth. ” And I was trying to hide it from my mom, trying to hide it from everybody.”

Coming out as Jewish

But his secret was discovered quickly.

“My mom started noticing. She was like: ‘Oh my gosh, you need to stop, what are you doing? If people see what you are doing, you are going to get in trouble.’ But I did not stop, I kept learning more and more,” he said.

“This is what I belong to, this is how I feel connected, so I started coming out to people, and saying ‘I’m Jewish.’ People started spitting on me in the streets, I started getting death threats, people would call me a ‘Jew, a Jewish Dog.'”

Eliyah Hawila, born to a Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon, posed as an Orthodox Jew to marry an ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn woman, seen here with his mother while wearing a Star of David necklace (Screencapture/Kan)

In September 2015, the family moved to the US, where his father had citizenship.

“When we first got to America, I thought, finally, you know what, no one can stop me. My dad wants to stop me, he cannot. So I started googling synagogues in my area.”

He said he turned to a local reform community in Houston and asked to convert but was turned away.

“When I got rejected I started just saying I’m Jewish. My name is Eliyah, and this is the name I chose for myself because I love the story of the prophet Elijah,” Hawila said.

Later, after he started studying engineering in Texas, he became a frequent attendee at the local Chabad synagogue, was active in Jewish and pro-Israel organizations and said no one doubted that he had Jewish roots.

“I still said I came from Lebanon because, you know, I read a lot about the Lebanese Jewish community and I was impressed by it.”

Eliyah Hawila, born to a Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon, posed as an Orthodox Jew to marry an ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn woman, seen here speaking in an interview with Israel’s Kan public broadcaster (Screencapture/Kan)

After the deception was revealed, the head of the Chabad house in Texas A&M University, who was at the wedding, released a statement explaining his acquaintance with Hawila, saying he first began visiting Chabad in 2018.

Rabbi Yossi Lazaroff said Hawila had met the women on a Jewish dating website and “falsely presented himself to her as observant.”

“When asked by the woman and her family, I informed them that his conduct did not reflect that of a fully observant Jew,” Lazaroff said.

He said that it is the responsibility of the officiating rabbi at a Jewish wedding to determine the Jewish status of the couple.

“When Rabbi Ezra Zafrani, a respected Syrian rabbi in Lakewood, NJ, asked me if Eliyah was Jewish, I explicitly informed him that I did not know and that whoever was officiating would need to… independently confirm his Jewish status,” Lazaroff wrote.

He said he and his wife attended the wedding because they were invited. Lazaroff added they knew Hawila had no family who would be there and attended on the understanding that the officiating rabbis “had done their due diligence to confirm the groom’s Jewish status.”

Asked by Kan if he had any regrets, Hawila replied: “The guilt that I had felt initially, it grew in a way, but at the same time, I got used to it. It’s working pretty well.”

But after he met the woman on a Jewish dating site, things began to get complicated.

“When she saw the ID, I had to make something up, so I told her, you know what,  this is an NSA ID, that I’m on a mission, things like that, I just made something up,” he said referring to the National Security Agency.

“Time passes and I met with her parents and I told them the same story. But her parents, they just inspect everything,” he said.

Nevertheless, the wedding went ahead.

During the interview, Kan showed a video from the lavish wedding, with stretch limos and a helicopter proposal.

But further doubts were raised following the wedding, particularly after no relatives attended from the groom’s side.

“Her father began googling my last name until he reaches my father who tells him stuff about me, that: ‘No, he’s not Jewish, he’s not this, he’s not that.'”

“So I started making even more stuff up, I…I…I was panicking, and they took her away from me, they separated her away from me,” he said.

He was investigated by the FBI, after suspicions were raised he could be working for a terror group trying to infiltrate the Jewish community.

Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of the Iran-backed Shiite terror group Hezbollah.

“When the FBI agent came to my place, I said: ‘Sir I give you my permission to spy on all my phone calls, I am not affiliated with anybody.'”

Reports said the FBI found nothing to incriminate him of involvement in terror activities or falsifying documents.

The love of my life

Hawila insists he never meant to hurt the woman he married, who has not been named, and who is refusing to speak to the media to give her side of the story.

“If she wants to give me a second chance, she can give me a second chance, If she doesn’t want to, I still can’t blame her. But I want her to know she is the love of my life,” Hawila said.

However, even if he were to legitimately convert he would be unable to wed the woman due to an unusual, strict edict issued by the insular Syrian Jewish community in the US in 1935 that forbade its members from marrying converts.

And converting is still his goal, he said, claiming that he wants to come to Israel to do so.

“I just want to convert and I want to live a Jewish life. I want to convert in Israel, I don’t want to convert here,” he said.

Hawila said the incident had ruined his life, but his faith is still strong.

“I’m in a hotel, I only have a few hundred dollars and I might end up homeless pretty soon, but you know what, this whole thing was awful and now people are hearing my story, Hawila said.

“So when I say Baruch Hashem (praise the Lord) for the good and the bad, I mean it. Because after every bad there is good, and Hashem (God) helps.”

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