Fred Cook, by his own admission, is a man in search of an identity.
From his teenage years through his early 30s, he filled that void with neo-Nazism. But over the past decade, he has grown to fill it with Judaism.
Cook, 43 and a Philadelphia resident, has spent the past year-and-a-half converting to Judaism through Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street. In July, his beit din will rule on his conversion. If the three religious authorities accept Cook into the faith, the convert will enter the mikveh.
He already wears a Star of David necklace with the star hanging where his swastika used to be: above his heart.
“It’s been a pretty amazing journey,” Cook said.
It started when Cook was a teen. As he put it, he grew up “with no identity whatsoever.” All he knew, per his grandmother, was that he was German.
But when his family moved to an Irish neighborhood in South Philadelphia, the German kid did not fit in.
“They were like, ‘Hey, you’re not Irish,’” Cook recalled.
At 13, Cook was looking for a crew, and he found one on South Street. Cook’s friend told him to come hang out with his friends. It turned out to be a group of seven or eight skinheads.
They were not affiliated with an organization. They would just listen to loud music and fight with “sharp skinheads,” or skinheads of non-white races, according to Cook.
The Philadelphia native liked that his new friends welcomed him and made him feel comfortable.
“It was something to latch on to,” he said.
But once he latched on, he did not let go. One particular incident became a point of no return, according to Cook.
As a student at Horace Howard Furness High School, a girl asked Cook on a date, and he said no. Then, as the convert explained it, she told other students that he called her the “n word.” Cook estimates that 13 kids responded by jumping him and hitting him in the back of the head with a piece of brick.
He spent two or three days in a coma and emerged with a steel plate in his head. To this day, he said, he still has memory issues. After the incident, Cook’s skinhead friends started walking him to school.
“I took things more serious than a bunch of guys goofing around,” he said.
Using America Online, Cook entered chat rooms and started talking to other white supremacists. He got connected to William Pierce, author of the racist and antisemitic book “The Turner Diaries,” and David Lane, who coined the line repeated by all white hate organizations, according to Cook: “We must secure the existence of our race and a future for white children.”
The convert even did security for former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke during his appearances in Philadelphia. Eventually, Cook worked his way up to the chief of staff position for Jeff Schoep, the leader of the National Socialist organization.
But in a high-ranking position, Cook started to get calls from friends about how their white brothers appeared to have Black friends in Facebook pictures. As he kept getting these types of calls, Cook came to a gnawing realization.
“I started to see it as people looking for enemies because there were none,” he said.
Cook understood that the identity he had found and cultivated was hollow. So finally, he told Schoep that he had to step down.
“I gave up on that identity,” he said.
For years after leaving, Cook stopped trying to answer the identity question. He focused just on trying to be a good person and on building a family with his wife.
But in December 2020, he took a DNA test and learned that he was 30% Jewish. He reached out to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and got a box of books in return.
He started reading and became “obsessive,” he said. Since then, he has read 80 books on Judaism, joined Rodeph Shalom and committed to the conversion process.
Rodeph Shalom Rabbi Eli Freedman called it “a shock” when the former neo-Nazi first reached out to him. But the rabbi embraced the convert anyway and saw that he was genuine.
“When someone decides Judaism is the path for them, they have a Jewish soul,” he said.
Cook also works with Schoep, a reformed neo-Nazi himself who did a talk at Drexel University in November, at Schoep’s organization Beyond Barriers, which works to combat extremism.
“We were on the wrong track,” Schoep said. “Now we’re on the right path and trying to do good.”
As Cook put it, his mission now is “tikkun olam.” JE