In the third floor beit midrash at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, Emery "Eliezer" Williams gazed straight ahead while the students around him bowed over prayerbooks, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of their silent worship.
His stance was not the only thing that set him apart. At 47 years of age, Williams has a distinct seniority in this crowd — as long as university administrators or clergy aren't around.
Oh, and he's black. And blind.
"It's not every day that you see an African-American with a yarmulke and a blind walking stick walking through the Penn campus," said Jeremy Goldman, 35, a healthcare attorney in Baltimore who befriended Williams after starting law school at Penn in 1998. "You couldn't help but notice him."
To the Orthodox students, Williams has been a fixture in their community for as long as they can remember. He's been coming here for more than 20 years — longer than most of the current undergraduates have been alive.
At first, he was just like one of the students, a friend. Today, he's an adult, a more distant figure. Some students don't know anything about him other than his name; a few wonder if he's really Jewish. Still, they welcome him into their religious life on campus because that's what the upperclassmen before them have done for years and years.
A Religious Quest
As a child, Williams was content to pray in church with his family at least once a week, if not more, and even participated in holiday concerts. Though he was born with a host of vision problems, he had enough eyesight to read large-print books, swim, bowl, watch movies and compete in boy scout tournaments.
It wasn't until after graduating the Overbrook School for the Blind that the Southwest Philadelphia resident embarked on a mission to find a place where he belonged, "where people believed in and loved God," he said. During the day, he did various assembly and packing jobs at a workshop operated by the Overbrook school. In the evening, he explored churches and mosques.
"A lot of it was curiosity to see how different people worshipped," he said.
Intrigued after reading Chaim Potok's novels The Chosen and The Promise, Williams looked up the nearest place to learn more about Judaism. It was 1984 when he paid his first visit to Chabad at Penn, about 17 blocks from the home where he still lives with his parents.
"They opened their heart to me," Williams remembered. After services that first Saturday, Williams said, "they asked me to stay for lunch and everything. I was going to give them money and that's when I realized they didn't carry or take money on Shabbat."
Likewise, he quickly learned that he couldn't shake hands with the rabbi's wife. Instead of being offended or turned off by those practices, though, friends said that Williams saw them as signs of the beauty and seriousness of Judaism.
Williams said all the religions he'd investigated had extolled the value of morals and good character, but Judaism just seemed more compassionate. Rabbis didn't talk about people going to hell for being bad, he said, and you could still be a good person even if you weren't Jewish or didn't want to join the religion.
Drawn in further by "the way the Sabbath was celebrated and the different brachahs," Williams returned to the Lubavitch house again and again.
Philadelphia math teacher Leib Meadvin remembered seeing him for the first time at a Shabbat dinner, when both men were 23. Lubavitch always welcomed a variety of people, Meadvin said, so he didn't think anything of meeting an African-American who was searching for his spiritual niche.
Once Williams realized Judaism was it for him, Meadvin said, he became a natural member of their community, and one the students relied on for his uncanny memory. They even dubbed one melody "Emery's Nigun," Meadvin said, because they couldn't start it without his lead.
Moved to convert, Williams rode the bus, sometimes for more than an hour, to study with a Conservative rabbi in Northeast Philadelphia. He formally converted to Judaism in 1987.
He consumed the religion whenever he could, attending services at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City or meeting at the law offices of Allen L. Rothenberg for afternoon davening. But the Jewish community at Penn remained his social and spiritual home.
As he became more observant, Williams said he decided in 1990 to pursue an Orthodox conversion. For two years, he met with the late Rabbi Joshua Toledano, again traveling by bus to their study sessions after finishing his shift at a cheese factory.
Though his parents and younger sister continue to practice Christianity, they supported his conversion.
"It was a choice that he made and we accepted it," said Vincent Regusters, 85, Williams' stepdad (though both men prefer the term "dad.") "We've always raised our children with open minds. It's his life, it's his choosing."
Regusters eased the transition more than he lets on. As the eyes of the family, he was the one who attached a mezuzah to the front door and helped Williams assemble an electric menorah. William's mom, Ellen Regusters, 65, has also been legally blind since birth, though she retains limited eyesight.
Both parents were there when Williams completed his Orthodox conversion with a ritual dip in the mikvah. (More than his parents' attendance at the ceremony, Williams said he was grateful that they'd thought to circumsize him when he was born.)
"I wouldn't have missed it for love or money," Regusters said. "He knows his religion inside out. I call him the little rabbi."
The family doesn't call him by his Jewish name, however. At home, he's Emery. In the Jewish community, he's Eliezer.
A Hillel Fixture
In 1995, a few years after William's Orthodox conversion, one of the students he knew at Penn died from multiple sclerosis. Rabbi Howard Alpert, who oversees all the Hillels in Greater Philadelphia, remembered how Williams sang "the most beautiful" eulogy, first to the Penn mourners riding together to the New York funeral, and then at the service itself.
It wasn't uncommon for Williams to spontaneously break into song or stand up to give a personal prayer, students said. He was so energized by his love for Judaism and people in general that he would often "be overcome with emotion and give everybody their blessings as if he was some great rabbi," Goldman remembered. "He might not have smicha but you felt as if you were being blessed by somebody special."
One Chanukah, Goldman remembered, Williams led a group of about 50 students in song after lighting a menorah in a dorm entranceway; his was the loudest and least inhibited voice in the crowd.
Even though Williams was already older than most of them by then and had been unemployed since 1994, Goldman said he never came across as "some strange guy" who "makes people uncomfortable."
On the contrary, Goldman said, he impressed the students with his heartfelt love of Torah. Since he couldn't read it himself, he relied on them to include him in their parshahdiscussions. If nothing was going on, he'd sit in the Beit Midrash and listen to religious texts on an electronic device.
Since he was such a steady figure at Hillel, Goldman said, they knew something was wrong when he hadn't been around for a few days just before Sukkot in 1999. Through the Chabad rabbi, they found out that he was undergoing tests at a hospital. Since it was Shabbat, they walked through several bad neighborhoods to visit him with a lulav and etrog.
"We really loved the guy and knew it would mean so much to him," said Goldman.
A few days later, Williams said, doctors told him that the prostate cancer they'd suspected had apparently disappeared. When he came back to campus, Goldman said, his spirit was as sunny as ever.
"When you're around him you feel his aura," Goldman said. "We all have challenges, but the way that he's dealing with them, that he perseveres, he's an inspiration to all. Other people who have similar challenges, it's enough for them to just get through the day."
Even as his vision deteriorated, he never became hardened or bitter, added Meadvin.
"He was so sweet and always positive through all the hardships," said Meadvin. "He never lets it get him down."
After two failed corneal transplants, Williams said his eyesight had completely disappeared by early 2003. That made it harder to get to Hillel on his own, though he still rides a special transit service several times a week to attend Shabbat morning services, Minchah, Torah study sessions or special events.
His blindness also made it harder to get to know the students.
"Sometimes I have to say, 'What's your name again?' " Williams admitted. "They tell me I shouldn't feel bad about it. So many people I can't keep track, but I'm glad they're my friends."
Despite not having as strong of a relationship with the students, Williams' sincere appreciation for God's gifts continues to leave an impression on them, said Alpert. To this day, the rabbi said, he runs into alumni who ask after Williams. Simply through example, Alpert said, he succeeded in teaching generations of college students to look for the good in the world and to become comfortable with those who are different.
"He was 'other' and approachable at the same time," Alpert explained. "Because he's so different, he's able to inspire them without them feeling embarrassed or intimidated."
Though the students come and go, the Orthodox leaders have informally taken it upon themselves to watch out for Williams, and pass down that responsibility to the incoming students. On Saturdays, they call upon him to open the ark and sometimes give him the honor of blowing the shofar on the High Holidays. They take turns escorting him through the building. Williams said many of them also know that he's on a fixed income, and offer to use their meal plans to buy him food at the Hillel kosher dining hall.
"When I was a young freshman here, I saw a lot of older people be nice to him so I grew into that culture," said Miki Friedmann, 23, now a graduate student at the school. "I was impressed with the community that it was so natural to them to take him in."
In February 2009, when Williams landed in the hospital yet again, this time for a triple bypass, students sent cards and a few even even visited.
Maybe someday, Williams said wistfully, he'll be blessed with a wife and children of his own. But there have been socio-economic barriers to dating. Williams said he's working with a counselor from the Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired to look for a job and learn to use a computer.
Meanwhile, he keeps busy with Hillel, volunteer teaching a beginning braille class and playing the keyboard he got for his 40th birthday. Recently, a Chabad rabbi drove him to attend the wedding of one of Meadvin's daughters.
While Alpert believes Williams has handled the growing age gap between himself and the students quite gracefully, the rabbi worries that he'll eventually find himself without a comparable Jewish community to take Hillel's place.
"There's no other congregation that's like this, that's 24-7," Alpert said. "When services are over, they lock the building."
So why not try out a different group? Williams gave a slight smile.
"I guess the Penn Hillel for me is still very vibrant and very alive," he said slowly. During services, "it's like a taste of heaven on earth, like I'm standing in a nice big synagogue and there's all this singing. I can picture everybody singing and swaying."
Later that evening, Williams sat by himself in the first floor lounge at Hillel, biding time before an evening Tu'Bishevat party. Students circulated through the lobby without so much as a glance his way.
A few minutes passed like this, and then a young man headed straight for Williams.
"Are you ready to eat now?" the student asked.
Williams couldn't remember his name, but he knew he was a friend from services.
He hoisted himself out of the chair. The young man took his elbow and they walked, together, into the dining hall.