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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sharing a short part of a long journey

In many ways, the IDF is a great blending and processing plant for Israeli society. It throws people from different social (rich, poor, middle class) and religious (religious, secular, Jewish, Muslim, Druse, Christian, etc.) backgrounds together and lets them mingle and work together in a setting that might not be possible at another time and place.

In addition to providing intensive Hebrew courses for new immigrants, the IDF also allows soldiers who might have missed the boat (so to speak) in high school to take remedial courses and study for their matriculation exams. In this sense, the army offers a much needed second chance to those who want/need it.

But in my opinion, one of the most promising and important opportunities that the Israeli Army affords its members is a program called 'Netiv' (translation: Trail/Path).

Because the Law of Return allows anyone with Jewish ancestry as well as the spouses of those with Jewish ancestry (but who might not necessarily be Halachically Jewish) to claim Israeli citizenship, there exists a strange situation where we have in our midst, citizens who have been raised in our schools, received a culturally Jewish education, speak perfect Hebrew, and who in 100 other ways are completely Israeli. But because they are not Jewish according to the Rabbinic establishment's reading of Jewish Law, they are not free to marry a Jew (at least in Israel), or in other more subtle ways, to truly integrate into the society in which they live.

The Netiv program is a voluntary course for IDF soldiers who are not Jewish according to Halachah (Jewish Law), but who are interested in a course of study in preparation for possibly going through a conversion. While most of the members of the program seem to be from families that immigrated from the former Soviet Union, there are certainly others from elsewhere who have reason to want to take the course.

In addition to intensive study of Jewish texts, laws, history and rituals, the soldiers are required to spend at least a few Shabbatot and/or holidays with observant Jewish families so they can see the things they've been learning applied in the real world. We found ourselves on the list of families that the IDF calls to host these soldiers because a couple of our friends' daughters have been commanders and teachers in the Netiv course.

Over the past few years our family has hosted many soldiers for shabbat from this program. Typically we'll get a call early in the week from the officer running the course asking us if we can host a few soldiers for shabbat. They ask if we prefer men or women, and how many we can host. Generally we take two or three on a typical shabbat.

On Friday afternoon, an IDF bus full of soldiers pulls up to the local synagogue, and the host families wait for them there. They get off the bus and introductions are made between the host families and soldiers. Each family then takes 'their' soldiers home.

It is important to point out that many (perhaps most) of the Netiv candidates do not follow through with a conversion. Some are in the course out of curiosity. Others sign up because it is a preferable alternative to less pleasant work. But others find themselves in Netiv because they genuinely want, at long last, to return to the people from whom one or more of their ancestors departed.

We have genuinely enjoyed the company of all the soldiers who have come to us via this program, and have made lasting connections with a few of them. But aside from writing an occasional letter of recommendation, we have not been privy to their long-term plans or whether they have, in-fact, gone through with the conversion.

Until recently.

One of the soldiers who has been coming to us for the past few months is a young woman who I'll call Marina (not her real name). When she first came to us for shabbat we found her to be very pleasant... but somewhat reserved. She was pretty and extremely bright, but not quite as outgoing and gregarious as some of the others we'd met. But once she warmed up to us (and we to her), we realized that she wasn't shy... just extremely modest.

Everything about Marina, from her dress to her choice of words was under-stated. She would often ask questions about traditions and ritual which revealed a deep pool of knowledge waiting to be catelogued and organized. She noticed everything and wanted to know obscure things such as why people stood a certain way at different times in the synagogue, or why our youngest son seemed to be saying an abbreviated form of grace after meals and the bedtime 'shema' prayer.

After Marina had been to our home 4 or 5 times, she called us to tell us that she'd received a date to sit with the Beit Din (Rabbinic court). She wanted to know if one of us would consider coming to testify on her behalf. We weren't really sure what that entailed, but we agreed that at least one of us would be there on the appointed date.

Yesterday was the day.

We arrived at the Jerusalem offices of the Beit Din and found Marina nervously waiting, dressed in one of her typically modest outfits. She seemed enormously relieved to see us both, and Zahava gave her a reassuring hug.

After a few minutes of chatting in the waiting room, a clerk came out and asked me if we were here for 'Marina'. I nodded, and he motioned for us to come in. When Marina rose, the clerk explained that they would call her shortly.

We were ushered into a medium sized conference room and seated across a big table from three Rabbis (who had name plates set up in front of them). I'm not sure what I had been expecting, but the three smiled warmly and asked if we wanted tea or coffee.

After a little chit chat and Jewish geography, they began asking us gentle questions about our relationship with Marina. How long had we known her?... how many times had she come to our house?... what were our impressions of her? I wouldn't really call it a direct line of questioning, because they really left us tell them anything and everything we wanted. We shared anecdotes about our interactions with Marina, as well as things we'd heard from our children.

One of the more poignant things we shared was that Marina had told our daughter that she knew she wanted to be Jewish since she'd been six years old.

After about 15 minutes the three Rabbis asked us if there was anything else we wanted to add. When we said no, I assumed we'd be dismissed. But instead, the head of the Beit Din asked us to move apart and place a chair between us so that Marina could join us. By the time we'd complied, Marina had been invited into the room by the clerk, and had taken her seat between us.

Again, I'm not sure I had thought about what the process might be like, but I must have thought it would be much more formal and courtroom-like (or at least like a deposition).

Instead the Rabbis were as warm and gentle with Marina as they'd been with us. They asked her about herself... her background... her experiences with us... her experiences with religious observance during the Netiv course. They also asked her practical questions about Jewish law... about the definition of common (and not so common) terminology... and they even asked her about Jewish history as described in the Torah.

Marina answered in her typically modest way. She answered the questions softly and somewhat hesitantly... but seemed to be drawing the answered from deep inside rather than from a rote cram session. Even the couple of things she answered incorrectly were so detailed and correct in their context that a soft word or suggestion from one of the Rabbis helped her make the connection and get back on the right track.

At one point they asked her about the weekly Torah portion that had been read in synagogue the previous Shabbat. She couldn't remember the name, but was able to paraphrase the story quite well. Then they asked her about the Haftara reading that had followed. Again, she knew the basic story line.

But when the Rabbis asked her if she had noticed a connection between the Torah portion and Haftara reading I was sure she would be stumped. But after thinking out loud for a few moments, Marina quietly offered a possible connection and was rewarded with three beaming smiles such as a daughter or granddaughter might receive.

Throughout the process, the Rabbis were warm and supportive, and spoke to Marina as if she were a favored student. The intent was clearly not to trip her up or catch her unprepared. It was more like they were discussing a favorite book or film with a friend who had just read/seen it for the first time. The words 'Enthusiastic', 'Warm', and 'Loving' come effortlessly to mind.

Throughout the interview, Zahava and I sat on either side of Marina... barely breathing and terribly proud of her quiet confidence in the face of such a daunting task.

The last question they asked wasn't really a question. One of the Rabbis asked her to tell a bit about 'Tzniut' (roughly translates as 'modesty', but is so much more than that).

Marina seemed nonplussed.

For the first time in the interview she didn't seem to have the answer. After a pause she said, "I'm not sure what you are asking me. I know the word but I'm not sure what to tell you about it. When another Rabbi started asking her if Jews were supposed to dress in a certain way or conduct themselves in a particular manner, Marina seemed to see where they were going. She said, "Of course, we're not supposed to wear revealing clothing, but I was brought up this way so I never really thought much about it".

I wanted to jump in and tell them that everything about Marina was already so 'Tzenua' - modest - and that was why she didn't seem to understand that this was a potential cause for worry in the Rabbi's minds. But I could see in their eyes that they understood this.

Finally, the Rabbis asked Marina if she had anything else to tell them about why she wanted to be Jewish.

She thought for a moment and said, "Since I was a little girl I have always thought of myself as Jewish.... or at least I've always felt like I was on the road towards being Jewish. I attended Jewish schools.... my friends are Jewish... my whole life is Jewish. Now that I've learned so much about Judaism I'm sure it is right for me".

The head of the Beit Din then said, "But will you continue with what you've learned? Do you see yourself living as a Jew? It's not easy, you know."

Marina didn't hesitate. She quietly said, "The only thing that is difficult is when I begin something. Once I've started doing something, it becomes a part of my routine. I used to think it would be hard sitting in synagogue and praying for so long. Now I look forward to it and don't even notice the passage of time."

The Rabbis nodded and thanked us all for coming.

The clerk showed us out, and as we found ourselves once again in the waiting room, I assumed that this was the conclusion of a preliminary interview, or that they would notify Marina at some future date of their decision. However, within a minute the door opened and the clerk invited the three of us back in. We took our seats across from the Rabbis and waited. But not for long.

The head of the Beit Din smiled and told Marina that they were pleased to welcome her into the Jewish people, and asked her to stand. Her real name is actually a Hebrew word for a particular flower, so the Rabbi asked if this was the name she intended to use. She nodded. She was asked to repeat a short oath, and finally was asked to recite the 'Shema'. Zahava and I were both surprised to find tears running down our cheeks.

When we were all back in the waiting room, Zahava gave Marina a big hug and kiss and we both congratulated her. After a few minutes the clerk handed out some paperwork and Marina was told to make an appointment at a Mikveh (ritual bath) for the final step of her conversion; a ritual immersion.

Since it was early in the day, we invited Marina to a local restaurant for lunch, and throughout the meal she alternated between calling relatives and friends to give them the news, and apologizing to us for being on the phone. We couldn't stop smiling... it was such a privilege to have been part of this special transition for this brand new Jew.

We dropped Marina off at the bus station and told her we expected to see a lot of her. She told us to give warm regards to our kids, promised to call, and we said our good-byes.

For the rest of the day I couldn't stop playing the entire episode over and over in my mind. How strange and wonderful to have been able to play so intimate a role in this woman's quest to join a club whose memebrship I take mostly for granted. I'm Jewish by birth... but she is now Jewish by choice.

Posted by David Bogner on December 14, 2010 | Permalink

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Wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: alex | Dec 14, 2010 12:36:28 PM

Thank you for sharing this. From the popular press one would assume the experience to be the exact opposite of what you describe.

Posted by: ron | Dec 14, 2010 12:38:18 PM

THANK YOU FOR SHARING THAT!!!

I have several 'conversion candidates' as students and my experience of all of them is how you desrcibed Marina - the details of each individual journey/story being different. It is inspiring and humbling to share a part of their journey with them and even to help them along it where I can.

The lucky thing for me is that all of them (so far!) want to keep learning with me, so I get to share more of their amazing journey with them!

Posted by: Nir in London | Dec 14, 2010 2:02:10 PM

Lovely story, thank you so much for sharing. It brought tears to my eyes too.

Posted by: zemirah | Dec 14, 2010 2:43:11 PM

Beautiful post, and mazal tov to Marina!

Posted by: Mrs.S. | Dec 14, 2010 3:28:46 PM

I also found tears welling up in my eyes as I read this. This is right up there with as one of my favorite posts of yours. What a wonderful story - thank you so much for sharing.

Posted by: orieyenta | Dec 14, 2010 4:26:11 PM

This is so beautiful. How privileged that you were able to be a part of it. Mazal Tov to Marina!

Posted by: SaraK | Dec 14, 2010 4:44:03 PM

What an awesome event you got to participate in! Thank you for sharing that experience with us. And please, congratulate 'Marina'. Mazal Tov!

Posted by: Jethro | Dec 14, 2010 5:50:12 PM

What a great experience. Thank you so much for sharing. Oh, now I'm tearing up.

As a "conversion candidate" myself, I can say that any help you give is immeasurably appreciated. You have no idea how wonderful it is to have people offer to let you into their homes and share Shabbat or chagim with them, especially for those of us who did not grow up in a Jewish environment.

Mazal tov to "Marina" and kol hakavod to you and Zahava for having performed such a mitzvah on her behalf.

Posted by: Bryan | Dec 14, 2010 7:02:48 PM

I have had the privilege of dancing in celebration with many new Jews right after they got their good news. But it's always been after the fact. I've never been there to be witness the moment. What a blessing to be a part of that! Thank you for sharing this story.

Posted by: Alissa | Dec 14, 2010 9:35:04 PM

This is a beatiful story, almost felt I was there. I'll include it in my weekly review on Friday.

Posted by: Ilana-Davitata | Dec 14, 2010 10:35:16 PM

After the Carmel tragedy,this is a wonderful story to pick up the spirits;may you have many more such experiences.

Posted by: ED | Dec 15, 2010 2:10:10 AM

Beautiful.

Posted by: At The back of the Hill | Dec 15, 2010 3:46:46 AM

This is the kind of story I print out and bring to shul for those who do not understand the beuty of the Jblogs

Posted by: LakewoodFallingDown | Dec 15, 2010 3:47:07 AM

Nice story... and now you understand a fraction of how I felt being a witness to Linda's journey... It took my breath away.

And yeah, it's a big deal. And for those born into the faith, it should be something that they have to witness at least once to really appreciate what they just 'are'.

Posted by: val | Dec 15, 2010 5:40:08 AM

That is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Rivkah T | Dec 15, 2010 6:48:31 AM

What a beautiful post. It's almost a year since I converted myself and although the context is different, I too remember feeling that the Beth Din were interested in my thoughts and opinions, not in tripping me up to find reasons not to welcome me as a member of the Jewish people.

Thank you for writing this - and for helping another person join 'The Tribe'.

rachel

Posted by: Rachel | Dec 15, 2010 11:12:49 AM

Superb post. A magnificent mitzvah by you, Zahava and family which you very kindly shared with us. Emotional? Yes. Heartwarming? Of course. Inspiring? Absolutely. A wonderful antidote to some of the rubbish going on in the 'real world' just now.

Posted by: Ellis | Dec 15, 2010 4:58:39 PM

Have you seen this?
http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3999703,00.html
If it's not your Marina, then it's an awfully wacky coincidence.

I hate to say it, but my experience hosting Netiv soldiers has been very different.

Posted by: Elli | Dec 15, 2010 8:45:27 PM

Excellent post, thank you for writing and sharing it.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 15, 2010 11:37:10 PM

Thanks for sharing this story. Well written as usual! Mazal Tov to "Marina"!

Posted by: ProphetJoe | Dec 16, 2010 4:31:03 PM

This reminds me so much of my own Beit Din 9 years ago. Thank you for posting!

Posted by: Anima | Dec 18, 2010 8:34:19 PM

What a beautiful story. May her neshama help lift Am Yisrael to greater heights. How precious that you were able to share such a powerful moment in her life.

Posted by: Rivki | Dec 19, 2010 3:34:28 AM

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