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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Becoming a New Me Shaah Tovah 2010

Becoming a New Me

Debbie Shapiro interviews Esther-Shira

After a flurry of emails in which I discovered that she's a cappuccino gal while I love iced coffee, Esther-Shira and I finally arranged to meet at an upscale outdoor café downtown. I arrived few minutes early and called her cell phone to let her know that I was waiting for her near the main entrance. "I'm almost there," she began, followed by, "Oh, and now I can see you." Looking up, I saw a very chic put-together woman briskly walking toward me. After our initial helloes, Esther-Shira began, "Today's Pesach sheni, and that's a special day for me. On Pesach, I was not yet Jewish; today, I am Jewish and therefore today I am able to eat my matzos as a Jew."

Esther-Shira and I found a quiet corner of the coffee shop where we could converse. As I set up my computer, we ordered – of course – cappuccino (extra strong, please) for her, and ice coffee for me. Even before the coffee arrived, she began telling me about her life.

Esther-Shira: I grew up in a secular non-Jewish home in London. Yes, of course we went to church once or twice a year for the non-Jewish equivalent of the "High Holidays," but religion was never a major influence on my life. For some reason, I always felt different from my family. I loved books and I had lots and lots of questions, but I never received answers. When I was small, I was told that I was too young to understand, and when I got older, well, I never did get satisfactory answers.

Our neighborhood was predominantly Jewish – we had our corner synagogue, rather than church. Many of my school friends were children of survivors. Although their parents kept kosher homes and observed the Shabbos, they wanted their children to assimilate into the surrounding culture. But although in school they were like everyone else, their homes were special. They focused on family and education, a rarity in a world where so many people spent their days glued to the TV screen. I hoped to incorporate these values into my own future home.

Debbie: Looking back, was there anything in your family which gave you the strength to eventually make the enormous changes that you made in your life?

Esther-Shira: My father was a real entrepreneur. Even in his late eighties he would get involved in new projects. In the nineteen fifties, although everyone, including my mother tried to dissuade him, my father started a new business -- importing Juke boxes from America. He believed that they would be a big hit in England. He was right, and as a result he was very successful. Just like my father, if I strongly believe that something is right, I ignore my detractors and develop an unwavering inner strength and drive to see it through to completion. Baruch Hashem! I now have His inner strength to sustain me.  

But getting back to my story, eventually I married and had three daughters. I worked full time as a fashion buyer for a major department store chain, a job that I loved, and a job that kept me in constant contact with the Jewish community since most of the clothes manufacturers that I was in contact with were Jewish. I felt comfortable in their culture and even picked up a few Yiddish words while at it!

Once my children were older, I went back to University where I majored in sociology, specializing in drug and alcohol abuse among women. After I graduated, I was hired by a non-profit organization, the Meta House, a substance abuse treatment program dedicated to helping women through the progression of recovery. Most of the women were forced to give up their children and were referred to us by the court, so in addition to helping our clients recover from substance abuse, we taught them parenting skills and provided them with job training. Eventually I became head of the organization and implemented many new programs including supervised residential homes where the recovering addict could live with their children until they were able to make it on their own. But the higher I climbed in my professional life, the less I had to do with the actual client group. My days were spent participating in government panels and acting as an adviser to foreign governments, notably Russia I had made it, I was a bigshot – but that's not what I wanted to be doing!

Eventually I quit and made a complete U-turn to enter the world of commerce. This was in the 1990s when everyone was worried about the 2000 bug. I opened a high-tech company to combat it, and traveled around the world setting up international distribution for my product. The product was approved by the British and American government, and was extremely successful. I had a great time meeting people and lecturing about our software. Eventually, however, I had enough. High tech was changing so rapidly that new programs became obsolete within months. It had become a cut throat pressurized business environment and I couldn't keep up with it. I decided to sell the company and return to my home in Bournemouth, an upscale area on the southern coast of England.

Debbie: What about your family life?

Esther-Shira: I had gotten divorced when my daughters were small, so I was a single mother coping with raising three children. Interestingly enough, whereas all my children's friends were experimenting with drugs and alcohol, my daughters refused to touch the stuff, and even tried to convince their friends to stay away from it. As they were growing up, I often spoke with them about my work, and they would visit the centre and meet many of my clients, so being a part of women's recovery really impacted them in a positive way. I worked really hard to make our house into a home, and my children's friends as well as my clients, were warmly welcomed.

I've always encouraged my children to be non-judgmental, to accept people for whom they are, which is one of the reasons they were so supportive of my decision to convert. They realized that it was important to me, and that it was what I wanted. Of course I never forced my religiosity on them. When I'd come to visit, for example, I'd bring my own pots and announce that I was cooking for the entire family --- which, of course, my daughters just loved. After all, who wouldn't want a week of Mom's homemade goodies? Last year when I went back to England to spend four weeks with my children, I arranged to spend Shabbos with friends in my Jewish community in Bournemouth. But then I went and broke my toe and was unable to drive, so I ended spending those Shabbos with my children. I explained to them what I could and could not do, and they accepted it. As a matter of fact, everyone ended up coming to my daughter's house to be with me, and we ended up having a lovely time within the confines of halacha.

Debbie: It sounds like you really succeeded in raising a beautiful family. I'm amazed that they are so accepting of you, and that you are so accepting of them. But let's get back to what led you to convert.

Esther-Shira: Around the same time that I had decided to sell the company and return to Bournemouth, Carl, my thirty-two year old nephew was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given but six months to live. He wanted to spend the last six months of his life with me, and his grandparents who lived nearby. This was such a humbling experience. We had an amazing time together. On one hand, we had lots of fun– he had a fantastic sense of humor and even when he was in the hospice the nurses would naturally gravitate to his bed  --  but on the other hand we had plenty of deep conversations about the meaning of life and what happens to a person after death. As we talked, I realized that everything that I had been taught was hollow; I had been fed fluff, the answers I had been given were not real. I had no answers to his questions.

After Carl died, I took a break and went to Thailand.  I spent hours sitting on the beach, contemplating the meaning of life and just thinking. I knew that I couldn't throw myself back into emptiness – running after more money and prestige -- and began exploring religion. I started reading the Bible and the more I read, the more questions I had. Then I began reading the New Testament, and for the first time I noticed the many contradictions between that and the Old Testament.

Every time I encountered a question or saw a contradiction, I'd do a Google search and, more often than not, one of the Jewish websites would address it. The more I read on these websites, the more my interest was piqued, until eventually I phoned the orthodox synagogue in Bournemouth and asked if I could come to services Saturday morning. The secretary promised to call me back with an answer, but she never did, so I tried the next week, and then the week after that. The third time I called I told her, "If you don't ring me back, I'll assume that it's okay and I'll just appear." That time the secretary did call me back to tell me that she had arranged for the gabbai's wife to sit with me and explain what was going on.  Later on, in one of her letters to the rabbinate, the gabai's wife wrote that when I came that first Shabbos, she was amazed at how comfortable I appeared, and that it looked as if I had been going to synagogue my entire life.

After that first Shabbos I attended synagogue regularly; I just felt so at home there. Several weeks later, the gabai's wife invited me for Shabbos lunch and then spent the entire afternoon showing me her kitchen and explaining what's involved in keeping kosher. I remember thinking that I would never, ever, be able to do all that, there's so much involved. But on the other hand, Judaism felt so natural, as though I had come home.

But a person can't change his religion just because it feels comfortable! The more I learned about Judaism, the more I realized how empty many people's lives are. The classy restaurants, the sophistication, it's hollow. So many people chase an illusion of happiness while refusing to face anything that's uncomfortable.  I had to really look deep within myself, face who I am, and basically turn myself inside out and understand and absorb how life would be as a Jew, with all the commitments of keeping the mitzvoth, before coming to the decision that I really want to convert. It was challenging and frightening, yet exhilarating! Eventually I reached a point where I realized that there was no way that I could possibly return to my former, non-Jewish lifestyle.

Once I made a decision to convert, someone suggested that I spend some time in Israel learning more about Judaism. That was a totally new direction for me, but after giving it some serious thought and discussing it with my children, I realized that it was doable. After all, I was at a point in my life when I didn't have major responsibilities holding me back! I initially came for three months, and after spending a few weeks with friends in Hertziliya, I rented an apartment in Jerusalem. Two years later, I'm still here, and I'm not going back. I’m presently in the process of making Aliyah.

When I moved to Jerusalem, I didn't know a soul, but Hashem was very kind to me and I ended up living in Rechavia, a wonderfully friendly neighborhood with a large percentage of English speaking religious Jews. One of the first things I did after moving in was to appear at the rabbinate – who in their right mind just shows up at the rabbinate? - and tell them that I want to convert. The secretary respectfully informed me that the rabbi in charge of conversion will be able to see me in another six weeks. But I was extremely persistent (after all, we are a stiff necked people) and told her that I will not leave without first speaking with a rabbi. I was told to return the following day.

The rabbi in charge of conversions spent over two hours with me. He asked me about my background, why I wanted to convert, and what I knew about Judaism. He then said he would open my file immediately, which apparently is quite unusual. Two months later, I began my course of study in the rabbinate conversion program. I graduated the eighteen month course in November. Then, two days before Pesach, a bais din was convened to make the final decision if I could join the Jewish People. The three judges were very polite and friendly, yet as they spoke with me it was impossible to know what they were thinking. They asked me questions about my life, and knowledge of Torah and Halacha. They spoke with people in the community who knew me well and felt that I'd be an asset to the Jewish People. Finally, after over an hour, all three of them broke into big smiles and said, "Welcome." When I told them that I didn't understand, as I wasn’t aware they had finished the interview, they continued, "Welcome to the Jewish People!"

"You've taken me out of my personal Egypt so that I can join the Jewish People as they leave Egypt," I said; it was just four days to Pesach, when the Jewish nation left Egypt, and now I was leaving my personal Egypt. I was dazed and ecstatic. My friends and I were hugging each other in delight!

Shortly after Pesach I immersed in the mikveh and became a Jew. Interestingly enough, the day before my scheduled appointment at the mikveh everything, but everything, went wrong. I suddenly realized that I was feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of the huge responsibility I was now accepting on myself; becoming a Jew was a decision that would change my life forever, and there was no going back. From this point on, every aspect of my life would be within the confines of halacha. The only other time I had ever felt that way was the day before I gave birth to my first child. As much as I wanted my baby, I knew that after I'd give birth my life would never be the same. I spent the day before my appointment at the mikveh working through this realization and acknowledging it.

The actual mikveh experience was amazing. I deliberately chose to go alone; I had come into This World alone and now I wanted to be reborn as a Jew alone. The rabbonim and the attendant were warm and friendly, and they certainly made me feel very welcome. After immersing, I drove to Hertziliya and took a long walk along the beach, speaking to my Creator and thanking Him for the tremendous privilege of belonging to the Chosen People. As I was walking, it suddenly hit me; the world looked different. I sensed Hashem in everything.

After a while, I decided to go to the Marina to have a cup of coffee. The promenade was crowded with secular Israelis filling their time while emptying their pocketbooks. Yet not a single restaurant had kosher supervision! I was very glad to return to Jerusalem!

Converting is not the end of a journey; it's the beginning. Now that I am a Jew, I have the difficult task of discovering my distinct contribution to the Jewish People Yisrael. Moshe's father in law, Yitro, joined the Jewish people while they were traveling in the desert on their way to Israel. Because he had come from afar – from a totally different culture – he was able to perceive things that others didn't notice, and as a result he completely revised the judicial system.  I don't yet know how I can help my people, but as a Jew it is my obligation to use my talents for the good of our nation, which is something I intend on doing, with G-d's help.

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