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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Illana Shaah Tovah 2010

Ilana (a pseudonym)

I met Ilana at a women's getaway near Tiberius. It was three days of fun, food and laughter -- lots and lots of laughter! Between swimming in the Kinneret and stuffing ourselves in the dining room, I managed to grab Ilana for a few hours to interview her. In addition to gaining a few pounds, I gained a new friend. I hope you will be as inspired as I was.

Ilana, can you tell me about your life?

Ilana: I grew up in Chicago. Although we lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood -- the public high school that my sister and I attended was at least half Jewish -- and had a strong sense of Jewish identity, we were not observant. Interestingly enough, I can honestly say that I am very grateful that I was not born into a religious family, because chances are that if I had, I would probably not be religious today.

Although half the kids in my public high school were Jewish, the other half was not. As a rule, the Jewish kids were much smarter and better in school than the non-Jewish kids (after all, Hitler said lots of nasty things about us, but he never said that we're not smart!). But for some reason although everyone said that I was very intelligent, I never did well in school. It was only when I was seventeen and tried to learn Hebrew that I discovered that I couldn't combine the letters into words and went for professional testing. That's when I found out that I'm dyslexic. Although I can't read Hebrew, I earned a degree in Jewish History from the Bar Illan University (I took tests orally). Had I been raised in a religious home and attended a Jewish school, I most probably would have been so frustrated and overwhelmed with the double curriculum that my self-esteem would have plummeted and I would have found myself one of the kids that we label as being "off the derech."

But although I have a real problem with the written word, Hashem granted me the ability to speak in front of people. I'm a phenomenal speaker! I got through high school by doing lots of oral reports and projects.

I was blessed with a neshama that pines for a connection with Hashem. When I was five, I would kneel next to my bed to pray. When my mother told me that Jews don't kneel, I would sit with folded hands and talk to my Creator.

In the summer, I attended Camp Ramah, a summer camp associated with the Conservative movement. One year, our madricha asked us if we lived in a country that allowed us to keep only one mitzvah, which one would we choose. I told her that I would choose kashrus, since keeping kosher is a constant reminder that we are different from the goyim. At the end of the summer, I returned home and made such a great sales pitch to my parents that I and convinced them to kasher our kitchen. I was all of thirteen years old at the time!

I always identified with Israel and never felt at home living in the United States. It was a feeling of being unsettled, of lacking roots. At age fifteen I came to Israel for a six week summer program and decided that I wanted to live there. Despite my learning disability I was able to graduate high school early and returned to Eretz Yisrael attend a kibbutz ulpan program.

On the kibbutz I met a nice man, let's call him "Bob," and we decided to get married. But I was only eighteen and my parents felt that I was still much too young. At the end of the program Bob traveled back to Chicago with me to meet my parents.

It was then that I discovered that my mother had been divorced before she married my father, which, of course, meant that there was a sheilah if it was permissible for me to marry at all. My mother had received a conservative get, but she had no idea were she had put it. I managed to track down the rabbi who had married my parents. He gave me a letter stating that he had seen the original get (he died two months later).  In the end, the Chicago Rabbinical Counsel retroactively annulled my mother's first marriage since the eidim were not halachically permitted to act as witnesses. That, together with the Conservative Get was sufficient for them to issue a letter stating that I was permitted to marry. Although Bob and I eventually broke off our engagement, the letter came into good use four years later, when I showed it to the Jerusalem rabbinate as proof that I was halachically permitted to marry. The rabbis noticed the date and broke out in laughter. "You've been waiting a very long time," they said.

But back in Chicago I still wanted to marry Bob. My parents tried to delay our wedding and managed to convince me to stay home to spend a semester studying at a local university. Meanwhile, Bob returned to Israel and joined the IDF.

When I returned to Israel at the end of the semester, Bob and I realized that our relationship had changed. We were growing in different directions and decided to break off the engagement. Although intellectually I understood that he was not right for me, I felt traumatized and lonely. Retroactively, however, I realize that one good thing came out of it. Although I loved Israel and wanted to live there, there's a good chance that if it hadn't been for my desire to see Bob again, I would have stayed in Chicago.

I left the kibbutz to learn in a girls' seminary. But my head was not into it. Of course I realized that I had done the right thing in breaking off our engagement, but I was still emotionally devastated. But although my mind was elsewhere, I grew by osmosis. The teachers were amazing! My madricha was fantastic – we're still close, and I found wonderful "adopted" parents.

To this day I have no real formal religious education, which means that there are many holes in my knowledge. Much of that has to do with my being dyslexic. I am simply unable to read Hebrew. But then I remember a quote from the Sound of Music, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window." My "window" is my unusual capacity to comprehend and internalize things orally, which compensates for my disability.

After finishing my year in Sem, I attended Bar Illan University where I majored in Jewish History. By then I had come to the conclusion that I want to marry a ben Torah. I was very close to a woman whose husband was a rav. When she heard that I want to marry someone who sits and learns, she asked me, "Are you sure that that's what you are looking for? You'll have no money, and you'll always feel under pressure because every moment that you take him away from learning is a sheilah of bitul Torah." Today, I am very grateful that she insisted I fully understood what I was getting myself into.

Simcha and I were married in the summer. Since both of our families lived abroad, we arranged the wedding ourselves. It was held in a yeshiva dining room. All our friends pitched in to help so we were able to keep the costs down to less than two thousand dollars.

We found a position as dorm parents at a girls' seminary. Meanwhile my husband continued learning in yeshiva. Later on we moved to Gush Katif. My husband taught in a yeshiva, preparing the students for the rabbinical exams while I sold organic vegetables. But I felt isolated; there were almost no English speakers and we were basically cut off from everyone. So in 1992, after living in Gush Katif for five years, we moved back to Jerusalem.

Debbie: Gush Katif was a bloc of 17 Israeli settlements in the southern Gaza Strip. Historically, Jews lived in Gaza City until the Arab riots of 1929, which left many dead and forced the survivors to flee. In the 1930s, Jews purchased land in Gaza to establish a Jewish village – Kfar Darom, but the village was evacuated during the 1948 War of Liberation. In 1970, the village was resettled, the first of the many Jewish settlements that eventually dotted the area. In August, 2005 the 8,000 residents of Gush Katif were forcefully evicted from their homes as part of Israel's unilateral disengagement plan.

Ilana: When our third child was just a couple of months old we realized that something was not right. He was not developing properly. After many tests and various therapies we finally received a diagnosis. He is autistic.

Our son, Yisrael, like so many other developmentally challenged children, has a very unique neshamah. Our community is very accepting of him and supportive of us. I remember one Shabbos where he insisted on leading the community in singing "Azi zimra" at the conclusion of the services. The shul's gabai opened up the aron kodesh for him and, since he does not know how to read Hebrew, he sang "lalala" for each stanza, while the congregation sang their response! It was beautiful to see peoples delight in letting him lead the congregation.  Another time Yisrael somehow mixed up Yom Kippur and Purim and decided to come to Kol Nidrei dressed as a miniature turtle. No one said a negative word to him!

Today, our son is seventeen years old. We've been truly blessed with tremendous educators who've done everything possible to help him develop to his fullest. As parents, it's our responsibility to accept our children and help them reach their potential. Although at times it's a difficult pill to swallow, we need to remember that our children were not placed in this world to fulfill our dreams.

Our youngest child, a girl, is also in the autistic spectrum. Her needs are different from that of my son's. She extremely hyperactive and it's difficult for her to forge relationships with her peers. She constantly craves to be with either me or my husband.  She's in a special classroom for kids facing similar difficulties. There are only five children in her class, so she gets lots of attention.

Our second child is dyslexic. Like me, he's extremely intelligent and is able to use his phenomenal memory to hide his disability. We had no idea that there was a problem until he was in sixth grade. Then, thanks to a very abusive teacher, his self-esteem plummeted and everything fell apart. Afterwards, when no high school was willing to accept him, he looked to drugs for comfort. Eventually he was arrested and sent to a rehabilitation center

The rehabilitation center was a disaster. They put him in isolation and forced him to do all sorts of demeaning jobs, such as constructing buildings that were leveled upon completion (they must have learned that one from the Mitzrim!). Baruch Hashem the program fell apart and he was released early. Although he was off drugs, emotionally he was a wreck.

We started going to a therapist for family counseling. Being able to vent our emotions in a non-judgmental, safe environment was therapeutic for all of us. Slowly but surely our son began to return to his roots. Interesting enough, putting on a kippa was the last step in his spiritual journey. It was as if he was afraid to place that label on himself. 

Today, my son divides his day between studying alternative medicine and learning Torah. His sense of serenity and happiness is obvious to all who meet him; he literally glows! My husband and I are very proud of him. In retrospect, we realize that falling to such depths was the springboard that elevated him to tremendous heights.

My fourth child is also dyslexic, which means that he is also at risk of going off the derech. Sadly enough, because we have such high academic standards, these children often end up with a very low sense of self-esteem. Our experience with our older son taught us a lot about how to deal with this child. One of the most important things that we can give him is a stable, happy family life. We can't overestimate the impact of a stable marriage on our children's self-esteem! One of the basic building blocks of a good marriage is mutual respect. Without it, it's almost impossible to work as a team. With it, it's possible to face even the most difficult challenges, and believe me, today, after having gone through all those difficult challenges I can only say Thank You, because without them I would not be the person I am today.

In the future, I would like to reach out to other women and share my experiences with them. Hashem loves us; if He didn't care of us he wouldn't spur us to grow by placing us in these difficult situations. Nisyanos polish our middos and help us to define ourselves. Baruch Hashem I was blessed wit the ability to speak, and would like to use that gift to touch other women's lives.

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