Title: Dazzled by the Daylight
Subtitle: Shedding superfluous shells
Byline: As told to Debbie Shapiro
"When we do something with mesiras nefesh, we're so focused on our goal, on where we're going, that the things we have to give up on the way are inconsequential and meaningless. Could you imagine Yehudah Hamacabee saying – or even thinking, 'I really love throwing the discus, but I'm giving it up to learn Torah! I'll miss it, but I'm going to have mesiras nefesh for Torah'?" I had just finished speaking to a group of seminary students and was about to leave when one of the girls, a young woman with bright, sparkling eyes and long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, came over to me and said, "I really connected to what you told us. When our family converted, we were so focused on becoming Jewish that everything else became superfluous."
Brachah tells her story:
I grew up in a warm, sheltered home in rural
. We were totally family-orientated; my mom's parents lived in the other section of our two-family house, while my dad's parents lived down the block. My aunts and uncles all lived just around the corner, so there were always tons of siblings and cousins around for me to play with – I was never bored! My parents were hard-working country folks. My father had a job in a factory and my mom was a hair stylist. They had everything anyone could possibly desire — a supportive family, five healthy children, a beautiful home; everything, except meaning. Canada
My parents felt that something was missing, and began looking into religion. Of course they started by studying the Bible. It didn't take long for them to realize that the words of the New Testament contradicted that of the Old. Since Christianity stems from Judaism, they decided to go straight to the source -- and joined a Jews for Jesus congregation!
Here, too, it wasn't long before they saw through the hypocrisy. In our Torah study classes, for example, we learned that Jews are not allowed to work on the Shabbos, yet, the so-called rabbi and his wife would almost always stop off at the bank on their way to services. We didn't understand why they were constantly putting down those 'old fashioned' Jews who keep the Torah and refuse to see the light of the New Testament . Although the services were spirited and full of life – I remember getting up to dance at krias haTorah – we sensed that the people in charge were trying to hide things from us. My parents were constantly arguing with our teachers, but it took them a year until they finally decided to disengage themselves
off from this cult.
By this time, my parents had come to the conclusion that the so-called New Testament did not make any sense while the Old Testament is emes – which means that the truth l
ay with the Jews. My father, however, had no idea where to find authentic Jews, so he did a computer search on Judaism. He discovered a Chabad House located about an hour's drive away from where we lived. My mom phoned the Chabad House and left them a message, explaining that although we're not Jewish, we're interested in learning more about Judaism, but no one called back. After she tried three times without a response, she left a message saying, "I know that you're supposed to turn us away three times. But we're interested in learning about Judaism, and no matter how many times we're turned away we're going to find some way of doing it, because we know that that is what we must do."
The rabbi invited us to join the congregation for Shabbos morning services, and then extended a personal invitation to join his family for lunch. So Shabbos morning we drove to shul and remained there until after havdalah.
We loved it. It was so amazing – there were so many people at the rabbi's table, and everyone was so real, so connected. Most of the guests were, like us, discovering Yiddishkiet, and they asked lots of questions. The rabbi and his wife responded to each and every one of them in an honest, forthright
After that wonderful experience, at which time I was seven years old,
we traveled to shul every Shabbos morning. Yes, it bothered us that we had to drive, but we weren't Jewish, and this was the only way we could learn about Judaism. On Sundays, we returned to attend conversion classes, where we studied halachah and were warned about the ramifications of becoming Jewish. We realized that it was a huge responsibility, but by now we firmly believed in the truth of the Torah and knew that this was the life that we were meant to live. We had no doubt about the step we wanted to take, and that knowledge infused us with joy.
So many things made much sense to us – to thank Hashem after going to the bathroom; to be aware of the miracle inherent in the seemingly mundane. It was so right; so beautiful and so, so pure! We met people who didn't own a television, yet their lives were filled with purpose; with a higher calling. And then there was the hachnassas orchim. Total strangers opened their homes – and hearts—to us, as well as to dozens of other guests. We wanted to emulate these amazing people, to continue the chain of chessed that we had received.
It's so wonderful to go back to those memories, to that time when everything was so fresh and exciting, and real – so, so real. I remember telling my cousins and my friends at school about all the wonderful, new things we were learning, but of course they didn't understand. How could they?
That June and July, my four siblings and I attended a frum day camp. Even though I was only eight, I remember being so impressed with how the counselors were dressed – so refined and tzniusdig, yet they were totally with it, and a lot of fun to boot! For August, my older sister and I attend an all-girl's sleepover camp. We had a blast! Everyone knew that we weren't Jewish, yet, since we were already at the end of our conversion process, we were accepted with open arms. I even won the Brachos Bee for my age group! One of the other girls in my bunk had seventeen – seventeen!!! – siblings. I couldn't imagine such a large family, yet she was so normal and happy, and certainly not deprived!
Meanwhile, my parents continued to attend classes and learn whatever and whenever they could. At first, the rabbis were tough, and tried to scare them away, but then, when they realized that they could not be deterred, they were supportive and encouraging. My parents, on their part, did whatever they were told, although at times it was far from easy. They had no doubts that they were on the right path, and they were so excited about everything new that they learned. We couldn't wait for the day that we would have the zechus of becoming part of Am Yisrael.
The most difficult challenge for us was to leave our home town to move to a Jewish community. After all, my parents had grown up in that small, rural town, and their families still lived there. Although we were moving in a very different direction from them, they realized that we were happy with what we were doing and accepted us for who we were. My parents were concerned people in the frum community would not accept us. But Hashem arranged for us to find a small town where we fit in perfectly, and, in an amazing turn of hashgachah pratis, a house was available for rent directly across the street from the Orthodox shul!
We were bursting with excitement during the last final days before our actual conversion. We couldn't wait until the moment would arrive and we'd immerse in the mikveh to become part of the Jewish people. During those last few days, we chose our future names. I kept on changing mine, until finally, my Mom just said, "Ellen, we're calling you Brachah, and that's that." So that's how I came to be called Brachah, and what a blessing it has been!
Emerging from the mikveh, I felt whole; it was a sense of completeness, that I was finally who I had been meant to be. I turned to my mother and said, "Ima, I feel as if I've been Jewish my entire life." But the truth is, I was right. My neshamah had always been Jewish and had accepted the Torah together with all of Am Yisrael on Har Sinai.
From the mikveh, our entire family went straight to shul where we were formally given our Hebrew names. Then a funny thing happened. The Rav informed us that we had to immerse again in the mikveh, as the filter had been accidentally left on. So we immersed a second time, and finally we were really part of Am Yisrael!
Now that my parents were Jewish, they had to marry with a chupah and kiddushin. They planned on a small ceremony in the rabbi's study. Instead, the community prepared a beautiful chasunah for them, replete with live music, leibidig dancing and a delicious home-cooked seudah. My sister and I were maids of honor, and got to wear beautiful long gowns. We felt so welcome; the community was reaching out to embrace us into their midst.
I continued attending the same all-girls' summer camp that I had gone to before my conversion. Eventually, I became a counselor there. For high school, I traveled each day to a major city an hour and a half away to attend Bais Yaakov. I loved Bais Yaakov and really fit in – I even became GO president and was very active in running the various youth programs. Someday, b'ezras Hashem, I hope to become a teacher and kiruv professional, to share my love of Torah with others who have not had the privilege of a Torah education.
Today, we are an integral part of our town's Jewish community. Our home is always bursting with company; all my friends and my siblings' friends congregate in our home, because that's where the action is! On Shabbos, we always have a table full of guests. We thrive on it; it's the highlight of our week.
My non-Jewish grandparents are very supportive of our life style. My grandparents even helped pay for my seminary tuition, and my grandmother plans to visit me later on this year. Both sets of grandparents have two full sets of dishes set aside in a closed cupboard for our use. Before Sukkos, my grandparents help my father cut s’chach for the sukkah. Although they are different from us, they try to understand our lifestyle and remain part of our life.
I recently visited the rabbi and his wife who originally helped my family in their journey to Yiddishkeit. I know that they had tremendous nachas seeing the fruits of their labor. They remembered me as a non-Jew, taking my first, tenuous steps towards a life of Torah and mitzvos, and there I was, a Bais Yaakov girl, fully integrated into the frum world, almost an adult at eighteen years of age, totally devoted to a life of Yiddishkeit. In an amazing turn of events, the summer before I came to in
for seminary, I was counselor at the camp that his children attend, and ended up teaching his children Torah! Life goes around in a circle, and we never know where it will take us! Israel
Every day, I thank Hashem for bring me close to Him and His Torah. It's so wonderful to be part of Klal Yisrael. In my seminary interview, the rabbi asked me if I ever miss my previous life. I explained that although we had sacrificed certain things to become Jewish, what we gained was so much greater and so wonderful that the things we gave up became superfluous. Our life today is so rich and full of meaning.
Prior to this interview, I went to the Kosel and recited Tehillim. I was struck by the words of kapital 34:11,"Young lions suffer want and are hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good." What emes! When a person has Torah, nothing else speaks to him.