When I was 15 years old, my older brother applied to spend a gap year after high school as a foreign exchange student. He was paired with a family in Afula, Israel. Little did we know at the time that the year he spent living with this Israeli family would change the course of both of our lives.
My brother loved his time in Israel. He enjoyed the food, the Hebrew language, the culture and the rituals of Shabbat and holidays he experienced while living with a Jewish family. I loved hearing about his life in Israel.
I was a born-again Christian at the time. Fully committed to my church youth group, I marveled from afar at my brother’s newfound love for a land, a language and a religious tradition that I only knew as the foundation upon which Christianity rested. When given the opportunity to visit Israel for myself, I was mesmerized by the biblical history, which I felt palpably. Walking “in the footsteps of Jesus,” as I thought about it at the time, sparked my love of Israel.
At 18, as I started to question my Christian faith, I found myself looking to Israel and to Judaism as an appealing spiritual alternative. I spent my junior year of college studying at Hebrew University and it was there I fell in love with the Jewish tradition, its rituals, holidays and texts. During a visit to Yad Vashem in 1989, I encountered the horrific realities of the Holocaust for the first time in my life. I was profoundly moved as I tried to internalize the meaning of the systematic murder of millions of innocent Jews in Europe while I was living in Israel. In that moment all I could think was, “It would be an honor if I could take on this tragic past as my own.”
Overwhelmed by the tragedy of the Holocaust, I also felt inspired by Israel — a truly remarkable triumph of the human spirit to rise from the ashes and reconstitute the Jewish people in their homeland after 2,000 years. While taking a class on Talmud at Hebrew University, I decided I would convert to Judaism and began a process of studying Judaism that eventually led to a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies, as well as a career in Jewish education.
My brother and I both converted to Judaism as a result of transformative experiences in Israel. His wife converted to Judaism at the same time he did. Both my brother and I have raised Jewish children. This tiny country changed the course of my life, and for that I will be forever grateful.