The Connection and Community We Crave: Here’s My Story
I just returned home from our first trip to Israel. I’m 45 years old and converted to Judaism at the age of 24. I was raised with Christmas, but without religion. I was shomer Shabbos for 11 years and have been just Jewish for the past six.
My husband is born and bred West Rogers Park. He went to IHOP on Saturdays as a child and graduated from Brisk Yeshiva, valedictorian in a class that numbered two. His brother made Aliyah as a teenager, my husband went to DePaul and worked at the J.
We are raising four children who have attended Jewish and secular preschools, day school and public school, Jewish and secular camps. We are no longer members of a shul, are guests of dear friends for every holiday meal, and our daughter has joined her University’s Chabad community. We are today’s Jewish family.
As the new CEO for JCC Chicago, getting to Israel was top on my list. That the General Assembly was being held in Tel Aviv presented an opportunity just a couple months into my tenure. I joined the Chicago delegation and, at the suggestion of my Federation colleagues, invited my husband to join me. We added a few days before and after to experience the homeland of the Jewish people.
Our trip was scheduled to provide a baseline. Cesaerea, Jaffa, Masada, Jerusalem. Independence exhibition, Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Israel Museum. City of David, Old City, Western Wall Tunnel. And more.
Some of the more was Shabbos dinner with our first friends in Skokie, who made Aliyah five years ago. A trip to Hebron with my brother-in-law and five beautiful nephews, where my husband’s grandfather and great uncle survived the 1929 massacre. Exploring the night life of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Seeking the Western Wall on Shabbat through the Jewish quarter, black hats and the hum of davening our guide.
Amidst connecting with colleagues, talking with volunteer leadership, and learning about Chicago’s partner region, Kiryat Gat, my husband and I compared notes. He was struck by how, after a lifetime of being the minority, everyone around him was Jewish—he was finally among the majority. For me, I grew up connected to nothing. When I became Jewish, I joined something that stood before me, huge and incredible. I became part of a peoplehood, part of a community. Going to Israel was an extension of that feeling. I couldn’t believe I get this, too.
People said I had to go to understand. They were right. One of our Federation’s lay leaders shared with me that he feels the need to get to Israel 3-4 times a year, and that he now has many friends to visit. I’ve already told my daughter that she can extend her Birthright trip to spend time with our Skokie friends and my husband’s family. Yes, I understand it now.
As our trip came to an end, the news of the Pittsburgh tragedy broke. Emails began pouring in about security, solace and solidarity. The response was immediate and meaningful. JCCs, Federations, partner agencies, sister communities, friends and neighbors.
I made a decision when I was 24 to join something so much bigger, so much stronger than where I came from and what I knew. And I am grateful every day to be part of my Jewish family.