I grew up in a Christian cult in a sleepy, small town in Oregon. Nothing from my upbringing could be considered normal, and under the circumstances I was under — it is a pure miracle that I am alive today.
Besides the fact that my parents were abusive in every manner, the church I was brought up in was the source of my innermost pain. For the first 20 years, I believed that every punch, every slap that I ever received was to “teach me a higher lesson.” My parents were always shoveling these lines down my throat, claiming that this would make me into a ‘good girl’ that G-d could love.
So, how is it that I wandered down the path that lead me to Orthodox Judaism?
This story begins with my estranged mother. Since I was the age of 2, my mother has appeared and disappeared in my life. This was the pattern she has kept to. Around the age of 18, I had moved out of my father’s home, and into my aunt’s and uncle’s. I thought that perhaps life would be better there — but that was far from the truth.
It was here where my misery only worsened, and what little life I had left inside began to whither away too. It was here where I was re-introduced to my mother, and I finally had the chance to get to know her without others interfering. I began speaking with her about various topics, and never once did we discuss religion until I came home sobbing from church one day. Looking back now, I see that this is where my life’s course changed direction completely. My mother spoke about shul. and even read to me from her siddur. While back then I could not understand any of the words, the way that they sounded was oddly familiar and comforting — almost like a long forgotten memory.
From here, I turned to the internet for help. I did not know what Judaism, let alone what a Jew was. Yes — my life was that sheltered. I turned to Google of all places for answers. This is where I found my Ima — Rivka Malka Perlman — and I began to read her blog. With each entry, more and more questions flooded my mind and I had to know the answers. With a couple clicks I found her on Facebook, and soon was in dialogue with her. She connected me with a friend of hers who lived not that far from me at the time.
Within a couple of days, I met Shira at a coffee shop and began to learn what those ancient words meant, and so much more. Within a couple of weeks, I began to trust Shira and began to attend classes at her house taught by her and Rabbi Jack. Soon their home became my one and only safe place. It was strange to enter a house without screaming, and without fear of what was coming. It was completely foreign to me. While I felt safe there, I could not bring to her attention just how bad things were at home for me. Everyday that I met her, I never failed once to cover all the bruises and injuries. I never faltered, and I kept my secret.
Weeks turned into months and soon I was offered the opportunity to go to Monsey, New York on an Akiva trip. I was so excited. While I was there, my eyes were completely opened to the religious world and to complete peace of life. I was so happy to see the world, and be free from any kind of abuse. I fell more in love with Torah, and Shabbos ushered in a calm that is beyond this world. I cherished it. Too soon, the week flew by and it was time to return home. While I was packing up my bag, tears just flowed from my eyes. Many of the girls just thought that I was tired, but the truth was I knew what would be waiting for me when I came back. That was the longest plane ride of my life.
When I returned home, I snuck ever so quietly inside but was greeted with the sight of my parents waiting up for me. Just the memory of it makes me sick to my stomach. Needless to say, the end of that morning was filled with many painful “lessons”. My family had discovered my little Jewish books hidden under my small mattress, and I was forbidden to ever see Shira again. I waited about two weeks before I returned to Shira’s. I needed time for what had occurred to heal before I could go out again without others noticing. The only thing that kept me going was the thoughts and ideas I had learned from Rabbi Klatzko, Rabbi Jack, and my beloved Shira.
Once more a couple more months passed, and I kept sneaking off to the rebbetzin’s home to learn. While I knew that I was putting my well being in danger, I just could not let them and Torah go. First ever so slowly, and then all at once; it was discovered what I was doing with my spare time and I had a final decision to make. I was faced with the choice of “saving myself” or “letting my family save my soul” for me. You can read between the lines on this one. At the time, I didn’t know what to do. My brainwashed mind didn’t understand what was wrong with this picture.
With nowhere to turn, I turned to Rivka Malka and messaged her a very matter-of-fact text. I explained in a very removed tone that my family “didn’t like what I was doing” and that even them placing Holocaust images on my bedroom wall was completely normal. Within 20 minutes, my phone was ringing. On that phone call, she asked me many questions. I heard her probing and trying to get me to talk but I just couldn’t tell her. After what seemed like hours, she finally got me to say “yes,” that my life was in danger, and that my family was hurting me. Just one small word held the world’s weight on my shoulder’s. Even with my own life on the line, I refused to stop protecting them. At the end of that silent pause, she asked me the question that changed my life forever — in 48 hours, would I get on a plane and come to her? Mind you, I had never met this woman. To this day I do not know where I found the courage to say yes. I just remember this complete sense of calm, and knowing that somehow I could trust her.
The next two days flew by, and she called during safe times to check on me. She gave me very direct instructions of what to leave behind to throw my family off of my trail, and she worked diligently with Shira to plan my escape. The morning arrived on the day it was time to leave. I remember sitting on the front porch that morning watching the sunlight stream in through the trees. I remember listening to the birds sing and letting the realization sink in that I would never see my home again. With a heavy, and shaky hand I wrote goodbye letters my family. I just could not leave without leaving something to let them know that I was all right. Sara, one of the girls I knew from Shira’s arrived to get me. She helped me with my suitcases, and held my hand in the car telling me over and over that I was going to be all right.
The airport came too quickly, and soon I was standing in the terminal waiting for my life to end. But this was just the beginning of my new one. For 24 hours, I traveled and just let my thoughts glaze over. I could not let myself think. During the layovers, my phone rang uncontrollably, and hearing the voicemails of my grandmother sob over the phone was enough to kill me. The only thing I could do was to turn it off and forget where I was at the moment. I just had to keep moving.
I arrived in Baltimore a little after nine in the morning. The day was overcast with a little rain. I sat on a bench and waited. I watched people pass by, and run to their loved ones. I couldn’t feel anything, I was dead inside. Maybe 20 minutes had passed and my phone was ringing again. It was Rivka Malka. She told me she was almost to me, and to look for her car. I stood and made my way outside. Rushing up, a giant SUV pulled next to the curb and out popped a little, brightly dressed woman. She ran to greet me, and helped me with my bags. Throwing them into the car, we were off.
That was the longest car ride of my life, and definitely the most awkward and painful all rolled into one. She spoke about silly topics to fill the air and calm me. Then her questions came. She asked about my siblings, and my parents. The pain came rushing out, and all I could do was silently sob into my hands. Everything that I loved and ever knew was gone forever. She brought me carefully to her home, and brought me in. Inside, I was greeted with so many pairs of eyes. The children were so curious about me, but I was terrified of all of them. I stared at the floor, and did not utter one word. They tried to feed me, but I couldn’t even open my mouth. Ushering me down the stairs and into a brightly colored room – Rivka Malka showed me where the powder room was, and said that if I needed anything to come upstairs. With that, she slowly closed the door and my world crumbled. I sank to the floor and cried myself to sleep. I did not dream and I did not wake for many hours.
Much later, clear into the evening I awoke. It took me a moment to realize where I was, and with that another batch of uncontrolled tears found me. Dragging myself towards the door, I made my way to the powder room and tried to make myself look like a person again. I washed my face and stared at the reflection gazing back at me. That could not be me. That figure with the dead eyes, and grey complexion could not be me! Oh but it was. I tiptoed upstairs ever so quietly, I was so afraid to make a single sound. Hearing Rivka Malka, I made my way towards her. Back then, she was the only safe thing I knew.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I worked my way around the house and with people using only yes and no questions. I really didn’t speak much in those early days. Shabbos passed and I spent almost all of it hiding in that colorful room, or outside under the stars crying. I clung to the phone calls from my mother, and I waited for her to come. Those weeks turned into into a month and a half. I emailed, called and texted my mother. But to no avail, my mother never came. I was alone in a place with no family, and everything was unknown to me. Slowly, Rivka Malka and her husband brought me back to life. Their children became my closest friends. I stayed up many late nights with Hadassa and Batya, learning anything I could Torah-wise, but also learning how to be a girl again. Hadassa taught me so many new games, and we laughed so much. With every new interaction, Ima and Bezalel taught me how to integrate into the world again — this time free from any abuse. I was only originally supposed to be with them for three weeks max. But BH that turned into two years and counting. They became the family I never had.
Now, I can only imagine that if you have made it this far into this article you are wondering, “how on earth did you come from a Christian cult and go to Orthodox Judaism”? The answer is long, but for this writing’s purpose I’ll make it short. Through much heartache and a lot of family research, my mother lied about her being Jewish. Perhaps she was confused on how our traditions and heritage is passed down. I don’t know. When we learned that I wasn’t Jewish after all, I had another choice to make. After seeing and breathing a Jewish life, I could not contemplate living without it. I would not. Once you’ve shown a person colors, how could you ask them to go back to living a life that was only black and white? Again I made another incredibly difficult decision free from anyone telling me what to do. I chose to willingly walk down the path of an Orthodox conversion. With many details and stories that I am happy to share with you at another time, I am two years later into this story and have just now finished my conversion one week ago.
While many of you may be thinking that I have gone from one extreme to the next; you are so very wrong. I went from a world where G-d hated me, and people that beat the very life out of me — to that of complete freedom and love. Hashem cares for me, and His Torah and laws are not made to beat me down. They are to help me grow and become the person I am meant to be in this life. Why my neshama had to go through such horrendous things, I will never know until the age of 120. What I can tell you is that every tear, and every ounce of pain I felt did not go to waste. My entire life was leading me to this point. It is with this that I leave you to contemplate what I have said, and hear my story. Now that we know each other a little better the next entries that I write will be lighter, and more interesting to read.
Yocheved Binah Zahavi