It was the fall of 2014, what should have been a normal, peaceful October day. Instead, a terrorist rammed his car into a crowd of people. One of them was a girl named Karen Yemima.
She was badly hurt in the attack and died a week later. News of her death came as a shock to many—not just because another innocent Jew had died in a murderous terrorist attack, but because of who she was.
Karen Yemima was a 22-year-old convert from Guayaquil, Ecuador. Her parents were Christian Evangelist missionaries. Life revolved around the local church that her parents had founded until her life made a definite change. This is her story.
In writing this article, I didn’t just rely on phone conversations with her friends and teachers; I also went to meet her mother, Shoshana Newman (originally known as Rosa Cecelia Birla Muñoz) in the center for converts from Latin America, where both of them had converted. It’s a special place in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, very close to the Hurva Synagogue.
Shoshana only speaks Spanish, so we spoke via a translator, but she was eager to talk. “In spite of the difficulty, it’s important for me to perpetuate my daughter’s memory,” she said before she started telling their astonishing story.
“For 40 years, I traveled from place to place in the service of the church, but the most meaningful experience of my life started when Carlos, Karen’s father, flew to Colombia, where he heard recordings of Jewish music. The lyrics were verses from the Bible, and he found them astounding. It turned out that there was a branch of Christian Evangelism that, as part of their rituals and as part of their outreach to the Jews, put an emphasis on learning Jewish texts and songs about the Jews and about the Torah.
“When Carlos returned home, he shared his new enthusiasm with me, and it was a turning point in our lives. We lived in an isolated home, in an out-of-the-way country; I didn’t know that the Jewish people I had read about in Christian writings still existed, that there were Jews and a Jewish religion in today’s world. When my husband shared the recordings he had brought back—in this case, it happened to be the songs of Avraham Fried, a Chassidic music artist—my soul sensed that this was something special, holy and pure. From then on, I had no interest in other music, including the music of the church.”
Shoshana’s husband began to travel regularly to the Evangelical Church in Colombia, and each time he returned with suitcases full of books and teaching materials.
Shoshana and her children wanted to know more and more about Judaism. When Carlos realized that his wife was abandoning Christianity in favor of Judaism, he told her to stop or agree to a divorce. “He asked me to leap from the current that was sweeping me toward Judaism, but I was just beginning my journey and refused to stop. I told him clearly that I couldn’t believe in Christianity anymore or preach to others about it. I explained to him that since I’d discovered that Christianity isn’t the truth, I wouldn’t be able to rest until I reached the source from which Christianity sprung, even if it meant I’d be thrown out of the house and left starving. In the end, my husband decided that we had to divorce.”
The Right Path
Shoshana finds it difficult to talk about those days. She needs a couple of minutes to compose herself before she returns to her story. “I cried endlessly during that time, about the 40 years I had wasted on a false religion. I asked G‑d to show me the right path and to send someone to teach me how to serve Him properly.”
Shoshana’s Judaism in those days wasn’t really Judaism as we know it. It was a strange jumble of the concepts she had managed to learn and those she’d figured out herself, but she persisted in the face of many difficulties.
The couple’s three oldest children were sons, who stayed with their father. The two daughters went with their mother. Shoshana had her hands full taking care of them without her husband, but Karen, the fourth child and oldest daughter, proved herself capable and energetic. In addition to everything she did to help out at home, she was the one who managed to find more material about Judaism and bring it home so they could study it together.
“Karen was brilliant,” Shoshana remembers, her eyes full of tears. “In 2007 or 2008, she was the only female in all Ecuador to receive a scholarship to study clinical psychology, but she turned her back on the promising career that awaited her, and instead invested her strength and energy and brilliance into her search for the truth. It gave her no rest. She had a hunger for Judaism, and the materials she found on the Internet were never enough for her; she always wanted to know more and more, and to look into everything herself.”
When Shoshana talks about the materials that Karen found on
the Internet, she’s referring mainly to the Spanish
version of Chabad.org. There, she found answers to her questions,
along with commentary on the weekly Torah reading, information about the Jewish
festivals and more.
Later, Karen looked for a rabbi with whom she could chat and study online, and that’s how she found Rabbi Gabriel Giver from Modi’in Illit. For two-and-a-half years, they learned what she wanted. “She would chat with him for hours every night,” recalls her mother. “The rabbi explained how Shabbat is kept, how to fulfill other commandments and how to pray.”
The Right Choice
Shoshana continues: “Karen was anxious to live as a Jew and to fulfill the commandments even before the Messiah arrives and brings everybody back to G‑d, but before she took this huge step, she asked G‑d to give her a sign that He wanted her to convert and not just to serve Him as a non-Jew. One day, there was a very strong earthquake in our city. Everything in the house fell down but Karen, who was in the middle of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, didn’t even notice. When she finished her prayer and saw what had just happened all around her, she understood that she had received her sign. She approached me and said: ‘If even the power of nature can’t affect me, it’s a sign that G‑d is calling me to come to the Holy Land and wants me as his daughter.’ ”
The next day she asked Rabbi Giver to direct her to a center for conversion. The rabbi sent her to Rebbetzin Engel, the director of Roni in
Jerusalem, who helps facilitate conversions for women from South America. He asked the Rebbetzin to accept her and do everything she could to help her convert.
That was three-and-a-half years ago. Before she left home, she gathered the church members and tried to show them the truth of her beliefs, but to no avail. Several just burst out crying at hearing her say such things; others tried to argue with her. “People started to warn their friends not to talk to her anymore and this really hurt her, but on the other hand, she felt that this was another sign that she had nothing left in Guayaquil.”
One month later, she found herself in Jerusalem. In order to bring about her daughter’s dream, Shoshana used her meager savings to pay for the plane ticket. “There was a long period afterwards in which we didn’t have enough to eat, but I knew we had made the right choice.”
The Fastest Way to Get to Him
Karen’s dorm mother, Rebbetzin Sarah Katz, says: “Karen Yemima was only here for a year-and-a-half, but she really stood out.”
She emphasizes that Karen was outstanding during her lifetime—not just in the stories that emerged after her death. “She was a quick learner who absorbed everything without forgetting a drop, but three things about her really stood out: her modesty, which was like that of a girl who had grown up in a religious home; the nobility of her bearing; and her desire to live as a Jew, fulfilling the commandments in the best way possible, without compromise, never mind what other people felt about her or whether or not they approved. In our last conversation before she converted, she cried and told me that she wanted to convert to be as close to G‑d as possible. She also said that her dream was to establish a Jewish home.”
One of Karen’s friends hears us talking and joins in, telling us that whenever they were going to the Western Wall or walking anywhere in the Old City, Karen wanted to take different routes, explaining that “Moshiach will be coming soon and she wants to know as much of the Old City as possible so that wherever she is when he comes, she will know the fastest way to get to him.”
Rebbetzin Katz tells us that every night she would see Karen sitting up for hours, typing on her laptop.
“I trusted her and didn’t ask what she was doing. It was only after her murder that I found out that every night before she went to sleep, she would use the computer to teach her mother everything she had learned that day. In addition, she worked very hard to raise money for a plane ticket for her mother, so she could join her in Israel and also convert. She promised her mother that she wouldn’t rest until she had the money and could see her through the conversion process.
“To raise the money, Karen spent her afternoons cleaning houses for minimal pay. She refused to go on any trips or activities, setting aside all her spare time to raise the money.”
Watching From Heaven
But on the evening of Oct. 22, 2014 (the 28th of Tishrei), everything changed. Karen was waiting for the light-rail train at the Givat Hatachmoshet station in Jerusalem on her way to her first class at a seminary she had just joined after finishing her studies at the center. A terrorist in a Volkswagen deliberately drove his car onto the train platform, ramming into her and seven others. A 3-month old baby, Chaya Zissel Braun, was killed on the spot. Karen was critically injured; she spent five days in the hospital hovering between life and death, but in the end, she lost the battle.
Karen didn’t have Israeli citizenship yet, which meant that the government couldn’t provide a grave. Through the efforts of communal activists, a place was found for her on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem.
But Rebbetzin Katz pushed to instead have her buried on the Mount of Olives.
Her friend says this was the realization of one of Karen’s dreams. “Several months before the terrorist attack, we took pictures right outside the Mount of Olives cemetery, and she said that if she wouldn’t be alive when Moshiach came, she would like to be buried there in order to come back to life as soon as possible and greet him.”
This last thought is too much for Shoshana; she starts crying and needs to stop talking. But before we do, she says one more thing.
“Karen worked hard to bring me here and help me convert. In the end, I came because of her, but not in the way we had hoped; I came instead to be with her in her last days. Every night before I go to sleep, I look at her picture beside my bed, smile at her and thank her for being the one to show me my own path to Judaism. I’m certain she’s watching from heaven, smiling her pure smile and guiding me until G‑d brings the dead back to life with the coming of Moshiach, when we will see each other again.”