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A Soul at Sinai: From a Life in Germany to a Life in Israel

A Soul at Sinai: From a Life in Germany to a Life in Israel

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The Talmud (in Shevuot 39a) teaches us that the souls of future converts were present at Mount Sinai, when G‑d gave the Jews the Torah. Indeed, many converts have described an inexplicable feeling of connection with Jews from a very young age. I would like to share my story with you.

I was born as Lizel Bender in a small rural village in Germany. My family owned a large farm that had belonged to them forWhen I joined my mother at church, I felt that something wasn’t right generations, and I grew up there with my older brother and two sisters. The village numbered only 25 people, spread out over five farmhouses far from each other and surrounded by thick green forests. Our family owned horses and cows, and grew potatoes and corn. The work was hard, but rewarding.

I remember once when I was very young, I heard about someone called Miriam. “Why didn’t you call me Miriam?” I asked my mother. For some reason, I felt an affinity to the name. I also remember myself talking a strange language during my make-believe games. It wasn’t German, Spanish, French or anything like that. It was something different entirely.

Our family was Catholic, and my mother was deeply religious. She taught me to talk to G‑d, to ask Him for my needs and to thank Him for everything. Yet when I joined my mother for weekly visits to the church, I felt that something wasn’t right. If there is a G‑d whom one can turn to and pray for his needs, why did I need to pray to any “subordinates”—those lifeless figures in the church?

One day I discovered a Bible translated to German in my brother’s school bag. I started reading it and couldn’t put it down. I read about the Creation, about Moses (whom I considered to be the greatest of all leaders) and about the commandments. I cannot explain my fascination with the Bible stories, but still, I didn’t connect at all to the New Testament.

Thus, I grew up full of conflicting thoughts with no one to share them with.

After high school, I decided to study hospitality management and moved Dusseldorf, a tourist city filled with hotels and coffeehouses. It was here that the turning point of my life took place. I had to phone the owner of a certain hotel in connection with my work. A girl answered the phone in English—a language I had learned to speak in school—saying he wasn’t home. She asked my name, and I replied “Lizel.”

I had arranged to meet a friend in a coffee shop later that day. While sitting there waiting for her, a girl asked if I spoke English. “That’s strange,” I thought. “Twice in one day!” The girl turned to me and asked: “Your name is Lizel?” I was taken aback. How did she know my name? “I spoke to you on the phone earlier,” she said. It turned out that she was on holiday from America visiting her uncle (the hotel owner I had been calling) and for some reason decided to approach me. We began to talk. I discovered that her name was Aviva, and that she was Jewish.

I often marvel at the hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence)—that out of all the coffeehouses in Dusseldorf and all the girls in that city, Aviva discovered me, and my whole life subsequently changed. I was overwhelmed with excitement to meet a real Jew. I flooded her with questions: “Who says you are really the people of the Bible? And how do you keep the commandments nowadays in the 20th century?”

Aviva herself was born in Israel to a Tunisian family and educated in a religious school, but later moved to Florida and became less observant. She answered my questions as best she could, and I was delighted. We spent two weeks together touring and talking, becoming fast friends. I felt a close kinship with her, but when her vacation ended and she returned to Miami, I went back to my job trying to ignore my internal confusion.

A few weeks later, I received a phone call from Aviva, who had managed to find my number. Despite the expense of transatlantic calls in those days, we continued to chat on the phone. One day, she invited me to visit her in Florida.

It was in Aviva’s house that I became exposed firsthand to Jewish laws and customs, to Shabbat and the holidays. She explained to me that in a kosher kitchen, meat and milk are kept separate. “Why?” I asked. “Because the Torah commanded us,” she replied. My vacation ended, and Aviva begged me to stay in America. But I had worked hard to complete my studies in Germany and had a certificate that would enable me to get a good hotel job. Why should I give it up to become an immigrant in America? On the other hand, I felt as if a new world had opened up for me there. In the end, I decided to return to Germany.

There was an old sour-faced lady, Mary, who would come to visit the spa in the hotel where I worked. She greeted me on my return. “Where were you? I missed you!” I told her the whole story and shared my misgivings. To my surprise, she encouraged me to follow my heart.

“If it’s good for you, don’t hesitate. Do you know what happened to me? When I was young, I was hesitant and unsure. I once had an opportunity to move to Italy and establish myself there, but I was afraid of leaving familiar ground. You see me today? I’m an old, bitter, bad-tempered maiden. I missed the opportunity of my life. Do you want to be like me?”

Her words helped me reach the crucial decision: to return to America.

Over the course of the next few years that I lived withShe encouraged me to follow my heart Aviva, we studied Judaism together. When Yom Kippur came, she told me that I didn’t have to fast. But I insisted on fasting the whole day. Likewise, I lit Chanukah candles and kept the mitzvot, even though I was still a gentile. When I decided to convert, I met Rabbi Feivish Dalfin, the Chabad emissary of North Bay Village, Fla., and his dear wife, Chaya Sara, who kindly took me under their wing, taught me all I needed to know and accompanied me through the conversion process before the beth din (rabbinical court). Of course, I chose the name Miriam—a name I’d always dreamed of having.

A short time after becoming Jewish, I married a close member of Aviva’s family. I prayed to G‑d to bless me with children. My son was born two years after our wedding on exactly the same date that I joined the Jewish nation. Eight months later, we made aliyah and settled in Ashdod, a growing city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

What attracted me to Judaism? I was impressed with the logic, with clear answers to every question I raised. But sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t born with a Jewish soul—maybe as a reincarnation of a Jew who embraced Christianity. In any case, I could have lived my life on a German farm, busy taking care of the horses or working in a hotel. But G‑d’s Providence led me, step by step, to discover Judaism, and I merited to join the Chosen People, and live a life of Torah and mitzvot.

Rachel Kaufman is a translator and writer who lives in Ashdod, Israel. She enjoys writing inspirational stories and biographies. She has been published in Hamodia and The Jewish Press.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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