An inadvertent gift

Maya Nahor learned she wasn’t Jewish from an Israeli bureaucrat.

Three years later, as she tells the story, she still cries.

She was 19 years old and had just arrived in Tel Aviv from Spain, having left her family behind for the first time. She was alone in a country that she’d dreamed of as a haven.

And up until that moment, the State of Israel had reached out to her with remarkable kindness and generosity — allowing her to begin to make aliyah by providing transportation to leave home and financial help to start a new life.

Nahor was escaping a bad situation: Her parents were poor; their Madrid neighborhood was infested with drugs and hatred. They were the only Jews in the area, and their neighbors — both Muslim and Christian — taunted them. Her father was stabbed during an anti-Semitic attack.

Nahor’s father is an artist and musician, her mother a nurse. Her father was born in Israel, her mother in Germany. The oldest of three girls, Nahor attended a Jewish day school before her two sisters were born and her parents could no longer afford the tuition. When she transferred to public school, she had her first dose of anti-Semitism.

“I didn’t feel different,” she told me the other day, sitting in the offices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, where she’d come to share her story with a group of philanthropists. But it came up when she refused to eat a pork lunch. She was about 12. “I said, ‘I don’t eat this, I’m Jewish,’ and from that day forward I was sad I said that,” she remembered.

In public, Nahor did her best to fit in, but at home she was happy to be herself. She and her father regularly attended synagogue on Shabbat. She said she never really questioned why her mother didn’t join them.

Eventually, the ugliness at school made her flee — she went to a boarding school where, she said, “I decided not to be Jewish.” But it didn’t feel right: “I was missing my family; I was missing my grandmother’s hamentaschen. I wanted to find myself. I talked to God every day of my life, and he sent me a message.”

Nahor dreamt of taking an airplane to a far distant place. Her father told her she was dreaming of Israel; he said, “You need to make aliyah.”

It seemed so easy. She went to the Jewish Agency office in Madrid, and the woman who helped her was the mother of a girl from her day school. She got a free ticket to Israel, and she took with her a sealed letter of support from her rabbi.

But it was that letter that stopped the magic, if not the process. According to the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent — male or female — can become an Israeli citizen.

But you have to have a Jewish mother, or have gone through an Orthodox conversion under the guidance of an Orthodox rabbi, to get the full rights of citizenship of Jews — to be able to marry in Israel, for example.

The letter revealed that Nahor’s mother wasn’t Jewish, so the bureaucrat told Nahor that her identity card would say she was German, because that was what her mother was. Not Jewish. Not even Spanish.

“Who do you think you are to tell me this?” Nahor remembers asking the woman.

She didn’t know halacha or the rules of matrilineal descent; she never had questioned her identity. Nahor called her parents in Spain, feeling betrayed. Her parents calmed her, encouraged her to continue to embrace Israel, to convert if she wanted, and to find her way.

Returning to Spain wasn’t an option; she didn’t have a ticket back, and it was clear there was more opportunity for her in Israel than back home.

To be raised as a Jew and to learn that you’re not in the eyes of Israel is a painful experience, but it is not uncommon among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Europe and Africa; the Jewish Agency Web site states that it has brought more than 1 million new immigrants to Israel since 1989 and a quarter of those are not Jewish according to Jewish law.

Nahor stayed. She studied Hebrew at an ulpan and then moved to Eilat for a time, to work as a waitress. She was searching.

“I saw people my age in the army,” she said. “I wanted an education, and I learned that I could get one in the army.” So she joined, even though her two best friends back in Madrid “thought I was crazy.”

On March 14, 2005, this pretty, naive young girl became a truck driver in the air force, carried a gun and signed up for a program for new immigrant soldiers called the Nativ Jewish Identity Program, founded in 2001, which offers an intensive track to conversion. For several weeks, while still on active service, from morning to night soldiers like Nahor can take classes in the Bible, Zionism and the State of Israel, philosophy and Jewish practice.

After one month of the program, they go back to soldiering, to have some time to think about their path. If they choose to continue, they go on to take two seminars, with more thinking time in between. If they continue throughout the program, they can go to a beit din and become halachically Jewish.

The Jewish Agency’s most recent statistics say that more than 5,800 soldiers have participated in the program, and more than 1,000 have completed conversion. Soldiers who are halachically Jewish who want to learn more about their heritage also can join the program.

When I first met Nahor in Jerusalem in May 2006, she was still in the program, and she seemed sad as she told her story. Her life didn’t get easier after that: She completed her conversion in August 2006, just as war was breaking out. She told me on her visit to Los Angeles that she’d had a boyfriend, Yohan Zervib, who’d made aliyah from France and whom she’d met in Nativ. Her voice dropped as she described the mission he was sent on, into Lebanon, into a house believed to hold a weapons cache.