November 19, 2018

A Journey to Home

I was born to Protestant parents. By age 7, I was constantly questioning: Why are we here? Who is God? What happens to us after we die?

I think I was 10 years old when I realized that Christianity wasn’t for me.

When I was 15, I fell in lust with the rock band Counting Crows’ Jewish lead singer, Adam Duritz, and subsequently fell in love with Judaism.

Christmas ’95 I received the most ironic of gifts — Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer’s "What Is a Jew?" The book was given to me by a friend, who originally bought it as a gag gift for her boyfriend. He had Jews in his family somewhere but apparently wasn’t too proud of his Hebrew roots. He rejected the book and it became mine.

"What Is a Jew?" spoke to me. This characteristically Jewish way of questioning stood out in weekly Sunday school at church, where a large leap of faith was required. I don’t remember exactly what my Sunday school teachers said to me, but phrases like "Don’t question," "That’s the way it is" and "Jesus died for our sins" were the answers I remember receiving to my most deepest questions on faith.

At 17, I discovered "The Jews of America," an oversized, hardback book with more than 200 pages of pictures of Jews — from Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn to director Steven Spielberg and his mother, Leah Adler. I’d find great joy and comfort thumbing through the pages of that book, most of the time not even really knowing why.

In my junior year of college, I declared a Jewish minor. With that, I took an introduction to Judaism class and two Jewish history courses. I also learned about the Holocaust and was profoundly touched by Elie Wiesel’s "Night." In these secular classes, I came to understand why Israel is so important to the Jews and why the Jews don’t believe that Jesus was/is the messiah.

After graduating from college and landing my first real job, I started seriously considering conversion. I enrolled in a Reform conversion class but dropped out after several weeks, feeling that it wasn’t the movement for me. I stumbled upon Chabad, and a few months later began keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and holding to other mitzvot. I wasn’t sure that I was going to commit myself to Orthodox Judaism; I was merely trying it on for size. However, a few days into my observance and I knew that I found what I had been searching for my whole life.

I always knew that I would someday live in Israel, but there was a part of me that doubted that it was possible. I felt like I had a better chance of winning the lottery or becoming a rock star than "coming home."

I spent my first two months in Israel on a "holy high." Nothing is ever average: you’re either experiencing the most incredible high praying at the Western Wall, feeling the Divine Presence right there with you; or you’re mourning the death of a young Israeli soldier who gave up his life for something bigger than he could ever put his finger on, and you cry like it was your own brother.

I woke up every morning in the breathtaking hills of biblical Judea and studied Torah until at least 1 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Shabbat was never ordinary, filled with extravagant meals, joyous singing and dancing and moments of real rest. The celebrations came one after another — Rosh Chodesh (the new month), weddings, engagements, brit milot, bat mitzvot, Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), and they were never small nor quiet affairs.

After being in Israel, I didn’t think that I could ever return to the States, even for a short period of time. But I missed my friends and I missed my family, so I booked a ticket home for a three-and-a-half week visit. I was in the process of switching schools and had a period of about a month before the new school’s semester began. I was also running low on money and figured I’d work some while I was here and apply for a small but significant loan to cover the costs of tuition, room and board, and other expenses.

But the substantial tuition discount that I had hoped for didn’t come through; my parents, who were happy to see me back, weren’t so eager to loan me money to return to the Middle East. I became more and more worried about taking out large loans when I knew I could get the same education for much less after I made aliyah.

While I wanted nothing more than to return to Israel, it made more sense to stick around until I was able to save money, finish my conversion at my own pace — working one on one with a rabbi versus in a classroom setting — and have the time to learn Hebrew.

But still, it’s tough living in Orange County. There are no kosher restaurants and many of the apartments near Orthodox synagogues are pricey (a conversion candidate, as well as an observant Jews, must live near an Orthodox synagogue, so they can walk there on Shabbat). But I am doing the best I can.

God willing, I will soon return to where I feel I belong, Our Holy Land, Israel.

Before heading off to Israel, Heather Fuller worked as a news assistant in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Orange County Register. She has also worked for BMG, VH1 and OC Weekly.