My mother was diagnosed with a debilitating chemical depression soon after I was born. She was in and out of hospitals most of my life and did not have the opportunity to create a Jewish home as she may have hoped. My father, who moved out of the house when I was eight years old, was a self-proclaimed man of the Enlightenment and a devout Atheist who believed that there was no room for religion in his life…or in the lives of his children.
At some point my dad caved in and allowed me to attend religious school – well, at least for the first few weeks of kindergarten. It all came to an abrupt end after I said HaMotzi before dinner. My dad asked me to explain what I said in Hebrew. I told him that I thanked God for giving us bread. He quickly reminded me that he had worked very hard to put food on the table and that God had nothing to do with it. That was the last time I set foot in a Temple during my childhood.
My mother’s illness grew worse and worse, and she was unable to fight for my Jewish education as well as her own life. As such, I felt very different than my Jewish peers. I had no substantive religious education, I could not read Hebrew, I had not become a Bat Mitzvah and I had no clue about Israel or its history. I did not know what it meant to be Jewish even though both my parents were Jews from Brooklyn. My parents were wonderful role models and givers of many of my inner gifts. But, my Jewish identity, as you will read, is something I was left to forge on my own.
While my mother’s illness kept us from having a Jewish home, I attended Jewish summer camp as a young teenager. At Camp Swig in the summer of 1995, I learned about the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program. When I returned home that summer, I told my mother that I wanted to spend my next semester of high school in Israel. Something within me was sparked at Jewish camp and I wanted to explore what that meant. She immediately burst into tears and begged me not to leave her. Though I knew it was the illness talking, she said that, if I decided to go away, she would take her own life.
Getting on the plane to Jerusalem was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made.
While I explored Judaism and Israel, my mom’s condition continued to worsen. There were several times when I thought of heading home to be with her. Things were so bad that my brother flew from London, where he was living, to Israel, just to make sure I did not get on the first plane back to Los Angeles. My brother knew that I could not help her out of her depression and it would be better for me to continue my journey in Israel.
I will never forget the generosity and compassion that my madrichim (counselors), my teachers, and my friends on EIE showed me during those four months. They spent hours tutoring me in basic Hebrew so that I could be in a class with my peers. They helped guide me through the Jewish rituals that I was not familiar with during meals and worship. EIE introduced me to a new world with open arms. I had spent years feeling embarrassed because I never knew the prayers or the Shabbat rituals. Finally, I felt part of the Jewish community.
After a few months of dorm living, backpacking in the Negev, and working on a Kibbutz, it was time to move in with our Israeli host families. The Pinks were a Modern Orthodox family who lived in Talpiot, a religious part of Jerusalem. This part of the program made me very nervous. I still had only a remedial understanding of the language, and I was uncomfortable with the family’s traditional background. Would they accept someone like me into their home?
I first met my host sister, Idan, at the McDonald’s on Ben Yahuda Street (I assume she thought that, as an American, I would know where the McDonald’s was located in the city). I felt relieved when she spoke English. I learned that my host father, Julian, had made Aliyah from England, which soothed my anxiety about the language barrier. I explained to Idan that I had not been raised in a religious home and that I did not want to accidently do something that would be disrespectful to her family. I will never forget her response. She smiled and said, “don’t worry Julie. We know all about you. We look forward to having you.”
Over the course of my stay with the Pink family, an incredible transition happened. Rather than hanging out with my peers, I opted to spend all of my free time at home. They did a wonderful job of explaining traditions to me, and answered my questions with patience and grace. Before living with the Pinks, I had never celebrated Shabbat in a home. I had never lived a shomer Shabbus lifestyle. I had never been blessed.
I looked forward to celebrating Shabbat with my host family every week. I could not wait to take our Shabbas walks and talk about our thoughts from the week. At some point, I dropped the ‘host’ part and just referred to them as my ‘family.’
Oddly enough, I never told the Pinks about my ill mother at home. For the first time in my life, I felt part of a functional, loving family. We had dinner together every night. They asked me about my day. We cooked together. We prayed together. Every Friday after Shabbat dinner, we gathered in the living room and talked until we could no longer keep our eyes open. I cherished these daily activities, and I hoped it would never end. More than simply the respite from the insecure home life that I had become accustomed to, the Pinks showed me the importance and beauty of religion in their lives. They never pressured me to become more traditional. I felt comfortable, accepted, and safe. Without knowing it, the Pinks inspired me to embrace Judaism. They showed me how religion can bring meaning to the mundane activities of life. They demonstrated how important family is in our tradition and how their commitment to their faith and heritage kept them living in Israel.
On my last day with them, the Pink family gave me an engraved silver pendant necklace that simply said, “B’ahava (with love) Julian, Dalia, Esaf, Tehila and Idan.” They wanted to make sure that I knew they would still be with me despite the distance between us.
As she foretold, my mother took her life five days after I got home from Israel. Within 24 hours, my ‘sister’ Tehila was at my doorstep in Los Angeles to help and support me. My ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ called to reassure me that I was part of their family now and that I was not alone.
Years later, when my dad passed away suddenly, my ‘mom’ flew out to Los Angeles to help me mourn yet another loss. The Pinks have been my family for the last 18 years. I have been back to Israel eight times since my high school semester abroad, including my junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I have flown back to visit my family, to celebrate weddings and to meet the next generation. Each Friday, I think of them, wishing that I could be there to celebrate Shabbat at home.
As a young person, I did not fully appreciate the impact EIE would have on my life. I not only discovered a love for my people and the land of Israel; I also found a family at a time when I desperately needed a home. EIE gave me a connection to the Jewish people that has manifested in my career choice as the Executive Director of University Synagogue in Los Angeles.
And to this day, I always smile when I drive by McDonald’s.
Julie Munjack in the Executive Director at University Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA. She is a member of the ARZA Biennial Reception Planning Committee.