Devorah Olam 88 248.
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Devorah Olam's last name means "world." This Hebraicized version of Alam - the surname of her Pakistani second husband - hints at the world of stories leading to her new life here.
Olam's deeply religious mother taught her two children all the classic Bible stories - including those of the Christian scriptures. "She taught us everything Catholic, because she was brought up by nuns," relates her daughter.
Deposited in an orphanage at five, Olam's mom knew little about her Polish parents. Olam now has evidence of a Jewish ancestry. As a child, she was sure of only one key fact: Jesus was a Jew.
By eight, she was questioning Catholic doctrine. "I asked why, if Jesus was a Jew, weren't his followers Jewish? I didn't get an answer."
To her parents' chagrin, Olam continued to be drawn to Judaism through her teenage years. "I felt if Jesus never left the Jewish religion, the truth must be there. And if I practiced Judaism as it was supposed to be, I thought I would feel closer to God."
At 19, she married a Jew, who tried to interest her in the Baha'i faith. Six years later, however, Olam started taking Orthodox conversion classes. "I knew no other conversion was accepted by everybody and if your children aren't accepted as Jews, what's the point?" she explains. But her husband stood in the way of her conversion.
After her marriage ended, she soon married a Pakistani. "And although my first husband wouldn't go to synagogue with me, my Muslim husband did," she says with a laugh. Within the next five years she was again single, and her father, who had bitterly fought against her movement toward Judaism, died.
"That opened the door to a big change in my life," she says. She went off to Syracuse University to become a landscape architect - an ambition she never did fulfill - and became involved in Jewish life on and off campus. The rabbi at the Reform temple where she sang in the choir directed her to a local Orthodox synagogue.
"The first time I attended services and read all the psalms, tears were pouring down my face and I felt this was what I had missed all my life," she says. She became a teacher at the synagogue's Hebrew school and served as secretary to the local Chabad rabbi. After converting in 1992, she went back briefly to live with her mother.
A devout Catholic, Olam's mother nevertheless agreed to kasher her kitchen and enjoyed sharing Shabbat rituals with her daughter. Still, she was not totally at peace with the conversion.
In 2002, Olam discovered through genealogical research that her maternal grandmother was probably Jewish. She suspects her father also had Jewish blood.
"Mom was tormented, until she saw the Ellis Island records, over what she had done wrong to make me want to change religions," says Olam. "Once she saw that her mother and her aunt and her two uncles and her cousin were all listed as 'Race: Hebrew,' she then understood when I told her it was something between me and God, and had nothing to do with her."
"From reading the Torah, it was obvious to me, from early on, that the mitzvot are meant to be done here. I'd always known destiny would bring me to Israel," says Olam.
In 2001, a lecture about faith set her wondering if her severe environmental allergies were actually a divine "kick in the pants to get moving."
There were other practical considerations. One, western New York proved to be a difficult place to meet eligible Jewish men. Two, unrest in Israel had forced rental prices down.
"I never earned much money in the States, working first as a scientist and then as a dietary technician," Olam says. "This was an opportunity for me."
Knowing not a soul in Israel, Olam arrived three months after 9/11 with $5,000 in her pocket and only her 14-year-old cat as company. The morning after her arrival, she woke to find that torrents of rain were ending a severe drought.
"There was a foot of water in the street, and the Kinneret rose 10 centimeters," she recalls. "I was so joyous." And, as she'd hoped, her allergies were much less problematic.
But there were new problems to deal with. Her cat almost caused her to be evicted from the Ra'anana absorption center where she also experienced continual difficulties. She hung on with the support of new friends, including Judy Porat of Tehilla, a voluntary organization promoting religious aliya.
"Judy saw me through so many huge problems. My aliya probably would have failed without her help," says Olam.
When her money ran out, she landed a position as a veterinary assistant in Jerusalem. Her employer closed its Jerusalem branch three months later - just before Rosh Hashana - and she resolved to look for another job after the holidays.
But she didn't need to. Right after Succot, friends at Hadassah University Medical Center got her an interview for a technician position in the Institute of Gene Therapy. She's worked there ever since.
"The funny thing is, I'm allergic to mice and I'm responsible for about 2,000 mice on my job," she says. She wears a portable air cleaner to help her breathe, but at least language is not an issue at work. "The mice don't speak Hebrew, either," she quips.
Except for a short stint at a moshav near Jerusalem, Olam has lived in various apartments in Ma'aleh Adumim since leaving Ra'anana. She says that each move she's made was guided by divine providence. Her friendship with her current neighbors above her basement flat "is a match made in heaven."
She shares her living space with eight cats. "I have to pinch pennies because of the cats," Olam says, but she is saving for a car purchase to ease her long commute to Hadassah's Ein Kerem campus.
She has been back to see her mother only once since making aliya. "When I was in America, as a Jew I felt like a fish out of water," she says. "When I came back to Ben-Gurion Airport, I was so happy. This is where I can be me; this is where I can live a Jewish life."
That is not to say it is without hardships. "It's simply not as easy a lifestyle here," she says. "But that doesn't outweigh all the benefits. When I had surgery recently, the amount of love and caring I received from my Jewish friends was 10 times more than I would have received from my family or friends in the States."
Olam dreams of returning to moshav life someday, if she can find a suitable place close to her job. She envisions a plot of land for a vegetable garden and a caravilla with plenty of space for her cats.
"I would like to have a little tzimmer or something to rent out for income," she says. "You've got to have a dream."