sheina ettelsara joki 88.
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Sara Joki's family is mentioned in US law books, in the case Joki vs. the State of New York. Her parents went to court after Joki's public school refused to remove a mural of the crucifixion from the school auditorium. They discovered it when they went to see her perform in a school musical at the age of six. For the first time in 30 years, the Ku Klux Klan marched in full robe in New York and the family received police protection. It took them three years, but they won the case.
Joki appeared in 45 musicals between the ages of six and 19. She holds a Bachelor of Science in music performance from the State University of New York at New Paltz; her instrument is her classical voice.
She came to Israel on a birthright trip in the summer of 2003. During that trip, which was not religiously oriented, her feelings of connection to Judaism became too strong to ignore, and she felt that Israel was the place for her to live. She called up her parents in the middle of the trip and told them she wasn't coming home. Her parents were surprisingly supportive.
"My mom said, 'Well, someone has to be religious, I just didn't expect it to be my daughter,'" says Joki. She stayed that summer, but it took her two more years to make aliya.
Joki's parents are American born. Her father is an antique assessor and dealer and her mother is an occupational therapist. She has one brother.
Though her upbringing gave her a very strong Jewish identity, she had never met someone who wore a kippa full-time until she came to Israel on the birthright trip.
"The idea of Shabbat and kashrut were foreign concepts and had been out of my family for five generations, since the death of my great, great grandmother, Sheina Ettel, for whom I'm named."
After birthright, Joki returned to her campus at New Paltz. There, she founded a Jewish organization together with Chabad.
"The same day I came back to campus, Chabad moved in," she says, "as if they fell from the sky. They literally saved me."
She returned to Israel in the summer of 2004 (though still not permanently), on a Chabad scholarship, to study at the Orthodox seminary Nishmat for three weeks. It was at this point that she was faced with the issue of kol isha - the Halacha that states that Jewish women should not sing in front of men since it constitutes "indecency."
"I felt by then that everything Hashem does is for the best and it has to work out." She prayed for His help, but she also cried for three weeks, and then said, "If God brought me this far, He'll get me through this."
Joki made aliya in July of 2005, with "very, very supportive parents." It was after her aliya that she began to use the name Sheina Ettel.
A month into her aliya, she met musician-composer Rachel Ferency of Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion, who was teaching Chabad nigunimat Malchus, a Chabad seminary where she was studying.
"She asked me to sing with her band, Alei Assor. These Chabad nigunimare inspired by heaven and the woman's voice has the unique ability to raise these tunes to their source."
And then the all-female Efrat/Gush Etzion Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company discovered her, offering her the role of Ruth in their new biblical musical, Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem.
Joki still maintains close friendships with some of the people she met at ulpan. "I also have friends at the Malchus seminary, and now, from the Raise Your Spirits cast."
Since work for a female singer who adheres to the law of kol isha is not abundant (yet), Sheina Ettel helps support herself by cutting hair.
"I always liked to cut hair, and I thought there would be a great niche for an American-style female hairdresser," she says. "I took a nine-month course, and I'm building up my business."
She is starting to teach voice lessons as well.
"The way it works in Israel," she laughs, "is that things come to you; you have to be a very open person. So in the summer, when we had rehearsals, I was also working and studying every day."
She made necklaces, babysat and gave speech lessons to a woman with a disability. "In my daily routine, I cut hair in the morning and study every afternoon at Malchus. Every Friday I hand out Shabbat candles on Rehov Ben-Yehuda, and at the shuk."
She shares an apartment with two roommates whom she met at ulpan. They live in the picturesque Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem next to the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
"I love living here; it's five minutes from almost everything in my life. Shabbat is great. I have to force myself to leave Jerusalem once in a while, because I love it so much."
"Ufaratzta," she says without hesitation. That's the Chabad expression for spreading Torah throughout the world, her current hobby.
One hobby she no longer pursues is high jumping. In high school, she had been a five-time competitor in the high jump, track and field in the state championship.
For her first five months in Israel, Joki studied Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion. "My Hebrew is coming along."
At the end of the birthright trip, Joki stayed with an Orthodox family in Jerusalem for two months, and that's when she began to live as an Orthodox Jew. During her two years of volunteer work with the Chabad house in New Paltz, she says, "I felt it was my 'job' to be a lamp lighter - to spark others as I had been."
She refers to a song from Ruth and Naomi. "I find that my story identifies with "The Voice Within" - '"A voice inside is waiting and willing to be whole..." I feel that today my life is more complete and I am able to use all my talents together to serve Hashem."
"I'm more American than Israeli, but I'm a flexible American, and definitely Jewish."
"My dream, my whole goal, is to transfer my talents and all of the assets of my so-called 'previous life' toward kedusha, holiness," she says. "The purpose of creation is for man to use his or her talents to reveal God's oneness. The Jewish people are referred to as one body. Just as the hand and foot are part of the same body, each function serves a different purpose... so, too, does the Jew. Every Jew has his or her own talent and together we fulfill our purpose as one - to be a light to the nations, by revealing God's unity in this world."
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