RonEl Barak’s journey from South Africa to the South Hebron Hills was long in more than just the geographic sense.
She and her husband, Yosef, were not born Jewish. They met in 1981 during high school, and married in December 1986 after Yosef finished his two-year compulsory military service and began studying to be a goldmine surveyor. RonEl worked for an insurance company and later became the branch manager. The couple had a son, Yehuda, in 1990, followed by several miscarriages.
“In 1994 I made a commitment to God to live a more dedicated life to him. It was a beautiful time in my life,” says RonEl. (Her given name was Ronel, a feminine form of Ronald, and she Judaicized its spelling later.)
In 1997, while decorating the family’s Christmas tree, she decided to learn more about this custom. “I discovered that Christmas was actually of pagan origin. I showed Yosef what I discovered, and I said, ‘I’d like to burn this tree,’ and he said, ‘Fine, but I won’t buy you a new one next year.’”
By the next year, RonEl was happily pregnant.
When an ultrasound revealed a girl, RonEl prayed for inspiration regarding a name and suddenly thought of Esther. Checking her Christian Bible – always at the ready on her desk at work – she learned that the name Esther derives from Persian and that Esther’s Hebrew name, according to the Book of Esther, was Hadassah.
“Immediately I knew, even without knowing Hebrew or anything remotely Jewish, that this had to be her name. It was strange for an Afrikaans woman to name her child this, and I went to have lunch with Yosef to talk about it. I told him it was a girl and I said, ‘What do you think we will call her?’ He said, ‘Maybe Esther.’ I said, ‘Did you know she had a Hebrew name, Hadassah?’ And Yosef said, ‘Well, we’ll call her Hadassah.’”
During her pregnancy, RonEl won many competitions in her branch office and received cash rewards that enabled her to quit working and stay home with the new baby. Yosef started his own building company after 10 years in the gold mines. A second daughter, Avigayil, was born 15 months later.
The couple was coming closer to Judaism and eventually contacted the Johannesburg rabbinical court to inquire about converting. They were advised to move to the Jewish community as a first step.
“Even though we had a beautiful home, where we had experienced many miracles, I was very happy about that because I was homeschooling my children, and if we moved to the Jewish community, I could send them to a Jewish school,” RonEl relates.
However, 18 months passed without a single potential buyer. It was a difficult time. “We didn’t fit anywhere, my children were in a little bubble, and I didn’t understand why our home was not selling so we could move to the Jewish community.”
One morning, RonEl was invited to look at a friend’s photographs from a trip to Israel. As she perused the pictures she suddenly turned pale, threw herself on her friend’s carpet and started sobbing. Unable to get up off the floor, she asked her concerned friend to open a Bible to Jeremiah 31 and hold it close to her face so she could read the prophet’s vision of Rachel crying for her children to return from exile. She felt it was like God talking to her.
“We had started the conversion process in Johannesburg and understood more and more that we had to become part of this chosen nation, but I was not yet one of the children and Israel was not my home,” says RonEl. “I had this real battle with God. It went on for four hours until I said, ‘Okay, if you want, we will come to Israel.’
“And I got up and felt fine. As I drove home I prayed again, and I told Hashem [God], ‘This is too big for me to tell Yosef; it has to come from you.’ My husband is very practical and down-to-earth.”
When she got home, she heard herself telling Yosef that the house wasn’t selling because they had been focused on the wrong destination. “He said, ‘If you heard that from God today, then the house has to sell, because we don’t have the money to go live in Israel for the period of time it takes to become Jewish.’ And four days later a man walked into our house and said he wanted to buy it.”
Seven months later, on June 24, 2010, the Baraks landed in Israel. They headed straight to Sussiya in the South Hebron Hills – not the usual place for English-speaking newcomers, let alone gentiles.
“The friend with the pictures had told me about a guy in Israel named Ariel Zion, who used to be a pastor in Holland, and I wrote to him. He replied that he would help us. His neighbor was building an apartment in Sussiya, so we went there,” RonEl explains.
Sussiya’s community rabbi, Eliezer Altshuler, is a member of the rabbinical court in Kiryat Gat and agreed to guide the Baraks through the conversion process. “For the next 18 months, every three months we had to go out of the country and come back because we had tourist visas,” says RonEl.
Finally, on Purim night in Sussiya, RonEl and Yosef had a Jewish wedding ceremony, having completed their conversion that day along with their children. And in October 2012, the family officially made aliya.
Three years ago, RonEl established a coffeehouse in Sussiya. This year she relocated it to the farm where they now live in Mitzpe Yair, two kilometers southeast of Sussiya.
“It’s a small restaurant where I handle groups from all over the world, people from America and Europe and everywhere who want to see what goes on in the so-called settlements. Some are pro-Israel and some not.”
Yosef went back to being a surveyor and is now working in Kfar Etzion, “which is very good for his Hebrew,” says RonEl. “My Hebrew is terrible because by the time we finished conversion, we had no money left, and I had to start working, so there was no time for ulpan. I feel illiterate a lot of the time. But I think that’s exactly how I need to feel at the moment. And this year I am starting to build friendships.”
Yehuda is 26 and married with a toddler son (“Our firstborn Jew,” says RonEl proudly) and newborn daughter. Hadassah, 18, is going into the army in December. Avigayil just finished 10th grade in Arad.
“My mother-in-law came when Avigayil had her bat mitzva, and she said to me, ‘For the first time since I’ve known you, you are at peace.’ And that’s the truth.”