Arrivals: Nico Bauth

Bauth broke the news of his pending conversion to Judaism to his German Catholic family over Christmas dinner.

Nico Bauth 88 224 (photo credit: Abigail Klein)
Nico Bauth 88 224
(photo credit: Abigail Klein)
For most of his 24 years, Nico Bauth has been opening and closing doors to search for his place in the world. By the time he was 15, he had closed the door on the Catholicism his family practiced. At 18, he closed the door on high school and opened another into the German army, only to close it again less than one year into what was supposed to be a dozen. Another door opened when a Jewish classmate invited him to her family's Purim seuda. The experience sparked intensive Internet research on Judaism. "I really liked the way of thinking and the whole spirit that was behind it," he recalls. Eventually, that led him to close the door on Germany and open a new one into a very different life as a Jew in Israel. FAMILY BACKGROUND "I grew up in Western Germany, in a simple working family," says Bauth in fluent English punctuated with Hebrew phrases. "I had always had trouble fitting into society, and I told my parents that one day I wanted to emigrate. I just didn't know where." To gain early discharge from the army, he agreed to a year of national service. He applied to programs in Israel, Ireland, Brazil and the US with which the German government had a connection. Though he was accepted by all, he chose Israel. "Going to Israel was already a decision I had made - not with the intention to convert, but to experience for real what Jewish life is like." THOUGHTS OF CONVERSION Arranged through the German-Israeli Association for Rehabilitation, Bauth's service consisted of nine months at a Kiryat Ono institution beginning in the fall of 2004. There, he befriended Israeli girls doing their own national service, and they often invited him to their homes for Shabbat and holidays. "I was so impressed that I thought, 'That's what I want. That is I want to be able to give to my family, to fill them up spiritually." He singles out a family in Gush Etzion that hosted him and helped him in many ways. "I wouldn't know how to thank them for everything they did," he says. In December, he asked a rabbi associated with the institution what he would have to do to become Jewish. "He told me it's kind of complicated and sent me to a place in Tel Aviv, the Rosh Yehudi Center. The classes were in Hebrew and it was really tough for me, but I decided I'll sit and listen and pick up what I can." Less than a month later, he went home to visit his family and told them - over Christmas dinner - that he had decided to convert. In the spring of 2005, Bauth moved to Jerusalem upon completion of his national service. Just before his one-year visa expired in September, he successfully petitioned the Chief Rabbinate for permission to stay another year with the intention of converting. He was accepted into a six-month Jewish Agency course at Kibbutz Yavne, alternating his studies with working in the cow shed. When he was approached about participating in a European filmmaking duo's planned documentary about German converts, Bauth readily agreed. He hoped that it would help assuage his parents' concern for his physical and emotional well-being. "This was a good chance to show them where I am and what I am doing and also to make them see I am with fine people." The film crew followed him periodically for eight months, even documenting his circumcision on February 14, 2006. Jew by Choice was released in 2007, and Bauth's parents went to see it at the Berlin Jewish Museum. "My mother said, 'I saw you in Israel and you seemed so happy. If that's the place you're happy, then you should go.' That was the permission I was waiting for." ROAD TO ALIYA Bauth immersed in a mikve eight days before Pessah in 2006, and attended a Jerusalem yeshiva till the end of May. Then he flew home - with the cameras following him - to think over his options. But he soon plunged into deep culture shock as he tried to live within his new religious parameters. He ended up alienating old friends and worrying his parents anew. When the Second Lebanon War broke out the following summer, Bauth flew back with the intention of enlisting in the army. He was told that by the time he'd be trained, the war would be over. Frustrated, he spent a few weeks at the Jerusalem yeshiva and then started university in Munich. Within a short time, he had closed another door. "After two months I realized I am very philosophical and engineering wasn't right for me. I was trying to make myself someone I wasn't." He stayed in Munich the balance of that year, working long hours to make money before returning to Israel. ARRIVAL The Jewish Agency in Frankfurt told Bauth that because he had converted in Israel, he was not permitted to make aliya from outside the country. Problem was, he didn't have a place to stay in Israel and did not want to return to the yeshiva. An Israeli girl doing national service in Munich came to the rescue, offering him her room at home in Petah Tikva. That was where he went when he made aliya on August 26, and he stayed with her family until he found a studio apartment in Jerusalem three weeks later. By October 18, Bauth had all his paperwork completed at the Interior Ministry, which he sees as a small miracle. "It might be haughty to say this, but I feel the whole process here has been really blessed." DAILY LIFE "I have been studying in ulpan at Beit Ha'am. What I learn in the morning I teach in the evening to make some money." In addition to tutoring Hebrew and German, Bauth is studying for the pre-university psychometric exams and plans to go into the army this summer. He enjoys an ever-widening circle of friends. "Most of my friends are Israelis from my martial arts club, and there are people from ulpan I hang out with - Arab kids, Jewish people who immigrated from different countries." IDENTIFICATION Though he took the Hebrew name Nahshon, Bauth recently reverted to using his given name, Nico, as a way to honor his parents. He says he is committed to Zionism, which he defines as the Jewish right of self-protection. "I 'stole' that definition from Haim Watzman," he says with a ready smile. "I just finished his book Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel. I found a lot of edification in that book." FAITH "In the beginning I got into the whole Torah thing... I have now figured out that every person has to come close to God by using the tools provided by his religion. The tools I chose for myself are learning. I love Shabbat and kashrut because they give me another way of understanding my place in the world. [But] I don't think there is any real, definite truth that can be put into words or defined thought." THOUGHTS ON ALIYA "Right now I'm taking a look back at all the decisions I made to bring me to the situation I'm in right now and I'm feeling really good and content with it. That proves to me that I was right, even with all the worries and troubles." 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