Free at last

From Spain to Israel: One girl's journey to personal liberation.

maya nahor 298.88 (photo credit: Shimi Nachtailer)
maya nahor 298.88
(photo credit: Shimi Nachtailer)
Maya Nahor's carefree smile and relaxed attitude belie the challenges she has faced in her young life. Now 21, Nahor has experienced her own personal journey to freedom and is finally living a Jewish life in Israel. Born in Madrid to an Israeli father and Spanish mother, Nahor grew up secure in the knowledge that she was Jewish. From a young age she attended a Jewish day school, celebrated Jewish holidays and went to synagogue on Shabbat. "When I was 10 years old my life changed," Nahor says. "My parents could no longer afford to send me and my two sisters to our school, so we went to public school." It was here that Nahor encountered blatant anti-Semitism. The other kids did not accept her, she says, and made fun of her constantly. When she refused to eat ham, for instance, they mocked her, calling her a "weirdo." Despite her outgoing personality and good looks, Nahor was ostracized. Unfortunately, it was not the first time her family was the victim of racial hatred. Her father, who wore a kippa in public, was the target of vicious anti-Semitic attacks, and was even stabbed in their hometown. By the time she was 15, Nahor was attending a boarding school, and no longer admitted that she was Jewish. "I felt bad hiding my identity, but I thought it would be easier. However, I felt very empty without my religion. This was a really difficult time for me." On the threshold of adulthood, Nahor had a dream that led her to Israel. Her father encouraged her to make aliya and explore her Jewish identity. At 18, Nahor arrived at the Jewish Agency for Israel's Ra'anana Absorption Center, where she lived for several months. However, when she went to get her identity card as a new citizen, she was shaken to the core. "The clerk looked at me and told me that I wasn't Jewish because my mother wasn't Jewish. I was in shock. I grew up Jewish and led a Jewish life," Nahor says. "I was enraged and angry with my parents. I always thought my mother was Jewish. When I confronted them, my father said that it was no problem to convert. I knew that I would do this, I just didn't know when or how. My mother also told me that she was estranged from her family in Spain for 15 years because she married a Jewish man." Nahor enlisted in the army and became a truck driver - "the best experience ever," she says enthusiastically. She met many different people on her drives across the country, she says, an experience that helped her begin to feel Israeli. It was also during her army service that Nahor found the answer for her conversion. One of her officers recommended that she join the Nativ program. Nativ, run jointly by the IDF and the Jewish Agency, is a Jewish Zionist identity program for immigrant soldiers. It also constitutes a basic step in the conversion process for soldiers who are interested in becoming Jewish according to Jewish law. "I absorbed so much during my time at Nativ," says Nahor. "For seven weeks we were immersed in Jewish learning: history, Zionism, Bible, Jewish philosophy and practice. We traveled throughout the country and spent an amazing week in Jerusalem." Following the course, Nahor continued taking additional seminars to complete the process of preparing for conversion. She began Nativ in February 2006 and completed her conversion in August. "I felt that I had lived through the desert years in Spain, like the Israelites who came out of Egypt, and finally, after my conversion, I was free to live in the Promised Land," she says. But, as so frequently happens in life, with great joy comes great sorrow. Nahor met Yohann Zerbib, a new immigrant from France, during the Nativ program, and they became the best of friends. "He was an incredible human being, the most wonderful friend anyone could have," Nahor says sadly. Zerbib was killed during the Second Lebanon War, and not a day goes by that Nahor does not think about him. "I was driving trucks in Haifa during the war and I was pretty scared," she says. "But Yohann was on the front line and I prayed that he would come back safely. His death was the most horrible thing." Nahor was recently released from the army, and is overwhelmed by the assistance she is receiving. Through the Jewish Agency Fund for Lone Immigrant Soldiers and the Student Authority Scholarships they support, Nahor receives rent subsidy and is eligible for a full-tuition scholarship for her undergraduate studies. This month she will travel to the United States for the first time to speak to Jewish communities through the Jewish Agency's Faces of Aliya program. At the same time, she is getting benefits from the army due to her lone soldier status. "There is no other country in the world that embraces new citizens like Israel does," she says. "I had such a hard time in Spain. Here, I feel like there is just so much opportunity and I know that I will have a wonderful future. I wish I could thank everyone who helped me and so many other young people like me. The Jewish nation is just so full of good people who really care." After her US tour, Nahor plans on working and then going to college to study international relations. "I want to do something that will help people understand what a great place Israel is," she says. "I want others to find their personal path to freedom."