From Christians in the Commonwealth to Jews in Jerusalem

Reuven (60) and Yael (55) Little, From Glasgow to Jerusalem, July 2014

Reuven and Yael Little (photo credit: Courtesy)
Reuven and Yael Little
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even though he is now known as Reuven, Yael Little often still calls her husband Robin – the name he used when they first met in Tiberias on a Christian Holy Land tour in 2002.
Yael, formerly Jessie, grew up in a Christian home in Scotland that watched over and prayed for the young State of Israel.
Her earliest memories are quite positive.
“My parents always had a love for Israel, and they showed it in different ways,” she says.
Her father served two years in the military in the 1940s, in Sinai and Tripolitania, now Libya. He encouraged Yael and her siblings to follow the news and “as a result, we grew up with political awareness.”
“When Israel was fighting in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, my parents were concerned for Israel and prayed it would be preserved and delivered.
I remember them both mentioning how God was with Israel and working miraculously on her behalf.
As I studied the Bible myself, I came to see that Israel had a unique role in the world, and that God’s eye was on her.”
Reuven’s earliest experiences with the Jewish people were much different. “I was largely unaware of Judaism until I encountered it in the course of my theological studies in Edinburgh in 1971. Of course, being a Christian college, much of what I learned about Judaism was largely negative,” he recounts.
Reuven, then Robin, originally from Belfast, was ordained to the Christian ministry, and in that capacity led his first Christian tour to Israel in 1989. “My visit had a profound effect on me. I was amazed by the land, the Jewish religion, which was still thoroughly active, and especially the Jewish people. This was the first of numerous tours to Israel [more than 30], which afforded me the opportunity to deeply research the beliefs and practices of Judaism.”
By the time Jessie met Robin in 2002, she was wrestling with theological questions for which she had been unable to find satisfactory answers. She explains the doubts that accompanied her on her first trip to Israel. “Why did Christianity change the Jewish Shabbat to the first day of the week? Who gave them the authority to do it, and why did they change something which was never meant to be modified? The Shabbat was part of the everlasting covenant made with Israel, and who would dare change that and think it could be justified? “Kashrut was another issue. In Christianity, the kashrut laws no longer applied and were seen as irrelevant; the laws were now discarded. Who gave the authority for that departure in thinking? These and other questions preoccupied my mind many times.”
Robin, a guide on Jessie’s first trip to Israel, had been asking himself these kinds of questions for many years. “Initially, it was straightforward issues such as Shabbat, kashrut, brit mila and the biblical festivals that caused me to reexamine my own beliefs. As time went on, even deeper issues disturbed me, especially regarding the absolute oneness of God and His incorporeality.”
He had been a Christian minister for 20 years. The stakes were very high.
“Clearly, I was at a crossroads in my life.
On the one hand, I stood to lose my career, friends and even perhaps family.
On the other hand, I knew I had to go with my conscience and newfound understanding of truth.”
Unbeknownst to each other, neither Jessie nor Robin were enthusiastic about taking the trip that would set them on a totally new path together.
Given his deep theological doubts, Robin had to be persuaded to lead this last Christian tour. And though she had always dreamt of visiting Israel, personal circumstances made the timing of the trip far from ideal for Jessie.
Reflecting back on that trip, Yael recalls, “Israel was an amazing experience.
The biblical places were real because I could now see them; the stories I knew took on new meaning. I felt bonded to the land and the people I met.
“On the trip, I met my future husband, who was not only able to discuss these [perplexing theological] questions, but had progressed greatly in his personal Judaism. He gave me answers which I had never received before. By this stage, he had read numerous commentaries and books on the subject. I discovered that my husband, Reuven, knew Israel very well.”
Shortly after meeting Jessie in Tiberias, Robin resigned from his position as minister in the church, and all of its accompanying responsibilities. The pair married and moved to Glasgow in order to join a synagogue and study for conversion.
Yael describes that period, pining to join the Jewish people. “We increasingly realized that Jewish beliefs and practices were compatible with our own, and that we wanted to be part of the community of the Jewish people. I identified strongly with their core beliefs and felt the Christian church historically had tried to distance itself from its Jewish roots.
“For many years, if I watched anything on television about Israel, I felt a strong bond and empathy with the people and their struggles. Sometimes I cried as I saw them suffer and get attacked by the media and other countries. Despite pogroms and persecution they were still there, and I believed God had a purpose for them. I felt a strong identification with Ruth, who said the God of Israel was her God, and that she would live and die with the People of Israel.”
Once their study and conversions were complete, the next step for Yael and Reuven was crystal clear. “Since 1989,” recalls Reuven, “I had a growing attachment and love for the Land of Israel.
It was only natural that subsequent to my conversion, and recognition of my right of return by the Jewish Agency, my wife and I would make aliya at the earliest opportunity.”
Yael readily concurred. “The land is an integral part of the Jewish faith. Israel draws the Jewish people from all parts of the world, and we felt that gravitational pull strongly. Our liturgy makes numerous references to the Land of Israel; it is the only religion in the world where the land is at the very core of belief. We felt that spiritually, Israel was where we should be. We could live Jewishly there and enjoy the spiritual benefits of being with other Jews who loved the Torah.”
THEIR DEEP commitment to being part of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel aside, the couple faced some serious challenges when they made aliya this past July. Yael gave up her job in Scotland and Reuven, at the age of 60, has significant renal impairment, so there were serious health concerns.
They also left their families behind, but do all they can to stay in touch.
“Our families have reacted well to our aliya and we are in touch with them regularly. Seeing us on Skype and Face- Time helps us and them a lot. Our families are very interested in how we get on and I have a blog ( which keeps them informed, too,” Yael explains.
The pair acknowledge the challenges but relish the spiritual benefits of their new life. They spend their days studying – Yael is in ulpan in the mornings and at Machon Ora in the afternoons, deepening her Jewish background; Reuven studies at Machon Meir, which he feels is a complete privilege. “I am amazed daily that after such a long spiritual journey, I’m living in the city of Jerusalem and studying Torah. It has not been a sacrifice at all, as the joy of studying Torah here is a blessing beyond anything I have ever known or experienced.”
Yael credits the warm welcome of other Jews with helping to smooth their aliya. “The community has been exceptionally kind and hospitable and that has given us a soft landing.”
Ultimately, their successful, dramatic transition, from Christians in the Commonwealth to Jews in Jerusalem, is due to their positive outlook. As Yael sums it up: “Our aliya is going very well. We are enjoying the experiences, including the challenges! Our own attitude is crucial, as we have every reason to be positive and we are learning so much. Meeting new friends is wonderful and we enjoy the cosmopolitan atmosphere here.
“Every day is a new day and a fresh opportunity to learn and cherish the privilege of being here.”