Determined to succeed

Helen Sykes is focused on converting to Judaism and adjusting to a new way of life.

HELEN SYKES 521 (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
In spite of their totally disparate backgrounds, Helen Sykes and her husband, Bezalel Shaul, have been together for nearly 12 years. She is English and grew up in a vaguely Christian family; he is Yemenite Israeli and many of his relatives are ultra- Orthodox.
They met at the border of Thailand and Laos, on a trip they both made when they were 23 years old.
“I just loved traveling and I’d met plenty of Israelis,” says Sykes. “He was doing his post-army trip when we met – and we’ve been together ever since.”
One of the first things that Ben, as she calls her husband, told her was that he could never marry someone not Jewish. Today, Sykes is in the process of converting and is studying hard, in addition to working as head of the English department at the British Council.
She recalls the first meeting between her parents and her future husband, back in 2001, when he turned up at the family home in Winchester.
“He had long, curly black hair and my parents were rather taken aback,” she recalls.
They decided that they would return to Israel, as England was too cold, and until she finally came to live here in 2004, she would fly out every few months. The decision to convert was made eight years ago, soon after their son, Eitan, was born. They had a civil wedding in the UK, and in 2008 they began to lead an observant lifestyle.
For someone who grew up in a very English, non-Jewish environment, becoming seriously Jewish and observant is no easy task – but she is determined to succeed.
“It’s part of who my husband is,” she says.
“I fell in love with him in part for his strong faith and his Jewish values. Now that we have a family – our second son, Benjamin, is a year old – I appreciate even more the framework that Sabbath and festivals give, and the children love the way of life.”
Wearing a demure dress – she has long abjured wearing pants in the conversion bid – she tells me that the course she attends in Tel Aviv is an English-speaking one run by modern-Orthodox rabbis who don’t put obstacles in the way of the 20 or so people – mainly women – who are attempting to become Jewish.
“It’s the best thing I ever did,” she says enthusiastically, “but it’s not easy.
In Tel Aviv all our friends are secular, from the early days of our marriage when we weren’t observant.”
She and her family attend the Tel Aviv Synagogue on Frishman Street, where a modern and welcoming atmosphere, still within the bounds of Orthodoxy, makes an effort to bring Jews into Judaism rather than turn them away.
She is full of praise for the rabbi, a new immigrant himself, Ariel Konstantyn, who is helping her to convert.
Ideally, they would like to find a religious family to adopt them and invite them for Shabbatot – but that’s not so simple either.
In the past, Sykes’s job as head of the British Council’s English department would have meant running the Englishlanguage school, but this was closed down several years ago. Since 2007, the council decided to change its approach in teaching English to be able to reach out to every student and teacher in the country and not just those who live in the Center and could afford to take courses at the school. Nowadays, the work involves teacher training all over the country.
For the last five years, Sykes and her team have developed programs working with partners including the Education Ministry, the Clore Foundation and the Rashi Foundation for Change in Education.
Says Helen, “one of the things I love about my job is getting to work with our dedicated team of teachers and teacher trainers with whom I travel up and down the country, bringing the best of UK resources, teaching methodology and tools to Israeli teachers and students. The work is largely in peripheral locations, such as Beduin and Druse village schools as well as Jewish and Arab schools all over the country.”
The British Council website, learnenglishkids., is intended for the teaching of English to children of primary school age. It’s free for everyone and offers games and interactive quizzes with different degrees of difficulty, videos with songs and stories, exercises for improving grammar and enriching vocabulary and downloadable craft sheets with video instructions. You can also print out painting worksheets and do spelling exercises.
It’s a really fun and innovative way for children to learn a language.
They have also developed applications for smart phones for the learning and practice of English grammar and vocabulary. And they are especially interested in promoting the learning of English in the Arab sector, feeling that there are growing inequalities between it and Israel’s Jewish majority.
After a very hard working week, during which she travels around the country, there is nothing Helen loves more than to spend a quiet Shabbat with her husband and children. Having such a high-powered job makes Shabbat rest and all that goes with it even more idyllic.