Part ‘meshugana’

“The rabbi said, ‘Why do you want to [study Judaism]? It’s crazy!’”

MIKA SMITH, from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Tel Aviv, 2010 (photo credit: Courtesy)
MIKA SMITH, from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Tel Aviv, 2010
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sunny Sedona, Arizona, population 10,003, is not exactly a hotbed of aliyah. Mika Smith, 45, who converted to Judaism at age 28 and moved to Tel Aviv nine years later, is undoubtedly the town’s greatest contribution to the State of Israel. Mika spent her childhood in Sedona with her parents and two sisters. Her mother believed in the importance of education and insisted that she and her sisters attend university.
Mika attended the University of Denver and received her BA in psychology and a minor in business. Yet at age 25, she was still “on a hunt for answers.” Her mother had died from ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Mika was trying to make sense of life. “I was on a quest – why do good people have to die, and everything around you is chaos?” Mika was a regular visitor to the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver and would frequent the religion section, where she would peruse books on different faiths and beliefs. “I went to Hindu, Buddhism, different types of Christianity,” she explains. “I went through the whole gamut. I was trying to figure out what I didn’t understand.”
Mika, feeling stressed and overwhelmed, continued her spiritual search. One night, she dreamed that she and her mother were in a synagogue where men wearing prayer shawls were dancing around a Torah illuminated with amber and white light. The combination of her conscious search for religious truth and the events depicted so vividly in her unconscious dream convinced her to learn more about Judaism. Mika was then living in Arizona, where she located the local Chabad rabbi and told him of her dream and her desire to study Judaism.
Mika says, “The rabbi said, ‘Why do you want to do that? It’s crazy!’” Mika persisted, telling him the dream held special meaning for her, since her mother was a part of it. Finally the rabbi agreed, and as she says, “The rest is history.”
Mika was 25 when she began learning about Judaism, and 28 when she converted, taking the Hebrew name “Malka.” Her middle sister, Pamela, also converted, and took the name “Naomi.” When they informed their father of their conversions, he revealed to them that their late mother was an Ethiopian Jew. Mika, however, has been unable to confirm this.
Mika continued her studies, earning a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University. She then began a PhD program in behavioral health while working full-time in a psychiatric hospital. The combined pressure of writing her dissertation and attending to her job led to stress and exhaustion. Mika felt she needed a change and decided to move to Israel, “to calm things down.”
On September 7, 2010, the day before Rosh Hashanah, Mika arrived on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. When she first arrived, Mika stayed with an old college friend in Herzliya. Several weeks later, she found a roommate, rented an apartment in Tel Aviv and began her Hebrew studies in Ulpan. There, she met a woman who was working at Berlitz, and Mika began teaching English.
FAST-FORWARD six months and Mika saw in an ad that said Masa Israel was looking for psychology instructors. She laughs and says, “I applied for the job and hounded the owner. He hired me.” Mika soon began teaching a variety of courses for the organization, including social psychology, introduction to psychology and developmental psychology.
In 2013, after immigrating to Israel, Mika completed her PhD in behavioral health, comparing the Israeli and American healthcare systems for mental health. She soon opened Positive Health Counseling, which focuses on English-speaking millennials, gap-year students and teenagers. “I decided last year to really focus and get my business up and running,” she relates.
Mika says that she tries to understand her clients’ frame of mind. “I’m happy-go-lucky and use a lot of allegory,” she explains. “We have great conversations, and I tend to get them on the right path without sounding too much like their mothers. One size doesn’t fit all, and you can’t assume that one method is going to fit this person or that person. You have to understand where they’re coming from.”
Mika now divides her time between teaching at Masa and her counseling business. “I am slowly building up my practice here in Israel,” she says. In addition to her local sessions, Mika also provides therapy services to clients via video-conference.
Mika has never married because of long-standing family responsibilities. “People do not want to date a person when they know you have a responsibility to an adult,” she says. At 22, after her mother died, Mika had to work several jobs to make ends meet for herself and her two sisters. Her middle sister has disabilities, and Mika spent a great deal of time with her when they were both living in Arizona. Even today the two stay in constant contact, and Mika attends to many of her sister’s needs.
Mika misses her family in the US but says optimistically, “Everything that is there I can have here. You have to separate America from Israel. If you start comparing them both, then you’ll start having that longing. Israel is Israel.” She laughs and says, “People think I’m a little meshugana [crazy].”
“Well,” she continues, “you have to be a part meshugana to follow a dream, converting Orthodox, and just being here and finding your own path. When I first made aliyah, I was teaching English and I didn’t know what I was going to do.” But what she loves most about Israel are its people. “I have friends who have become my family here.”
As for her pet peeves about living in Israel, she says philosophically, “Every country has their good moments and bad.” She admits that she is frustrated when people say, “Everything is ‘kol b’seder, kol b’seder’ [everything is fine], and it’s not. And when you try to argue and I try to speak Hebrew, they pretend that they don’t understand. But they do understand, they just don’t want to fix it.”
Mika now lives in her own apartment in Tel Aviv and enjoys spending time outdoors, hiking, traveling and learning. It’s been a long journey from Sedona to Tel Aviv. As she says, “All my experiences have made me a stronger person. I would not change anything, because I would not be me.”
Sedona’s loss has become Tel Aviv’s gain. ■