Arrivals: A redneck Jew

Although he had a rough start in life, Benjamin Gibson has focused on the future he wants for himself.

BENJAMIN GIBSON 311 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Benjamin Gibson grew up on a cranberry farm in a small town near Seattle, Washington and never really lived with Jews or even knew many. He’s blonde, blue-eyed and does not exactly fit the stereotype of the Orthodox Jew – but he was born Jewish to a mother who had converted at the age of 21.
He says he has two passions in his life: firefighting, in which he trained while still in the US, and Krav Maga, the form of self-defense which ultimately he wants to teach.
The idea of settling in Israel came to him while he was still in college in the US. He had already been on a Taglit trip in 2008. He heard about the scheme and thought it must be a scam, not believing anyone would pay him to visit Israel. At first enthusiastic about living here, the idea faded after he returned to Seattle.
Then one day when he was writing an English paper as part of his college fire-fighting studies, he says the idea of coming to Israel popped into his heart.
“God spoke to me,” he says.
Within three weeks he had arranged all the formalities with the Jewish Agency, booked a flight and arrived in Israel.
He went to kibbutz ulpan in Ma’agan Michael and began to learn Hebrew. When the Carmel fires erupted he was itching to help and got his chance when he was able to go with his kibbutz “father” to play a part in extinguishing the fires. For an entire day he drove around the area, delivering water to farmers whose supply had been cut off, and putting out any spot fires they came across.
Today he is doing his army service in the Home Front Command and has 10 months left of his year and a half of official service.
As a new immigrant he was only required to do six months but insisted on doing more.
He started in a new combat unit, the HFC’s Search and Rescue unit, but had to leave because of health problems, so at the moment he has a desk job.
Gibson’s background is unusual and the family has had its share of tragedies. His mother was only 21 when she decided to become Jewish.
“My mother is a very logical woman and Christianity never made sense to her,” he says. “She started researching religion; she was a single mother with two children and she felt the need of a back-up community but she didn’t yet know which one. One day a friend was helping her organize her bookshelves and she pointed out that my mother had a few books on Buddhism, two or three on Christianity and two full shelves on Judaism. She realized this was what she wanted and approached an Orthodox congregation in Seattle. At 21 she underwent an Orthodox conversion and began to raise her two children (my half-siblings) as Orthodox.”
SOME TERRIBLE events happened in the family before and after Gibson was born in 1987. His older half-sister was murdered by a family friend. When Gibson was four his older half brother, high on drugs, tried to kill his parents. His mother had a broken arm and his father sustained a horrific head injury. Both parents became ill with cancer and his father eventually died when Gibson was 14. His older brother died of a drug overdose.
He looks at his phone calendar and remarks “I have his yahrzeit [anniversary of his death] in two days.”
With just his mother and himself left, the farm became derelict and he was not able to finish high school. But at the age of 18 he took himself in hand and decided he wanted a better life and started to study at the South Puget Sound Community College to gain a fire-fighting qualification. He also worked full-time as a fire-fighter, practically living at the station for a year.
Once in Israel he set about learning spoken Hebrew as he only knew how to read a little from his bar mitzva portion. Today his Hebrew is excellent and he has found being in the army especially helpful with the language.
“You speak it day in and day out,” he says. “I’ve not had a single problem integrating with Israelis and I feel really blessed. Commanders, officers and fellow soldiers all help and correct mistakes. They do poke fun at me sometimes, not for my Hebrew but because I’m so fair. I’m not used to all this strong sunshine as in Seattle it rains for much of the year so I got special permission to wear sunglasses while in basic training.”
Once he is discharged next year he hopes to become an Israeli fire-fighter and also to be able to teach Krav Maga in some way. He is learning from grand master Haim Zut and feels only a step away from Imi Lichtenfeld, the creator of Krav Maga who taught his teacher.
“I always called myself a ‘redneck Jew’” says Gibson with a self-deprecating smile. “I never lived with Jews.”
He’s certainly making up for that now.