Restoring a Jewish grandfather’s legacy

“You go. You go to Israel. You’ll be a good Jew. Not like me.”

After their conversion, the Jewish community in Oklahoma City tried to make the Kerens stay, but aliya was in their hearts. (photo credit: Courtesy)
After their conversion, the Jewish community in Oklahoma City tried to make the Kerens stay, but aliya was in their hearts.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Traci Newmark was growing up, her non-Jewish mother taught her that, “Jews were the chosen children to God. Jews had a special place. I never learned anything about Israel as a young person. I thought the Golden Dome was a Jewish symbol. I knew that Jews and the Land of Israel had a role in the end of days, but I didn’t know anything about Jewish people.”
Joel Willis grew up on a Christian family compound where he attended church in his great-grandmother’s house, along with his extended family.
“I learned Bible stories. The only talk about Jews in my family always had something to do with end of days. I learned that someday, God will wage war on behalf of the Jews in the Land of Israel. I didn’t know any Jews personally. In Oklahoma City there was a Reform temple with giant bronze tablets of the Ten Commandments outside. As a kid, I thought they were awesome.”
After their first child was born in 1994, Joel (now Yoel Keren) and Traci (now Yael Keren) went looking for a spiritual home. They tried, and rejected, a number of churches, including a Hebrew-Christian congregation.
“The more Hebrew I learned, the more I read Jewish books, the more I had a lot of questions that the Messianics couldn’t answer,” Yoel recalls.
When Yael was 24, she learned the truth.
“I was very close with my grandparents. I asked my grandfather, ‘What religion were you raised in? And my grandfather said, ‘Jewish, of course.’ He opened up a whole new world to us. There were lots of things he remembered that should have set off Jewish clues. But I had no Jewish education and I didn’t pick up on them.”
That conversation would eventually change the course of their lives. Yael’s grandfather very much encouraged their conversion and eventual aliya with the words, “You go. You go to Israel. You’ll be a good Jew. Not like me.”
Eventually, the couple underwent a Conservative conversion in Oklahoma City. For Yoel and Yael, immigrating to Israel was an extension of their conversion process.
“The Jews we knew in Oklahoma were good people, but we just didn’t believe the same things they do. I knew there was something missing in the Judaism I experienced there,” Yoel reflects.
Conservative Judaism wasn’t the right fit, and making aliya began to seem like the logical next step.
In an attempt to keep them local, the Jewish community in Oklahoma offered them multiple inducements, including a house within walking distance of the synagogue and cantorial training for Yoel.
“It was tempting,” admits Yoel. “For the first time, there was a question if we were doing the right thing by leaving for Israel.”
Why was making aliya a necessary part of the Kerens’ story? Yoel says, “It’s my personality. I was raised to be a fundamentalist. That’s still with me. I take things literally.
When the Bible tells me that God gave me a place to live and it’s called Israel, I had to live there. I wanted to have a sense of Jewish community. I wanted to eat kosher food. I wanted to mean everything I say in my prayers. For an Oklahoma boy, the Jewish communities on the East Coast were just as foreign as Israel. If I was going to move ‘back east,’ I was going to move way back east.”
Yael adds another dimension, “My family was so respectful of our conversion.”
Paradoxically, that made the transition to Judaism harder.
“We had to go elsewhere to establish ourselves as Jews.”
The Jewish Agency wouldn’t approve their aliya until one of them had at least been to Israel, so Yoel came alone on a Solidarity Mission in 2001. He stayed an extra week and wandered around Jerusalem. In essence, that was his pilot trip.
Yael recalls, “There were no blogs and no aliya support groups back then. In a way, it was easier to come without any information. It was a little shocking, but I had no anxiety because I didn’t know what to expect.
We had lived as Jews less than a year before making aliya and we made aliya during the second intifada.
We told our family we weren’t able to leave Israel for three years, so we would have a chance to get settled.”
“Before we came, we knew we’d have to have a halachic conversion. Our original plan was to become kibbutznikim but we didn’t qualify for any kibbutz programs. So we spent five months in the merkaz klita [absorption center] in Ra’anana. We enrolled our son in school, did ulpan and started learning for our halachic conversion.”
Shortly after Yoel came back from his makeshift pilot trip, he met Benny Kashriel, the mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim, in synagogue.
“When you make aliya, I’ll get you jobs,” Kashriel promised.
When the pair finished ulpan with no job prospects, “We had his business card and we called him. There was no Nefesh B’Nefesh yet and Americans didn’t qualify for sal klita [absorption basket] back then. Benny was our only hope.”
He came through and they moved to Ma’aleh Adumim.
The beit din, or rabbinical court, arranged local Jewish foster families and the Kerens didn’t eat Shabbat meals at home for a full year.
Looking back, Yael says, “It feels like I got on a train and it was effortless. There was no fear. I never get upset.
I’m very easy-going. It’s not my personality to get frustrated. I find a lot of it entertaining.”
“Our son going in the army was the biggest transition to considering ourselves real Israelis. Our daughter being born in Jerusalem was also huge. And I still feel like a kid in a candy store every day here. It never ends. Every day I see something I haven’t seen before.
I go to so many different kinds of shuls and experience as much as I can,” Yoel muses.
“I accomplished a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done in America. I don’t speak Hebrew well at all. It never bothers me. With anything I’ve had to deal with in Israel, my attitude has always been, ‘Be a duck. Just let it roll off your back,’” Yael comments.
Yoel has since mastered Hebrew.
“I had a great desire to learn the language as soon as I could. My first job was with Russian immigrants in SodaStream. They put me alone in a room with an old Moroccan employee. I picked up Hebrew really fast in this custom-made, personal ulpan.
“After we made aliya, Yael’s grandfather saw me with beard and kippa. He said, ‘I look at you and think, What in the hell happened to me?’” Reflecting on their lives over the past 14 years, Yoel hums with satisfaction.
“With every passing day, I know with more certainty that we made the right decision. I know I did the right thing. I know my family belongs here. I know my family is part of the Jewish people.
“An early Shabbat host said something that still resonates, ‘I’m here because this is where it’s at for the Jewish people. For good or for worse, if it’s happening for the Jewish people, it’s happening here. This is where the action is.’”