Veterans: 'I don't take the Torah lightly'

“It’s the word of God and I thought that perhaps I should get serious.”

Jeremiah Benzion, 43 from San Diego, California, to Rosh Pina 2006. (photo credit: LEVI DOVID PHOTOGRAPHY)
Jeremiah Benzion, 43 from San Diego, California, to Rosh Pina 2006.
 When Jeremiah Paul Settles was born some 43 years ago in Los Angeles, his family expected that he would continue in the traditions of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that claims over eight million followers worldwide. Both Settles’s father and grandfather served as congregational overseers, and he was himself being groomed for the same position.
Now known as Jeremiah Benzion, he lives his life as an Orthodox Jew in the Upper Galilee town of Rosh Pina, and is a successful executive at an Israeli startup. The tale of his Jewish journey is one that encompasses Jamaican jazz, Rastafarianism and the Bible. Says Benzion, “Everyone says I should write a book.” The following, he jokes, is the CliffsNotes version.
“I always had a love of Israel,” he says. “My father, who is a biblical scholar, always infused me with a love of the idea of Israel.” Benzion’s grandfather was a book collector with a huge library of books and manuscripts, which he devoured. He enjoyed studying biblical history, as well as the origins of Christianity.
During his teens, he had doubts about his religion, and began to ask questions. He attended the University of California at Riverside, despite the disapproval of the Jehovah’s Witness community, which frowns on higher education.
Along with his love of history, he was also developing an affinity for Jamaican jazz. He became quite proficient in ska and reggae, musical genres that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s and 1960s. Eventually, he left Jehovah’s Witnesses, and became a successful musician, touring and playing Caribbean music. Leaving his religion was, in his words, “traumatic and difficult” and he “embraced” the music he played.
The Jamaican music brought him closer to Rastafarianism, a monotheistic religious movement that developed in Jamaica during the 1930s. Rastafarianism is classified as an Abrahamic religion, one that traces itself from the practices of the ancient Israelites and the worship of the God of Abraham.
“I realized that there was something within Judaism that was attractive to me.” Pursuing his interest, he took college classes about Judaism, and visited Reform temples whenever he could.
Benzion enjoyed his life, playing with musicians from around the world, but needed a steady income. He worked for seven years as an administrator for the Department of Children’s Services in Los Angeles, taking care of abused children who had been taken from their families. He speaks fondly of that seven-year period, from 1993 until 2000, as he was helping children, studying in college, making music, and learning about Judaism.
Speaking of his appearance at that time, he says, “I had taken a vow of being a nazir. I wouldn’t touch vinegar, or go near grapes. I didn’t cut my hair, or trim my beard. I was kind of a radical nut,” he jokes. In 2000, while on tour with his band, he met a groupie named Meredith, a Rastafarian, who happened to be Jewish. Together, they studied Judaism and attended classes at Chabad in San Diego.
“We got our heads cleared,” he says. They decided to marry, and he underwent a Reform conversion. But then, he says, they began to discuss how they would raise their children.
“I don’t take the Torah lightly,” he says. “It’s the word of God and I thought that perhaps I should get serious.” He then went to the local Chabad rabbi, and said that he was ready to convert immediately again, this time according to Orthodox practice. He recalls the Chabad rabbi saying, “Whoa, hold on a second, man.”
He studied with Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort, the head of Chabad of La Costa. “Please mention that I am here only because of him,” he requests. After a year and a half of study, he underwent an Orthodox conversion in Los Angeles in 2000.
After his conversion, Benzion continued in his career as a social worker and his wife worked as a midwife, but there wasn’t enough money to go around. They had a baby, and as he puts it, “We were helping lots of people and we were broke.” He was working 10 hours per day, helping developmentally disabled adults to move from hospitals to independent living.
“We could not afford to be Jews in Southern California. We tried our best but we couldn’t do it.”
Friends of the couple suggested that they consider moving to Israel, where Jewish education is free. The couple jetted to the Holy Land for a pilot trip. The biblical knowledge that he had absorbed in his childhood came in handy.
“I knew the map of Israel better than I knew the map of LA,” he exclaims. “We loved it (Israel), and we made great friends.”
By the summer of 2006, they were ready to move to Safed, but they had to convince her parents that Israel was a safe place to raise their grandson.
“Nothing happens in the North,” he assured them.
On his last day of work in the US, as he was driving home, his wife called to let him know that Hezbollah forces had begun firing rockets at Israeli border towns. Just as they were poised to move to Safed, war had come to Israel’s North.
Bolstered by the encouragement of his wife’s parents, they decided to move. The immigration authorities sent them to Ra’anana, where they lived for five weeks.
“The impact of what I was doing didn’t register with me. Maybe I was a little insane.”
When the war ended, the family moved to Mitzpe Netofa, in the Lower Galilee. Benzion spent a great deal of time touring the country.
“I wanted to see every nook and cranny of everything I had learned my whole life,” he says. With a job in hi-tech, they moved to a large home in Safed’s Old City, where they lived for the next nine years. He left the world of hi-tech for a few years and became a marketing director for an Israeli toolmaking company. Earlier this year, the Benzion family, which now includes three girls and a boy, moved to Nof Kinneret, which is close to Rosh Pina. Benzion began working with a successful Israeli startup that licenses music for films. His wife, Chavah, is a prominent midwife, and has her own YouTube channel that provides advice and help for pregnant women.
Benzion acknowledges that he never thought that he would live in Israel.
“Israel was heaven to me when I grew up. Putting my hand on the Kotel was greater than anything that I dreamed of as a kid.”