Beth was sitting on her bed in a hotel in Amsterdam looking at her tourist map. She had been sightseeing for days. She saw the Rembrandt house, the Van Gough museum and many of the other notable attractions. She was having a wonderful time. After three years of twenty-hour days doing single-minded research, travelling through Europe was a magnificent breath of fresh air. Beth had developed a nutritional treatment for seasonal depression during her work on an undergraduate thesis in Fairleigh Dickinson University. The research attracted the attention of the National Institute of Health and the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Corporation. She was awarded a research fellowship at the N.I.H. and ninety thousand dollars in funding to carry out further studies. The pressure to achieve results, publish papers and gain recognition was overwhelming and, after completing her year at the N.I.H., she was burnt out. She needed to get away from computers, laboratories and statistics. She wanted space, freedom and adventure. While she was thinking of a place to spend her evening she remembered that her second-oldest brother had mentioned the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. It seemed funny at the time because her brother had refused to suggest any sights of interest, claiming that it would be much more meaningful if she discovered Europe for herself. The only exception to his silent attitude was his suggestion that she visit the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue. It was already dark when she finally decided to see it that night but she had a feeling it would be open even at that late hour. Shortly after she set off, Beth got lost and it was hours later before she finally got there. It was very late and the huge synagogue was dark. After a little detective work she found a door around the back. Some men dressed in finery were standing by the door and pointed to another door just a few feet away from theirs. Beth was suddenly conscious of her traveling attire – jeans and a denim shirt, but she waked through the door ignoring the looks of disapproval that her dress elicited. She quickly made her way to the lattice work mechitza. The shul was an awesome structure formed of a rich, dark wood. Thousands of candles set in a group of spectacular chandeliers filled the synagogue with a powerful light. Hundreds of people stood hushed. The men wore white linen robes and talleisim. One of the men stood atop a platform at the center of the men’s section. He raised the shofar to his lips and blew. Yom Kippur had ended. A confused rush of feelings overwhelmed Beth. While the men sang of “ Next Year in Jerusalem” and the women exchanged New Year’s wishes, a young girl in jeans and a denim shirt stood at the mechitza sobbing.
After hearing of a terrorist’s bomb exploding in Athens, Beth decided to call home. She had made her way through the Peloponnesus and was planning an extended stay on Crete. She would tell her parents she was safe and let them in on her travel plans. During the conversation with her parents her mother mentioned that Chanuka was fast approaching and perhaps she would enjoy Chanuka in Israel more than a stay on the beaches of Crete. Her brother broke his rule of silence once more and suggested two places in Israel that Beth should visit, Yad Vashem and the Heritage House. When Beth questioned him about the Heritage House he refused to elaborate. She decided it must be a museum. Beth considered her mother’s suggestion for a few days and agreed that it made sense. At the airport in Athens, the backpackers traveling to Israel were searched mercilessly, with the searches of some of the people taking up to an hour to complete. All baggage was opened, they were subjected to physical pat downs and grilled about their travel plans. Beth approached the security guard, a young Israeli woman, dreading the ordeal that was to follow. The security guard asked Beth why she was going to Israel. She asked it in a mechanical fashion. It was a question she asked everyone who she checked. She looked the Israeli woman in the eyes and answered in a quivering voice, “Because I’m a Jew!” The security guard continued looking into Beth’s eyes and said calmly, “Check your bags, make sure that everything is yours, and then go to the ticket counter.” No search.
Once in Jerusalem, Beth decided to try an Arab youth hostel in the Old City. It seemed the adventurous thing to do. But the thrill of adventure quickly disappeared when she set her eyes on the Old City with its camels, dark men with kaffiyas and the shadowy, winding, foreboding roads leading to the unknown. She decided that rather than try to find the Arab hostel on her own, she would call it first and get directions. She located a pay phone, opened her travel book and found the hostel’s number. As she picked up the receiver, she noticed a bright green sticker stuck to the stem. She read it. It was an advertisement for the Heritage House and a phone number. Seeing the name of a place her brother suggested was comforting and she decided to call. They directed her to the information center and then to the women’s hostel. It was clean, friendly and the price was right. The staff of the Heritage House suggested Beth attend some classes at a women’s seminary in Jerusalem to become more acquainted with her tradition. She sat in on an interesting philosophy class and then a class in Chumash. Beth couldn’t read the Hebrew but a girl sitting next to her helped her find the place in the text. As the class began to read and Beth followed along, she remembered the High Holiday services at home. She had always taken the prayers seriously and as she listened to the melodious Hebrew prayers she would follow along in the English. The memory of the services, the feeling of awe they inspired and the realization that she was in Jerusalem reading the Torah in Hebrew were too much for Beth to contain and while the rest of the class continued reading, Beth rushed from the room crying. The experience was overwhelming. Beth decided she needed some time to think, somewhere far away from Jerusalem. She decided on Egypt and with her backpack on, she left the hostel and was on her way out of the Old City. She turned a corner, and who should be standing there, but Rabbi Meir Schuster. He approached Beth and asked her were she was gong. When he heard of her plans he tried to convince her to stay, but she was adamant. He did succeed, however, in extracting a promise from Beth – a promise that she would come back to Israel. And as she was about to leave, he said to her, “Hashem loves you and He wants you here in Jerusalem.”
Beth caught the first flight back and was home within forty-eight hours of the time her parents called. Her oldest brother was critically ill, suffering from a rare virus. The doctors gave him no chance for survival. It was just after the High Holidays. Her brother’s situation worsened and one evening the doctors told the family that he wouldn’t live through the night. It just so happened that on Rosh Hashana, a young married student of the Lakewood Yeshiva was hit by a car. One of the rabbis found out about a helicopter service and arranged for the yeshiva student to be quickly flown to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital where his life was saved. This very same rabbi was in the Lakewood hospital with a group of yeshiva students the night the doctors gave up hope on Beth’s brother. When the rabbi heard about the situation, he quickly arranged for a helicopter to come and pick up the dying man. As he was wheeled to the helicopter, the yeshiva students fervently prayed for his well being. Within twenty minutes, he was at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. A surgeon met the patient as he was taken off the helicopter and rushed him into surgery. The doctor later said that if they had arrived ten minutes later it would have been all over. Now he calls Beth’s brother his “miracle patient.” He survived against all odds.
Back in Jerusalem
Beth is presently studying at a women’s seminary in Jerusalem and is engaged to be married to the boy from “down the street.” The above were just a taste of the many moving and inspirational moments that made up Beth’s adventure in self-discovery. If you want to know more, you’ll just have to wait until she writes her book.