Michael from California tells his story:
Shabbos afternoon in Big Sur. I’m on the beach, meditating and watching the ocean. A woman and her two children pass by. She asks if I have any juice to spare for her children. Of course I give them to drink. She’s very grateful. As she begins to walk away, I say, "Shalom."
Ordinarily I wouldn't say shalom to a stranger on the beach, but for some reason I did. She turns and her eyes widens. “Shabbat shalom,” she says to me. The next thing you know we're spending the whole day on the beach talking and talking and talking.
As it turns out, Zariya (her name) and her children live in a van. Zariya is Catholic, but she’s married to a Jewish man. She considers herself to be a spiritual person who believes in God. After she had children, she decided that she would rather raise them as Jews, not as Catholics. There was one problem, however. Zariya's husband (the Jew) wanted nothing to do with religion and forbade her from giving the children any Jewish education. This became a very contentious issue between them. Her husband also had a drinking problem; eventually she took the children and left.
Here on the beach I decide to do something to help Zariya and her children. So I invite them to stay with me for a while. Maybe I can help her get back on her feet.
One day she took the kids out for lunch. They were late coming home and when she finally arrived, Zariya was hysterical. ”They took my children! They took my children!”
Apparently her estranged husband had hired a private detective to track her down – and then snatch away the kids.
I manage to calm Zariya down. She calls her husband's parents in Sacramento. Her husband is there with the kids. He won't let her speak with them. But I get on the phone and we negotiate to come up to Sacramento to see the kids one time for Chanukah. We promise to stay for just 15 minutes, light the menorah with the kids, and then leave.
All we bring with us on the trip to Sacramento is a small disposable menorah and some candles.
As we pull up to the house, Zariya say, “You won't even believe this is a Jewish family.”
We walk to the front door and ring the bell. The kids open the door and give us big hugs, while the grandparents and the father are eyeballing us in a very cold way. After a moment I look around and am blown away to see an entire living room full of toys. There’s a pile of presents with Christmas wrapping, an enormous tree – and the grandfather dressed in a Santa Clause outfit.
We only have 15 minutes and I really want to make an impact on the kids. So right away I set up the menorah. I teach them everything I can in the little time we have, and they are all smiles and listening to everything I say. I show them exactly how to set up the candles, and before we begin to light, I ask the grandmother to turn off the lights. So there we are, lighting the candles and making the blessings and trying to sing Ma’oz Tzur together with the kids.
When we’re done, the kids want more. So I tell them there’s a special mitzvah to just look at the candles and enjoy the light – because it's God's light. So there we are, just standing and gazing at those candles. I look over to see the grandparents holding hands; she's got tears in her eyes, and he’s taken off his Santa Claus beard.
An uneasy silence fills the room, and then it’s time to leave. On the way out, Zariya's husband say that he wants to talk to her for a minute.
"Zariya," he say in a soft voice, "I felt something when we were looking at those candles. I promise that tomorrow I'm going to find a Hebrew school for the kids, so they get some Jewish education."
The End of the Story
Zariya went on to study more about Judaism and eventually decided to convert. Before going through with the conversion she needed to speak with her grandmother who was a strict Catholic and with whom she was very close; her mother had died years earlier in an accident and she never knew her father. Zariya called her grandmother and was trying to explain. Then her grandmother began to cry.
"Zariya," she began through her tears, "I've never told you this and I swore I never would, but now I must. When I was a young woman I had just been married when the war broke out. They put us in the camps and my husband and my entire family were wiped out. I swore to myself that if I ever married again I would never allow my family to suffer the same fate. After the war I met this wonderful man. He wasn't Jewish, but he took care of me and we got married. I told him I could never raise my children as Jews. Your mother never knew she was Jewish. Zariya, you don't have to convert. You already are a Jew."
Adapted from "Chanukah - Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul," by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf