There are many types of family vacations – to the beach, on a cruise, hiking in the mountains. My family had taken all these, but recently we did something different. That’s because 2011 was not an average year for us. In January, my mother passed away suddenly, leaving us all shocked and angry. Why would God take my mother? Why would He give us no warning? What proof is there that He cares and is there a reason for His actions?
These are some of the many questions we had, but did not get sufficient answers from our local rabbis. Throughout the year my family performed numerous deeds in my mother’s name. We said Kaddish every day. We donated to various charities in Israel and in our native South Africa. We organized Jewish community events. These are just a few of the things we did in her memory, as a way to help elevate her soul.
Unless these questions were answered, we would never be at peace with my mother's death.
Still, we never fully believed that what we were doing would actually benefit my mom. All it really did was comfort us slightly. My family has always been a traditional Jewish family, though not religious. We attended Jewish day school. When we were kids my mother used to tuck us into bed, kiss us goodnight, and say the Shema with us. We had Shabbat dinner every Friday night; at the Passover Seder 30 people would gather around our table; and the Yom Kippur break-fast was 50 people strong.
But when my mother died so suddenly, we had many questions about our faith. We decided as a family that unless these questions were answered, we would never be at peace with my mother's death. And we might begin to grow distant from Judaism.
We sat together – my father, brother, sister and I – and determined that the best place to get these questions answered was Israel. We committed to spending two weeks together in Jerusalem, probing the foundations of Jewish belief. Our goal was to attain clarity – to leave either as believers or non-believers, but not to remain in limbo as we were.
So we made a short list of the key questions we wanted answered:
- Is there a God?
- Does the Torah have a Divine source?
- If the first two are true, is God involved in our lives?
- Why did He take my mother?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Is my mother's soul at peace and comfort?
In searching for a place to grapple with these questions, and speaking to numerous educational institutions in Jerusalem, surprisingly none were set up to accommodate the needs of our family.
It was then suggested that I contact Aish Jerusalem. I never knew that Aish had educational centers. I had seen the website a few times when I was living in London, but I thought that's all Aish was – a website.
Grappling in Jerusalem
From the moment I contacted Aish Jerusalem explaining the reason and goals for our trip, they were as accommodating and responsive as possible. Aish tailor-made an entire two-week program for us – studying from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday to Thursday. A few weeks before we arrived, I received a draft of our learning schedule from Michael Mann of Aish’s Executive Learning Center (ELC). Michael is a real mensch and a master organizer who proved essential to our trip.
We spent our time studying in a room directly overlooking the Western Wall.
Arriving at the Aish Center is an incredible experience in itself, because the building is modern and beautifully renovated. Not to mention that it is situated directly across from the Western Wall. We spent most of our time studying in an ELC conference room where the windows directly overlook the Western Wall. During breaks we would go up to the rooftop vista which has a spectacular panoramic view of the Temple Mount. The seven-story building even has a "Western Wall Level" where you can walk directly out onto the Western Wall Plaza. Amazing.
Aish proved to be the perfect place for gaining a deep understanding of God and Judaism. We studied for two weeks in private sessions with top-notch rabbis. The sessions were not forceful or with any hint of dogma. We challenged them at every step of the way, asking question after question. We’d start the morning with Rabbi Neckameyer dealing with issues of God and science; then on to the methodical process of Rabbi Resnick revealing the 7 Wonders of Jewish History; followed by Rabbi Chaim Yagoda meticulously explaining the ins and outs of The Way of God.
We came to appreciate the interplay of body and soul; the meaning of the afterlife; and the unique destiny of the Jewish people.
The rabbis were all patient and excellent. But what really struck us was how they genuinely cared about us and our plight. They wanted to ensure that we got good answers – not to indoctrinate us, but to give us the information to process on our own terms.
Every day we went to the Western Wall to say Kaddish for my mother, and this is where we ended the 11 months of saying Kaddish. Various Aish rabbis joined us and it was very meaningful to be with those who understood the importance of our mission.
In my highest expectations, I could not have anticipated the caliber of rabbis who taught us and the service we got. When I arrived, I was a traditional Jew because I was born that way. When I left Jerusalem, I was a believer. Aish answered my questions and reignited my belief in God.
Aish offered me a life-changing view of the world. As a reasonable and logical person, when I consider all the evidence, I cannot deny that God exists and that He gave the Torah to the jewish people. I would never have said this before I went to Aish. I am not ready to change my life and become religious. That was never my goal. But I will continue to learn Torah, and time will tell where that leads.
I can never repay Aish for all they did for my family and me. I still miss my mother every day and I am heartbroken that she is not here physically. But I believe that our loving God has His reasons. And I am comforted with the knowledge that my mother, Brenda Okun (Bella Chaya bat Yerachmiel) is at peace, close to God.