She made her debut at our home shortly before the commencement of Shabbat. Sweet and youthful-looking, petite, newly engaged and adorned in a white coat, she entered our lives. That Shabbat we were blessed with two Shabbat brides—a double portion like the manna which fell erev Shabbat in the wilderness.
We have welcomed thousands of Shabbat guests over the years, but Aviyah is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring and special people that we have been blessed to meet. She put great devotion into her recital of blessings and into her davening. She infused our home with a unique tranquility and recharged our spiritual batteries as well as those of our other Shabbat guests.
She related how her chatan (groom), 48 year-old Ted Isaacson from Queens, New York, had joined the U.S. marines at the age of 17 1/2. Many of his relatives had been murdered during those black years of Hitler’s Final Solution. Ted wanted to help protect his country and his family.
In preparation for their wedding, Ted was asked for his parents’ ketubah. They had passed away years before, and he had no inkling where the ketubah lay. He was asked to produce two frum male relatives who could attest to Ted’s being Jewish. He remembered that he has a cousin, Chaim, who came to Israel and became frum. Aviyah looked up Chaim’s name on the web and within two days she had contacted him. Chaim, who works as a tour guide for Ohr Sameach, was pleased to be a witness for Ted, and he contacted another frum relative in the U.S. to be the second witness.
As to Aviyah, well, there was no doubt as to her being Jewish. She had recently finished a conversion course at Machon Ora in Jerusalem, and she had immersed in the mikveh on the 17th of Shevat. Aviyah’s former name was Joyce Alega, and she had been a practicing Seventh Day Adventist in the Philippines!
Twenty seven year-old Aviyah was born in Manila. When she was eleven her father died. At the age of twelve she, her brother and sister relocated to the town of Pototan in the province of Iloila to be with their maternal grandmother. Her mother went to work in Saudi Arabia for ten years. She visited only once every two years.
Aviyah’s father had been a non-practicing Catholic. Her grandmother and mother were practicing Seventh Day Adventists. “My father would tell me that we should do what is right, true, noble and lasting. My mother would tell me that we should do what is righteous and listen to G-d, so that on the Day of Judgement we will be judged favorably,” she related. Despite this, her mother took Aviyah’s interest in Judaism and her subsequent conversion, very hard.
Her family lived in a one-room apartment. The children slept on bamboo mats and the parents slept on the bed. There was no running water. She remembers how one of her relatives paid for her to take piano lessons for one year. Since they did not have a piano, in order to practice for her piano recital she “played” her music on the bamboo bed.
An aunt financed her college education (June 1996-May 1999). When she was 17 1/2, a non-Jewish neighbor told her about a religion called Judaism. At the college library Aviyah made had her first foray into Judaism by reading about Judaism and Israel in the encyclopedia. She started reading the Torah as well.
At college she was blessed with the friendship of another young woman, now called Chana Chaya, who came from a Seventh Day Adventist background but was interested in Judaism. Chana Chaya went to Israel to convert to Judaism. She sent TORAH TIDBITS, the Orthodox Union’s GUIDE TO BLESSINGS, and a list of the 613 mitzvot to Aviyah who looked up the Orthodox Union’s website and learned more about Judaism.
At one point when the family was living with their grandmother they were so poor that they only ate rice. Aviyah was not successful in finding a job. The family grew thinner and thinner. With a very heavy heart she finally decided to do what some people had suggested. In May 2001 she enrolled in a voice-training program. She used to sing in the church choir. Graduates were sent to Japan to work in night clubs. Before she left for the program she prayed, “Hashem, I do not want to go to Japan, I want to go to Israel!” The program provided her with room and board. While in the program she wrote to the head of the Manila Jewish community (about which her friend Chana Chaya had told her.) She wrote, “I have embraced Judaism.” She wrote about her desire to become Jewish and to join the community. He agreed, and so she left the voice-training program.
Most of the members of the Jewish community were suspicious of a Filipino woman attending their synagogue and activities. It was only when a new rabbi came in 2004 that Aviyah was allowed to learn in the women’s class.
From May of 2002 until August of 2004 Aviyah was with the Jewish community in Manila. In August of 2002 an American Jewish chaplain met her in Manila and said that he would look for a shidduch for her. Rabbi Mitchell Schranz was true to his word. While in Japan he saw Ted at services. (He had met Ted in Manila in 1991.) The rabbi asked Ted if he was married. When Ted replied in the negative, the rav told him about Aviyah. For more than two years they corresponded by email. Even before they met, Aviyah felt that she had found her other half. They had made plans to meet but the Gulf War and restrictions on visitors to the Philippines due to a deadly flu interfered with those plans. They finally met for eighteen days in December of 2004. They met initially on Shabbat night.
The Jewish community in Manila eventually accepted Aviyah, and several members of the Jewish community sponsored her trip to Israel. Aviyah, an extremely intelligent, articulate and spiritual woman, plunged into her studies at Machon Ora. Due to her prior knowledge she was able to finish her studies for conversion in seven months.
Her experience at the Ministry of Religion was a trying one. When she was asked why she wanted to convert to Judaism, she told them her story, expecting a positive response. One of the rabbis told her that there was no reason for her to practice the 613 mitzvot, since she could just practice the seven Noahide laws. She repeatedly expressed to them her burning desire to be a Jew, but they tried to dissuade her. She finally started crying. She felt that the rabbis were closing the gates. She wondered, “How can I explain how I feel?”
Suddenly she remembered something she had once read. She spoke up and said, “Originally Hashem expected all people to observe the Torah. He offered it to other nations. Only Israel accepted it. Therefore, the Torah was closed to other nations, but it is still open to the individual. I can touch the branches of the tree that is Judaism and join.” Aviyah felt that this was the key that opened the gate that had been sealed. In retrospect, Aviyah felt that Hashem was sitting on the side and observing. “When I told the rabbis that all my life I wanted to be close to Hashem, I felt that Hashem moved to my side and it was then that I remembered what I had told the rabbis.”
The couple’s wedding in Manila was the first Jewish wedding there in fifteen years. They plan to be in Japan for one year until Ted retires from the U.S. Marines. Aviyah hopes to teach in a Jewish Sunday school.
We will have to wait one year for our Shabbat kallah to return home to Israel.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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