Yoel and Adel Ben David live in San Francisco. Now both aged 30, they married when they were 20 and were involved in the Hassidic Breslov movement. Here is their story.
I was born in Israel and lived there for the first three years of my life,” Yoel begins. “My father worked for a hotel chain, so we lived in the Caribbean, England and Paris over the next sixteen years, and then came back to Israel.
“My mother is a proud Moroccan Jew; my father is Scottish. My Mum was very forceful with our Jewishness. She had served with the Israeli Defense Force during the Yom Kippur War. Every time there was anything about Israel on the television, or anything about anyone Jewish, she made us aware of it!
“We were a traditional Jewish family rather than religious. We sat down every Friday night, and because my dad was not Jewish and I was the eldest son, I said the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. We ate our meal and then, like any other family, we went into the living room and watched television. An Orthodox Jew, of course, would not use any electricity and certainly would not watch TV on Shabbat!”
Adel’s background is quite different. Her parents were from Latvia and in 1978 moved to Berlin, where Adel was born.
“Was brought up in a Russian culture while living in Berlin. My mother died when I was very young, so my grandmother brought me up, and I can remember asking her, ‘Am I German or am I Russian?’ And she would answer me, ‘You’re Jewish!’ As a child I couldn’t understand that. On holy days we would go to the synagogue, but it was more of a social event than religious observance for us.
“I lived in Berlin until I was nineteen. Then I came to Israel and met Yoel at the ulpan [language school], and a year later we were married! I was involved in New Age philosophy, and Yoel wasn’t a practicing Jew. What connected us in those early days was philosophizing about God.”
Yoel continues: “In my teenage years I went to the vicar at the school in England and asked him to give me some books about God, including the Koran and some Hindu writings. The real shock for me was that he didn’t try to dissuade me. As I was reading the Koran on my bed, the thought came to me that if God exists, I shouldn’t really need to read these books. Rather, he should just show up.
“So I said, ‘God, if you’re real, show up.’ And before me I saw the face of Jesus! I looked at him and I felt a presence in my room, and I felt afraid. I saw a clear vision of God—and ignored it. I decided it was a figment of my imagination.
“When I came to Israel and met Adel, we were really searching to find the truth. We decided that if we believed in God, we were being hypocritical if we didn’t do something about our Judaism. We went through different stages. At first it was observing Shabbat. Then I began to study the Torah and other writings. Next it was practicing the holidays.
“We became more Haredi (Orthodox). We left the language school. We were living together, so gradually the idea of doing that and not being married seemed wrong. We were faced with a choice: separate or get married. We knew we were right for each other, so why wait?
“We approached the Breslov movement, but I still prayed in a Chabad (Lubavitch) synagogue, where I began studying Talmud with the local rabbi. I wore a big kippah (skull cap) and tsitsit (prayer tassels) and grew the peot (earlocks). I learned more about the difference between laws from the Torah and those added by the rabbis.
“As my enrollment into the army was coming up, we decided to move to Jerusalem. The atmosphere was more religious there than in Tel Aviv, so we thought we would feel more at home.
“We picked up the basics of Jewish mysticism. There are ten Sephirot or vessels in what is called the tree of life. Each time we say the name of God in the Siddur, rabbinic authorities have the name for a different vessel to meditate upon, to focus on the mystical method through which God has created the world.
“We also engaged in the mystical side of Hassidic Judaism through the writings of the founder of the Breslov movement, Rabbi Nachman. He was famous for many different sayings, among them (I paraphrase) ‘all the commandments mean nothing without love.’ Non-Hassids focus on the laws rather than the experiential.”
For one and a half years, Yoel and Adel attempted to live a “religious” life. Despite their best efforts, they were disappointed. “I felt I hadn’t found what I was looking for,” says Adel. “Something was wrong. I thought that if I could find a combination of New Age and Judaism, my search would be over.
“However, everything changed when we met Judy. An elderly lady from Richmond, Virginia, she was the aunt of a friend. We invited her over and she started talking about God as though she knew him! She challenged us to read the Bible for ourselves. This was something we weren’t used to. Her parting words that first night were, ‘If you want to know God, just read the Torah.’ Up until that time I had struggled to read it. I decided to read the Torah. In fact we raced each other to read it!”
For Adel, to distance herself from the Orthodox community was easy. But for Yoel, then serving in the Rabbinical Corps in the army, it was more difficult. He says: “When I’d finished reading the five books of Moses, I began to realize I had a problem with the daily service I had to attend in the synagogue with all the other soldiers. They were just going through the motions, saying the prayers as fast as they could. I couldn’t say them that fast and mean it. So I told my fellow soldiers I would wait until they’d finished praying, then I would go into the synagogue and pray by myself.”
“Meanwhile,” Adel continues, “Judy became like family to us. But I worked most evenings, whereas Yoel worked during the day and had evenings free. So he would spend many hours discussing the Bible with Judy, which meant I was missing out!”
“I started reading Isaiah,” Yoel recalls, “and when I got to chapter 53 I didn’t understand it, so I went to see Judy. We didn’t know it then, but she’d been praying for nine months for an opportunity to speak with us about Jesus. So when I knocked on her door and asked her to explain Isaiah 53, she sat me down with a cup of tea and started telling me about Jesus.
“My initial reaction was to think I’d been deceived. Why hadn’t she told me about Jesus before? But as she continued talking, I started to sense what I now know to be the presence of God. I had begun to notice it when I was praying in the synagogue on my own. As Judy kept speaking, gradually the presence of God increased.
“Then I said in my mind, You know what, God? If this is true, then I’m going to go with my heart—I will believe. And at that moment, I saw the same vision that I had seen three years before, sitting on my bed in England with the Koran next to me. I saw the face of Jesus. And then I knew, and I told Judy I was ready to believe. She gave me a tiny copy of the New Testament and I took it home, where I found Adel sitting on our bed, still reading the five books of Moses!
“‘Something terrible has happened!’ I announced. ‘Jesus is the Messiah!'”
“I thought that couldn’t be true,” Adel admits. “A guy came along and people followed him and that became a new religion. Was that supposed to be the truth? Call it pride, but I’d been searching so high and so deep, it couldn’t possibly be that! I didn’t want it to be. At the same time, I knew that nothing would make Yoel change his mind unless he really believed it.
“So I decided to read the New Testament that Judy had given Yoel, and was very surprised. I read through Matthew’s Gospel and by the end I had tears in my eyes. It was not what I had expected. I couldn’t find anything I disagreed with. I became upset and asked myself, How come I’ve not read this before? After all, I’d grown up in Germany where I could easily have read the New Testament, unlike in Israel, where religious Jews are forbidden to read it. I hadn’t understood that I was a sinner and needed forgiveness. And so I too came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”
Yoel and Adel’s story reveals a deep search for God; a search that brought them together in the first place and didn’t abate until they found what they were looking for.