May 22, 2007
By LISA SAMIN
It is miraculous how the biblical story of Ruth, read every year on Shavuot, resonates throughout every generation in Jewish history. Ruth, a convert to Judaism, was a beautiful young woman of exceptional moral character. Her moving proclamation of loyalty to her Jewish mother-in-law is one of the most well-known biblical verses: "…for wherever thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God…"
Lone soldiers (without family in the country) who are not halachically Jewish but are nevertheless passionately dedicated to Israel, are the modern-day Ruths. Boaz Shaul is one of them.
Shaul grew up in a small town in Holland. His Israeli father and Dutch mother fell in love when his mother came to volunteer on the small northern moshav where his father lived. Boaz was born on the moshav, but five years later, his parents moved to Holland with three children in tow. They were one of only two Jewish families in the entire town.
The Shauls came to Israel every summer to be with their family, and both Boaz and his brother felt a strong affinity for the country. "Although we spoke Dutch, and I went to a Dutch school, I always felt more Israeli," he says. "And despite my mother's blond hair and blue eyes, I got my Iraqi-born father's Middle Eastern looks, which made me stand out considerably."
Shaul was often the butt of anti-Semitic remarks, and as he grew up he felt anti-Semitism increasing in Holland. One incident stands out clearly in his mind. When he was in his teens, Shaul, his older brother and his cousin were hanging out on a bench in a local park. A young guy walked by and kept staring at them. A few minutes later he came back with 10 more people and a short while later there was a gang of over 20.
"We didn't want any trouble so we started walking away," he recalls. "But they followed us and started hitting us. We managed to get away, but it was like a wake-up call. The Dutch people do not like foreigners, and we felt really vulnerable."
By the time he was 16, Shaul knew that he wanted to return to Israel to serve in the army. However, his parents wanted him to graduate high school and continue his studies. Boaz stayed for one year after high school; he studied biology but decided it was not for him. In October 2003 he went to the Jewish Agency office in Holland and made aliya.
"I was so excited to become an Israeli citizen and to serve in the army," he says. "I wanted to enlist immediately, but they told me that I had to improve my Hebrew first. It was terrible."
Shaul lived with his grandmother on Moshav Hosen and took Hebrew classes at an ulpan in Nahariya. But he didn't take well to ulpan. He was the only European in a class of South Americans and Russians, and he felt out of place. In the end he learned Hebrew from the Israelis on the moshav.
In August 2004, Shaul fulfilled his dream of joining the army. His brother had made aliya earlier and served as a paratrooper. Shaul was accepted to an elite special forces combat unit, which brought him to the battlefields in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War last summer. He fought in Lebanon from the moment Israel's ground troops entered the country. The fierce battles did not scare him.
"This is why I came to Israel," he says. "I wanted to be a soldier, to protect my country. This feeling was so powerful within me that I didn't think about being afraid. When you're in a war you don't have time to be frightened."
However, Shaul's parents and extended family did have time to worry about him. He barely had time to speak with them, but periodically sent text messages to his aunt in Israel to relay to his parents. The message: "I'm still alive."
Following the war, Shaul started thinking about conversion. He knew that he wasn't halachically Jewish because his mother wasn't Jewish. And he wanted to be Jewish in all respects. His brother told him about the Nativ course.
Nativ, a Jewish Zionist identity program, was developed by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Defense Forces to ensure the full integration of new immigrants serving in the IDF into Israeli society. The program provides a path for conversion for soldiers who are interested in becoming Jewish according to Halacha.
The intensive, two-month education program teaches Bible, history of the Jewish people, Zionism and the State of Israel, and Jewish philosophy and practice. The program combines practical studies with experiential activities, weekly tours, a week-long study trip in Jerusalem, Shabbat seminars and individual studies. Courses are given within the participants' active service and staff includes commanders from the IDF Education Corps and teachers from the Institute for Jewish Studies.
"I learned so much in this course, from holiday celebrations to the meaning of so many of Judaism's rituals to a deep awareness about the history of my people," says Shaul.
He went on to take two additional conversion seminars and three weeks ago he officially converted. "The seminars were so intense and the days were really long," he recalls. "But I knew that at the end of it all I would be Jewish and this was the driving force for me. After the conversion ceremony I felt such a deep sense of fulfillment."
Close to 6,000 soldiers have participated in Nativ and some 2,000 soldiers have already converted since the program's inception in September 2001.
In recent weeks, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski and former finance minister Yaakov Neeman spearheaded a campaign to replace some of the strict conversion judges who the two believe are deterring potential converts. Previously, Neeman headed a commission that that made recommendations for the establishment of a new conversion authority.
As Bielski recently told The Jerusalem Post, "We cannot tolerate a situation in which there are so many immigrants who want to convert, who want to become a part of the Jewish people and don't, because rabbis reject them. And this rejection creates a snowball effect in which thousands more don't even bother trying to convert after hearing the horror stories."
As for Shaul, whose army service finishes in another six weeks, he has realized his dream - both of coming to Israel and becoming a part of the Jewish people.