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An Israel Encounter: One Couple's Story

October 5, 2009

A trip to Israel with a group of other interfaith couples from Atlanta on The Israel Encounter changed Thomas and Shira Johnson's lives as individuals, as a couple and as a family.

Thomas Johnson's Story

As a child growing up, my family only sometimes attended church, but was never very religious. Toward the end of my childhood my father became a more observant Christian, but I never felt a call or connection to religion myself.

the Johnsons in Tzfat
Shira and Thomas Johnson posing in Tzfat.

As a young adult I felt separated from what I knew of organized religion since most of what I knew came from the Christian faith. I rejected a religion that said that if you weren't a believer in Jesus you were going to hell. I always wondered how G-d could place a child's soul in a body of a non-Christian family, knowing that it would condemn that child to hell as a result of the child simply following the teachings of his or her parents.

Since I felt a disconnection with the religion of my parents, I didn't really delve much into the teachings of any religion. My wife had spoken about wanting to go to Israel and wanting to learn more about Judaism both for herself and to be able to raise our son as a Jew. I couldn't understand or relate to her connection to Israel or to her desire to attend services on Shabbat.

After the Israel Encounter trip, my understanding completely changed. I saw the places of the bible, putting a face to thousands of years of history.

Before touchdown in Israel I truly didn't understand what the big deal was, why my wife felt connected with Israel. Yes, it's your people's homeland, but not yours directly. My people were taken from Africa only hundreds of years ago, not thousands, yet I have no calling to return. Why do Jews feel this need?

By the time we took off in the plane to return to Atlanta I had some understanding of what the fight was for. I had a friend in high school that went to Israel and never came back. I didn't have precisely the same reaction, but I can say that if I could get into the Air Force flying the F16's? Shira, Ty and I would be there in a heartbeat!

I have learned more about religion and Jewish history both during out trip and since our return than in the last 35 years. It's strange, the more I read and listen to the more it all seems to make sense. Jewish ideas about the past, present and future seem to jive with what I feel and what I read in history even what science has taught. I can say that without a doubt this trip had changed our lives forever and our son's in a somewhat more indirect way.

I have read of a Jewish idea of free will divine guidance to a planned destination, of converts being Jewish souls separated and being brought back somehow. At this point I don't know if I am ready to take that step but I'm thinking about what led me here.

Shabbat on the beach in Tel Aviv
The Israel Encounter group had a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service on the beach in Tel Aviv.

I've grown up with Jewish friends, gone to many a bar and bat mitzvah. I have known the Hebrew for "blessed are you oh Lord our G-d ruler of the universe," since I can remember. Most, if not all of my best friends and most of my girlfriends have been Jewish. My parents went to great lengths to send me to private school, a school founded by a Jew, which was definitely not the norm for a black kid growing up in the Bronx. And in college I fell in love with a nice Jewish girl with a Hebrew name who 15 years later led me to Israel. Some things, in the words of Arsenio Hall, "make you say hmm."

Shira Johnson's Story

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community outside Boston, Mass., where we had all the High Holy Days off school and we could have planned out the entire bar and bat mitzvah year's social calendar by the time I was 6! What I didn't have is a religiously observant family.

Coming from a divorced family and going between homes I was unable to attend Hebrew school and had no temple membership to attend High Holy Day services unless I went with my godparents, which I did. I got involved in B'nai Brith, but felt like I was missing ALL the history and reasons we think and believe the things we do. Why are holidays celebrated this way? What is the proper way to celebrate/observe the holiday? I had no clue.

The college I attended also had a significant Jewish population. It was there that I met and fell in love with my husband. He knew many Jews growing up and had attended more than his fair share of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, but just had surface knowledge of Judaism as a whole and did not celebrate any holidays or have traditions within his religion of birth except Christmas.

Shira Johnson at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
Shira Johnson praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

As our relationship grew the inevitable questions about marriage and children popped up. I didn't have any real problem marrying outside of my religion, but I was 100% sure I wanted a Jewish home and any children we had to be raised as Jews. Luckily, Thomas had no hesitation and agreed since he didn't have a connection to Christianity and Judaism was the religion that was celebrated the most during our relationship.

When our son was born we had a brit milah and baby naming ceremony at our home and, when it was time, joined a temple and enrolled him in religious school. We have always tried to make a nice Friday night dinner and family time, but I would not say it was a true Shabbat observance. We attended Friday evening services three or four times a year on average, and we went on the High Holy days. We also tried to get together with family for the holidays whenever possible. That and a big Chanukah party was the extent of our observance.

Last year I was able to join Pathways and found another class I took to start learning more about how to observe the holidays and traditions, raise a child as a Jew and to learn the history I was lacking. That led us to Israel Encounter.

Our trip to Israel has forever changed my life, my husband's life, our son's life and our family's life! I was told it would, but who knew. My thoughts about my religion and my views on other religions have changed, enhancing my respect for my husband's thoughts and feelings and those of his parents. We were deeply affected by the sights we saw, the people we observed and met, the history we learned and the current events we discussed. It was also important who went with us: the leaders who introduced us to our homeland and the other interfaith families on the trip who generously explored and shared past experiences and preconceptions. I feel a renewed commitment to raising our son in a Jewish home and to try to instill pride in him as a Jew.

Johnsons at the Kotel
In the Western Wall tunnel, the Johnsons had a chance to place a prayer in the wall together.

Since returning from Israel we have already attended temple more than in the five years prior to the trip, several times at my husband's request. We have found a new community through the trip. Several Israel Encounter families have invited us to celebrate life cycle occasions, including a bar mitzvah, a double baby shower and a brit milah and baby naming ceremony. We have made plans to celebrate the Jewish holidays, some with our new IE family. Returning from the trip found us freer to consider solutions to our son's disdain for the Hebrew school he has attended for the past five years. We found a new temple we really enjoy attending, enrolled Ty in Jewish overnight camp and enrolled ourselves in additional Jewish adult education. We want to learn more, both for ourselves and to be able to pass on to our son.

Returning from the trip, I feel more complete. I have a sense of contentment as well as a yearning to learn and understand more. I feel like this trip and all it encompassed made me a better me! When people ask me about the trip I stumble over what to say, still filled with the emotion and the sense of a spiritual experience that changed me beyond words. I look forward to planning a return trip to Israel.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. God. In traditional Jewish circles, it is forbidden to write or say God's full Hebrew name. This custom has carried over into English by some, who write "God" without the vowel (o) and replace it with a hyphen. Some use variations of this, such as G!d or G@d.

Shira and Thomas Johnson live in Acworth, Ga. Thomas is a pilot for Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Shira is a stay at home mom of a 9-year-old. She is active in the PTA and volunteers, and is currently taking Hebrew classes to learn more for their next trip back "home."

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