Beginning Anew

September 1, 2006
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Jocelyn Odenheimer

Last week, a few hours before Shabbat, I went cherry picking near our home in Efrat. As I balanced myself half-way up the tree, I thought about why I spent four years in the JTS rabbinical program and then left. How did my life evolve to become a mother of eight children and a dance instructor living in Gush Etzion?

I applied to the Seminary after years of working in the Jewish community and studying in Israel. I had served as Hillel Program Director for four years at my alma mater, Stanford University. Then I traveled to Jerusalem for two years to study at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. I was hooked on learning, and studying for the rabbinate seemed like a great opportunity.

Indeed, I learned a lot at JTS. I mostly learned how much I wanted to live a life completely immersed in the subjects I was studying. Questions kept surfacing. What if I had a better Jewish education from the very start? What if I spoke fluent Hebrew? How do I want to educate my children? How can my life be most fulfilled spiritually? What if I had grown up in Israel? When I returned to Jerusalem in 1995, for my fourth year of study, I expected to return to New York within the year.

That fall Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated. Then my classmate, Matt Eisenfeld and his fiancée, my friend, Sara Duker were murdered in a suicide bus bombing. Death and danger seemed to lurk everywhere, bringing back memories of my life in Israel during the Gulf War. In spite of my fears, I felt a surge of vitality. When I davened, my prayers were more sincere. My encounters with people were qualitatively more meaningful, more thought-provoking.

Unsure about returning to JTS, I applied for a grant to study at a women’s yeshiva, Matan. There I realized that this life of learning and religious practice spoke to my soul. I wanted to continue in a more observant direction, even if it meant I had to sit behind the mechitza in shul. The following year, as a manager of the Harrari Harps Shop in the heart of Jerusalem, my artistic self came alive. Along with playing and painting on the harps, I did a lot of lecturing, writing, and dancing. For the first time I performed with an all women’s dance company before an all-female audience.

The week after Rabin’s assassination I heard a tragic story of a family that had recently made aliyah. The mother of four children, all under 10 years old, died of cancer. I met the father at a Purim party and felt so sad watching him try to manage all of those children alone. “Who was going to care for them?” I wondered. That person turned out to be me. Of all the decisions I have made in my life, the decision to marry Dan was the most life-challenging. Becoming a wife and an instant mother is not a simple task! Now, thank God, we have four more children.

On many levels, life here is arduous. During the almost seven years we have been married, our small community mourned the murders of citizens and soldiers, including my gemara chevruta , Sara Blaustein. I had a personal relationship with a young Arab man who was working on our house. He ate in our kitchen and walked around our house with our baby in his arms. And he attempted a suicide bombing in our local grocery but was killed before the bomb was detonated. For a year I watched my husband, a surgeon on-call at the hospital, put on his bullet-proof vest and helmet before driving off in the middle of the night. I always said good-bye to him with prayers that these would not be our final moments.

Why then, with all of these difficulties, do I feel so fulfilled? When my children come home from gan excited and filled with questions about halakha, tefilla, and the Chumash, I am reminded of the quest I had while studying at JTS. For my children their Jewish identity is like the air they breath; it is simply everywhere, indistinguishable from any other part of their lives. Despite the dangers balancing myself in the cherry tree branches, I knew the fruits of the decision to climb this tree were well worth the risks. There are no cherries more delicious than ones you pick yourself in Eretz Yisrael.

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Jocelyn Reisman Odenheimer, a Stanford University alum, studied for the rabbinate at JTS as a Wexner Fellow. In 1998 she made aliya and now lives with her husband and 8 children, ages 1 month to 20 years old, in Efrat. Over 100 women and girls currently study dance under her direction.

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