Photo Credit: Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson
Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson

“The moment I got off the plane, I felt I was home,” Ariella Barker declared with joy. “I loved being in Israel and feeling a part of my people and my nation.”

Ariella’s soul had searched long and hard, but finally found its home. She was not born within the Jewish nation, nor did she grow up knowing anything about Judaism; she grew up in South Carolina.

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It was her severe affliction that paved her way towards Judaism.

At the age of three, she was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic disorder marked by advanced muscle weakening. Despite predictions she wouldn’t be able to walk, the disease was no match for Ariella. She was determined to walk, and managed to do so up until the age of eleven. From age eleven she was wheelchair-bound, but not disabled. In her wheelchair she moved towards her future career.

As a young child, Ariella knew she wanted to pursue a career in law. As she matured, and had to fight for her own rights as someone with a disability, she became keenly aware of injustice and focused on fighting it via the legal system. She earned her law degree at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and set out for New York City to look for work. She landed a position as an attorney for the City of New York in employment discrimination and labor law claims in former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

All along, Ariella Barker dreamed of a legal system where justice was tempered with compassion. She practiced the kind of law she believed in. “She’s a tenacious attorney,” says William Fraenkel, a litigating senior counsel with the New York City law department and a former colleague. “She’s a clear thinker and advocated for her clients remarkably well.”

In the midst of her college studies, Ariella experienced impaired kidney function that required major surgery. She requested that her professors not mark her “absent” during her recovery. They refused – except for one. “This professor, who was also a rabbi, stopped me in the middle of my plea and asked if there was anything he could do to help me,” Ariella recalled. For her the gate to the world of justice with compassion had opened. She enrolled in the rabbi-professor’s Jewish law class, and realized that everything the Torah stood for was what she has dreamed of. She decided to follow Judaism.

In 2007, Ariella took part in “Routes to Gerut (Conversion),” a program designed to educate those converting to Judaism and assist them on their journeys. “I don’t recall her ever missing a class,” says Rabbi Maury Kelman, the program’s director. “She had such a love and determination to learn Torah. She also followed up with me in between classes, asking questions, showing tremendous interest in learning and being the best Jew she could be.”

She herself chose the name Ariella. “It means lioness of God,” she explained with excitement. “I looked it up!”

When Rabbi Kelman taught his students about the mitzvah of living in the land of Israel, Ariella took his words very seriously. “In a wheelchair, all alone, she picked up and left everything she knew here,” says Rabbi Kelman. “She had a job, she knew how to navigate the city. To pick up and move to another country is awesome – unbelievable.”

The moment Ariella landed in Israel, she knew that her soaring, searching Jewish soul found its true home.

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