Anyone passing by the Neveh Chana Girls High School in Gush Etzion last week might have wondered if they were lost and had mistakenly arrived at an event hall. The ulpana’s front yard boasted a beautiful wedding canopy, surrounded by myriad young girls and wedding guests who were dancing around the bride and groom.
The story began three weeks earlier when the school’s 10th-grade students decided to take on an ambitious project: organizing a full-fledged wedding for two Jewish converts.
“Every year, the ulpana’s tenth-grade students organize a Purim Fair to raise funds for a social cause of their choice,” explains Rivki Yisraeli, Neveh Channah’s educational director. “This year, the girls approached me with a different idea – they wanted to arrange a wedding for a couple who needed assistance. Since our high school belongs to the Ohr Torah Stone educational network which also runs a Conversion Ulpan, I turned to its director, Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum, to see if there was a couple who could use some assistance. She introduced us to two lovely Jewish converts from South America: Haya, who had made aliya from Mexico 14 years ago, and Eliav, who had made aliya from Cuba just nine months ago. Both were thrilled to have our students organize their wedding.”
The 10th graders set out on the mission to arrange the wedding before Pesach so that Haya and Eliav could celebrate the Festival of Freedom as a married couple. The girls raised more than NIS 20,000 ($6,200) and took it upon themselves to organize the wedding in its entirety, including a photographer, makeup, catering, music, decorations, and clothes for the bride and groom. They also sprang for a special guest suite for the newlywed couple. All of these things were done voluntarily but were taken care of with the utmost care.
“It was fascinating to see the extent to which people opened their hearts and contributed their time and money,” Rivki relates excitedly. “The professionals approached by the girls volunteered without hesitation. The same went for the parents and teaching staff, who devoted themselves completely to the task at hand.”
“When the idea of organizing a wedding came up, it was a sort of a fantasy, and we didn’t really think we could pull it off,” says tenth-grader Eden Vanon. “We started raising money, but it still didn’t feel real. But the minute we met Haya and Eliav, we realized it was happening.”
Eliav, who used to be called Marco, arrived in Israel from Cuba nine months ago after a nine-year quest for Judaism and the Land of Israel. His father believes he has Jewish roots, the Anusim (Jews who were coerced to convert to Christianity) who fled Spain and landed in Cuba.
After Marco discovered his Jewish ancestry, he had an urge to explore his roots further but had no Jewish community to turn to. Life in communist Cuba was difficult and didn’t afford him information about his Judaism.
“When smartphones were first introduced in 2016, making the internet so much more accessible, I grabbed the opportunity and started learning about Judaism on my own,” Eliav relates. “This is also when I started dreaming about living in the Land of Israel.”
He started working as a tour guide to save money for the move and made friends in the US who then sent him a Jewish Bible, a menorah, and a siddur. At the same time, rabbinical emissaries from Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel program, which is located all over the world including South America, provided him with Torah lessons via Skype and WhatsApp. Rabbi Michael Freund, founder and chairman of the Shavei Israel organization who had met Eliav in Havana a few years earlier, initiated the first steps in bringing Eliav to his new home. But Cuba had no diplomatic ties with Israel, so Haya was brought on board to help.
Haya, who had made aliya 14 years earlier, had undergone a full conversion process along with her family, after which she started working in Shavei Israel, guiding converts. “As part of my job, I helped Marco translate the necessary documents and put all his papers in order. We became really close,” Haya relates. “Although we had never actually met, he shared with me everything he was going through and we would talk for hours. There was wonderful chemistry between us. From the minute I saw him, I knew he was a man of pure heart and profound faith. He made an impression on me.”
Over the next three years, numerous attempts were made to get Marco a visa, but to no avail. When all hope seemed lost, Rabbanit Birnbaum of Ohr Torah Stone’s conversion ulpan managed to get Marco an interview with the Israeli Rabbinate to start the conversion process. And last July, following some complicated logistics and thanks to the assistance of the Israeli embassy in Canada, Marco was finally able to set foot in Israel and meet Haya face-to-face.
A month and a half ago, Marco completed the conversion process and chose his new Hebrew name: Eliav. He and Haya decided to get married around the time the girls from Neveh Channah made contact.
“The wedding was simply wonderful,” Haya relates. “The students from Neveh Channah made me feel loved and enveloped me with good energy and sanctity. They have pure hearts, a real and profound desire to make others happy, and a special light that radiates from their faces. The Ulpana took care of the smallest details, and along with the various professionals they recruited for the event, I was treated like a real queen by all. I have no words to thank Rivky, the students, the Ohr Torah Stone network, and all those who chipped in and helped. Our extended family, the Shavei Israel family, also took part in the wedding and helped with funding. We were also very moved by the fact some rabbis from the Chief Rabbinate and the Conversion Authority came to celebrate with us. Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, director of the Straus-Amiel Institute, performed the marriage ceremony.”
“The minute we met Haya and Eliav we saw people with a special positivity, who view the world through kind and happy eyes. They immediately struck a chord with us,” says Eden. “It was truly inspiring to meet two people who had changed their entire way of life because of their faith in God. We learned many things about Jewish converts and the conversion process, things we had not known before, and it empowered us and brought to light new perspectives.”