Quaker Jewish Convert and WorldTC Designer Make Home In Israel

Nancy Brown goes from Christian Quaker to marrying a Jewish designer of the World Trade Center. Now in Israel, they build solar-powered homes.

Hillel Fendel ,

How's this for a combination? A Quaker Holocaust teacher who converted to Judaism and her husband, who designed parts of the World Trade Center, now live in Israel and build affordable solar-powered houses. IsraelNationalRadio's Eve Harow interviewes Nancy and Hy "Chaim" Brown.

Nancy's story (excerpted and paraphrased):
"...We're not afraid to try something different... My journey to Judaism and to Israel was an outgrowth of some of my own experiences and my own journey, though my husband, who was born Jewish and observant, supported me 100%.... We married in 1989 while I was still a Quaker... I had been raised in a very devout Christian Quaker home in Indiana; I had a tremendous love of G-d, a spiritual community, and a tremendous belief in prayer.  In my late teens or early 20s, I gradually found that I couldn't believe what I had been taught any longer.  It's not that I was searching; I just felt like I had a deep relationship with G-d, and I prayed, and I felt certain that He would take care of me and lead me in the right direction...  I felt I could no longer believe that Jesus was the Messiah - that part was not difficult for me to let go of - but I realized that I was searching not only for a spiritual home, but for a religious community.  Then we moved to Colorado, and I became involved in Holocaust studies, and I became more involved with the Jewish community...

"I began studying with rabbis, and after a while I decided that this was something I could simply not not do; I had to follow my heart, towards a life of Judaism.  There was a woman in my class who became gradually more observant, and she even began covering her hair, which very few Jews in Boulder did at that time.  I admired her so much - and she suggested I read The Sabbath, by Avraham [Joshua] Heschel.   This, in fact, probably made the biggest difference, and made me realize that this was something that I must be a part of... Later, [I underwent experiences] where on the one hand I realized intellectually I couldn't believe what I had been raised to believe, but on the other hand, my faith was deepened - because I saw that Judaism was a real religion, a real faith, with real people who struggle and make mistakes, and who can work through all of this with G-d at their side - and that's the Jewish people...

"At this time, I still was not thinking about converting.  I was asked to teach about the Holocaust  - something I had absolutely no prior knowledge of.  I had been learning church history, and about its principles of being our brother's keeper, but then I began seeing the role of the church in the Holocaust, and it embarrassed me, enraged me, and devastated me; everything seemed to fall apart.  And then - I just wanted to continue studying more and more - and this was followed by the last 10 days of this special program which we spent in Israel. When I landed in Ben Gurion Airport, at the airport, I just started crying hysterically; something came over me...  We spent 10 great and intensive days in Israel, traveling the whole country, and then when I got back I told my husband, "I don't know what this means for me, for you, for us - but 'all roads will lead to Jerusalem.' "  His initial reaction of course was 'Whoa, where did this come from?'   But he was with me... I taught the Holocaust to high school students for three years... I was reading about Judaism, and then I took part in the Melton Course in Hebrew University for Jewish educators in the Diaspora, and finally I decided that I really want to be a part of [Judaism] - the theology, the ethics, the study of the texts, everything - this was what I needed, spiritually, intellectually and being part of a community.

Can't see player above? Click here for Nancy Brown interview.

"I told my husband that I wanted to convert, but that I would not do it without his 100% backing.  We discussed the major changes that conversion would mean - keeping Kosher, keeping Shabbat, mitzvot, and a whole new lifestyle and worldview, a difference of how we shop and how we move, no more Friday nights with our friends, no more hockey games on Saturday afternoons, the whole rhythm of our life would change - but we felt that this would elevate our lives, making the mundane into the sacred, exactly as I had read in that book, which discussed the idea of taking time and making it sacred..."

The idea of moving to Israel was first raised by Hy, though Nancy said she didn't need any convincing because she loved Israel!  She said she had a very positive conversion experience in the Rabbinical Council of America court in Israel, and now works in helping other converts in Israel overcome difficulties.

IsraelNationalRadio's Eve Harow talked with Nancy's husband Chaim Brown, known in the U.S. as Hy Brown, who has made himself quite at home here in Israel, in more ways than one.  He is engaged in building and marketing solar-powered homes, with several goals in mind: Building the Negev, providing affordable homes and good jobs for Jews in Israel, and marketing the homes abroad.  He continues to teach at both Ariel College in Samaria and the University of Colorado.  His story:

"We - some of my students and I - decided to design a home that could be completely solar, environmentally sound, and affordable for the Negev - and we succeeded: A home of 140 square meters, costing only 425,000 shekels ($109,000), that includes energy-efficient appliances - a fridge, washer, dryer, air conditioning, stove, oven, and even a Sabbath hot plate - and even closets; I never understood why apartments in Israel are built without closets...

A solar-powered home by Real Housing

"The kitchen is the 'mechanical room' around which all the power is centered; it can be built in 2 weeks, and then everything is built around it.  These houses have three additional advantages: They are ready in 6-8 weeks, they are customizable and expandable as the family grows, and there is no need to hook up to the electric grid; four days of sunshine a month is sufficient.  The concept is that the roof itself is a solar panel, which of course you must clean every once in a while and keep the kids off of.  If you build a community of many homes, then we can put these solar panels at the end of every 10-15 houses, increasing electricity by 50%, to be used for what I call 'schools, shuls and  pools,' as well as street lighting, etc. 

"We're not trying to make a large profit on our homes in Israel, but rather profit by building homes here and shipping it abroad.  We have some rules, such as 10% of the profits go to the employees, and 10% to charity, and so on - and it's Israeli-based, and openly so; whoever doesn't want to buy blue-and-white [the colors of the Israeli flag] just won't get our houses. 

Can't see player above? Click here for Chaim Brown interview.

"I saw that builders of a comparative house of 70 meters bragging that it costs $285,000, while ours here in Israel goes for $55,000...  Ninety percent of the materials are made here in Israel; we have a factory in Kibbutz Merav, and we intend to open more, with the goal of producing 100% of the materials here in Israel within seven years."

Chaim says he has a meeting this week with representatives of 200 families who were expelled from Gush Katif and are now hoping to move into the Lachish region near Kiryat Gat.  Clearly, buying homes that can be ready in eight weeks and can power communal structures such as synagogues and schools would appear to be an attractive proposition for these families, who have lived in uncertainty and temporary conditions for two and a quarter years.

Before this, Chaim worked on designing or leading the design teams of Disneyworld in Florida, the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Tower - but he says the Israel solar houses project is his best one.  Asked if he finds that he is forced to take a political stance here in Israel, he said, "I'm not forced; I take it myself.  I make it very clear where I stand - just short of right of Attila the Hun - and whoever doesn't like it doesn't have to deal with my company.  But, of course, we would sell to Peace Now people if they want, because the Second Temple fell because we hated each other, so I won't go that far... Perhaps the Third Temple will be solar-powered; why not?"