Anyone passing by the Neveh Channah Girls High School in Gush Etzion last Tuesday might have wondered if they were lost and had mistakenly arrived at an event hall. For right then and there, the ulpana's (religious girls high school) front yard boasted a beautiful wedding canopy, surrounded by a myriad of young girls and wedding guests who were dancing around the bride and groom.
The story actually began three weeks earlier, when the school's 10th grade students decided to take on a rather ambitious project: organizing a full-fledged wedding for two Jewish converts who had decided to get married.
"Every year the ulpana's tenth-grade students organize a Purim Fair with the aim of raising funds for a social cause of their choice," explains Rivki Yisraeli, Neveh Channah's educational director. "This year, the girls approached me with a unique 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 do with some assistance. She introduced us to two lovely Jewish converts from South America: Haya, who had made aliya (immigrated to Israel) 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 for them and be there for them throughout."
From that moment on, the 10th graders set out on the mission with great zest, with the aim of having the wedding before Pesach (Passover) so that Haya and Eliav could celebrate the Festival of Freedom as a married couple. The girls raised more than 20,000 NIS and took it upon themselves to organize the wedding in its entirety, from the tiniest detail all the way to the heavy-duty items: finding a photographer and make-up artist; booking a band; decorating the ulpana's cafeteria and front yard; finding a bride's gown and a suit for the groom; ordering catered food; preparing a special bride's chair; buying a tallit (prayer shawl) for the groom and even booking a special guest suite for the newlywed couple for after the wedding. All of these things were done on a voluntary basis, but were taken care of with the utmost care.
"It was fascinating to see the extent to which people opened their hearts and contributed of their time and money," Rivki relates excitedly. "The professionals who had been approached by the girls volunteered without a minute's hesitation. The same goes for the parents and teaching staff, who devoted themselves, completely and utterly, 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 Eden Vanon, one of the students. "We started raising money, but it still didn't feel real. But the minute we met Haya and Eliav, we realized it was actually happening."
Eliav, whose was once called Marco, arrived in Israel from Cuba just nine months ago after a nine-year journey in in his quest for Judaism and the Land of Israel. On his father's side of the family there are Jewish roots, as it is believed his father is a descendant of anusim (Jews who were coerced to convert to Christianity) who fled Spain and landed up 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 to say the least, and didn't afford him books and 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. This is also when I started dreaming about living in the Land of Israel," relates Eliav.
He started working as a tour guide to save money so he could make his dream come true, and made friends in the USA who then sent him a Bible, a menorah, and a siddur (prayer book). At the same time, rabbinical emissaries from Ohr Torah Stone's Straus-Amiel program, located all over the world including South America, provided him with Torah lessons via Skype and on WhatsApp. Ultimately, Rabbi Michael Freund, the Chairman of the Shavei Israel organization who had met Eliav in Havana a few years earlier, initiated the first steps in bringing Eliav to Israel.
However, this was almost "mission impossible" due to the fact that Cuba had no diplomatic ties with Israel. To help put things into motion, Haya was brought on board to join the effort. Little did she know back then that she would eventually become Eliav's wife.
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 providing guidance to converts.
"As part of my job, I helped Marco translate the necessary documents and put all his papers in order, constantly offering guidance. We became really close," Haya relates with emotion. "Although we had never actually met, he shared with me all he was going through and we would talk at great length. There was wonderful chemistry. From the minute I saw him, I knew he was a man of pure heart and profound faith, and he really made an impression on me."
Over the next three years, numerous attempts were made to get Marco a visa, but to no avail. He was on the verge of despair, but Haya continued to encourage him. When all hope seemed lost, Rabbanit Birnbaum of Ohr Torah Stone's conversion ulpan managed to get Marco an interview with the Israeli Rabbinate for the purpose of starting 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 just 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. These things are priceless. 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 the student, Eden. "We are currently at that stage when we are constantly trying to shape our personality and character, so 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," she adds.
"We are talking about very special and admirable people, who have chosen to turn their lives around completely because they found something they believe in; something they hold on to so tightly, because they never want to lose it."