Benjamin & Leah on their wedding day
Benjamin & Leah on their wedding day No credit

Sitting in front of me are what appear to be a regular man and wife. The husband has long peyot, the wife's hair is covered. Then he drops the bombshell.

"It never occurred to me that the stories of the Bible were true," he says. "I thought they were just parables."

I was meeting with Benjamin and Leah Laustein, a couple in their mid-thirties, and listening to the incredibly tale of how they grew up in Communist, atheist Latvia and became orthodox Jews.

When talking about Latvia, the first memories that come to mind are of the grinding poverty. "Not poverty like what you see in Africa," they explain, "but poverty nonetheless, of the kind that you probably can't even imagine - what it's like not to having running water, or to live in a ten-story apartment block where there are only public toilets and no showers."

And this wasn't in a rural village, but in the capital city itself, Riga. "I have four siblings," relates Benjamin. "There was never enough food to go around."

"And it was always potatoes," Leah adds. "That was all there was."

At the beginning of the conversion processPhoto: Without credit

The road to spirituality

"In the period after the breakup of the Soviet Union, people were very thirsty for spirituality," Leah says. "My parents had just divorced, and my mother was looking for direction, and that's how we got involved in the church."

Leah was then six years old, and there, in church, she began to find out about religious belief. "I would pray from a young age - for instance, I remember praying to God when I was in first or second grade that I should find money to buy my mother a gift, and I did! When I got older, I felt like I wanted to get a little stronger so I went to church and started reading the Bible and it was then that I first heard the word 'Jew.' It was around the same time that we were learning about the Holocaust in school, but until then I really had no idea about what it all meant. One day, the pastor quoted a verse from the New Testament that said we, the Christians, we are the branches, and the Jews are the roots. From that point on, I started looking for those roots."

When Leah was 16, she found her way to the local synagogue where she began learning Hebrew. About a year later, she met Benjamin, who would later become her husband. "I was desperate to feel close to G-d," she relates, "and suddenly I saw a sukkah for the first time. I found a Chabad booklet and read it, and I felt that here, this is what God wants."

Benjamin's route to Judaism also passed through the church. "My father was an atheist. You have to understand that in Latvia, people think that religion is for weak people who are unable to cope with life and therefore they seek spiritual help. On the other hand my mother was Catholic and so from a young age we went to church once a week. When my parents had two daughters with disabilities they were completely broken from and tried to turn to Gd, but it never felt right to them. We went through a family process that eventually led us to a slightly different kind of Christianity, and the community we were in really confused Judaism with Christianity. They would open the Bible and interpret it however they wanted.

“During that time of confusion I found a Bible translated into Latvian, and I discovered that things get lost or mangled in translation. I researched a bit and realized that the source was in Hebrew, and just then, the Jewish Agency started Hebrew classes and I decided to go for it. They were offering to teach non-Jews as well because there weren't enough Jewish people registering to get a budget. I remember how shocked I was that the teacher in the history class opened the Bible as a textbook. Until then I was sure it was just a book of parables. It never occurred to me that what was written there actually happened."

Eventually, Benjamin and Leah decided to convert and immigrate to Israel together. Leah was still a high school student but was about to graduate. They started the process.

Obstacles along the way

Immigrating to Israel was not easy for the Lausteins. They arrived in Israel with just 700 NIS - an amount that in Latvia would have kept them going for a long time but in Israel turned out to be totally inadequate. "And we weren't dressed for the climate," they recall, Shortly after making aliyah, they volunteered at a boarding school near Hadera, but when they discovered that it was a secular institution, they decided to leave.

"My conversion did not go smoothly," relates Benjamin. "The process lasted over three years, and in the middle of my studies, I was deported from Israel, so I had to leave the country. The rabbi in Latvia did not accept converts, so I found myself in Ukraine for four months. However, Leah was already Jewish. We knew that after I returned, it would take me at least another six months to convert, and we planned to get married right after I finished the process. The feeling in the conversion process was that it's endless," he adds. "But it did end, finally!"

Before concluding our conversation, I ask Benjamin to tell me a little about the period during which he studied at Machon Meir. "I was there for two years with peyot everything" he recalled with a smile, "and they assumed I was Jewish and counted me in a minyan and so one of my friends had to tell people that I wasn't Jewish yet. And then there was the reverse situation when it was useful to have a non-Jew around. But most important of all was the fact that with all the refusals and rejections we experienced, we found rabbis and friends to learn from, and we are full of gratitude and love for everyone."