Alana’s Story: Seeking Spirituality
“When I was a child, I remember having romantic and beautiful feelings about Israel. I was deeply in love with and yearned for Israel. Anytime a family member or friend went on a trip to Israel it felt like a really big deal. Why? I don’t know for sure – but I do know that it came from my family. Pure Zionism.
My first trip to Israel was a divine experience. I exercised free will to go, but I also know that my going was divine providence. Over and over I’ve seen that everything in my life is meant to happen in a certain way. Hashem willed me to go in a specific direction and provided the settings to enable me to go in that direction, and I freely chose to follow that path. No fiat, no instruction, no directive, but a direction, for sure.
At the end of my junior year of college, I wanted to go to South Africa to attend a highly competitive study abroad program. I wasn’t accepted, and I was heartbroken. I went to speak with a woman who worked in the International Affairs office at my school and she suggested I go on a trip that was being arranged to Israel. It was very late in the process of being placed in an international trip or program, and I impulsively said ‘Sure!’ It was 2007, less than a year after the Second Lebanon War. Israeli tourism was not very attractive to many students at my school, but I decided I was going. I had no background in Hebrew and had no inkling to visit Israel, but the suggestion felt like an opportunity. The program took place at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. We lived on campus and I was totally secular at that point in my life. I found it very difficult. The technical and cultural differences were vast. Everything was nuanced and variable; nothing was simple. My roommates were Arab-Israeli and their spoken language was Arabic, while obviously throughout Israel I mostly heard Hebrew other than my classes, which were in English. Days in the Negev burned hotter than a furnace and I was always depleted.
My volunteer project was teaching English to Ethiopian children at an absorption center in the south. They were all new immigrants. Some of them had been in Israel for two weeks and others had been there just under a year. English at a minimum was to be their third language. Many of the children were orphaned. All of them had a story; sad stories, sorrowful stories, spiritual stories. I wanted to adopt them all.
I enjoyed teaching the children, but I mostly cherished the gift of connecting with warrior souls that had escaped but barely with their lives to be in the same country that I had arrived to, in a comparative calm. I cried every day, but one day my tears would not stop. We received a call that still rocks me to my core. We were told not to come in because one of the men had mortally stabbed his wife. This meant that one of my students had lost his mother. Most of my friends on campus were disinterested. It also barely made the news. I struggled to cope.
I was naive and unable to process what had happened. During this period I internalized pain and struggles. There was beauty in my pain. No crisis counseling and support, no community coping and gatherings. It was a rocky experience.
Overall, my time in Israel was a like a literary European love story. It was very long and dramatic. Just when I thought it was almost over another plot twist would be revealed. I had the privilege to see a lot of the country and had many lovely moments.
But there was something missing.
When I left Israel and came back to the States it felt like I was in mourning. I was in bed for nearly two days. Eventually, I went on with life. I put that semester in a lock box knowing I’d come back to it but still unaware of the imprint that my time in Israel had etched within me.”
(2/6) “A New Journey”
“Time passed. I changed. My personal journey continued and things really shifted for me. I matured, grew up, became religious and I went to graduate school. The cycle of life continued.
At some point, over the last year and a half, I started feeling this pull to return back to Israel. It was a really foreign feeling, I had never felt it before. I had friends constantly going back and forth to Israel, and I had done lots of traveling, but it never crossed my mind to go back to Israel. When it hit me it was slow at first, but then over time, I knew it was something I had to do.
I had no idea how it was going to happen. At the time I was working at a law firm during the day and I had just started filming a documentary that I was co-producing and directing. I was in New York, I was dating, I had a social life – there was no reason to leave. I was in the middle of this chapter of my life.
But the feeling was strong, in a deep inside way- it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t painful or loud; however, it was steady and true.
I started telling people very close to me that I was going to Israel. I had no idea how it was going to happen. I wanted to go for a year and I started doing research about seminaries because it was clear to me that it was going to be a spiritual journey. I needed to strengthen my religious foundation, and I was looking for spiritual growth. Seminary seemed like a good place to do that. I was in my early thirties, not the typical age for someone going to seminary, and I didn’t know if I would be the oldest person there by a decade. Honestly, it didn’t matter because I didn’t care.
I had a long list of schools that I was choosing from and I received guidance from many people to help me narrow down my choice. It seemed as though it was becoming increasingly more common for baalei teshuva of all ages to make their way to Israel and study full-time. Around November of last year, a kiruv Rabbi connected me with a baalas teshuva woman who works in kiruv, and guides (and eventually sends) many women to seminaries. We spoke – she asked me many questions.
Over the course of several hours of conversation, my list went from ten schools to one school.
It was very clear to me that I had found where I needed to be.”
“I immediately began researching funding options to finance my trip to Israel and a year in seminary. I realized later on in the process that the funding options initially presented to me were not going to work. So I went from thinking I had funding fully secured, to no funding at all, overnight. At that point, it was this summer, and I was planning on coming for the Elul semester.
I didn’t tell anyone that I didn’t have the funding. I was still planning on going. But I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. It was beyond anything logical. It really seemed like everything was falling apart.
But I knew I had to be in Israel, and I knew that somehow Hashem would put the pieces together for me.
Many organizations that offer scholarships had said no to me. Because, because, because. Because, I wasn’t learning with their rabbis. Because, they were a kiruv organization and I was already religious. Because I was too old. They were looking for specific types of people. Women who were in their twenties. Women who grew up with no Jewish background, and/or had background but had left it behind. In any event, I didn’t thread their needle. My story – early thirties and religious for quite a few years, but with no formal Jewish education – just wasn’t the type of story they funded.
I felt like I was falling through the cracks.
I kept praying, moving forward, going through all the motions, and reassuring myself that I was going.
One night I went out with a friend. I told her that I didn’t think it was going to work out. It just seemed like too many hoops that I wasn’t successfully jumping through. I was wondering if it was the responsible thing to do. Maybe I should be spending my energy in NYC trying to date and find my soulmate. Maybe I need to finish my documentary. Why was I going on this spiritual adventure?
My friend said to me, ‘You need to think about what you really want.’ I knew that what I deeply wanted and needed was to go to Israel. I knew that I wanted to learn. I knew that I wanted to grow. That I needed to grow.
The day after I spoke with my friend I was in touch with a Rabbi who was helping guide my process. Within 24 hours he called me — he had gotten the funding all in place. I called a travel agent, and within the week I had a one-way ticket.
I was going to be flying to Israel and ready to start learning after the chagim.
I would be arriving Erev Yom Kippur.”
“Funding secured, I began finalizing my arrangements and working through all the logistics.
Despite family and close friends having difficulty accepting my thought process and decision to depart, I think everyone knew it was for my best. I felt supported.
When I bought the one-way ticket, I didn’t know when I was coming back. I didn’t know what Israel had in store for me. Everyone was asking me, ‘Are you making Aliyah?’ or ‘Are you staying for a week? A month? A year?’ I honestly had no idea. I still have no idea.
When I got here, I felt totally embraced by the faculty and staff at my seminary. They made it clear that if I felt like I needed to stay longer, they would help me find the resources to continue to make it work. That is something that everyone here has stayed true to, especially the leadership. I am more than a student to them. I am a person. A person who wants to be here, and they represent an institution that wants me to thrive and feel a belonging within it. The holistic and nurturing approach of my seminary has made it a true source of energy and sustainability for me.
The learning has been amazing. I think that I have gotten a lot of clarity in a lot of areas in my life. The more clarity I get, it opens more windows into ambiguities that I didn’t know existed before. Making this jump was a huge leap of faith. And, perhaps that is the most significant skill and value I have gained through this process thus far. I learned that when I take a leap of faith and I choose to be sure about something really important, meaningful, and that I feel to be a deep truth, there will be a net to catch me.
And, through my coming to and learning at seminary, this has been shown to me not simply practically, but also analytically and textually within my learning. Studying about the matriarchs and patriarchs, seeing their struggles and what they went through, and their faith-based life decisions has brought me to understand more deeply my own decision to come here.
It continues to inspire me to leap further and higher on a daily basis.
I know I’m not done here. My work has just gotten started. I know I have a lot more to learn and grow. And, I know that I have no idea how long that will take. ”
“Reflecting over my first months in Israel and the choices I made in order to come here, I’ve begun to realize how rare it’s to go down the path I did. My reflections have really been sharpened by external feedback. As I meet people in Israel, I find that they, and those I left behind in America, reflexively express excitement for me. Some will riff on the idea of being true to yourself and others identify with living in, and with, what you need at the moment.
I think there sometimes can be this paradox: I came here as someone and I know I want to be myself when I leave. But, I also want to be the most highly elevated – or, at a minimum, a more elevated – version of myself, when I leave. Even so, I don’t want to be someone else or a robot, or erase any of the artistic sides to myself. I need more understanding of the religious rituals that I do and why I do them, so I can have more appreciation for their purpose. Then, I hope I can illuminate my spirit with the spiritual, without being rote and ritual.
I feel like at some point I went backwards on the age scale. I was very serious in my 20’s and now in my 30’s I feel something has settled in for me. Socially, it can be challenging here, as almost all my fellow students are far younger than me. I am in a different head and heart space than most of the girls in my program here in Israel. There is a certain level of growth based on age, maturity and physical realities that I have gone through already. I was secular and in my 20’s when I was passing through uncertainty or self-discovery. But, now at this stage, I know who I am. Which is a beautiful thing, and I think everyone goes through these phases or windows of life progression.
Now, I am in a stage of growth and change that comes from knowing myself, a dynamic of evolving from being more settled.
It’s less about moving with the crowd and engaging with mob mentality- now it’s the time when I want to do the best for my needs.
I know that following that growth pattern is how I’m going to develop.
When I was younger, I found there was a lot of people- My growth is mine. Growth from a place of pleasing others doesn’t last and won’t make me happy because I’ll not have added that growth to a “me” I’m tasked with making.
No matter where you come from, and where you end up – even if those points are exactly the same, life isn’t really lived if there isn’t a momentous point in time where you actually choose your destination and end point for yourself.
I identify as a seeker. My life is a quest for more, a search for something deeper. I was happy in the life I had back home. But through my experiences here, there will be things that I will want to let go of; because I will have outgrown them. But, maybe more importantly, I’ll be empowered to say goodbye to them.
I know, the rest of what I keep will be so much stronger.
There will be more nuances in the details.
It will all rest on more solid ground.”
(6/6) “tHE REST WILL COME”
“There are things I left behind when I first became religious that I mourned for. The opportunity to be in a Broadway play. My whole path in life had been leading there, that is what my whole cohort from school is doing now. But I knew that this type of religiosity was what my soul needed. So even though there is loss and sadness over a path that was excluded from my possibilities, I do have hope that the system will change and there will be more opportunities for frum women to perform. I know that it was hurtful to me, and very confusing to many around me that I could no longer work towards the goal of performing the way I had intended, especially people who believed in me.
I had been an artist my entire life, my identity had revolved around singing, dancing, acting, writing- that was it. The darkest times of my life have been the times where I didn’t engage those creative talents.
So now I am saying that I am committing to a lifestyle which does not seem to be in synchronicity my art. It is a struggle.
Part of my reconciliation is creating anything that I can create. I force myself to work in the spaces that I can. It was the catalyst for me to produce new creative projects. I always hope that I will be cast in something that will work with my religious sensibilities.
But in the end, we need to take the pauses and explore the spaces that call to us. I can’t have any regrets about being attentive to all my needs. I think in the long run, I will have a far more fulfilled and satisfied life- because who knows where life will take me.
I’m going to follow what is pulling me, and the rest will come.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.