Jis 1015 jewish journeys gabriel mayers zoehly

Always Serving

Gabriel Mayers on his first day in the IDF (left); at age 17 (right)

Kabbalat Shabbat stands out in my memory of life in India. Before our father came home on Friday evening, we had to be showered and clean and wearing our ironed shirts, with the coconut oil lamps and black currant juice for the service prepared. We hugged and kissed each other and sat down together to eat the delicacies made by our mother. It must be clear that to be late on Friday evening would mean trouble. No matter how naughty we had been during the week, on Friday night our father lovingly placed his hands on our heads and blessed all five of us one at a time. I say the same exact blessing today for my sons.

I was born in Bombay to a small Jewish community called the Bene Israel (Children of Israel). Today, the approximate number of Jews in India is 4,000–5,000 in a country of 1.25 billion. In other words, there are four Jews in India for every one million Indians. When I was 14, my parents decided to make aliyah to Israel, and we closed the chapter of our lives in India. We settled in a suburb of Jerusalem called Neve Ya’acov — my mother still lives there. A new life began. I had to learn Hebrew and new sports, like basketball, when all I knew was cricket and field hockey. In 11th grade, I attended a boarding school in Jerusalem where I saw and immediately fell in love with this beauty from Sitka, Alaska. She was an exchange student sent to learn about Israel. Time flew on the wings of love. I joined the IDF for four years, and prior to ending my army service we were married. Soon our son was born in Jerusalem, and we named him Joshua.

Jis 1015 jewish journey gabriel mayers htqifl

Gabriel Mayers teaches history at Squalicum High School in Bellingham.

When I was 23, we immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Wenatchee, Washington. Not having Jewish friends or relatives, we placed an advertisement in the Wenatchee World inviting anyone to light the eighth Hanukkah candle with us. About 20 people showed up, and we soon set up a small community that gathered in people’s homes for Shabbatot and festivals.

In 1991, after four years in Wenatchee, we moved to Bellingham, where I had been accepted to Western Washington University to continue my studies in history. Bellingham did not need an amateur community organizer, as they already had a community for over 100 years. Both my sons, Joshua and Jonathan (who was born in Wenatchee), attended the Beth Israel Synagogue religious school, and we taught Hebrew and the history of Israel. Today, I serve on the board and am delighted to have the Jewish connection we so needed after we left Israel.

When people ask me what I identify with, having lived in so many places, I say that my heart belongs to India, my soul has always and will always be Jewish, and my mind is in America. No matter where I go, my Judaism will always come first. My ancestors stayed loyal to our faith for thousands of years, no matter where they ended up or how isolated they were. Be it in Bombay or Bellingham, so will I.

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