I once tried to run away from God – much like Jonah. I wasn’t swallowed by a giant fish at sea, but I did get pretty big wake up call on land. It was 1997, my senior year of high school. I was on a journey towards becoming more observant that year. I had started keeping Shabbos, I was praying every day. I had given up most of the treif foods of my childhood. I had a feeling that going to Israel was the next thing I should do in order to grow. Hang out with some religious people, eat some falafel. It just felt right.
My parents had sent me to Israel the summer before on a secular teen travel program. The same one they sent my older sister on the year before. My older sister didn’t get an extra trip to Israel after her senior year of high school, and since everything was always done fair and even in my house, I wouldn’t be getting an extra trip either.
I tried to figure out ways to save money to pay my own way, and then I heard about a great opportunity: in my after school Hebrew High School (which met twice a week), they were doing an Israel test. There would be three rounds of testing which would result in three cash prizes – first, second, and third place – to go to Israel.
I was psyched. I could almost taste the techina. I studied hard before the first round. Seventy-five students took the test, but only twenty of us passed to the next round. For round two, we had tons of material to learn. That winter break, on the beach, I brought my booklets along with to read and memorize and win the Israel trip prize. The top five winners of round two would be entered into a “game show” for round three.
Somewhere along the way as I studied, I read the fine print of the test. Money must be used for study program in Israel. Hmmm, I wondered. Should I go to a yeshiva program with this money? Maybe this is the next step for me. So I made a deal with God. If I won the Israel trip prize money, that summer, the former bikini-wearing, bacon-cheeseburger-eating Jew would sit in an Orthodox institution and pore over Torah texts.
The night before the test came, and I stayed up late, feeling nervous, distracted, regretful (?) of what I had promised the Almighty. The next morning, when my alarm went off, I hit snooze. I told everyone that I wasn’t feeling well, but the truth was, I didn’t want to win that money. Because if I did, it would have been a big change. And who knows what would have happened to me if I really started to take Jewish learning and observance seriously.
My friends and family were so disappointed for me – three months of studying and I missed my chance. I feigned disappointment, but told them “what can you do?”
Later that afternoon, a friend from Hebrew High called me and screamed “Mazel tov!””
“Huh?” I asked, completely puzzled.
“You won the Israel test prize!” he exclaimed.
“What are you talking about?” I replied. “Is this some kind of a mean joke? You know how much this money meant to me, and unfortunately, I was too sick to be eligible to win it.”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” he explained, “You DID win money. They decided today that all 75 people who took the first round of the test would be entered into a raffle to win $2,500 to study in Israel and your name was picked from that group!”
I was floored. I had never won a raffle in my life before then or since.
OK, Hashem. I hear you. I’ll go to Israel to learn Torah.
And the rest, as they say, is history!