An El Al flight had just rolled to a stop at the airport near Tel Aviv. In it sat a young African-American man, looking out the window.
“Ow wow, we’re here,” he thought to himself. “Now what?”
It was June of 2007, and Yisrael Moshe Chaim, who grew up as Marvin Casey of Chesterfield, Missouri, had arrived in his new country.
How It All Started
Marvin grew up in a Christian home built on respect, understanding, and interest in other cultures. As it happened, one of those cultures went to his school -- Chesterfield’s numerous and mostly prosperous Jewish population, a mix of secular and religious households pegged to several Reform and Conservative synagogues. They are, in large number, the chi
ldren and grandchildren of Jews who migrated from the city of Saint Louis in a thoroughly typical “white flight” that began in the 1960’s.
Teenage disaffection with Christian doctrine led Marvin to stop identifying as a believer, but still there were feelings.
“I knew I still believed in a higher power,” he recalls now, “but I didn’t know how to channel it.”
He started talking to his Jewish friends, and questions led to more questions.
When Marvin asked one of his friends to accompany him to High Holidays services, the reply was “Well, it will be a first for me, but sure, let’s go.”
One Thing Led to Another
Marvin wound up attending services at B’nai Amoona, a prominent Conservative synagogue in a neighboring suburb, and made the choice to study for conversion. After a year and a half, in December of 2003, he emerged from the waters of the mikvah with his new Hebrew name, Yisrael Moshe Chaim.
At this point, Yisrael/Moshe was still young enough to participate in Birthright, the program that flies young Jews, by birth or by choice, to Israel for ten days.
He stayed on for almost three weeks, in no small part because his expectations of Israel had been shattered.
“I got off the plane and was surprised to not hear bullets,” he explains, “Coming from the Midwest, You’re only exposed to the media. You don’t really get a chance to know people. You get the impression it’s some sort of war zone.”
Shabbat in Jerusalem was the next surprise.
“I had never seen an entire city shut down,” he recalls. “Literally everyone’s walking, no one is using their phones, the traffic dies down.”
“It caught me off guard,” he remembers now. “I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Shabbat elevator.”
Turmoil on the Tarmac
Marvin came back from Israel and spent the next year learning about how to make aliyah. He was ready to go in 2006 but postponed because of that year’s war in Lebanon.
But it wasn’t the threat of war that had Marvin/Yisrael in a panic, sitting on the runway in June of 2007.
“I had done a lot of travelling before,” he remembers now, “but it didn’t occur to me until that moment that I was leaving everything and starting from zero. I had no friends, no place to live. I had five hundred dollars in my pocket.”
“I’m just going to stay on the plane,” he said to himself, “and wait until it goes back.”
Eventually, he did deplane, but spent most of his first week sealed off in his room at the hostel.
“I was waiting for someone to take me by the hand,” he recalls. “But people pointed to the bank and post office and said, ‘You’ll be okay.”
Marvin/Yisrael just put one foot in front of the other.
“Once I started taking those steps forward,” he relates now, “I never looked back. If I hadn’t had those bumps here, I would have had them in Saint Louis, or Chicago, or wherever I put down roots. I didn’t stop to second-guess myself. I didn’t have time to. I had to live.”
After five months in an ulpan, a Hebrew-language immersion program, Yisrael was out on his own in his new culture.
“After that, I was just pushing myself,” he says. “Trying to get some sort of foothold on the culture and the language. Looking back on my conversations, I see myself as the biggest weirdo, but I had to get over the shyness and reluctance to just speak and make mistakes.”
Yisrael Meets Oshrat
By early 2010, the two were already making plans for marriage, and Oshrat’s Orthodox family made it clear they wanted their future son-in-law to go through an Orthodox conversion.
“They thought of me as Jewish,” he relates. “They just wanted me to be more Jewish.”
And so Yisrael dove head-first into the taffy-pull between the military, the official rabbinate, and the complexities of modern life, which in early 2010 also included five months of service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Conversion through the military seemed best, as it does for thousands of other immigrants.
“I had already been living Jewishly for so long,” he explains, “so I went straight to the beit din. They told me I had to go study at a local yeshiva until I could obtain a letter of recommendation from the head rabbi of the yeshiva, but the rav didn’t approve of conversions in the army. So he wanted me to go through with a civil conversion.”
For the next four months, Yisrael shuttled back and forth between squabbling rabbinic authorities, all the while studying, working and preparing for an October wedding. The appearance before the beit din happened with only a week to spare, and the rabbis had to scramble to arrange the documents and Yisrael’s second trip to the mikvah.
“It was a very intense ordeal,” he remembers.
Marvin The Israeli
It’s been almost ten years now since Marvin Casey of Chesterfield started the journey towards the life he now enjoys as a married Jerusalemite, fluent in Hebrew and well established within the Israeli arts community.
Still, there are times when Yisrael can’t help seeing things through the lens he acquired growing up as an African-American male in one of the most racially polarized cities in the United States.
One such time he’ll never forget.
“I was on an Eged bus with a friend in Jeruslaem,” he recalls. “I saw a very small blue and white mini-bus. I asked my friend what it was.”
“‘Oh, that’s an Arab bus,’ he said.” I didn’t know that Arab buses existed.”
It felt weird.
“Like what it was like to be a white person,” Yisrael describes, “in the 1940s or 1950s. It was like being in a white restaurant and seeing a black person walk by. It was weird to experience it on the other side. I wasn’t on the side that was getting vilified, I was on the side that was living in the suburbs.”
Another memory is a chilling conversation with a group of young children, none older than four or five.
“You were in the army, right?” one child asked.
“Yes,” answered Yisrael.
“How many Arabs did you kill?” came the next question.
Yisrael explained that he army service was meant to protect people, and killing was only a last resort. And besides, he said, he didn’t kill any people.
“Not people,” one child said. “Arabs.”
Everything Marvin grew up learning screams against what he heard from these children.
“I was raised in a household of tolerance and understanding,” he explains. “And it’s very hard for me to put all Arabs in the same boat that says, ‘Oh, they all want us dead.’ I have Arab friends, and I know very clearly that’s not the case.”
Yisrael remembers times when Marvin saw people crossing the street to avoid him, locking their doors as he approached, following him around stores.
“Being a black person,” he says, “I’ve experienced being lumped in with other people just because you share a common feature. That hits very close to home for me.”
“The bottom line is, as much as there might be Arabs who want us out of the country, there are Jews who want everybody who’s not Jewish out of the country. It’s just not going to happen. There will never be a country that is completely Jewish or Arab. We need to come to an understanding, otherwise the situation will remain what it is.”
As for Yisrael...
It’s not at all uncommon for people who grow up in St. Louis to get an itch, no matter how far away they might live, to come back to a city most famous in some parts for its frozen custard and toasted ravioli. Aside from family and childhood friends, the blended suburbs and closely knit Jewish community are a powerful draw for many.
“Sometimes I do miss St. Louis itself,” Yisrael relates. “It’s familiar. It’s something I know. St. Louis was my whole life up until making aliyah. A piece of me will always be there, and I’ll always feel a pull to go back.”