"I found the afikoman, and I knew I was going to be a Jew," said Zollars, now 28, of Sherman Oaks. "The warmth of the family tradition and the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world) just made sense to me. After I converted, I felt this need to go to Israel, but I discovered there wasn't really a trip out there for people like me."
So Zollars helped create one.
Next February, the fashion designer will join a group of converts like herself to take part in a groundbreaking event: the first mission to Israel tailored specifically for so-called "Jews by Choice." The 12-day trip, led by Rabbis Neal Weinberg and Joel Rembaum, will take up to 40 travelers through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other locales to help foster a connection with the Jewish homeland that new recruits might not otherwise feel. Organizers say there are still openings for people to sign up before the Oct. 15 application deadline.
"This is a special trip for people who have become Jewish," said Weinberg, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University. "There are a lot of people who have converted to Judaism who are 27, 28, 29 years old. They're too old for [Taglit] Birthright now, and yet they're young and they've never had the experience of going to Israel. To them, Israel is a faraway country. This is a way of making it come closer to them."
Many of the trip's participants -- who span all ages and are both single and married -- are graduates of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program. Having led the program since 1986, Weinberg said he saw a need for more programs geared toward new members of the Jewish community who still had questions after their classes ended.
The trip to Israel is sponsored, in part, by Judaism by Choice Inc., an organization that Weinberg and his wife, Miri, founded in 2005. Its purpose is to aid students seeking inclusion into the community who might feel overwhelmed by the prayers and rituals of a typical Shabbat service.
"There is a lack of programming for this niche in the community -- for people who have embraced Judaism," Weinberg said. "Before you can learn to ride a bicycle, you've got to have the training wheels. What we offer is extra support."
Weinberg appointed Zollars to the board of of Judaism by Choice, which holds Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services each month at synagogues throughout the L.A. area, including Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom. Zollars had been observing Shabbat and keeping kosher since converting in 2006, but she also sought another, less-accessible part of the Jewish experience -- going to Israel.
"I knew that if I was having these frustrations, there would be other people in the community, as well, looking for a trip like this," she said.
Zollars suggested a mission to Israel to the board of Judaism by Choice, and enthusiasm grew. Jill Sperling, another board member, called Rembaum at Temple Beth Am to help arrange the trip.
"I thought the idea was exciting and important and said I'd love to help," said Rembaum, who arranged the itinerary earlier this year. "Jews by Choice are wonderful miracles. Their addition to the Jewish community is an amazing thing."
Visiting Israel is "the big hook" that helps converted Jews relate on a gut level to Jewish history and identity, Rembaum explained.
Just ask Sperling.
"Some of my defining moments as a Jew were in Israel -- just to be there and feel that connection and feel accepted," said the Los Angeles mother of two, who has been to Israel three times in the past five years. "For my family, our connection to Israel has really helped us grow as Jews. Israel is the key that inspires you and excites you. That's something you can't get in a classroom."
Sperling, 44, took Weinberg's Miller Introduction to Judaism program in 1989 with her husband, Skip Sperling, who is Jewish by birth. The course renewed the couple's devotion to their religion, and they enrolled both their children -- Sofia, 12, and Elliot, 15 -- in Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am. Sperling and Sofia just returned in May from a visit to Israel with the Pressman Academy through The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program.
As an Israel "veteran," Sperling said she hopes to be a mentor to her fellow Jews by Choice on the February trip. "Because I've already been there, I feel like I can support other people while they're there," she said. "This will be life-changing for people who have chosen to be Jewish."
Participants will fly to Tel Aviv and visit Independence Hall, before embarking on a cross-country tour with stops at Masada, Yad Vashem, Safed (the birthplace of kabbalah), the Upper Galilee and the Kotel. Besides exploring popular landmarks, they will also meet with Israeli residents who have converted to Judaism -- both those who converted in Israel through the Masorti (Conservative) movement and those who converted outside of the country and made aliyah.
"People often don't think about the different needs of people who convert to Judaism on a trip to Israel," Weinberg said. "Most of them are going to see the country for the first time with fresh eyes. They weren't brought up with an understanding of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people."
The program is open to Jews by Choice of all denominations, along with their spouses or significant others. The per-person cost of the trip -- $3,000, including the flight -- was kept low with support from Judaism by Choice, and scholarship funds are also available through several foundations and individual contributions. Weinberg said he is still seeking donations to further allay the cost for those who might not be able to afford the trip on their own.
Zollars said she is eagerly awaiting the chance to connect with the homeland to which she has always felt drawn.
"It's almost like a graduation feeling," she said. "It is, in a way, the last and first step in my journey as a Jew. Being surrounded and embraced by Judaism would make me so happy. It would be like a trip home for me."
To learn more or sign up for the trip, e-mail MistyZollars@yahoo.com or Sperling@pacbell.net, or call Cori Drasin at Temple Beth Am, (310) 652-7353. The deadline is Oct. 15.
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