Aliyah profile: A Book of Ruth story

DEVORAH AND Yonatan Asher with their children, Yishaiahu Immanuel and Tamar Rachel, shortly after their conversion and Jewish marriage in August 2017.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

In a voice tinged with equal parts humor, seriousness, hurt and vulnerability, Devorah Asher recounts her amazing and unlikely life story, growing up in Chicago’s inner city as Stacie McNealey, and becoming a mother, a minister, a pastor, a psychotherapist and ultimately an Orthodox Jew, together with her husband, Yonatan, and their family.

“I was an odd Christian growing up,” she says. “We didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter.”

Her grandmother instructed them that they were permitted to read only from the Old Testament.

“We were confused people,” she muses. It was only after her grandmother died that Stacie began attending church at the age of ten. “It felt awkward,” she recalls. “But I was a kid – what was I supposed to do?”

Stacie married at 19 and moved to Virginia, where her husband was serving in the navy. Unlike her grandmother, Stacie’s mother was immersed in Christianity. “I felt that the only way I could connect with my mother was being like her. I became a Bible scholar.

But the more I studied, the more I noticed differences and discrepancies between the New Testament and the Old Testament.”
Stacie, her mother’s youngest daughter, wanted to impress her by becoming proficient in Bible study. Laughing, she says, “It worked. I became ordained as a minister in 2001, and then became a pastor. My mom was very proud, and I was winning her over.”
Stacie, who had four children by that time, was divorced from her husband in 2003, and in 2008, married Richard Bryant, a cyberspace officer/program engineer in the United States Air Force and a cybersecurity specialist.

Stacie moved to California and opened the Everlasting Life Christian Center in San Diego. While it met with some initial success, attendance dwindled because, she says, “I was teaching them what was wrong with the Scriptures.”

Stacie decided to focus her attention on her family and career, and became a psychotherapist, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury in soldiers. She was awarded a contract from the US Department of Defense and moved to Colorado with her husband in 2009.

In 2011, the air force transferred her husband to the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California. She reopened her church, calling it the Church of All Nations. She focused much of her education on Jewish-related topics, teaching that the Jews did not kill Jesus, and that the Sabbath was meant to be observed on Saturday.

Stacie and her family were not planning on becoming Jewish but were keeping Shabbat and Passover in their home. Her husband retired from the military in 2014, and they moved to Scottsdale, Arizona.

SOON AFTER their move, says Stacie, she became frustrated. “We do everything like the Jewish people – we keep kosher and observe Passover, but we’re not even Jews. I can’t do this anymore. I want someone to teach me.”

Richard, Stacie’s husband, had reached a similar conclusion. He had never wanted to go to church as a child, and after Stacie explained why she favored Judaism, he understood that he did not fit into the Christian faith.

Stacie contacted Rabbi Yossi Levertov of Chabad of Scottsdale, and they soon began attending classes. In 2017, Richard was offered a consulting position with the US government, and they moved back to Los Angeles. Stacie and Richard continued their Jewish studies with Rabbi Yossi Cunin, Rabbi of Beverly Hills Jewish Community Chabad, and Rabbi Shmuel Ohana of Beit Midrash Mishkan.

In July 2017, Stacie and Richard formally converted to Judaism, under the auspices of Ohana, together with their two children, Tamar Rachel, who was six at the time, and Yishaiahu Immanuel, who was then eight years old. Stacie became Devorah Yael, and Richard became Yonatan. Interestingly, Stacie’s older adult children also decided to convert to Judaism. Sadly, though, Devorah’s mother no longer speaks with her, due to her conversion to Judaism.

When asked if they were accepted by the Jewish community in Beverly Hills, Devorah sighs and says, “We had some issues.” Laughing, she says, “There was no other family that looked like us.” Some people, she says more seriously, were not as kind and considerate as others. Eventually, they became established members of the community.

In February 2018, Devorah traveled to Israel for the first time. “I said to my husband, ‘I can’t see myself living anywhere else.’ I finally felt at peace.”

In April 2018, Devorah and Yonatan applied to make aliyah via Nefesh B’Nefesh. While waiting for their aliyah to be officially approved, they visited Israel in May 2018 and rented an apartment in Jerusalem. In August, they interviewed with the Jewish Agency in California, and the officials indicated that they would have no difficulties being approved for aliyah.

Unfortunately, there was no final word from the agency. Devorah and Yonatan were puzzled. They returned to Israel in October, again on a 90-day tourist visa, and still no word came about their aliyah application.

Devorah reached out to ITIM, which helps people navigate the religious bureaucracy in Israel. The organization assisted them in processing and certifying their official conversion through the rabbinate, which they then forwarded to the agency.

Soon, their 90-day visas expired, and they had to return home again.

Returning to Israel in February on a third 90-day visa, the agency contacted them and told them that they needed to visit the Interior Ministry. Arriving at the ministry, officials asked Devorah and Yonatan if they were associated with the Black Hebrew sect from Dimona. Devorah had never even heard of a town by that name. Ministry officials then asked them about the church that she had operated in the United States. Devorah explained that she had run the church at one time, before she converted.

Finally, Devorah and Yonatan turned to Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM.

“Rabbi Farber was so welcoming and warm,” says Devorah, “I felt like a weight was lifted off of me. For the first time, someone was listening.”

Farber learned that their aliyah petition had been delayed because agency officials thought that the Ashers still owned the church. Moreover, they thought that all of the churches that went under the name “Church of All Nations” in the United States belonged to them.

Finally, shortly before Passover, the agency contacted Devorah and Yonatan and, apologizing for the misunderstanding, informed them that their aliyah was approved. They will be making aliyah officially later this month.

“I believe that the Book of Ruth is my story,” says Devorah. “Ruth is always referred to as a Moabite. Even though she says, ‘Where you go, I’ll go, and your people is my people’, she is still an outsider. She is in the group, but she still looks different. She’s not like everyone else. That’s what I am. I don’t look like everyone else. I’m proud of the skin I’m in.”

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