Our story: From Colombia to Israel
by Heleni Antolinez
We are the Antolinez family: Heleni, Avner, Eitan, Ilana and little Aviv.
We just celebrated our 11 year anniversary, but this story began 6 years earlier.
Avner and I both grew up in the city of Bello, Colombia, in non-religious families. Avner grew up in a family with grandparents and great-aunts over 100 years old. I grew up in a small family that consisted of my mother and my younger sister since my father was murdered when I was 9 years old, due to violence in Colombia.
We met in 2000 thanks to a theater group that carried out street plays to promote love to neighbors and G-d.
That year we met Juan Carlos Villegas while he directed a Christian church in a very unusual way. He was not much appreciated by the Christian community for his love to the State of Israel and Jewish customs.
In 2003 Juan Carlos traveled to Israel to see the so-called “Holy Land”, where he found a lot to discuss with Rabbis who, among other things, explained to him the belief in the Messiah and the origin of the Torah.
When he got back to Bello, his way of seeing life, religion and G-d had transformed. He decided to make a complete change and learn Torah in a more serious way, leaving everything behind; with him a small group of people, including us, decided to start the same search.
So, this search led to discovering some family customs that came from years ago which none of our family members could explain.
In my case, there is not so much to tell. I did not know my paternal grandparents since they died when I was 4 years old, I did not know my maternal grandparents since my grandfather died before I was born and my grandmother who still lives did not know her parents because she was adopted by a family when she was a baby. However, while studying I felt a strong connection with the Torah, with the Mitzvot and had the clear desire to be Jewish and teach my future children to keep Shabbat, Pesach, Sukkot and eat kosher…
Meanwhile, the fact that Avner came from such an “old” family meant he had a richer history, such as wells of unknown origin or reason in his aunts’ homes, books to be read from right to left, Friday night meals, washing hands after waking up and many other customs that started to make sense when we learnt more about Judaism. Although now there is no one to confirm our conclusions since his grandparents have passed away and his elderly great-aunts are no longer clear about things, Avner’s parents and sister decided to join us in Torah learning.
After many years of seeking help in his studies about Judaism, Juan Carlos Villegas, today Rabbi Elad Villegas, managed to find support in Israel during his travels and a few years ago he was lucky enough to meet Rabbi Shimon Yehoshua, Shavei Israel‘s emissary in Colombia, who helped in our conversion process through his classes and the support of Shavei Israel.
When we started the path of Torah study more than 10 years ago, we never considered the possibility of making aliyah. We felt comfortable being a part of a local community. However, after our first 2 children were born we changed our minds worrying about their future education. Colombia schools are Catholic and children are forced to participate in activities that are contrary to our religion. Not to forget about the risk of losing jobs because of keeping Shabbat, difficulties in keeping kashrut that in the diaspora means to stop eating certain products, the strange looks on the street because you cover your hair. All these problems were triggers to think about leaving.
In 2013 Rabbi Shimon spoke about aliyah, and we took that opportunity without thinking. On December 2015 we left for this beautiful land, without knowing Hebrew, without a job, with two little children and the illusion of a better life .
We spent about 8 months in the absorption center where we learnt the basics of Hebrew. My husband is a journalist, but he started working at Ashalim, a solar panel company. I understood that absorption is a complicated process and tried to develop my career as well, with a baby on the way.
For our children it was easier, they already speak Hebrew and go to school near our house. They enjoy things as simple as eating gummies or hamburgers in a shopping center.
On February 5, 2016 at 8:26 in the morning, at the Soroka hospital, Aviv, our first Sabra, was born. Eight days later, as the Torah instructs, we organized his brit milah and invited our friends from Colombia, the Caro family and the Maloof family. It was a very happy and meaningful event full of joy and gratitude to God, to Rav Shimon, to Rav Elad and of course to Shavei Israel.