| Family Tempo |

Arriving Home

Avy Reid's journey took her from Nigeria to Jerusalem

As told to Rivka Streicher by Avy Reid


Part 1

I was born in Nigeria, from where my father came, and his father before him. We are from the Igbo people, a tribe whose homeland straddles the Niger River. My grandfather was chief of the tribe.

My father was the 21st child (from several wives.) When he came of age, he went to India on a scholarship, to get a bachelor’s degree in business. There he met my mom, who was Anglo-Indian.

In India’s caste system, blacks were the lowest. But my mother wanted to marry my father. He was a man of two worlds; he came from a chief, from a tribe, and he also had a Western education, a degree in business. Her parents, though, were horrified. They spurned my father; they shunned their daughter when she announced that she wanted to tie the knot with him. My mother clung to my father and followed him back to Africa, not quite realizing what she was getting herself into.

She’d put herself in a hard place, and she became a hard woman.

When we kids were born — black — she was shocked and disturbed. She’d been enamored of my father, but the bias ran deep. She called us names, and then she started to hit and lash out.

I was the second child. When I was just six years old, my family moved to Toronto. But the move didn’t do Mom any good, and in time my sister and I took over running our home.

When I was 14, my parents split up and my dad left, leaving seven kids back home.

That’s when I became the mother in the home. I took a job after school, working long hours and handing over the wage as soon as I earned it. I attended PTA for my siblings, and there were many times that I had to mother my own mother.

Finally at 17, I went away for university. I chose a school in Sault Ste. Marie, Northern Ontario, ten hours from Toronto in part because I wanted to get away as far as I could. In university I met Daniel. We connected on a soul level, and the promise of a different life beckoned. But the following year he went away to do his master’s, and I went back home for summer break.

I discovered that my younger siblings were home by themselves while Mom was away, working, and I knew I couldn’t go back to university. Once again, I was needed at home. I stayed for two years. But after having seen a whole new world in Sault Ste. Marie, it was harder to be there. Mom was still emotionally and mentally manipulative, and now I could see it for what it was. At times she went as far to hit me, her 20-year-old daughter. Then I had to sit and listen to the darkness in her heart as she spoke about what drove her to behave like that. It was killing me. I knew it couldn’t work. I found the courage and left her home.

I turned to Danny. We dated for a while. I started working in the local hospital, while Danny worked as part-time professor and full-time programmer. It was action-filled, rewarding work. A couple years later, we got married and settled in Sault Ste. Marie, where his family lived. I unfurled like an open rose, head raised to the sun. I fell in love with Danny’s family. They were deeply spiritual, especially Danny’s dad, who’s a fundamentalist Baptist. We’d discuss theological ideas together.

Danny and I had our first child, a beautiful girl named Hannah from the Old Testament, the book I knew like my own palm. Hannah was soon followed by Naomi, and then Emma.

At four, Hannah was ready for school, but I wasn’t ready to send her. I didn’t think I’d ever be. I wanted to protect my kids, to give them everything myself. I knew there was so much going on out there, technology, cyberbullying, abuse, and I didn’t want them to be exposed to that. The realization was growing on me; much as I’m a type A personality, a go-getter with little patience, I would be homeschooling my kids.

The fact that I was a nurse didn’t deter me. Danny, who was working as director of IT, was on board.

I set about creating a curriculum. We were people of faith. It made sense to start the day by reading from the Bible — the Old Testament — and praying.

I was intimately familiar with the Book. I knew the verses cold. I started to read it to my children every day, and we explored the stories together. I wanted them to have faith, even though, if I’m honest, my husband and I were grappling with our own faith.

We were a strong, church-going family, but increasingly, we weren’t happy in our church. The pastors, indeed the community, were content to stop at a certain level, while I wanted more.

I didn’t know about the Jews — aside from what I read in the Bible. I didn’t even know that they had a religion that had survived to this day. All I knew was that they’d turned their backs on G-d. I had this little wish to meet a Jew one day and redeem them. Say to them, “Do you know there’s a G-d, and He loves you, and wants to do good to you…?”

I thought they needed to hear it from me. That I could bring revelation into their world. I didn’t know back then, with a houseful of little kids in rural Canada, a place as far-flung and un-Jewish as one could find themselves in, what they would bring me one day.


Part 2

I started to pray to G-d for a closer connection to Him, although I had no idea how to achieve it. There was so much going on in my hectic life of home and kids and work. It was full to bursting, and it was good; I could roll with the punches, I could get up and start each day on the fly, singing and laughing my way through it.

And then it was like I was hit from behind, pushed down a hill, like G-d was placing every obstacle in my way, so I could look only one way — up.

I’d struggled with GERD since my teens. I’d tried everything, pills, diet changes, but nothing helped. It came to the point that I needed surgery on my esophagus.

“Simple, just a 30-minute procedure,” the doctor said. “You’ll be in and out of the hospital same day, eatin’ steak by the weekend.”

But complications set in right away, and I stayed in the hospital for three weeks. When I went home, I had a PICC line, and received IV sustenance through it for six months. I became emaciated. Finally, I was put on medication that began to work, and slowly I was able to eat food and drink again. Then I found out I was expecting.

I rejoiced. I didn’t know how I’d have the strength for it, but my innate optimism kicked in. I was getting better, we’d have another baby, we were going to be the large, loving family of my dreams.

One day, a few weeks later, I was driving along the highway, kids in the back seat, new life inside me, music rocking, when a pickup truck that was crossing the highway overshot its mark. We T-boned in a horrendous, high-impact crash.

A police officer who was on the corner watching the accident thought no one could have survived a crash like that and called it in for a fatality.

But we walked out of the car, me, and my three girls, unscathed — for that day at least.

Danny came to pick us up, and when he saw that state of our car — totalled beyond belief — he was absolutely horrified. But we were fine. Or so we thought.

I had sustained a severe concussion. I had to be in bed; it was the only place my head would stop spinning. When I’d sit up, I’d start retching.

This went on for a couple of months; the accident caused me to be literally bedridden for half the winter. I didn’t know it, but all the while I was leaking amniotic fluid. After 17 weeks in bed, I came to the hospital for a check, and the doctor discovered there was nearly no fluid left.

He wanted to do a D&C right away, but I asked for more time. Later, when I asked for an ultrasound to check the heart activity, the doctor was callous.

“We’re not giving you an ultrasound at this point. We’re not wasting taxpayers’ money.”

I sat there and cried. How could he be so heartless over my loss?

“Let’s just do the D&C and get it over with,” he said.

He got on with the procedure, damaging me in the process. I was left without any shred of dignity. My values had been trampled on; my body, my heart, broken.

That was one loss and one hospital experience that left its mark.


Despite everything, I was on a roll. I was young, I wanted a big family, and a little while later, I was expecting again. I was careful on the road. No big freak accidents, nothing. At 20 weeks, we went in for the anatomy scan, trying to put last time behind us. We were excited, maybe we’d finally be having a son?

All was good with baby. But then the technician realized that she couldn’t see part of the baby’s foot — crazily enough, this was a complication caused by that rough doctor who’d performed the D&C a few months prior. They flew me off to Toronto, to a hospital I’d never heard of, where they tried to perform a procedure to keep the pregnancy safe. The procedure was not successful. After that they put me in the Trendelenburg position, abdomen and feet on an incline. I lay like that, suspended, for a whole month. It was the most humbling experience of my life.

I became an absentee mom. Between my husband, my in-laws, and hired help, the family was managing, but it was far from ideal. We were waiting anxiously for what they called the point of viability — around 24 weeks. I remember the day we reached that. It was so exciting, the nurses were celebrating with me, and Danny was coming down as well.

That morning, I woke up and felt something was not right.

“I can’t feel the baby moving,” I told the nurse.

They tried the doppler but they couldn’t hear the heartbeat.

“Baby’s probably hiding,” they said.

When my husband showed up, they did an ultrasound. As they came towards me with the machine, I knew.

The doctor looked at the screen. He looked at us. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “There’s no cardiac activity.”

That moment, that quiet pronouncement, was the final blow.

It had been almost two years of medical complications, and I felt the weight of it all fall on me like sand, more and more until I couldn’t see.

And then suddenly the baby, my baby, was in the room. Swaddled in a blanket, looking quite perfect, very still, peaceful and beautiful.

A nurse came in, put a hand on my shoulder, and said that the baby could be with us for the day. That we could know her, experience her, before we let her go.

“Look how beautiful she is,” the doctor said. “Look at her perfect hands.”

I was struck by their care, by the value for life — that was. My baby mattered, she’d lived inside me and that was sacred, they were honouring that. This was a place of sensitivity where they didn’t use impersonal, distant words like ‘fetus’, it was always ‘baby,’ a person, a life. The attitude was a 180 on what I’d experienced the last time I was in a hospital.

This was Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto. Who were these people with an ethos like that?

It was my first encounter with Jews.


Part 3

I came home grieving deeply. It wasn’t only this little girl we’d buried; it was the other tiny girl I’d miscarried, it was the accidents and the hospitalisations, the pain, the vulnerability, the long periods of time that I’d been incapacitated.

I was trying to process it all, but I couldn’t understand. I was a good Christian, doing all the things I should, reading the Bible, reaching out to G-d.

Why are so many things happening, G-d? I cried.

I fell into a depression; things were dim and dark. I literally lost the ability to see colour. As a nurse, I’d heard of people not being able to see color, that psychology can affect a person biologically/physically, and here I was experiencing it myself. One day I came out of the shower and couldn’t even think. I dropped to the floor in a heap. I started crying to G-d from the depth of my soul. I’m done, I’m surrendering, I don’t have anything. Show me where to go. Then I got into bed.

When I awoke, something had changed. I blinked, and the color was back in the room.

The depression lifted just like that. It had been circumstantial all along. When I let it go, G-d took over. I could laugh again. My humor kicked in. I could teach my kids with joy again.

One day we were reading from Exodus: ‘And His covenant is between us and for all the generations for eternity.’

“What does eternity mean?” my daughter asked.

“Forever,” I replied.

But then I realized what she was asking. The New Testament teaches that G-d had done away with the old covenant with the Jews and made a new one with us Christians. So how could the word ‘eternity’ have been used in the old?


And then we were reading Zechariah 14, where it talks of the dimensions of the temple. The sizes of the utensils, the directions.

“What temple?” My daughter asked.

Her questions were simple but astute. We’d been taught that there was no temple, that the temple was within us. But I realised that with all that discussion of it in Zechariah, there must have been an actual physical temple.

I took these questions and others to our pastor. He got frustrated with me, “You need to believe with faith. You need to strengthen your faith.”

“We should understand the book,” I countered.

Eventually, with a small, tight smile, he said to me, “You’re welcome to not come back.”

We’d belonged to that church for ten years.

We looked for a new place, but I had more questions. The new pastor shook his head at me. My questions were not welcome here either.

I’d been reading the Old Testament for years, but had never noticed these discrepancies. Now the kids were asking questions in all naivete; it was like a blindfold had dropped. It was bizarre, but once I had those questions, I couldn’t un-have them, and doubt, and confusion — and a thirsting for truth — set in.

It was a wonderous time for me. But as I started to act on what I was seeing, Danny’s world was falling apart.

“We’re not allowed to eat pork, it’s an abomination,” I said to Danny.

He scratched his head. He’d just bought a side of pork for $350 to last us the season. “You want me to throw that out?”

Winter approached and with it more reading, more delving. “Xmas is going to have to go. It says in Deuteronomy that you’re not allowed to celebrate pagan holidays. Xmas comes from the worship of Saturnalia.”

“Really? But my parents, everyone….”

“We can’t. We need to stick to the values, to the truth. I’m chucking out the Xmas dishes worth a thousand dollars because we couldn’t sell it and thereby contributing to others worshipping through pagan traditions.”

Danny went along with it, but he wasn’t sold. Whereas I’d pledged allegiance to religion my whole life, he’d been a token, nominal Christian. At this point he started to study the Bible, trying to find proof to refute me. But the more he explored the two versions, the more he was convinced of the mistruths. There was no integrity in the New Testament, that was clear, but how were we to relate to the Old? Wasn’t it written for the Jews? And who were the Jews anyway?

We started learning about the history of the Jewish people. We read about pogroms, wars, the holocaust.

These terrible events corroborated what we knew from the Old Testament. G-d had promised the Jews that they’d go through many exiles and hardships — but that He would save them, that one day He’d redeem them forevermore.

My journey to Torah was overwhelmingly intellectual; it wasn’t about seeing the light and floating away. Slowly, Danny came on board. We stopped going to church and were sort of doing our own thing on Shabbat, trying to honor and keep it as we’d seen in the Tanakh. We took the resting literally and tried to rest in our beds or sofa as much as we could. We knew we needed direction, and were looking around, but there was no Jewish community near us.


Part 4

All along, I was praying for an intimate relationship with G-d. It’d started before those years of hardship and intensified when He’d put me through so much.

And now, G-d had answered. He was leading us to the truth.

We decided to sell our home, a sprawling 5,000 sq. foot, ranch-style property on 2.5 acres of land in Sault Ste. Marie. Danny left his job as head of the IT dept of Algoma University secured another in Israel, and off we went. Where else would the Jews be? From the boondocks that is Sault Ste. Marie, we had no idea that Jews lived in communities around the world.

Our first sight off the plane were all these religious people at the airport. People who looked like what we’d been learning. Men with kippot and tzitzit, women with head coverings. I wanted to talk to everyone.

We started out by renting an Airbnb in Nachlaot. When the host had asked if we needed special accommodations, I told her we keep kosher. I just meant that we don’t eat nonkosher meat, because that’s all we were doing.

But Chana Mason, the Airbnb host shot back: Are you Jewish?

When I replied in the negative, there were more questions.

Chana: So why kosher? I need to know more about you guys.

Me: We’re looking to find a Jewish community to teach us and tell us what to do.

Chana: Omg!! I’ve never heard anything like this, are you coming to convert?

That was the first time I’d ever heard of the concept of converting.

Me: You mean we can become one of you?

Chana: Sure, absolutely!

Me: Could you help us?

Chana: I’ll set you up as much as I can….

Once in Nachlaot, we met Chana. She’s an inspirational coach and writer, and has had her own journey to authentic Judaism.

Chana set us up with a shul called Va’ani Tefillah.

The first Friday night we went to shul. I knew no Hebrew, I didn’t understand the prayers, but in the unaffected singing by the whole congregation, in the intensity, I could feel a deep holiness. I’d gone to church my whole life but in this small shul I found something that touched me. I didn’t want to leave.

The Masons hosted us and asked their friends to. The first family who invited us over were Dan and Tehila Sacks. Dan is the nephew of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. That’s where we had our first Shabbat experience; food, kindness, zemirot, conversation.

We’d thought that Shabbat was only about rest and had tried to spend most of it in bed, but Tehila explained that the resting referred to things that require creativity, as Shabbos is a day of completeness. The connection between resting and the things that aren’t allowed needed explanation — for example turning on a light is a creative act, even though it doesn’t require much work.

“Oh my,” I said to Danny on our way home. “All our lights are off.”

We didn’t realise that the halachos didn’t apply to us just yet.

The next morning Danny said, “Sorry, I didn’t know before, I need to make breakfast for the kids.”

He made French toast, and I sat on the couch, watching him turn on the toaster and the stove. “Oh man, we are sinning like crazy…” I said.

In a park in Nachlaot, I met Elana Kutscher. Elana had four kids and was expecting her fifth. We hit it off; we’d chat and laugh as our kids played. We met up every week.

Danny had a job lined up in Israel and was supposed to go into the office to sign the contract and get started. We also wanted to get on with the conversion, to be Jews already. But when we spoke with the director of conversion about our lives and work schedules, he stopped us.

“There’s a law in Israel,” the Rabbi started to say, shaking his head sadly, “You can’t work and be in the conversion process at same time. It’s because migrant workers will take advantage and pretend to convert in order to get work. I know you’re not doing that, but sorry, there’s no way of getting around this.”

Our mouths were hanging open.

“You need to go back to America or Canada and convert there,” he said.

We were deeply disappointed. We only just got here. We wanted to stay. Already both Danny and I were drawn to Israel.

But we knew deep down that we needed to become Jewish, that we’re a part of the Jewish people.

Where would we go? We could only go where Danny would have a job.

We found out that one of the best conversion rabbis was Rabbi Brisman in Philadelphia.

“Philly!” Danny said.

About a year earlier, he’d taken part in a weeklong, high-level cybersecurity certification program, and the man who sat beside him was the VP of the cybersecurity department at Jefferson Health, a huge university hospital. He’d been impressed by Danny and invited him to call if he ever needed a job.

Danny called now. “Hey, remember a year ago… is the offer of a job still up?”

“For you? Sure. In fact, we’ll pay for you to come over to Philly. When you get here just fill out the paperwork.”

“What about an interview?”

“You already had your interview — a week of working beside me. You’re good.”

In a period of 30 days, we’d traversed the globe, heart in hands. We’d left Canada, spent time in Israel, and were off to the States. My friend Elana Kutscher and some others took our contact, and we said goodbye to Jerusalem, wondering when we’d get to return.


Part 5

In Philadelphia things fell quickly into place. We found a house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and a shul in the area from an online ad in which a woman called Eve Cantor was asking people to come to the annual shul dinner. Her energy struck me; the joy, radiance, and love in her voice and being. I thought, if she could smile like that, I wanted to meet her, I wanted to be part of that shul.

The Cherry Hill community took us in. They treated us like family. We had five children then and people called our family of seven for Shabbos.

Our second son was born in Cherry Hill. We weren’t yet converted but knew that he had to have a bris which would count towards his conversion. We had no clue about the bris celebration or anything.

“Where are you having the bris?” Eve asked me.

“Maybe at our place, maybe in the shul….”

She said, “Avy, you must have it at my house.”

Over 100 people came to that bris and the meal following it. Eve Cantor stood there, beaming in the crowd. She was so willing, so happy, as if the favor went the other way around.

This is who we want to be, I thought.

The first chag came — Rosh Hashanah — and right beforehand, a gift came in the mail from Elana back in Jerusalem. Elana, my good friend… Jerusalem.

And every single chag that passed for the next three years, we got a gift for the chag from Elana and her family. Inside the package she’d put cards, hand-drawn pictures from her kids. She made us her family.

All the while we were learning. We learned with the rabbis and did a lot of independent learning. After almost three years, our whole family was ready for the conversion. We went to beis din and were asked if we were ready to be Jews for better and for worse, through persecution, through anything that might come our way.

We said yes.

We all went to mikveh and when we came home, we toiveled all the dishes and got rid of any cooked food, as it had all been made by goyim — us — the old us. Danny and I remarried k’das Moshe v’Yisrael in a beautiful ceremony that was put together in a few sleepless nights by my loving friend Dana Gal. I also became close with another woman, Aviva Kamienny, whose support helped begin to repair the neglect I felt from my childhood.

It was a lot. But we were in it together. The day after the conversion, Danny looked at me, and opened the Nefesh B’Nefesh file.

Then Covid hit. We couldn’t make aliyah. But things fell into place. Danny’s job went remote, and when we finally made it to Israel, he was able to take it — and his American salary — along.

On the Shabbos before we left, our community hosted a kiddush in our honor. A final goodbye. They’d rallied around us for more than three years, we were part of them. It was hard to leave, but everyone was so excited for us and proud of us. We left with their warm blessings, tight hugs, and promises to meet again.

And when we came to Jerusalem, to a house — an actual house — in the Mekor Baruch neighbourhood, we had family there, too. Chana, Tehila, Elana, and others. They set us up with basic furniture, put food in our fridge and colourful welcome signs on our gate. We were coming home.

Today, my house is everybody’s home. Kids gather each Shabbos to say Tehillim and enjoy treats and prizes. Women come over to talk about our lives, connect and laugh. We host often. Seminary girls, yeshivah boys, people in Israel looking to find themselves. Danny makes a beautiful sing-along Havdalah when Shabbos is over; we let Shabbos go with a song, together with whoever happens to be in the house.

Hashem gave us what we have today. The beauty, values and emes of the Torah. And I feel a debt to a nation who preserved it for all these years, living true to it, so that in time, we could join them.

My struggles have given me enormous capacity to hold, to handle — I know what it feels like to suffer, but I also know what it feels like to be held — I want to give back.

I come from Nigeria, I come from Toronto, I come from Sault Ste. Marie; and now I live in Jerusalem. But I was born in Cherry Hill. Those people birthed me, birthed my family. When I travel back to the States, I go to Cherry Hill, my birthplace.

And then I return home to Jerusalem.


Space constraints do not allow me to individually thank the wonderful people in the Cherry Hill community who held our hands and taught us so much while we lived there. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 882)

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