Maya’s problems began even before she was born. Maya’s mother, a Moroccan immigrant to Israel, had run away from her dysfunctional family and ended up on the streets, where she was easy prey for the young Arab who promised her the attention she never got at home. She “bought the promises” and moved to the village, only to discover that once she became his wife, she became his property – to be treated as he saw fit.
After Maya’s birth, when the abuse became unbearable, her mother ran away from the village and had Maya placed with a foster family.
“It was a secular Jewish family that hated Arabs,” Maya recalls. “I didn’t speak any Hebrew, only Arabic, so they hated me. From the time I was four until I was 14, they hardly spoke to me. In school, every time I got into a fight, the kids would call me ‘Arab.’ “
Not surprisingly, Maya felt more Arab than Jewish, and at 14 asked her social worker to arrange a meeting with her real parents. She learned that her mother, incredibly, had married another Arab and wasn’t interested in meeting her. But her father, a Hamas sheikh, had expressed an interest in reuniting.
“That first meeting was so exciting,” she recalls. “My father brought along my uncles, grandparents and cousins, who were happy to see me. I thought, ‘Why should I stay with a foster family that doesn’t accept me when I have a loving family of my own?’ “
Once she moved back to the village, she made a sincere effort to fit in as a practicing Arab, asking her father for a tutor to teach her the Koran. “Then I turned 15 and my father said I should marry a cousin, who was 22.”
Like her mother, Maya soon learned that marriage to an Arab man meant living with abuse. “He would beat me for anything he thought I did wrong – cooking or cleaning improperly. I was always saying, ‘I’m sorry; I’ll get better.’ But despite my best efforts, I was never good enough.”
The mistake that nearly cost her life occurred one night when her husband didn’t come home. Out of concern for him, she walked to his grandmother’s home to call him, violating his orders that she must never walk outside alone at night.
Her punishment for this “crime” was a public beating that put her in the hospital.
Finally, Maya decided to make a break for it. From the time of the incident, her husband, sensing her unhappiness, had kept her locked up in her home.
Luckily Maya found a sympathetic uncle who helped her make her escape. Maya’s uncle convinced her husband to allow her a brief venture out to purchase some clothes. They took a cab from an Arab taxi station to Jerusalem for a shopping trip, when Maya jumped out of the car at a traffic light and disappeared into the crowd.
She contacted her mother, who wanted nothing to do with her, and, having nowhere else to go, Maya went to live in a cave in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. “I lived there for more than a year, and had no choice but to steal clothes off people’s clothes lines and eat bread and milk that had been delivered to the neighborhood grocery stores before they opened. Until this day, I regret what I did, but it was a matter of survival.”
Maya met a group of young street people, one of whom told a social worker about her. The social worker located Maya in the cave, and arranged for her to stay in a facility for homeless youths.
“It was Erev Yom Kippur, and some girls in the next room were playing a tape of one of Israel’s leading outreach activists. I banged on the wall and yelled at them to lower the volume, as I wanted to sleep. They convinced me to listen. The lecturer was speaking of the way Jewish husbands treat their wives. When I compared it to what I had been through, I was so moved; I wanted to learn more.
“One young woman said I could come with her to Kol Nidrei, but I would need more modest clothing. We went knocking on doors of religious homes, and she would ask the woman of the house if she had a spare blouse and skirt. This is how I got clothes for Yom Kippur.”
Once she was properly dressed, Maya went with her new friend to the Kosel to mark her first Yom Kippur.
Looking from the top of the stairs that overlook the Kosel plaza, her breath was taken away. “I could see the mosque on Har Habayis, where I had come as an Arab, and below it the Kosel, where I wanted to be as a Jew.
“I was so overwhelmed with gratitude to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for giving me this chance. I thought, ‘If He could engineer my miraculous escape and make it possible for me to return to Judaism, then I wanted to do His will, and bring Him joy. I felt that I had been given my life as a gift and I was determined to do Teshuva even if it was difficult.”
The young woman who brought her to the Kosel had a cousin, a Bais Yaakov seminary student, who bought Maya her first Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and met to teach her regularly.
While Maya was taking more and more classes, she found out about a young woman who had gotten engaged to an Arab man. Even though she had been keeping her past a secret, she decided to reveal her true identity to the girl and share what life was really like in the Arab village. Maya was successful in getting the girl to break off the engagement, and finally began to understand why she had had to endure so many difficulties in her life.
“I thought that maybe I could help others; Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted me to use my experiences to help other girls.”
As Maya deepened her commitment to Judaism and sought ways to help girls who were getting involved with Arabs, it became obvious to her that she needed to get in touch with Yad L’Achim, the central address in Israel for the toughest cases.
“I called and was put in touch with a woman from Yad L’Achim’s senior staff,” recalls Maya. “She was excited and told me to come right away. At that first meeting, I met with Rav Lifschitz SHLIT”A, Yad L’Achim’s chairman, and received his approval. I was immediately assigned to work with two young women who were involved in relationships with Arab men, and was successful in convincing them to break away.
“I’ve been with Yad L’Achim for more than eight years and it’s given me the chance to put my experience to use for Klal Yisrael.”
Maya is now married to a man who learns Torah and has a beautiful family of her own. What’s more, she managed to gain the release of a teenaged sister from the Arab village who she is raising in her home as a Jew.
“I’m so grateful for all that Hashem has given me. My goal is to show proper appreciation by giving back through Yad L’Achim.”