Journey from reverend’s daughter to rebbetzin
Born into a Christian family, South African born Rebbetzin Elisheva Goldschmidt never felt that she quite belonged. When a trip to Israel sparked a passion for Judaism, she followed an unexpected path to becoming a rebbetzin in Kochi, India.
“As a child, I felt external to my human experience,” said Goldschmidt speaking at a Sydenham Shul webinar this week. “I never felt like I fitted in, and I had no idea why.” At an early age, she found her calling in singing, music, and dance, yet this didn’t detract from her unexplained feeling of otherness.
Growing up in a small town where her father served as a reverend to the church, Christianity was the prevalent religion. Goldschmidt, an only child, was never exposed to anything except conservative churches. “Anything that was other was shied away from and not explained. I never met a Jew until much later.”
While she was a bit like a chameleon who adapted to her surroundings, Goldschmidt felt very little connection to her peers or family. “Internally, I grew increasingly distant from everything and everybody.” She felt there was no one to talk to about her feelings of dislocation. When she encountered an energetic pastor at one of her many choir performances who claimed to have spoken to G-d, she decided to try to do so too to find some form of connection, albeit unsuccessfully.
Goldschmidt was about 16 when her parents divorced. “Knowing the private reasons surrounding their split, I could no longer keep up this farce of spirituality,” she said. “I lost all faith in the church and the system of which I was a part.” It led to extreme rebellion. “I got into all sorts of trouble and landed in abusive relationships, all while still shining on the music front. I had this dual life. I was struggling with all these things that one wasn’t allowed to talk about in our community. Inside I was screaming for attention and acceptance.”
After moving to a new town with her mother and joining a new church, Goldschmidt began vocalising all her long-held questions – something that was strongly discouraged at school and church.
When her history teacher began preaching religion, telling the class that if they give their hearts to Jesus, they would be alright for the rest of their lives, Goldschmidt questioned this idea. Kicked out of the class, she wouldn’t be silenced, and decided to read the Christian Bible cover to cover.
This gave rise to even more questions, especially as she was forced to prepare for a pledge of allegiance to the church at the end of the school year. She caused such a “disruption” in her classes at the church that the pastor paid a visit to her mother telling her that he’d prefer it if she didn’t return. Goldschmidt therefore left the church. Afterwards, she explored all sides of Christianity, searching for meaning, eventually investigating the Messianic movement. Yet, she battled to find a sense of belonging in any of the belief systems she encountered.
That’s when a friend suggested that Goldschmidt travel to Israel. At the age of 19, in the midst of her music studies, she took the trip that would kickstart a greater journey. “When I stepped foot on the El Al flight, it was the first time I’d heard Hebrew spoken or met a Jew. I was intrigued. In Israel, I was on cloud nine all the time, it was like walking into a world that I didn’t know existed.” As she approached the Western Wall, Goldschmidt felt something within her shake. “I sat down and started crying. I had no idea why, but I couldn’t stop. The reason is that I heard the call of home.”
Giving insight into the world of converts, Goldschmidt said, “At the beginning, when Hashem created this beautiful collective soul of am Yisrael, it was almost like a container with glitter. With the fall of Adam HaRishon [the fall of man], that lid came off, and some of those sparks went flying and landed in people like me – other people. And we hear the call of Shema to come home.” Indeed, someone recited the Shema as Goldschmidt sat on the steps approaching the wall. “My little spark could no longer sit on that step, I had to find my way home.”
Yet it was still a long road to conversion. After returning to South Africa and marrying and divorcing within a year, Goldschmidt embarked on an international opera tour. Escaping an abusive relationship that began during this time, she returned to Israel. “I went back to where I felt I had an identity, back to where I felt a sense of belonging.” There, she began her conversion process and met her future husband, who later helped her complete the process back in South Africa.
She believes her journey was part of a greater plan. Though she’d never learned about the Holocaust as a child, Goldschmidt says that she’d suffered from nightmares for most of her life. Some were about going into half-moon shaped ovens. Others were about being stuck in a train in a tiny wooden cart packed with people, when a soldier opens the door and they step out into the snow. “Since coming out of the mikvah after converting almost 10 years ago, I’ve never had another nightmare,” she said.
She and her husband married in Cape Town, and soon made aliyah. The couple joined a shlichut kollel, which sent rabbis and their families to run kollels (study institutes) abroad. It was Goldschmidt’s idea to ask for a posting in India as her husband had frequently travelled there and loved it. His family also had longstanding business connections in the country. And so, they moved to Kochi and took over the Pardasei Synagogue, the oldest shul in the commonwealth, built in 1568. This is also home to the only kosher mikvah in the south of India.
Today, the Goldschmidts have three children and are a central part of Jewish life in Kochi. While only 24 families remain in the area, they are committed to supporting this colourful community. “It’s an aging community, so I want to make sure that if anyone, G-d forbid, passes, we’re there to help them transition in a beautiful way,” said Goldschmidt.
“When tourism resumes, we also hope to keep serving the couple of thousand Israelis who pass through each month. We’re the only shul in the south of India – the closest one is a two-hour plane ride away.” And so, the rebbetzin’s journey continues.