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Arrivals: Her way

Read this story on The Jerusalem Post

Avigayle Adler grew up in circumstances most people do not find themselves in, but she maintains an upbeat attitude and pursues her dreams.

You would never guess, from looking at the smiling face of the young woman selling her painted glass and paper-cut creations on Fridays in downtown Jerusalem, that she’s had to make her own way in a world that was not always kind to her.

“I’m not angry or bitter,” Avigayle Adler says. “Everything that happened in my life prepared me for things that happened later.”

Before arriving in Israel with her two cats on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight that left New York on November 10, 2011, Adler had employed that positive attitude to get her through circumstances that might have broken someone else – and not only survived, but thrived.

The third of four children born to a South Jersey family, Gayle Adler was only seven when her mother abandoned the children to the care of their abusive father.

He sent them to Hebrew school, “but there was no Jewish content in our home. I was always interested in learning what Jews did – I was the one who wanted to go to a Passover Seder or light Hanukka candles – but we didn’t do it. Every summer I begged my father to send me to Camp Ramah, but he was too proud to fill out a financial aid form.”

At 14, she got involved in the B’nai B’rith youth organization. “This really saved me. It gave me a positive self-image and Jewish identity,” she says.

Eventually, she became regional president of BBYO, remarkably at a time when she was living in foster care and subsisting on earnings from a part-time job in a supermarket. In fact, she credits her BBYO adviser with saving her life after she ran away from home at age 16.

Yet she still had much to learn about Judaism.

During her sophomore year of high school, Adler went to Europe on the March of the Living with BBYO, and notes with irony that she stood in a gas chamber before she ever heard a Shabbat song.

The journey finished in Israel, a place she associated with a happy little girl shown milking a kibbutz goat on Shalom Sesame, a Children’s Television Workshop project to introduce English-speakers to the Israeli equivalent of Sesame Street.

“I had this idea that Israel was sort of like Never-Never Land, a place where all the lost boys and girls could go make a home together,” she says. “I always felt like that’s where I’d end up.”

A BBYO summer program she attended that summer got her thinking about becoming a rabbi. “I became the go-to kid about Judaism, although I knew very little,” she says. “I led Friday night services with James Taylor and Indigo Girls songs and the occasional Lecha Dodi.”

Days after returning home from this program, Adler decided she had had enough of the abuse and ran away from home. With the help of her BBYO adviser and her non-Jewish Big Sister, she spent 11th grade living with a family from her synagogue that had volunteered to take her in. She and one of her guardians revived a BBYO chapter that had folded 25 years before.

The following year found her in a non-Jewish foster home. Despite her difficult circumstances, she took on the responsibility of the BBYO regional presidency and became a vegetarian, since her foster home often served pork for dinner.

On her 18th birthday, her foster mother drove her to George Washington University in Washington, and she was on her own. Scraping by on grants, work-study, loans and earnings from several jobs, she still found time to participate in campus Hillel events and handle a course load “in anything Jewish I could get my hands on.”

She managed to save enough to join other GW students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for a semester in the spring of 1999. During those months, she met several Jerusalem families that had a great impact on her life. One of these friends was named Avigail, a name Adler adopted officially upon her aliya, choosing to spell it in a way that incorporates her given name.

She returned to Israel the following year through Project Otzma, a 10-month program offering opportunities to live and volunteer in Israel. One day, while she was working at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, a preschool teacher asked Adler to draw a horse. She’d never drawn before, but she copied a picture well enough that she was then given paint and brushes to create outdoor murals at the kibbutz during her final five weeks with Otzma.

“That was the first time I ever did anything artistic, aside from notebook doodling,” she says.

On July 31, 2002, while living in southern California, Adler heard that her friend Marla Bennett had been killed in a suicide bombing at the Hebrew University.

She began questioning her faith and all of the observances that she had taken on while she’d been a classmate of Marla’s during her time in Israel. That Shabbat, she read a letter Bennett had written from Israel for her hometown newspaper in which she stated that there was nowhere else she would rather be.

“I realized that if, God forbid, I died tomorrow, nobody would be able to say that about me,” says Adler.

“I had been unhappy for some time and always wanted to return to Israel. Marla’s death woke me up and inspired me to start living more consciously. I decided to go back to Israel and continue the journey that we had begun back in 1999.”

In early 2003, she entered the two-and-a-half-year Jewish Educators Program at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, through which she earned a master’s degree in Jewish education and a certificate of advanced Jewish studies in return for a three-year teaching commitment in North American Jewish day schools. She became more serious about her art, particularly Jewish paper-cutting, which she’d learned in California.

Working in Manhattan and Colorado schools afterward, Adler always added art into her lessons “as way to process and integrate whatever content I was teaching.”

By 2010, she decided she had “run out of reasons not to be in Israel.” Her aliya application wasn’t immediately accepted because of her precarious finances, but she persuaded the powers that be to take a chance on her.

“I never had savings, and I worked hard my whole life,” she explains. “I figured I could be in debt here or there. I can’t spend my life waiting for things to happen – I have always preferred to jump in and then see if there is water in the pool.”

Her portfolio won her the Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s Outstanding Artist distinction through the Organization of Artist Olim, entitling her to a grant to buy supplies and smoothing her entrée to the Israeli art world. Now she offers art courses and camps as well as a drop-in art studio in Jerusalem.

Her ultimate dream is to join her passions by founding a program in which visual artists would learn Jewish texts and create art. For now, you can find her on Fridays selling her hand-painted glassware at the Bezalel Street artists’ fair.

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Avigayle Adler

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