Hearts in the uttermost west
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Hearts in the uttermost west

Onetime intermarried Ridgewood family, now all Jewish, moves to Hawaii

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An ocean away, Donald and Sandra celebrate their new Jewish life. Photo courtesy Sandra Armstrong

When we last heard from them, 10 years ago in May, the Armstrongs – Sandra, Donald, and their three children – had just moved from Ridgewood to Oahu.

Their story, as chronicled in the Jewish Standard on May 2, 2003, had been dramatic enough to start with. Donald, who worked on Wall Street, the son of a retired U.S. Army general, a Presbyterian, married Sandy Zimmerman, a somewhat apathetic Jew. Their initial attempt to bring their children up in both religions gradually grew into a family growing ever more actively Jewish. Donald studied Judaism and he learned a great deal, but he was always on the outside.

And then he was inside. Guided by two husband-and-wife Conservative rabbi couples – Rabbis Noam Marans and Amy Roth, and then Gil and Batya Steinlauf, both men in turn rabbis of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center – Donald converted, becoming a Jew.

In April 2003, Donald and Sandy Armstrong had a second wedding ceremony, this one under a chuppah. The next month, they went west. Very far west. To the end of the western world.

Sandy Armstrong has written a book, “A Jewish Girl and a Not-So-Jewish-Boy,” about her family’s experience as it went from being interfaith to sharing a strong single faith, and about what it is like to be Jewish in a place she describes as sounding very much like paradise.

They moved not knowing exactly what to expect, she reports. “We went because Donald had been an Army brat, and he lived here, in Hawaii, through part of middle school, when his father was stationed in Viet Nam. Those were some of the best years of his life.”

And now he had just lived through some of his most confusing years. He had worked in finance on Wall Street; in the aftermath of September 11 he lost his job. He took the “nice severance package” he was offered by his former employers, got his and his wife’s children’s enthusiastic assent, bought a house in Hawaii, sold their house in New Jersey, and moved. “Neither of us had jobs when we got there,” Armstrong said.

“It was like jumping off a cliff into the ocean. You just jump, and know you’ll land okay.

“It was sort of like Lech Lecha,” the Torah portion where God tells Abram to “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

In Hawaii, Donald Armstrong “got a job working blue-collar construction,” Sandy Armstrong said. “This was a Wall Street guy. He rarely did anything around the house. We hired everyone for everything.” But he started helping out the construction crew that was remodeling the house they had bought – “I called him one day, and he said, ‘I can’t talk, I’m welding the bathroom!'” – and that turned into a job, from which he is now retired. Sandy Armstrong, who had earned an undergraduate degree in education from Rutgers, became certified to teach special education in Hawaii, and she now heads a Head Start inclusion kindergarten class.

The Armstrongs’ Jewish life has grown, too. Donald Armstrong is now president of their shul, Congregation Sof Ma’arav, a Conservative shul that “is the westernmost synagogue in the western hemisphere,” his wife reported. “We are the last ones to close the gates on Yom Kippur.”

Sof Ma’arav takes its name from the famous 11th-century Spanish poet Yehuda HaLevi, who lived in what was the westernmost part of the known world, and certainly the westernmost Jewish community. “My heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost West” – b’sof Ma’arav” he wrote, soon before he took the trip toward Israel, dying either before or as he reached his goal. (Details of his death are buried in legend.)

The shul was established more than 40 years ago, Armstrong said. It does not employ a rabbi or cantor, although Mel Libman, a retired Conservative rabbi, is an active member who helps out with life-cycle events, including conversions. Donald Armstrong used his Wall Street-honed negotiation technique to help the shul buy a cemetery, and Sandra Armstrong teaches Hebrew. Donald learned to read Torah, and he often does so.

“When we lived in New Jersey, Don rarely made it home for Shabbat dinner,” Sandra Armstrong said. “It was always me and the children.

“Now, he’s always here.”

Shabbat dinner often is outside, under the stars.

The Armstrongs find that it is not hard to keep kosher in Hawaii. The local supermarket stocks kosher meat, and the climate demands lighter meals anyway, with more vegetables, rice, and fish.

Many Jews come to Sof Ma’arav on vacation, and many of the local Jews’ friends and family visit, so there are often visitors filling out the 80-family congregation’s pews. It has hosted Shoah survivors and survivors of the illegal immigration ship Exodus in 1947. “The combinations of family members, guests, and friends from the East Coast truly has been amazing,” Armstrong said. “We are the hub of the Conservative movement in the middle of the ocean.”

The shul does not have a building. Services usually are held in the local Unitarian church, but when holidays conflict, “we have services right here, on our lanai,” she said. “We have a Torah [scroll] in our home. It has become a member of our family, and we love it.

“Standing outside in my yard during services and listening to the music coming from my living room is an indescribable joy.”

As strongly as she feels about the wonders of Hawaii, Sandy Armstrong feels even more passionately about Judaism. “About 50 percent of Jews are intermarried, and only about 25 percent of their children are raised as Jews,” she said. She wants people to know about the outcome of what used to be an intermarriage; what was possible for her also is possible for them.

“Why not chose Judaism?’ she said. “Go for it. Raise your kids to be Jewish. Why not choose Judaism over Christianity? It’s a wonderful religion.”

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