Lucky Heather's faith increased after 'miracles' in Rwanda war zone


RWANDA during the civil war seems an unlikely place for a young woman to become increasingly inspired by her Jewish roots.

But that's exactly what happened to Heather Gelb (nee Streltzer) - the only white woman volunteering with the Peace Corps in a village in southern Rwanda from 1991-1993.

Born on an American army base where her father was stationed during the Vietnam War, Heather read nutrition and anthropology at Miami University with a view to volunteering in Africa.

Heather, now a religiously observant mother-of-five living in Alon Shvut on Israel's West Bank, told me: "During the three years before graduating, I really had in my mind that I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

"You get to travel around and live with a whole new culture, hopefully doing some kind of good."

Heather had been brought up in a traditional Jewish family, which was somewhat lax in its religious observance.

She recalled: "We had a strong Jewish identity. We observed the holidays like Yom Kippur, seder night and Chanucah candles, but we didn't do Succot.

"However, because my mother was a professor in audiology at Kent State University, Ohio, we were involved with Hillel.

"We would drive to Friday night services. We had a little bit of a Shabbat connection."

The summer before she went to Rwanda, Heather went on a summer programme in Safed, which changed her life and even increased her resolve to volunteer in Africa.

Heather, who has just published a book, From Hilltop to Hilltop - My Path From Rwanda to Israel, said: "I had this strong need to visit Israel. I was thinking maybe of volunteering on kibbutz or taking a university programme.

"I was at a United Jewish Appeal conference and looking at brochures of all sorts of Israel programmes geared towards college students.

"The Livnot U'Lehibanot programme looked the most interesting because it seemed the most holistic.

"It offered community service, volunteer work, a lot of hiking, getting to know the land of Israel, visiting different places, walking and a lot of Jewish classes to learn more about what Judaism is really about.

"Because it was in Safed, it offered the spiritual side of Judaism, kabbala, which also appealed to me. It was there that I got a really big dose of what it meant to be Jewish, to live a Jewish life, how important Israel is and what Shabbat really is."

She continued: "Even though I was already developing more Jewishly, to some extent that pulled me the most to go to the middle of Africa.

"It was a little bit of tikun olam (repairing the world) in another part of the world."

It was on the Livnot U'Lehibanot programme that Heather met her future husband, Joe Gelb, of New Jersey. The two became good friends, corresponding with each other when they both returned to different parts of America to finish their studies.

They continued corresponding as much as they could despite the delays in the Rwandan postal system throughout Heather's time in Africa, during which period Joe intensified his Jewish education and went to study in a yeshiva in Efrat.

Heather's book is punctuated with Joe's infrequent letters which encouraged her in her volunteering work, as well as urging her to become a little more religiously-observant by lighting Shabbat and Chanucah candles.

Heather writes of an almost idyllic community in the village of Mukoma into which she totally integrates and makes lasting friendships as she teaches the villagers nutritional hygiene.

She said: "I was in the southern part where the Hutus and Tutsis were more co-operative. There was co-existence.

"They married each other, worked together and respected each other. In the northern parts you would have whole families of Tutsis massacred."

Heather's idyllic experience, as she ran carefree in the hillside in between her work duties, was initially only punctured by events like the tragic death of a baby.

But as she travelled the country, she became aware of other dangers, like the threat of rape or violence.

In the book, she describes the time she was driving at night in a hired jeep with four women, some Hutu and some Tutsi, and a baby, when the vehicle experienced a flat tyre.

None of the women knew how to change a tyre and the chances of a vehicle passing on that remote road at that time of night were practically nil.

She writes: "I jokingly thought about praying for instant salvation and noticed that a couple of my friends appeared to be in some kind of meditative thought."

The miracle was instant, as: "Suddenly, headlights pierced through the darkness behind us. I looked in disbelief as the form of a truck appeared. Not just any old truck - this was a tow truck!"

The Rwandan driver Lui was the mechanic of a nearby petrol station who was off-duty and off to visit a friend. When he refused payment for the repair job, Heather whose faith in God was in its early stages, began to realise that she had experienced a miracle.

She writes: "Maybe Lui was Eliyahu HaNavi. We were comforted by the fact that we were being watched over."

In retrospect she told me: "The whole time I was there I really felt like I was protected. I was in so many dangerous situations.

"On my own, I was really exposed to being mugged, blown up by mines, coming across people who could have been really hostile. Thank God, I really felt like I had an angel looking after me."

Another miracle occurred on her last night in Mukoma in February, 1993, before the Peace Corps were evacuated from Rwanda in the light of the escalating violence.

All night, bandits had been trying in vain to gain access to her home by attempting to break the iron bars on her window with their machetes. It was only in the morning that Heather realised that the vandals could easily have gained access through her unlocked door.

She writes: "My doors were always unlocked; a haven to neighbours and friends. I shuddered at what could have been. I began to thank God for the choice of the dangerous bandits to first try the barred windows. I thanked God for the miracle of my life."

Soon after her exodus from Rwanda, Heather married Joe.

They settled in Israel and had five children.

But over the years, Heather was determined to elaborate on the journals she had written in Rwanda and publish her story.

Eventually, after raising her family and working in various fields, including the Jewish Agency's website, a local health club and photo editing, she has found the time to do it.

I asked her what happened to her friends in Rwanda during the genocide.

She told me that Marta, the village head doctor, and Annoncietta, whom she worked with at the nutrition centre, were both killed because they were Tutsi.

She added: "Thank God everyone else survived in refugee camps."

Now Heather has been befriended on Facebook by the university-educated children of her Rwandan friends who are urging her to pay a return visit.

Were there any comparisons between Rwanda and Israel, I asked.

Both countries have hills on which Heather loves to run, she replied.

She recently participated in a 24k relay race around Beth Shemesh, stopping at historical sites.

And like Rwanda, Heather's idyllic life in Israel is punctuated by the threat of violence.

She lives just near the Alon Shvut bus stop from where three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and later murdered last year.

The bus stop has also been the scene of more recent stabbing incidents.

But Heather said: "The kids will still get on the bus at that stop and I still get on it to shop. And I run everywhere.

"We take pepper spray and self-defence courses and learn how to defend ourselves. We keep going."

And as she made friends with the Rwandans, Heather has good relations with her Arab neighbours.

She said: "Right across the street from me is a vineyard owned by Christian Arabs from Bethlehem.

"At certain times of the year they are outside my door with their tractor. When they see me, they say 'Shabbat shalom' or 'chag sameach'.

"In the harvests of Tishri and Cheshvan they share their grapes and cucumbers with me. Thank God, the ones around me have been very friendly."

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph