For the week ending 8 December 2018 / 30 Kislev 5779

Austin Olzeski

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
Library Library Kaddish

Age: 22

Independence, Kentucky

Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA

BA in Political Science, 2016

Robertson School of Government, Masters Degree in Geopolitics of the Middle East and Islamic Political Philosophy (pending)

J101 Program at Ohr Somayach Jerusalem, 2018

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. That might be true. I like to say that Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence) is stranger than fiction. That is certainly true in the case of Austin.

Austin was born to a Jewish mother and Catholic father in Columbus, Ohio, his father’s native state. His mother, the daughter of Austrian Jews who was on one of the last boats that took Jews out of Europe before WWII, was born in Brooklyn but moved to Jacksonville, Florida with her mother as a very small girl. Her mother, Austin’s grandmother, was not involved with the tiny Jewish community there and had very little contact with her family in Brooklyn. Austin’s mother moved to Ohio and married his father, a Navy veteran and an insurance agent. She never mentioned to Austin and his siblings the fact that she was born to a Jewish family.

Shortly after Austin was born the family moved to Independence, a small town in northern Kentucky, where his father ran an insurance agency and later started his own health care insurance company. Independence, as is true with many small towns in the South and Appalachia, is a stronghold of the Pentecostal Church, one of larger groups in Evangelical Christianity. There are different types of Pentecostal Churches. The extreme ones are the poisonous “snake handlers”. Among the more moderate Pentecostal Churches, like the one that Austin and his family belonged to, belief manifests itself by “speaking in tongues,” “laying hands on the sick” and “casting out devils.”

When they “speak in tongues”, the worshiper falls to the ground in a kind of fit and babbles unintelligible words or syllables (glossolalia), which are then “translated” or “interpreted” by the pastor. The pastor himself can be seized by “the spirit” and babble away, and, then coming back to his senses will explain his “prophetic experience”.

Austin went to a Pentecostal school where “speaking in tongues” was also a common occurrence. In the middle of a math or English class, the teacher would fall down on the ground and babble incoherently, and then after a few minutes would come back to his senses and accuse this boy or that of certain sinful behavior that had been “revealed” to him. Boys would also fall to the ground and speak in tongues and the teacher would translate their words.

When Austin was eight he first met his mother’s aunt at his sister’s wedding in Columbus. His great-aunt, a European-born religious Jew, lived in Brooklyn, NY. She revealed to Austin that he was Jewish. It made such an impression on him that to this day he remembers her very next words: “Every year at the Passover Seder we say ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’. That (hope) is what got our family out of Czarist Russia to Poland, and, after pogroms in Poland, to Austria, and then to America. This is your community. You can accept it or not, but you should know that this is your community.”

Thereafter, because of those words, knowing that he was different, he never again felt comfortable in the Pentecostal Church or in his Pentecostal school. Anti-Semitism is also rampant in the small town of Austin’s youth. Most everyone there believes that a “Deep State” is running the country and that its manipulators are the Jews. He kept his Jewishness a secret.

After graduation from high school, Austin was eager to leave Kentucky. He was the only student in his high school class to do so. He went to Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Regent is a Christian school. Pat Robertson, the famous Christian Evangelist is its founder and chancellor. It had some major advantages for Austin. It was a Christian school, and so his family couldn’t object to him going there. It was out of state, and so he had freedom from the small town “claustrophobia” he had felt. It wasn’t Pentecostal but followed a more moderate and inclusive Protestant doctrine. He had received AP credits in high school that were accepted at Regent, and it was near a Jewish community. Austin was planning to unearth the meaning of his heritage.

When he was 19 Austin had his first exposure to Judaism at a Chabad House in nearby Norfolk, Virginia. He kept going back and became a regular there. He was also active politically. As a senior in college, he was the State Chair of the Virginia Faith and Freedom Coalition — a PAC promoting concern about religious liberty being encroached upon by the Federal Government. In that capacity, he was selected to drive the Republican Presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, around the campus, where he made a major campaign address right before the 2016 election. Austin graduated college in 2016 and was accepted to the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, where he finished a year of study towards a Master’s degree in Geopolitics of the Middle East and Islamic Political Philosophy.

Earlier this year his rabbi suggested that Austin come to Israel on an OU Birthright trip. He didn’t need much convincing. He came in May and was very moved. He then signed up for Ohr Somayach’s JInternship Program, which he participated in this past summer. Afterwards, Austin was accepted into the J101 Program, a ten-month commitment of full time learning at Ohr Somayach, which began with the Elul term. He hopes to make aliyah and eventually complete his master’s degree at an Israeli university. As to Austin’s experience so far at Ohr Somayach he says, “The classes are great, it’s everything I could wish for.”

“I love Israel,” Austin says. “It’s home”. Being in front of the Western Wall he felt the awesome responsibility he has as the last Jewish male in his line (as of now), and for fulfilling the hope and prayer of his mother’s family of “Next Year in Jerusalem”.

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