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A unique romance: Life's twists and turns unite an unlikely pair

Published June 24, 2006 12:00 am

Life's twists and turns unite an unlikely pair
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

MURRAY - As love stories go, even Cupid couldn't have seen this one coming.

She's a former Catholic nun. He's an Israeli Jew who spent much of his childhood in an Orthodox orphanage. They met in a Midwest Presbyterian church. And now, more than 20 years into their marriage, they've found a spiritual home - together - among Unitarian Universalists in the Salt Lake Valley.

"I swear, he's the only Jewish guy who's ever had a pilgrimage to convents," Vera Eini, 68, says with a laugh, glancing sideways at her husband.

"It really just fell into place," he says with a shrug.

Shimshon "Shim" Eini, 69, may say that now, but the paths that united this unlikely pair could not have begun more differently.

He's a seventh-generation Jerusalemite. His father was born in the house Shim lived in as a young boy - a house that didn't have running water. He was the youngest of four, and after his father died when Shim was 1 1/2 , his mother struggled to care for the children. By 1943, it was clear she couldn't, and like the siblings before him, Shim was sent to an orphanage. There, along with 300 other boys, he was schooled in religious texts, bent over the Hebrew Bible and Talmud - and not much else.

"We were really just a bunch of ignorant kids," says Shim, whose full Hebrew name - Shimshon - reads Samson in English.

Meantime, on the other side of the globe, a young Vera Schwabauer was dealing with her own bumps. She was born in Montana but grew up moving all over the country. Her parents divorced when she was 4, and her father remarried a Catholic, sending Vera on a new trajectory. She dreamt of becoming a full-time missionary, forgoing roots and family to travel the world and serve the poor.

As other children played, Vera says she was drawn to "the idea of serving God and helping people. . . . I was always a really serious kid."

Shim was being well fed, given clean sheets and a shower every week - "I mean with hot water," he adds. And even during Israel's War of Independence in 1948, as fighting erupted throughout Jerusalem and around the orphanage's walls, he felt secure. A year after the war, Nitzhia, his only sister, who was eight years older, came to retrieve him. She was determined to reunite her family and take care of her younger brothers. First thing she did for Shim - then about 13 - was take him for a haircut, so his payot, religious sidelocks, could be snipped. Then, between her many jobs to support her siblings and mother, Nitzhia set out to bring her brothers up to speed.

"She tried to inject us, infuse us with as much knowledge as possible - sciences, math, English - so we could enter normal schools," he remembers. "At the time I was very upset because I was the oldest in my class. . . . [I felt] very out of place."

He was 19, going on 20, by the time he finished high school.

At 17, Vera had graduated and thought she knew where she belonged. She packed her bags and set off for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kan., where she moved into "the big mother house" and spent two years cut off from the world as she prepared to take her vows of poverty, obedience and chastity.

The girl Shim dated during high school married someone else while he was doing his mandatory military service. She was a Holocaust survivor and her relatives wanted her to have a home, he says. He felt burned by this loss but later found someone new - an American woman he met while teaching Hebrew on a kibbutz, an Israeli collective farm. The two would marry and in 1962, as his wife grew tired of Israel's hardships, Shim agreed to move to the United States.

Vera became a teacher, and later a counselor, in a Catholic high school. She was true to her vows, but as the years went on, she began to question where she was and itch for more. She says she became increasingly "dissatisfied" with her life and progressive in her thoughts about, for instance, equal rights for women. In the late '70s, when nuns began to drive, she said the habits they wore made peripheral vision impossible. Fortunately, a modified habit came along, and soon she and others were on the roads seeing a bigger world.

"This was the beginning of freedom," she remembers. "I like to say nuns learned how to drive, and they drove themselves right out of the convent."

When Pope John Paul II said women couldn't "be priests because they don't look like Jesus," she says the "second-class citizen" status put her over the edge.

While the first nuns to leave the religious order created huge waves, Vera says that by the time she asked for a dispensation of her vows, the waters had calmed. The wheels of a car were one thing, but another turning point for her was a recurring dream. She was trapped - in a box, a cave or a closed trunk.

After she decided to turn in her habit, 25 years after first putting it on, she says she never had those dreams again.

"The struggle was within me," she says. "Do I ever regret the decision? Not for a second. It was the most wonderful thing I did for myself."

Shim, too, was searching to find his place. His first marriage took him to Arizona, Michigan, back to Israel at one point and then New York. But no matter the move, the relationship wasn't meant to be and ended in divorce.

Alone, he was free to do what he wanted, and at the time, thought he'd become a veterinarian. There were no veterinary schools in Israel, though, so next thing he knew he was on a bus to Manhattan - Kansas, not the Big Apple. He went to meet with the dean of Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, but it wasn't like he had an interview.

"I never even applied to vet school," he says today. "I didn't want the rejection."

That career path never did take off for Shim, who became and still is a truck driver. But he made a life for himself in Kansas City, Mo. He married again, for eight years, and vowed after his next divorce in 1979 that he would not flirt with another woman for a full year.

In November 1980, Shim's and Vera's eyes first met. She'd been working as a facilitator for different groups around Kansas City and on this night was leading discussions for singles who'd gathered in a large Presbyterian church. She'd dated a bit since leaving the religious order, but was less than impressed with the prospects.

"And all of a sudden, I hear someone say something intelligent," Vera remembers, her eyes widening. She craned her neck to see who had spoken, and there Shim was.

The next time the group met, she snagged a seat near his.

For five years they dated. She was nervous about marriage and figured she was too inexperienced to know what was right. She went to school for a master's in social work and continued a long-distance relationship with Shim while working at a mental-health center in Illinois and later for a health plan in Salt Lake City. He came out to see her in Salt Lake in 1985, and at that point, they decided to marry.

They were in Utah for several years, in California for one, then back in Missouri for another 12 years. Vera spent most of that time working in the Kansas City public school system, with in-between stints in hospice care and on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana. But a back injury in the '90s took a toll, and in 1999 she semi-retired. They'd always talked about returning to the beauty of Utah, and in 2000, they did.

As their lives evolved over the years, so did their relationships with faith.

On their own, while living apart, both had begun to explore Unitarian Universalist services. But at the same time, they were also sticking to their own. He kept one foot rooted in Judaism, as she firmly planted one of hers in Catholicism. When they settled in Murray, they found a system that worked for them - at least for a while. He'd go to synagogue on Friday nights. She'd make it to Catholic church services on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. Come Sunday afternoons, they'd head out together to South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, the community they're affiliated with today.

SVUUS in Cottonwood Heights suits them. It's a gathering of about 200 people of all religious backgrounds, working toward a more just world, they explain. It's about "being responsible," respecting the "web of life" and abiding "by reason, not dogma," they continue.

"I'm so proud to belong to a community that respects everyone and doesn't judge anyone," Vera says. "One thing that drew me to [Shim] was we have the same values. This superseded any kind of religious difference."

Besides her involvement with SVUUS - she writes a column for the newsletter - Vera is a volunteer tutor at the Guadalupe Center, and is active with Coalition of Religious Communities, an advocacy group to combat poverty, and with the Democratic Party. She says she serves "St. Cosgrove," Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray. All of this despite her physical ailments, including ongoing back problems and pain associated with fibromyalgia.

His work schedule is too erratic to make commitments, but Shim, too, likes to be involved with politics. He's been known to approach people in supermarkets to make sure they're registered to vote, Vera says with a smile.

The pangs of guilt for leaving the Catholic Church have pretty much dissipated, she explains. Living in a place where she sees the church as especially conservative makes it easier.

Shim sometimes misses the rituals in Judaism. He hasn't been to synagogue in a long time and suspects he'd be "noticeably a stranger" if he walked in today. And don't expect him to use the word "church" in describing where he goes to services. That's a "little hangup" he can't shake.

"I feel Jewish," he says. "Don't ask me what it means, but I feel Jewish."

The Einis complement each other. She's shy; he's far from it. She hates confrontation; he has no problem standing up for her when insurance companies do her wrong. They travel well together. In August, it'll be a cruise in the Baltic Sea.

"He takes such good care of me," Vera says. "He's intelligent. Our value systems are just so right on. We believe the same things."

Shim, who traveled the world to find her, answers, "I've learned from her more than I have from anyone else. Just from her being, her behavior, her deeds - the respect she has for other people."

"I'm comfortable where I am," says Vera, before reaching out to stroke her husband's hand, one she's held for close to 21 years.

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Contact Jessica Ravitz at jravitz@sltrib.com or 801-257-8776. Send comments about this story to the religion editor at religioneditor@sltrib.com.