Posted on | February 28, 2007 | By Michael Gros | 3 Comments
There are so many amazing, inspiring stories of how people returned to Judaism, and last week I started writing a monthly column called The Teshuva Journey in The Jewish Press chronicling some of them. The first column is about the journey I know best (my own), but future columns will be on other people.
“Abba, is it time to learn Parsha yet?” asks my four year-old son, as he and his two year-old sister scramble onto the couch, with eager eyes and parsha books in hand. As I begin to read it’s hard not to reflect in amazement how only ten years ago as I began my Teshuva journey I barely knew what Parsha was, and here I am today shlepping nachas from my children’s burning desire to learn it.
When I was around my son’s age, I remember going to my grandfather’s house and watching him put on his tefillin each morning. He wasn’t Orthodox, but grew up frum in Europe. When he emigrated to America he continued to put on Tefillin every day and continued to go to shul each Shabbas. Even at such an early age, I remember being enthralled by watching my grandfather put on his tefillin. The sight planted a seed in me that would one day sprout to a burning desire to do the same. Indeed tefillin was one of the first mitzvot that I took on when I started my teshuva journey at age 19. There was another dramatic impact my grandfather had on my life, though it only took place years later, even after he passed away.
There were several other events and people throughout my life that pushed me onto the path towards Orthodox Judaism, and by the time I was finally exposed to it in college, I jumped at the chance. I always knew there had to be more to Judaism than bagels on Sunday morning and some old customs. For Judaism to last for so many years through so many challenges and hardships, there had to be something more to it than I was getting in my Conservative synagogue growing up.
Over my first nineteen years of life I accumulated plenty of questions about our religion, the world and my reason for being here. I finally got the chance to ask all my questions and start getting answers during my sophomore year at Emory University in Atlanta. Atlanta is home to an amazing frum community focused on outreach and personal growth. Any experienced Jewish organization professional knows that free food is the key to getting people to come to an event, and it holds true nowhere better than for reaching cash-starved students on a college campus. Rabbis from the local Kollel run a weekly Pizza lunch-n-learn on campus, and that combined with plenty of Shabbas meals in the nearby community and an assortment of programs from a Chabad family on campus, made the ideal environment for myself and several other students to return to Torah-true Judaism. (Of course there were bumps along the way, but looking back it’s much easier to see it as continuous journey towards an end goal than it must have seemed at the time.)
I’ve always held Sukkot to be the anniversary of the beginning of my Teshuva journey, since one of my first experiences was being invited to a beautiful meal on the first night of Sukkot. When having new baalei teshuva for a meal, families will try to provide a meal soaked in spirituality and enlightened conversations. We came away from that meal not only uplifted from the dinner, but also drenched from the torrential rainstorm that night!
After finally drying out, we continued on throughout the year attending plenty of Shabbas and Yom Tov meals and inspiring classes. I planned to return home for the summer to the Middle of Nowhere, NJ, with the hopes of interning in New York City. As we say, man plans and G-d laughs. Not one of the dozens of companies I sent my resume to or even the handful of interviews that I had led to a job. Where did I end up for the summer? Back in Atlanta. I received an amazing internship at a huge company there, though I don’t recall ever submitting my resume to it! Being able to spend an extra two months in a holy community being immersed in spiritual growth, Torah study and in the company of some true Tzaddikm helped cement my desire to become frum.
When I was 20 I met the woman I would eventually marry. It was actually the second time we met. She grew up in my grandparents’ synagogue, and our grandparents were close friends. My grandmother had long kept an eye on her for me (yes, every grandmother tries to make a match, but hers actually worked!) We had met fours years earlier at a synagogue event before either of us was frum. In the interim we each went to college and became religious, and even though we were hundreds of miles apart, when we finally met again we had grown to the same level of observance.
It’s often said that a person becomes frum in part because of the merits of his or her predecessors. In our case it wasn’t just bygone merits, but active involvement. It was not only my grandmother working to get us to meet, but our grandfathers working upstairs behind the scenes pushing us to become more religious and eventually get together.
Every ba’al teshuva has a different path back to Judaism and a different element which attracted them. I always joked that it was for me it was the free food I would get at peoples’ shabbas tables, but the real draw was Judaism’s infinitely deep intellectual tradition. At seminars and lunch-n-learns I got to debate the creation of the world and evolution, feminism, morality, etc. The discussions were definitely more stimulating and genuine than any course I took in college. Little did I know that those discussions around a pie of pizza would lead to far deeper discussions half a world away learning gemorrah, halacha, etc. in yeshiva in Israel after college and currently in a smicha program in NY.
But the pinnacle of that intellectual pursuit is today learning Torah with my children, and having to figure out clever answers to their probing questions. What truly matters is the knowledge, philosophies and inspirations that we pass on to future generations. And once again it’s our grandfathers helping to push us along, for our Torah-loving son is named in memory of the two of them.