The Teshuva Journey: A Message From The Past
Becoming observant often requires a person to make radical changes in his life as he takes on new observances and practices. For David Wachtfungel*, an encounter with the memory of a deceased great-grandfather helped him overcome these hurdles.
David grew up non-observant in Michigan. During college he began to realize the importance of passing Judaism onto his children. David’s parents had gotten divorced years earlier, and his father had remarried a non-Jewish woman and had non-Jewish children with her. David’s brother married out of the religion. His sister followed suit and did not raise her children Jewish. David recognized that he was the only person left who could continue the religion. “I was going to be the last one to carry on the Jewish tradition in the family. I felt I owed it to myself to start asking questions about my Judaism,” David said. “I realized it’s ending with me, this Reform Jew. I don’t have a clue about Shabbat and Judaism.”
David went to Israel after graduation to increase his knowledge of Jewish culture and history. He spent two years there and loved it. He was all set to make aliyah, when he tore two ligaments in his ankle and had to return to Michigan for surgery. After the surgery David spent several months in Michigan recovering. He longed to return to Israel. Even though he still knew very little about his religion, he felt the most connected to it there.
While in Michigan he met several Orthodox Jews and began learning more about Judaism from them. He soon realized that it wasn’t the country of Israel that he missed but the religious feelings he had experienced there. David began working for a small company in Michigan owned by Shimon Traeger, who himself had become observant a few years earlier. During work the two men often discussed Judaism and Shimon tried answering David’s many questions.
After a few months, Shimon invited David to spend Shabbat with him and his family. David came and had a beautiful time. Still, he had many doubts about Orthodoxy. He loved the deep intellectual traditions, but felt that Judaism was too foreign to his lifestyle and too alien from how his family practiced the religion.
On Shabbat afternoon, Shimon and David went to a small Chassidic synagogue for Mincha. After the service Shimon introduced David to the Rabbi of the synagogue, Rabbi Stein. He was a middle-aged man and the son of the founding Rabbi of the synagogue who had passed away years earlier. He lived in New York and traveled to Michigan only a few times a year for the Jewish holidays and an occasional Shabbat.
“Rabbi, this is my friend David Wachtfungel,” Shimon said.
The Rabbi stood in shock for a second.
“David Wachtfungel?” the Rabbi replied. “Was your grandfather Ira Wachtfungel?”
David nodded in confusion.
“Stand right here. I have something for you.”
The Rabbi returned a minute later holding two dusty plaques. They were acknowledgements of contributions made many years earlier to the synagogue. Inscribed on them were the names of David’s grandfather, great-grandfather and great-grandmother!
Rabbi Stein said that David’s great-grandparents, who were Orthodox, had been active members of the synagogue in its early days. One plaque was from David’s great-grandfather in memory of his wife, and the other was from David’s grandfather in memory of his father. The plaques had been sitting untouched in the synagogue for thirty years.
David’s great-grandfather passed away when David was very young. When he was five, David remembers visiting his great-grandfather and receiving a kiss from him on his forehead. His great-grandfather said something to him, and while David doesn’t remember what it was, he thinks it was a blessing or a prayer for him. That memory has always remained with him.
“I have always felt a closeness to him as if he was watching over me,” David said. “I can’t help but feel grateful to him and those words he said to me.”
For David, the plaques were pieces of the puzzle he was missing. His biggest hurdle was trying to understand Judaism as a way of life with particular behaviors we must do every day. Here were members of his own family who lived based on those principles.
“These were my roots. I realized this is not a cultural thing, but this is my family,” David said. “I was interested in Judaism, but the gap seemed too far. It always appeared like two different worlds. How do you bridge that gap? That was a big breakthrough when I saw that my great-grandfather was religious.”
David had also been hesitant to adopt an observant lifestyle because he felt like doing so would cut off his family. But he realized that he wasn’t breaking with his family but was actually returning to their traditions.
The guiding hand of G-d is clear in David’s story. David and Shimon just happened to go into the synagogue, the Rabbi just happened to be there that Shabbat and the plaques just happened to be still be sitting there after 30 years. G-d arranged the events behind the scenes in precisely the order that David needed to return.
David’s story also proves that you never know the result of a good deed.
When Rabbi Elazar Meisels, who is affiliated with several outreach organizations, heard the story from David he said, “Your grandfather thought he was helping the Rabbi when he gave him the money. What he didn’t realize is this money that he gave was going to insure that his family would continue, because it’s only from you that he would have Jewish offspring.”
* The names in this story have been changed with the exception of Rabbi Meisels.
Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
(published in The Jewish Press June 2007)