Jeff ran in terror. The gigantic dog was gaining on him and he had nowhere to hide. He knew that within seconds it would sink its razor-sharp sharp teeth into him. And then suddenly, the dog lunged at somebody else and Jeff got away.
Jeff Feder awoke in a cold sweat. He couldn’t shake the nightmares. The dreams about wild dogs and other savage animals had filled his sleep every night since he had arrived in Eilat.
Jeff had grown up in a non-observant home in New Jersey and spent his high school years with long hair, a lip ring and enmeshed in a counter-culture lifestyle. He searched desperately for meaning and substance to life, but felt only frustration at the inability of the world to provide serious answers to his existential questions. After he finished his first year at Emory University in Atlanta, GA in May 1996, Jeff decided not to return for a second year. Instead he set off to travel to try to find his place in the world.
His journeys took him all the way up to the frigid waters of Alaska, where he worked on a fishing boat, and down to the sandy beaches of Key West. He thought he would relish the freedom and independence, but he had never felt so alone and frustrated in his life.
In the midst of his journeys his mother offered to sponsor him to fly to Israel to record a video of his great-aunt speaking about how their family had survived the Holocaust in Hungary. Jeff flew to Israel, recorded the video, and then set off for a 10 day vacation across the country.
Jeff spent the first few days in Jerusalem with an observant cousin named Asher and his wife Yehudit. They asked him if he would be interested in attending a fascinating series of classes on Judaism at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah. He found the classes to be interesting but not life-changing.
He then traveled south for three days to Eilat. It was there that his nightmares began. The first night he dreamt that he was being attacked by savage, monstrous creatures and skeletons of wild animals. The next night he dreamt about the dog. After three days in Eilat, Jeff traveled to Tel Aviv. His nightmares became progressively more vivid and terrifying each night. A non-Jewish friend suggested that maybe G-d was trying to send him a message through the dreams. Jeff initially doubted the thought but eventually considered it.
“The idea of G-d trying to give me a message was completely different from my concept of G-d,” Jeff said. “My concept of G-d was that it was some kind of force that doesn’t have a will of its own, but in my dreams someone was trying to send me a message.”
The fact that some power was trying to communicate with him stood in contrast to the deep loneliness he was feeling. He felt comforted by the thought of a divine force looking out for him.
One evening Jeff decided to walk through downtown Tel Aviv to try to find answers to the chaotic thoughts cramming his head. There, in the middle of Disengoff Square in a pouring rainstorm, everything began becoming clear.
“I had this whole idea through high school of being invincible, that I was the center of things,” Jeff recalled. He had never been egotistical, but simply believed that he was always correct and the rest of the world’s was wrong. “After all these dreams, I had a moment of internal reckoning. None of this is working. I have to make a change. G-d wants me to change.”
Once he made room for G-d in his life, Jeff felt extraordinarily happy. He realized that he needed to learn more about G-d and the messages that He was sending. He decided to return to Jerusalem the next morning.
That night Jeff had only good dreams.
Jeff stayed again with Asher and Yehudit. He told them about his dreams and in particular the dream of the vicious dog. Asher told him that when people have nightmares about dogs, it is customary to read the verse (Shemot 11:7) that recalls that the dogs of Egypt did not bark when the Jews departed in the Exodus. The verse records that the dogs differentiated between the Jewish slaves and their Egyptian masters.
Jeff said he never understood why G-d would distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. But in the verse and in his dream he saw that even dogs knew the difference. The dog in his dream only attacked the other man. This helped Jeff realize that Hashem also could differentiate between people.
“I thought, ‘if he’s the G-d of all humanity, why does it matter who I am?’ But He was telling me you’re a Jew and I care,” Jeff said. “When I realized I was a Jew, I knew that Jews and G-d have a certain relationship. I had to find out about that.”
The next day Jeff went back to Aish HaTorah. He skipped the introductory classes and signed right up for classes on practical Judaism and mitzvot. Within a very short time he became an observant Jew. Once he had stumbled upon Hashem through the explanation of the dreams, and living in the spiritually fertile atmosphere of Israel, it was a very quick road to becoming religious.
Jeff spent six weeks at Aish and then returned to America. He now felt much more confident about the value of the world and his place in it. He finished Emory, and soon after returned to Israel. He now goes by the name Yitzchak and lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem.
While in Atlanta after his return to America, Jeff was at synagogue one Shabbat morning and received an aliyah to the Torah. His jaw dropped when he realized that the aliyah included the very verse from Parshat Bo that he had recited in his cousin’s house in Jerusalem.
“It was like G-d was keeping an eye on me. It was like he was saying, ‘are you sticking with the plan here? It was kind of scary,” Jeff said.
Once again, Jeff realized that Hashem was looking out for him.
Originally published in The Jewish Press in January 2011
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. To read more articles and sign up to receive them via email, visit http://www.michaelgros.com