Twelve years ago Dan Fried had an epiphany from a most unusual source. When his daughter was forced to participate in a non-Jewish holiday concert in her public school, Dan suddenly found himself standing up for his religion. The experience launched him from being religiously apathetic to becoming an activist for personal freedoms and eventually to becoming a frum Jew. The events also revealed to him strengths that he did not know he had.
Dan grew up in Connecticut where he lives until today. He was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. After his marriage in 1984, he and his wife Marge joined first a Reform synagogue and then a Conservative synagogue. Both felt spiritually empty. They weren’t looking for religion but just wanted something that gave them a path in life.
One day in December 1998 their daughter Rachael, who was in the third grade in a local public school, came home from school singing songs about Jesus and Christmas. She said the kids were practicing songs everyday for their school’s Christmas concert a few weeks later.
Dan’s wife was outraged, but Dan shrugged it off. Marge told Dan that he needed to speak to the school principal and insist that the concert not include Christian holiday songs. Dan reluctantly agreed.
“I was the last guy you should call when my daughter is singing about Jesus. I was the bottom of the list to defend my daughter’s and my family’s Yiddishkeit.”
Dan had a close relationship with the principal so he expected that she would be receptive to his appeal. He was dead wrong. She belittled his request and refused to change the concert.
Dan researched legal precedent and returned to the principal with court decisions that supported the separation of Church and State in cases similar to his. Again she refused to listen.
The school had a high number of non-observant Jewish students, so Dan turned to their parents to garner support for his efforts. They all refused to help, saying they did not want to cause problems.
Around this time Dan received tickets to an upcoming Sunday Yankees game. He told Rachael and her sister Leah, who was in the fifth grade, that they could skip their Sunday Hebrew School that morning. Recalling his own childhood experience dreading Sunday school each week, he was shocked when they said they loved Sunday school and would not miss it for a baseball game.
“That’s when I realized that I was fighting a real fight. My daughters had a real built-in connection to Judaism.”
His daughters’ reaction gave new fuel to Dan’s one-man fight. He threatened the school with a lawsuit and began calling local media outlets. The school still refused to listen and said it would proceed with the concert.
The evening of the concert arrived. The Frieds arrived at the school and were greeted by local news outlets. The school’s principal welcomed Dan with a warm reception as if nothing had happened, but Dan walked passed her and entered the building. Around his neck he wore a camcorder to record the event, and on his face was a stern demeanor. This was the culmination of weeks of preparation and he was prepared for the coming fight.
The students took their place on the stage as every parent sat on the edges of their seats awaiting the confrontation. Who would back down – the school or Mr. Fried? Would he really make a scene?
The students began singing several general holiday songs. Dan’s stomach turned in knots as they began a song about Jesus. They sang several stanzas and then the choir conductor told them to stop. He announced that he wanted to demonstrate how the student can sing harmonies, but that the school had decided not to sing the specific religious song about Jesus that night. Dan had won!
The concert ended and the Frieds walked out of the room. The other Jewish families tried to pat Dan on his back as he went. He was ecstatic that the school backed down, but was disappointed at the other families for not supporting him.
Dan’s fight against the concert was a pivotal moment. He had discovered that his Judaism had real meaning for him and his family and that he was prepared to fight for it. Hashem saw Dan’s drive and eagerness and sent him messengers to assist on his growing appreciation for Judaism.
During the year before the concert, a frum family had moved next door to the Frieds. The Frieds watched them with bewilderment as they walked to synagogue in the snow and ate in a small booth outside their house for one week in the cold Connecticut autumn.
One Friday night the family invited the Frieds for Shabbas dinner. When the father put his hands on his children’s heads to bless them, Dan began to cry.
“I had never seen such a beautiful thing,” Dan said. “I asked him what he was doing. He told me that every Friday night we bless our children. I read the words of the blessing and water came to my eyes. I knew this is what I wanted. I knew right there and then I was sold, hook, line and sinker.”
Dan and Marge began learning more about Orthodoxy. They soon pulled their daughters out of public school and enrolled them in a local Orthodox day school. With their daughters taking the lead, the entire family fell in love with Orthodoxy and became observant.
The Frieds have since become leaders in the local Orthodox community. As a volunteer project, Dan runs a service called ConnectIsrael.com which broadcasts shiurium and Jewish communal projects around the world via videoconferencing. He sees it as his way to give back to the Jewish world.
“Everyone has a calling in life. Mine is to stand up and do something,” Dan said. “From the day my kids were singing about Jesus I stood up and haven’t sat down since.”
Dan’s role as a community activist at first caught him by surprise, but it was just what he needed to turn his life around. He still looks back this time of year and smiles at the ironic beginning of his journey.
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. Originally posted 12/29/2010.