By Michael Gros
Growing up in Atlanta, GA, Asher Siegelman was surrounded by the values and culture of America. But he felt that the society was empty and he was disappointed by the ideals around him. He was especially frustrated by the lack of genuine role models he could follow.
“In my senior year of high school, I had realized that I had never really found people I could look up to in a really serious way,” Asher said. “I had always been looking for people who were not only brilliant, but good people. Good men who treated their wives well and had good families. It’s not a model that’s very prevalent in Western civilization.”
The role models that America swoons over – the sports stars, actors and politicians – left Asher wanting. With the rags filled with the daily scandals of these seemingly perfect people, Asher groped in the darkness for someone to rely in, someone to aspire to be like.
“I had seen many people when I was secular whom people looked up to as mentors, who cheated on their wives, were dishonest in business and were crooked individuals. People need someone to look up to, need someone to follow, someone to help them out in life,” Asher said.
Like many Jews searching for answers, Asher traveled to Israel and spent a year studying at Hebrew University. He felt that Judaism could answer some of his questions, and so he immersed himself in his religion. He spent the year learning Hebrew and experiencing Jewish culture, practices and holidays. He also deliberately searched for Jews he could learn from.
He began finding role models throughout Jerusalem, from simple Jews eking out an existence in the Old City to leaders of communities and yeshivas in other neighborhoods. These were all people steeped in their religion and whose moral beliefs pervaded their daily lives. He was impressed by their sensitivity and intelligence and the deep respect they showed to others. These were the role models he had always craved.
The more that Asher got to know such people, the more he realized that their values and convictions came from their religion. Judaism is centered on moral and ethical standards and extols us to be “a light amongst the nations.” As the Talmud writes, “Any Torah sage whose interior is not like his exterior is not a Torah sage” (Yoma 72b). It’s not enough to look pure and upright, but one must have these values at the core of his being.
Asher was introduced to Yeshivat Machon Shlomo in Jerusalem, and spent two years studying there. In the yeshiva and community he met many more brilliant, upstanding Jews.
One of the rabbis at Machon Shlomo left a particularly deep impression on him. Rabbi Meir Triebitz attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before receiving a PhD in mathematical physics from Princeton University at age 22. He eventually found his way to Israel where he became a rabbi and Torah scholar.
Meeting brilliant, intellectually honest and observant people such as Rabbi Triebitz helped Asher appreciate the beauty and eternal relevance of Judaism.
“A person like that, with that kind of brain, wouldn’t be falling for something stupid,” Asher said. “I met amazing people. People who had come from the secular world and were at the top in terms of brain power and were religious people, who became religious via free choice. I recognized that this was the best way to live.”
With these experiences, Asher in time became observant. His family had separately become religious, and his brother even moved to Israel and joined him to study at Machon Shlomo.
Asher’s role models also helped him with another challenge for some ba’alei teshuva: for someone not raised learning Torah, it can be intimidating to dive into it.
“Often times people think of the Torah as basically impossible, a closed book. They get frustrated,” Asher said. But seeing others immersed in Torah study can help them relate to it. “It makes you think maybe I can do this. He’s doing it, so maybe I can get to the point where I can have the same kind of energy.”
Throughout Asher’s journey, his role models have had a dramatic impact in helping to shape his direction and life. The relationships he has built and the lessons he has learned from them have left an indelible mark on him. And if there’s one lesson he can impart to other Jews, it’s to take advantage of the amazing Jewish leaders around them.
“I’m very fortunate to be Jewish and been able to access these individuals I have reached. It’s a terrible thing to not be able to,” Asher said. “Many Jews never have the chance to meet these kinds of people.”
Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com