It Takes a Village – Part 2

When I speak about my dear friend and mentor, Esther, Z’l, I feel as if I am not only mourning the loss of a dear friend, but I am also mourning the loss of the very soul which helped my neshama, and my husband and children’s neshamas, to return to G-d.

When Marsha Smagley, of Highland Park, Illinois, needed help for getting through the loss of a dear loved one, tragically, her Partner in Torah, Esther Solomon, Z’l, could not help her because it was Esther herself whom Marsha mourned, after Esther was killed in a tragic accident while crossing the street in Brooklyn. Marsha, a writer herself, is hard-pressed to find the words to adequately describe the impact that Esther and her husband, Nosson Solomon had on her entire family.

When Marsha started learning with Esther, her husband Norm and children, Jeffrey and Jamie, were trailing behind her in observance, but that all changed in 2004 after Esther and Nosson graciously invited Marsha and her family to spend all 11 days of Pesach with their family in Brooklyn. At the time Marsha had been married to Norm a number of years, and they had recently transferred their children from public school to day school. Marsha was worried that Flatbush would be too intense for her family, but they embarked on the adventure, and Marsha sees this time as pivotal to the religious transformation of her entire family. She elaborates:

“My husband and I have always lived in a very secular Jewish community. He never wore a kippah every day, but when he returned from Flatbush, after wearing a kippah every day in the Solomon’s home, he went back to work in a secular company wearing a kippah every day. Esther and Nosson had a tremendous impact on my husband and it was wonderful for our shalom bayis. They completely warmed my husband’s heart, and he got the chance to see that all of the changes I wanted to make to be more observant were actually normal in a frum community, and they weren’t just coming from me. Esther’s cooking was beyond phenomenal, and our whole family learned how to make Pesach through her example. We spent two entire Pesachs with her and Nosson, and then the Pesach after she was niftar, we all came to help Nosson make Pesach without her. Although it was incredibly sad, I felt Esther’s bracha in the kitchen.
Read more It Takes a Village – Part 2

It Takes a Village – Part 1

When I attend a wedding, Bar Mitzvah, or other simcha in the frum Jewish community, I am more than a guest. I am a researcher. I study all the details, always poignantly aware that I have no sister, mother, or Bubbe to guide me down the path of planning a simcha. While I look forward to these milestone events in our family’s future, B’ezras Hashem, they also terrify me. How will I know what to do? Even more importantly, what not to do? There are so many rules, so many accepted norms. I have no history dotted with family simchas to look back on, and no relatives to call with an urgent, “Is this the way to do it?” question. For this wisdom, I am counting on my friends and community. They will light the way for me, as if I am an orphan taken under their wing.

Hilary Rodham Clinton first coined the infamous expression: “It takes a village to raise a child.” For Robin Black, a bala’as teshuvah adult, it took a frum community to get her to the chuppah, and no less than 100 people were actively involved in setting Robin and her now husband, Dan, on the frum derech of chassan and kallah.

Robin relates how the frum community, (and too many special mentors to count), was instrumental in her journey:

When I looked around the wedding hall after the chuppah, the first thing I thought was, ‘all of these people got me here!

“I was living in Somerset NJ, and Hashem placed me in, of all things, a Masters in Speech Therapy program (where just a few frum students were attending!). I was Jewish, but not the least bit observant, married to a secular Jew, and the mother of a baby boy. I met my very special friend, Hadassa P. who was also a student in the program, an observant Jew from Monsey. I’m a very curious person by nature, and I started asking Hadassa random questions like, ‘why do you wear skirts all the time?’, and ‘why, during Chol Hamoed, Sukkos were there so many girls in the class who wouldn’t write?’ Then one day, she and I were in the bathroom at the end of the school day together and I saw her stop for a moment, mumble something to herself, and keep walking. I asked her if she was okay and she told me about Asher Yatzar. I was totally fascinated. Hadassa recommended that we became Partners in Torah, learning over the phone each week, and I very enthusiastically said, “Yes!”

“That was in February of 2004. I never stopped asking her questions, and I started my journey with one small step – I decided to take one hour out on Friday nights away from watching television! By July 2005, I had given up pork and shellfish and eating milk and meat together. And then, in August of 2005, my marriage fell apart. I didn’t want to be home on the weekend with my soon to be ex-husband, so Hadassa invited me to her house for Shabbos, and the next two Shabbosim, and by then I decided that Shabbos observance was a practice I wanted to keep.

“This is when the frum community really sprang into action. There were nine frum girls in my class, and I rotated between all of their houses and even their parents’ houses, never missing a Shabbos, and then the clocks changed and I had a problem. I was working in an internship and couldn’t get to Passaic, Brooklyn, or Lakewood before Shabbos began. This so-called problem was gam zu letovah.

“My friend, Hadassa was a mentor at Moodus, (now known as Sinai Retreats) which is a summertime kiruv program located near Lake George, NY for college students and professionals. She knew Rabbi Drucker, Rav of Agudath Israel of Highland Park, NJ from this program, and I called him on her recommendation. He set me up with the Feuers of Highland Park for Shabbos. The Feuers are pillars of the community, and my community rapidly started expanding. Zehava introduced me to many of her friends, who were very welcoming, so then I started rotating Shabbosim in Highland Park amongst her friends. When Zehava went to the country in the summer, she introduced me to Rikki Samel, a phenomenal sheitle machor in town who knows just about everyone. Rikki introduced me to a whole new set of friends, and then I met Adina Pruzansky, another well-connected member of the community and Adina introduced me to everyone she knew. My circle got wider, and wider, until it seems as if I was meeting, and eating by just about every frum family in Highland Park/Edison, NJ! How could I not commit to becoming a fully Shomer-Shabbos observant Jew with all of these wonderful people inspiring me?

“Chol Haomed Pesach of 2007, my divorce was final and I moved to my own apartment in Highland Park. The community did not rest until I met my bashert, Dan Black on December 4, 2007, and then we needed help with absolutely everything related to getting married, from planning a vort, to a wedding shower, to a wedding, to sheva brachas.

“My mother finally understood what I love so much about being frum, when she saw the love that the community poured all over Dan and me. One moment I will never forget: Under the chuppah, Rikki Samel saw that my mother was standing alone. She left her seat and went to stand next to my mother, to explain to her everything that was happening under the chuppah. Zehava Feuer, Hadassa, and a large group of women undertook every detail of my wedding day and Sheva Brachas – all Dan and I had to do is show up! When I looked around the wedding hall after the chuppah, the first thing I thought was, ‘all of these people got me here!

“Dan and me and my son, Zach now live in Highland Park as full-fledge frum members of the community. Dan has been as welcomed as much as I was. The community arranged for him to have the right seat in shul. The community helped offer guidance about my son’s educational choices, and they continue to feed us. We’ve been married for six months and I have yet to make a Shabbos lunch!”

Being a mentor doesn’t just involve the fun stuff. Making a shiva visit to an observant friend who is sitting together with non-observant family members is also a great opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem. – and to help mend fences. (Rabbi Eli Gewirtz)

Robin’s story does not at all surprise Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, Founder and National Director of Partners in Torah, since 1993. Partners in Torah matches Jewish men and women who have an interest in Judaism but who lack the necessary foundation with a carefully selected frum mentor, for up to an hour a week of in-person or over-the-phone study and camaraderie. Their goal is to provide unaffiliated Jews with a personal connection to Judaism and to offer them the support or the space to decide how they want to incorporate their knowledge into practice. With13,000+ weekly participants now in action, and 30,000 Jewish adults from over 1,100 cities who have participated, not a week, or even a day, goes by without Rabbi Gewirtz hearing of a mentor’s involvement in their partner’s life in an expanded way beyond the hour-long commitment of Torah study. Rabbi Gewirtz explains:
“The needs of people who have become observant are quite different than those of a person in the learning process. Very often, it’s not a question of whether they should do this or that but ‘how am I going to manage?” FFB’s sometimes don’t understand the anxiety of coping, for example, with Pesach preparations or the psychological pain of spending Yom Tov alone. To say, “it’s not easy” to have no family to go to for Yom Tov is the understatement of the year. But worse than that is the situation where people who were falling all over them to invite them for Shabbos and Yom Tov before they became observant , now almost forget that they exist. It’s always a good idea to check in with baalei teshuva to make sure they’ve gotten their Yom Tov plans taken care of.

“More often than not, mentors get very involved with their Torah partners; some for many years after their formal learning comes to a close. Many treat their partners as extended family members – whether or not the person has become fully observant. I’ve been to numerous weddings, Sheva Brachos and Bar Mitzvos where I was introduced to a family member’s Torah partner who traveled a long distance to be at their mentor’s simcha. It’s a special thrill to see partners standing together in a family picture. I’ve actually been to a few “re-do” weddings (where they were previously married but not k’din) that were fully arranged by the mentor. One such wedding took place recently in Lakewood at the home of Avi and Tzippy Braude. Everything from the flowers, to the chuppah, to the music, to the meal was as elegant as it would have been in the fanciest hall. The whole community got involved. When partners go beyond the call of duty like this, it goes a long way in reassuring their previously non-observant partner that their mentor is their lifelong friend and that they have a community they can call ‘home’.

Rabbi Gewirtz continues with this warning: “A mentor’s involvement is undeniably essential with a simcha involving non-observant family, but it’s essential to be tuned in to the family dynamics. Family members may sometimes welcome your involvement; at other times it may be best to stay in the background. Adjusting to a daughter’s or brother’s newly observant lifestyle isn’t always easy. As strange it may sound, a wedding for some family members can be viewed as a tragedy. A wedding can as easily be seen as gaining a new son-in-law as it can be seen as losing a daughter. It’s incredibly important to be sensitive to this. The last thing they want is an outsider acting as if it’s their simcha.

“When it’s done well, the mentor meets the family, is introduced as a close friend, and expresses pleasure to meet the people he/she has heard so much about. The mentor might say: ‘I don’t know if you’ve previously been to an Orthodox wedding but there are many customs you may be unfamiliar with. If you’d like, I can go through the ceremony with you.’ The mentor may show them their own wedding pictures so that they can really get a feel for what to expect. This is almost always appreciated, but it’s important to first ask if they want or need your help.

Being a mentor doesn’t just involve the fun stuff. Making a shiva visit to an observant friend who is sitting together with non-observant family members is also a great opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem. – and to help mend fences. Resentments sometimes felt by parents or siblings can melt away while people are grieving and experiencing life from a different lens.

“Explaining the Jewish approach to mourning and some of the minhagim is one way to help. In fact, Partners in Torah just launched a new website to help such people acquire a deeper understanding of the Jewish way of mourning. Physically being there however, and getting them to talk about the niftar is even more important, and can permanently alter long-held resentment. In general, when the family sees that the mentor really cares, and that he or she is not trying to impose his or her halachos on the non observant family, their involvement is usually gratefully welcomed.”

Rabbi Gewirtz’s words ring true to me. Over the last seven years, I have learned with two partners in Torah mentors. Although I will always give PIT the credit for making the shidduch, long ago, I stopped thinking of these dear women as my PIT mentors, and started thinking of them as friends whom I hope will be a part of my life for many years to come. The title of “mentor” makes it sound as if one person is the teacher, and the other, the student. I can safely say, because my mentors have told me this, that on more than one occasion, I was a teacher for them as well. They know more halacha than me, and they have a longer history of being frum than I do, but we have discussed concerns as Jewish women, wives, and mothers, as equals, and as friends. I dare say they would tell you that I have helped them as much as they have helped me, and we now think of ourselves as friends who learn together, instead of mentor and mentee.

This article was originally published in Mishpacha, Family First, on 11/5/08. Part 2 will be published next week.