Profanity, Introspection and Guidance By Greatness

Here is an excerpt from Annual Dinner Address of Rabbi Avrohom Ausband, the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Yeshiva of the Telshe Alumni in Riverdale:

The Gra in Shir HaShirim tells us that the pasuk compares the Gedolei Yisroel—our guiding lights—to the beams of a house, while the general population is referred to as the slats that fill in the gaps. We understand that we cannot build a house without slats and the importance of every individual cannot be overstated. At the same time, we must not forget that the strength and the vision must come from the Gedolim who are the purveyors of the truth — the “beams” and our guiding lights.

There was a Jew in Toronto who was in the midst of negotiating a business deal, and was in constant contact with the lawyer from the other side. However, the lawyer’s language was so repulsive to him to the extent that he forfeited the entire deal. He also took the time to clarify the reason for his position by expressing his displeasure to the parties involved.

Two weeks later, the lawyer called the businessman and said that what happened had affected him to his very core, and he would like some guidance on how to improve his language. The businessman set him up with a chavrusa who would learn with him once-a-week. From there things progressed and eventually this lawyer became a sincere Baal Teshuva.

There was one hitch though. His wife was not on board with this extreme lifestyle change, and this brought tremendous tension into their marriage. His original contact suggested that they take a trip to Eretz Yisroel together and discuss the issue with Ray Shach. The lawyer agreed, but had serious misgivings about the presumed outcome. He assumed that Rav Shach would come down hard on his wife’s attitude and he could not picture himself presenting her with the decision of an old rabbi from Bnei Brak.

Upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel they went directly to Bnei Brak. Rav Shach listened to his story and inquired about the timing of his return trip. “This is a difficult question and I need some time to think about it.” When they returned, the response he got not only surprised him but also astounded him as to the clarity of its thinking. “Your wife married you on the premise that there’s no Shabbos. She is being the logical one in asking you to maintain the status quo. You are only entitled to ask her for a favor to accommodate you on something that pertains to your personal life.”

When he arrived home his wife’s greeting was: “So you’re divorcing me?” Today, she wears a sheitel and their children are all frum!

This is the clarity of the beams. This is where truth shines through in a world of darkness. And this is what a yeshiva is all about!

May we all merit to find the truth that is obscured in our world and one day clearly see the realization of Hashem Echad U’shmo Echad!

Of Slugs, Racquetball and Shabbat

When people become observant, they often face certain delicate situations in the workplace, from struggling to find kosher food at meetings to having to leave early on Friday afternoons in the winter to be home for Shabbat. But for a division president of a $1.5 billion retailer, becoming frum led to its own set of challenges, both harrowing and humorous.

Yehoshua (Harry) Looks grew up attending a synagogue affiliated with the Reconstructionist Judaism movement. He was always attracted to the intellectual side of Judaism. After he married his wife Debbie, the couple moved around; from Ohio to New York, then a stop in Boston for business school, to St. Louis, to Baltimore, and back to St. Louis. After shopping around, they eventually joined a Conservative synagogue.

Yehoshua’s spiritual journey started after his rise in the ranks of Edison Brothers Stores. At age forty, after ten years with the company, Yehoshua was promoted to president of the company’s international division. At this juncture, seemingly fulfilled in life, Yehoshua began asking questions about the authenticity of the Torah. These questions ultimately became a spiritual crisis. Based on numerous conversations with the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, the two men began learning one-on-one together, studying the Talmud and other Jewish sources. .

With his appetite for Jewish learning whetted, Yehoshua began to ravenously search for all Jewish sources he could find and began dedicating every spare minute to learning. He traded in his daily 5:30 am racquetball match for a Daf Yomi shiur.

A common challenge for people when they become observant is figuring out what to eat at business meetings and other events, and especially how to get kosher food in places far removed from Jewish communities. However keeping kosher was generally not a challenge for Yeshoshua, and it even helped him out of several sticky situations.

Yehoshua’s position took him on frequent business trips to China to check on factories and to open new offices. Before becoming religious, Yehoshua had been an adventurous eater and eagerly partook of the food at the lavish banquets during the trips. The feasts featured a varied assortment of Chinese delicacies, including meat of questionable origin and even insects.

However one food that Yehoshua could never develop a taste for was slugs, a common item at the dinners. “The fact that I could no longer partake of the meals for dietary reasons was a nice side benefit,” Yehoshua said, smiling.

As he become increasingly religious Yehoshua began bringing canned food with him wherever he went. Noticing this, his colleagues became concerned that he did not have enough to eat. One night in a restaurant in China a coworker, assuming that he could eat all vegetables, ordered for him a plate of string beans. A few minutes later the waiter brought a plate with a beautiful bed of string beans, crowned by lobster sauce filled with fresh pieces of seafood.

Yehoshua’s craving for learning went with him on his trips. Everywhere he went, he brought a Gemarah and his Daf Yomi cassette tapes. At the end of one trip to China, his long-haul flight back to America was delayed by fog in Shanghai.. So with extra time in the airport, Yehoshua sat in the business class lounge listening to his tapes to learn the day’s daf.

Within twenty minutes he was joined by two other frum Jews who were also stranded.. Yehoshua shared his tapes with them so they could learn as well.

“Here we were waiting in the airport in Shangai, fogged in, and three yidden were learning the daf!”

Yehoshua’s religious growth came with some challenges at work. One of his superiors in the company was particularly unsettled with Yehoshua’s need to leave early on Friday afternoons in the winter. The boss began keeping track to the minute the time that Yehoshua left each Friday, and became increasingly cold to him.

One Friday the executive called Yehoshua into his office. He angrily berated Yehoshua, accusing him of slacking on the job by leaving early.. After several minutes of harsh attacks he roared at Yehoshua: “What am I going to do if your business falls apart on Shabbat and you’re not there to take care of it?!”

Yehoshua responded with composure and delivered a prefect response:

“You’re going to fire me. If my business falls apart on one day, I’m obviously not doing my job.”

Yehoshua’s boss had no rebuttal. Yehoshua calmly turned and walked out of the office and his boss never said another word to him about Shabbat.

In 1994 the Looks family took a 10-day trip to Israel to tour and study. The trip solidified the religious direction that they were heading in.

As the trip came to a close, Yehoshua, Debbie and their three children all agreed that one day they wanted to come back.

That day came much faster than they expected. In November 1995 Edison Brothers declared bankruptcy. In April 1996, the company bought out Yehoshua’s contract and he left with a severance package commensurate with his 15 years experience at the company.

With their future now wide open, Debbie suggested the family take a one-year sabbatical in Israel. They sold their house and cars and moved to Yerushalayim. The one year became two and then became a commitment to make Israel their home.. Yehoshua eventually became a rabbi. Since then he has worked in outreach and Jewish education in Israel and America, using his years of business experience to help manage Jewish organizations..

Since leaving Edison Brothers, Yehoshua’s life has taken a far different course. Now instead of overseeing the production of clothing based on ephemeral fashion trends, he is living and disseminating a product that’s eternal. And he’s working for a Boss who doesn’t mind if he leaves early on Fridays.

————————————————————–

Michael Gros writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to michaelgros@gmail.com

Published in The Jewish Press in July 2011

Teaching an Older BT New Davening Tricks

It’s amazing what we remember from our youth. I went to Hebrew School at the Clearview Jewish Center in Whitestone, NY, which was recently sold to a Montessori School, with some rights retained to a small chapel. I still remember my second grade class close to 50 years ago. We were learning how to read the Shemoneh Esrai and we had progress charts on the wall, based on the speed and accuracy of our reading. I still remember Shelley L. and how fast she read, and how fast she got through the Shomoneh Esrai. I should have emulated Shelley.

Although I went to Junior Congregation, I never was the Chazzan. After my Bar Mitzvah, I followed the path of many Conservative Jews of the time and placed my siddur, tallis and tefillin secure and safe in my closet, as I would not be needing them any time soon. When I did return to Torah and mitzvos, it was through Rabbis in Queens and Long Island, so I never spent time away at Yeshiva, and missed any opportunities to acquire public davening skills.

Fast forward to this year and I still had never davened from the Amud. In fact the first time I ever davened from the Amud was in the cemetery parking lot after my father’s levaya in April of this year. The first few weeks were rough as there is a big difference between davening privately and davening publicly.

Over the past four months, many people have commented on how much I’ve improved and I hope to improve even more. When I feel I’m in a supportive environment among friends, I do pretty well because I feel at license to daven, rather than read. In other places, where I feel a read-as-fast-as-possible pressure, I’ll fumfer over a word or two or three or four.

There are many growth opportunities in this world. Some of them require us to put ourselves out there and maybe face a little embarrassment. But if your willing to learn you can acquire new skills, and you’ll probably find that the effort was worth it.

Eating Cookies at the Kosel on the 17th of Tammuz

Before I became frum, I lit Channukah candles (I miss my purple and gold yarmulke), I didn’t eat bread on Pesach (I was stringent–it had to be bread davka) and I fasted on Yom Kippur. Even in college I fasted the whole day, and as soon as the sun finally went down (behind the administration building), the pepperoni pizza was mine. I deserved it after a day of affliction. Little did I know that other days of affliction dotted the Jewish calendar, too.

Just a few weeks after I joined my friend in his BT yeshiva, it was the 17th of Tammuz. I was given a briefing (very brief), and was told it was a fast day. Being natually respectful (and too shy to protest), I went along with it and during the early afternoon, I found myself sitting by my dirah window overlooking the Kosel while my friend was “praying Minkah” in the yeshiva. My stomach started to rumble. There was no one around, and I did have a stash of wafers under my blanket for emergencies. I glanced at the Wall, then at my cookies, then at the Wall. Do I miss what had been in the airspace above that wall? Ok, whatever, but mourning takes energy, doesn’t it? After all, when I used to go to a shiva in America, there was tons of food there. Wall vs. wafers [rumble!]…the wafers won.
I hid the evidence and dusted off the fingerprints…I still remember how amazed my friend was that I fasted so well.

Just three weeks later, another fast day. I didn’t eat, but I did manage to sneak into a chair every once in a while. I certainly didn’t greet anyone (my shyness came in handy again.) It was more than a little frustrating as it was so new, even though the very basics in yeshiva gave me a general idea. The fact is that as the first few years went by, I felt like I was lacking certain connections in all the holidays and fast days.

One year, I went to hear Rav Shlomo Brevda talk about the three weeks. Like so many others, he acknowledged that it’s very hard to mourn something that we never had. But unlike so many others, he spent much time going into great vivid detail (as he does so well) about what life was like when there was a Beis HaMikdash. (I heard that there are tapes for kids with this theme, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve learned quite a lot from children’s tapes in general!) Oh, really? So many miracles? This is what we lost? It was a step in the right direction, and another piece in the puzzle.

Nineteen years have gone by, and I’ve gained each year more pieces to the puzzle, about every holiday. As I look back, I see every holiday is a little different as I saw it before, (my impressions of Pesach are drastically different than even ten years ago!) and as every year more puzzle pieces are added, I get the sense of a whole picture coming together. Very slowly, but it’s coming. It takes a lifetime, but the satisfaction of looking back a few years and seeing some progress is tremendous chizuk. I’ve come a ways since munching on wafers in front of the Kosel on the 17th of Tammuz (really representative of the state of nonfrum Jewry as a whole). And believe it or not, the fasting even gets easier every year! I have never characterized myself as a spiritual fellow, but I see that the connections do come. What a great feeling!

So if you ever feel down about not growing, know it’s not true. It’s happening and it’s slow, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be–little steps, always little steps which are permanent. May we always continue to grow, and may your fast be even easier than last year.

Reposted from July 2009

One Holiday Concert Too Many

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.

Of Slugs, Racquetball and Shabbat

When people become observant, they often face certain delicate situations in the workplace, from struggling to find kosher food at meetings to having to leave early on Friday afternoons in the winter to be home for Shabbat. But for a division president of a $1.5 billion retailer, becoming frum led to its own set of challenges, both harrowing and humorous.

Yehoshua (Harry) Looks grew up attending a synagogue affiliated with the Reconstructionist Judaism movement. He was always attracted to the intellectual side of Judaism. After he married his wife Debbie, the couple moved around; from Ohio to New York, then a stop in Boston for business school, to St. Louis, to Baltimore, and back to St. Louis. After shopping around, they eventually joined a Conservative synagogue.

Yehoshua’s spiritual journey started after his rise in the ranks of Edison Brothers Stores. At age forty, after ten years with the company, Yehoshua was promoted to president of the company’s international division. At this juncture, seemingly fulfilled in life, Yehoshua began asking questions about the authenticity of the Torah. These questions ultimately became a spiritual crisis. Based on numerous conversations with the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, the two men began learning one-on-one together, studying the Talmud and other Jewish sources. .

With his appetite for Jewish learning whetted, Yehoshua began to ravenously search for all Jewish sources he could find and began dedicating every spare minute to learning. He traded in his daily 5:30 am racquetball match for a Daf Yomi shiur.

A common challenge for people when they become observant is figuring out what to eat at business meetings and other events, and especially how to get kosher food in places far removed from Jewish communities. However keeping kosher was generally not a challenge for Yeshoshua, and it even helped him out of several sticky situations.

Yehoshua’s position took him on frequent business trips to China to check on factories and to open new offices. Before becoming religious, Yehoshua had been an adventurous eater and eagerly partook of the food at the lavish banquets during the trips. The feasts featured a varied assortment of Chinese delicacies, including meat of questionable origin and even insects.

However one food that Yehoshua could never develop a taste for was slugs, a common item at the dinners. “The fact that I could no longer partake of the meals for dietary reasons was a nice side benefit,” Yehoshua said, smiling.

As he become increasingly religious Yehoshua began bringing canned food with him wherever he went. Noticing this, his colleagues became concerned that he did not have enough to eat. One night in a restaurant in China a coworker, assuming that he could eat all vegetables, ordered for him a plate of string beans. A few minutes later the waiter brought a plate with a beautiful bed of string beans, crowned by lobster sauce filled with fresh pieces of seafood.

Yehoshua’s craving for learning went with him on his trips. Everywhere he went, he brought a Gemarah and his Daf Yomi cassette tapes. At the end of one trip to China, his long-haul flight back to America was delayed by fog in Shanghai.. So with extra time in the airport, Yehoshua sat in the business class lounge listening to his tapes to learn the day’s daf.

Within twenty minutes he was joined by two other frum Jews who were also stranded.. Yehoshua shared his tapes with them so they could learn as well.

“Here we were waiting in the airport in Shangai, fogged in, and three yidden were learning the daf!”

Yehoshua’s religious growth came with some challenges at work. One of his superiors in the company was particularly unsettled with Yehoshua’s need to leave early on Friday afternoons in the winter. The boss began keeping track to the minute the time that Yehoshua left each Friday, and became increasingly cold to him.

One Friday the executive called Yehoshua into his office. He angrily berated Yehoshua, accusing him of slacking on the job by leaving early.. After several minutes of harsh attacks he roared at Yehoshua: “What am I going to do if your business falls apart on Shabbat and you’re not there to take care of it?!”

Yehoshua responded with composure and delivered a prefect response:

“You’re going to fire me. If my business falls apart on one day, I’m obviously not doing my job.”

Yehoshua’s boss had no rebuttal. Yehoshua calmly turned and walked out of the office and his boss never said another word to him about Shabbat.

In 1994 the Looks family took a 10-day trip to Israel to tour and study. The trip solidified the religious direction that they were heading in.

As the trip came to a close, Yehoshua, Debbie and their three children all agreed that one day they wanted to come back.

That day came much faster than they expected. In November 1995 Edison Brothers declared bankruptcy. In April 1996, the company bought out Yehoshua’s contract and he left with a severance package commensurate with his 15 years experience at the company.

With their future now wide open, Debbie suggested the family take a one-year sabbatical in Israel. They sold their house and cars and moved to Yerushalayim. The one year became two and then became a commitment to make Israel their home.. Yehoshua eventually became a rabbi. Since then he has worked in outreach and Jewish education in Israel and America, using his years of business experience to help manage Jewish organizations..

Since leaving Edison Brothers, Yehoshua’s life has taken a far different course. Now instead of overseeing the production of clothing based on ephemeral fashion trends, he is living and disseminating a product that’s eternal. And he’s working for a Boss who doesn’t mind if he leaves early on Fridays.

————————————————————–
Michael Gros writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to michaelgros@gmail.com
Published in The Jewish Press in July 2011

The Teshuva Journey: Blame the Amish!

If you want to know Beth Rubin’s role models to becoming religious, it was the Amish.

Beth* grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood of Philadelphia. Everyone that she knew was Jewish, and they all went to afternoon Hebrew school and had lavish Bar and Bar Mitzvah parties. In such a uniform community people took their Jewish identity for granted and felt no need for religious activities.

However even as a young girl something gnawed at Beth’s insides. She felt that she was missing something. Beth had a deep desire for purity, truth and a meaningful life. When her Nursery School teachers in the Conservative Synagogue sang about Shabbas and talked about Kosher food, Beth decided this was for her.

“I really wanted to live a life where there was more to it,” Beth said. “I wanted to keep Kosher to be close to G-d.”

Growing up in Philadelphia meant frequent school trips to the nearby Amish Country. Beth loved seeing the simple, basic lives lead by the Amish. Having never come into contact with religious Jews, she assumed that the Amish were the only people living a pure, clean lifestyle.

“I thought I belonged there,” Beth said. “I told my mother I was born in the wrong generation. I should have been born in the time of Little House on the Prairie. I wanted to move to the Amish Country.”

After college Beth went not to the Amish Country, but to Texas to attend medical school. Soon after arriving, she was invited to attend a Revival Meeting by a local Born Again Christian group. Beth accepted the invitation out of curiosity.

At the Revival Meeting were hundreds of people singing, clapping and standing on chairs. Energy filled the room, but Beth felt completely out of place.

“I thought to myself, ‘what is a nice Jewish girl doing here?’” Beth said with a laugh.

The event made Beth realize that she could no longer take her Jewish identity for granted. In Philadelphia she didn’t need to do anything to remember she was Jewish, but here in the Bible Belt under the threat of missionaries, she realized she needed to be proactive in practicing her religion.

Not sure where to turn, Beth called the Jewish Federation and asked them to send her materials on local Jewish life. One of the items they sent was a copy of the city’s Jewish newspaper. Flipping through it she saw an ad for a local Jewish outreach and education organization. She was drawn to the ad and called the number.

The organization operated out of nearby Orthodox Jewish community and offered classes and Shabbat hospitality. Beth was invited for Shabbat and loved it. She began attending events in the local Orthodox community and returned for more Shabbat meals. She was especially impressed with the attributes and morals of the people in the community

One day during the week Beth was at a local business. A man passed by who looked like he had just stepped out of Amish Country, complete with a black hat, black beard, suit and all.

“He looked Amish, but I knew he wasn’t. I thought he was the Jewish version of the Amish,” Beth said. “I ran over to him and said ‘I think I need to talk to you.’ I spoke to him, and he introduced me to his wife.”

The couple lived in the local Orthodox community and invited Beth to join them for Shabbat. In time they became close friends. Beth began meeting more people in the community and saw that they were the models of the purity and truth that she valued. By this point, Beth had decided that she no longer wanted to be Amish because she realized that her own religion held the answers for her.

“I just wanted truth and wanted to be around people living a life of truth,” Beth said. “I just wanted to be close to G-d.”

One other event at this time convinced her of the existence of G-d and the truth of Judaism. During the first semester of medical school Beth was in the anatomy lab and saw a cadaver for the first time. She stared at the cadaver’s face and had an epiphany.

“I looked at the face and nothing looked back at me. It was just flesh and muscles and fat and organs. I almost felt at that moment that Hashem is palpable. When I look at you and you look at me, who is looking at me? It’s not your eyeball in you, it’s the Hashem in you looking at the Hashem in me,” Beth said. “My ears started ringing. I said that’s it, it’s Hashem! That was a major realization for me.”

Following this experience, Beth began to see the hand of Hashem more and more in the human body and the entire world. Combined with her new knowledge of Judaism as the source of purity and truth, she began to realize that this was the path that she desired. She is now a fully observant woman living not in Amish Country, but in the Texas community that inspired her return.

Michael Gros 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

* Name and some details have been changed.

Published in the Jewish Press in June 2011

The Dreamer

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

The Power of Kindness

The little acts of kindness that we do every day can have life-changing impacts on people. Jay Cantor is proof. The common interactions he had with religious Jews helped him to understand the eternal relevance of Judaism and to overcome the lifelong stereotypes he had possessed.

Jay lived in Manhattan and worked in sales. He had grown up in a non-observant home, and had reached a point in his life that he felt that something important was missing but could not identify it. Two of his close friends, neither Jewish, had gone through emotional challenges and had found spiritual support from their religious beliefs. Jay longed for something similar.

“I felt burned out in my life. I’ve always been very curious, sensitive and operated from the heart. I felt like things just weren’t put together,” Jay said.

Jay worked in a real estate office with 50 other salespeople. He had been a salesman for his whole life, but felt like he was stuck in a rut.

At the end of each month the company announced the name of the most successful salesperson. Nearly every month it was the same person, an unassuming, serious man. The man always wore a dark suit and a baseball cap, but other than that he didn’t stick out at all.

Jay hoped that he might be able to glean some wisdom from the successful salesman. One day he approached him and asked for advice.

In the conversation Jay found out that the man, Sammy Rappaport*, was a religious Jew. Sammy was eager to speak with him, but the conversation took a direction that Jay could have never predicted.

“I said to him, ‘I want to know your secret.’ [Sammy] spoke to me but didn’t speak one word of business,” Jay said. “He just listened to everything I was saying about my life. He figured out that I was single and Jewish and needed some direction. He started tossing things out to me, giving me ideas for my life.”

Jay found out later that Sammy’s suggestions were based on Mishlei, Pirke Avos and other Jewish sources. At first Jay doubted that Judaism could hold the answers to his challenges.

“I thought, ‘what will this Orthodox Jew, living in some shtetl, know about my life?’” Jay said.

Jay’s mind was filled with age-old stereotypes about religious Jews and he assumed they all applied to Sammy. But as he listened to Sammy in the first conversation and subsequent discussions, he slowly began to see the wisdom that Sammy possessed.

“This guy was pulling ideas from a thousand years ago, of people that experienced the same things I was experiencing. He could pull these stories and apply them to my life. I said there’s some real wisdom here.”

Jay and Sammy began meeting everyday, sometimes for just a few minutes, other times over lunch. Sammy continued to give him additional practical ideas for life.

One day at work Sammy asked Jay if he would be interested in putting on Tefillin. Jay had never done so and jumped at the chance. The two men headed for a nearby fire exit and Sammy taught him how to wear them.

That one experience turned into a daily practice. Jay and Sammy would rendezvous for a few minutes each day on the fire escape so Jay could put on tefillin. Sammy also began teaching him the tefilos during their outdoor meetings.

Sammy connected Jay with several local outreach organizations. At Aish NY he met Rabbi Avraham Goldhar, the organization’s educational director. Jay was immediately impressed with him. Rabbi Goldhar also disproved Jay’s misconceptions of Orthodox rabbis – he was young, clean-shaven and approachable.

A few months later Jay attended another Aish event. The room was packed but Jay spied Rabbi Goldhar across the room. Rabbi Goldhar’s reaction upon seeing Jay amazed him.

“I thought he sees hundreds of people a day. I thought he wouldn’t remember me, or would just nod at me and walk right past me to his office,” Jay said. “But he came up to me. He didn’t just say, ‘what’s your name?’ or ‘Jay, where have you been?’ But he said ‘Jay Cantor, how have you been?’ At that moment I said, “wow, these people are real.”

Jay then attended a weeklong Aish learning program in Israel. He was inspired by the classes and trips, but was even more inspired by the average frum Jews he met. Everyone showed a sincere concern for him just because he was a fellow Jew.

Following the trip Jay went back to America, packed up his life, and then returned to Israel for another two and a half years of learning. He became fully observant during his time in Israel. He then returned to America, got married and went back to school to become a social worker. He’s now living in Passaic, New Jersey.

Jay’s journey was launched and guided by the average religious Jews he met in his life. He’s now trying to give other Jews the same opportunity, from hosting non-observant friends for Shabbat to sharing Torah thoughts via email with family and friends.

“The idea of Jews being a light to the world is that we’re supposed to do what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to be ourselves, and that will then give off a light,” Jay said.

The frum Jews that inspired Jay showed a true concern for him. He’s now returning the favor by showering other people with true Jewish love.

Originally published in The Jewish Press in November 2010

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

* Not his real name

Back In The Ring

Stop in at the Gann El auto repair shop in Atlanta and you’ll be greeted with an ear-to-ear smile by owner Greg Herman. Take a look around the shop and you’ll find plenty of broken cars and the tools to fix them. Nothing in the shop gives away Greg’s previous life, except of course the full-size wrestling ring tucked away in a back corner.

For seventeen years Greg was a professional wrestler. He went by the name Demon Hell Storm and wrestled with everyone from Hulk Hogan to Ricky the Dragon and Sergeant Slaughter. But his journey back to his roots has been more exciting than any match in the ring.

Greg was born in 1964 and grew up in Miami. His mother was one of the top educators in the Reform movement.

Greg always knew he would be a wrestler. He’s five-foot-ten and at the height of his career weighed 265 pounds with only 3 percent body fat. After high school he attended a wrestling school and then signed a contract with the Global Wrestling Federation. Over the next seventeen years he wrestled on TV and for live audiences across the U.S. and around the world.

On the mat he was a match for almost every competitor, but outside the ring he had a harder time dealing with them. Every night he traveled to a different state with his fellow wrestlers, many of whom were former criminals who had become Born Again Christians. On bus trips they taunted him about his religion and tried to get him to become a Christian.

“I felt at that point in my life I needed to know who I was so I could rebut their claims,” Greg said.

Greg grappled for answers, and spoke over his religious questions with his parents. One day as he was approaching his 30th birthday, his parents asked him what gift he wanted. They were shocked at his answer.

“I said I wanted a Tanach. My mom almost had a stroke,” Greg said.

So his parents sent him a copy of an English Tanach and he began pouring over it to look for answers.

In 1996 Greg suffered a career-ending injury: in the middle of a match he tore his bicep and pectoral muscles in his right arm. During his recovery, he fell back on the other trade he knew well: fixing cars. He took a job in a Florida mechanics shop.

A few months later a customer came into the shop. He was dark skinned and something about him stood out. Greg assumed he was a Black Muslim. Greg badgered the man about being Muslim. To his surprise, the man told him he was actually Jewish (he was an Orthodox Jew from Yemen). The man then gave Greg a ribbing of his own.

“What are you?” the man asked.

“I’m a Jew,” Greg said.

“Then why isn’t your head covered?” the man asked.

“Why should I cover my head?”

”There’s a G-d above you,” he said. “And why aren’t you wearing tzitzit?”

“What are those?” Greg asked.

The man briefly explained tzitzit and other concepts to Greg. As he was leaving the store the man invited Greg to join him in shul on Shabbat. Greg declined, but accepted the man’s offer to join him in shul on Sunday morning.

Sunday morning came and Greg met the man at his Orthodox shul. The members were all aging, straight-laced white-haired men. Greg looked out of place.

“You can imagine what guys there thought. I showed up at synagogue, driving a jeep with 40-inch tires, a winch on front, all covered in mud. I was wearing a sweatshirt, but they could see my 200 pound frame. My hair was down my back tied in ponytail,” Greg recalled. “The guys were scared of me! They didn’t even believe I was Jewish.”

Despite their initial reactions, the synagogue members quickly welcomed Greg. He began coming every week and soon began to feel at home. He slowly began keeping mitzvot and learning more about his heritage.

A few years later Greg moved to Atlanta and opened his mechanics shop. He began learning with a local Chabad Rabbi and joined a Young Israel.

Greg’s role models used to be famous wrestlers. Now his role models are the average Jews that he sees on daily basis doing kindnesses for each other.

“I’ve lived the other life — I like this one a lot better,” Greg said. “You can have a world full of lunatics that are just out to stab each other in the back or a world full of people trying to help each other. Which world would you rather live in?”

Greg now tries to live a life based on the Jewish values he sees all around him. He goes out of his way to help organizations and people in his shop, even when they cannot afford them. He frequently hosts fundraising events for local Jewish charities, including running wrestling tournaments. It’s for those events that he carts out his old wrestling ring.

In the ring Greg still moves with speed and agility. Watching him, it’s easy to imagine him in his former life. But the kippah on his head is an indication that life is just a little different now.

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. More articles at http://www.michaelgros.com

Published in The Jewish Press in July 2010

Putting the Pieces Back Together

The journey of Jeff and Amy Brooke was born out of tragedy, but through it they were able to see the tremendous joy and beauty of Judaism.

Jeff grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Norfolk, VA. For years the region had the heartrending status of having the highest intermarriage rate in the country, at 90 percent. But over the last twenty years a small frum community has been growing in the area and is having some success at turning the tide.

Amy grew up in a similar nonobservant home in Brooklyn. After the couple wed, they settled in Norfolk. Amy’s parents moved to the area soon after, with visions of migrating south to a quiet vacation home on the water. They found lots of water in Norfolk but not much else and grappled to find sufficient recreational activities.

So one day her parents turned on the television. They stumbled upon a televised class given by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. They were mesmerized by her persona, her passion and her material. They quickly contacted her NY-based outreach organization Hineni and ordered many of her tapes and books. Over the next few years, Jeff and Amy watched in disbelief as her parents became observant, literally before their eyes.

“We thought they were acting a little bit odd,” Jeff said. “We were observing them in an interested but horrified way.”

During this time, Amy became pregnant with their first child. Jeff realized that they needed a more spiritual direction in their life to help guide them in properly raising their child.

Simultaneously Jeff’s 25-year old brother experienced a relapse of the leukemia which had afflicted him during childhood. Every procedure was attempted, including a bone marrow donation from their mother. Sadly, all of the efforts were to no avail. Jeff’s brother passed away just a few months after his relapse.

The two events left Jeff grappling for answers and direction.

“Putting the two together – having any kind of loss makes one think about his place in the cosmos, and having a child makes you think about where you are and where you’re going. It was a time of spiritual searching,” Jeff said.

Just before Jeff’s brother passed away, Norfolk gained its first outreach Kollel as Rabbi Shlomo Goder moved from Monsey with three other families. The Kollel members heard that Jeff’s brother had passed away and so came to pay a shiva visit at their parents’ home.

Jeff was incredibly impressed – the Kollel members had just moved to town and Jeff had barely met them, and yet here they were going out of their way to show their care and concern to a Jewish family simply because they were fellow Jews. For Jeff, the presence of the religious Jews in the shiva house also provided a much-needed grounding and perspective.

“Shiva in a non-observant Jewish home is a joke, or worse, it’s offensive. There are usually a lot of loud mouth relatives knocking around, eating bagels, trading stock tips, clapping each other on the back,” Jeff noted. “It’s bad enough when an older person died, but it’s horrendous when it’s a young person.”

At the back of his parents’ house was a den, and Jeff would steal away there during shiva to escape the cacophony of visitors in the front sitting area. Jeff was joined there on many nights by one or more members of the Kollel. They spoke to him about the Jewish perspective of death and also gave him an opportunity to share his tormented feelings.

“They were not working me over, but were sincerely concerned about our family. We spent a lot of time talking about life and death,” Jeff said. “In retrospect I couldn’t tell you once [specific] thing we talked about. But it was just the fact that someone would care enough to come and be there.”

The genuine concern of the Kollel members also helped Jeff and Amy to begin to appreciate Torah-true Judaism and understand the religious path that her parents were following. They began to see the religious lifestyle as something truly beautiful and meaningful.

Following shiva, one of the Kollel members invited Jeff and Amy to their house for Shabbat. They were hooked! They soon got involved in the local Orthodox synagogue, which just happened to be located near their house. They received many more Shabbat invitations and made friends in the community. Jeff began learning one-on-one with a Kollel member and loved it.

Jeff’s learning helped him to realize something else that he had sorely misunderstood about Judaism. Jeff felt that there had to be a spiritual side to life. He just didn’t know how to find it and never thought that Judaism had the answers. But now when he came face-to-face with Torah-true Judaism, he immediately knew that it held the spiritual direction he was seeking.

“To know that my own religion was the source of something so true and spiritual, it was an awakening,” Jeff explained.

Since those events nearly twenty years ago, Jeff, Amy and their two children have been on a direct upward shot. They’ve become fully religious and have helped to found and lead many local Orthodox organizations. Amy’s brother and sister-in-law have also become frum.

The puzzle that Jeff and Amy began assembling during the shivah has been steadily growing, piece by piece. It’s now a beautiful picture of a life lived with love, deep purpose and spiritual meaning.

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

Life In The Fast Lane

In a blur of colors and a roar of engines, the Formula Ford race cars sped around the race track at the Riverside International Raceway in California. Hitting 125 miles an hour, George Gottlieb* pulled his car away from the pack. Lap after lap, the other cars tried to keep up with him but to no avail. After ten laps the checkered flag waved as he crossed the finish line, far ahead of his competitors. The thrill of his first victory filled his body as he jumped out of his car in a high.

Minutes later, George stood atop the winner’s podium clutching his trophy. It was a moment he had waited for literally his entire life. This was just the beginning of his career and he could already picture himself on the podium many more times after future successful races.

However as he basked in his victory, a feeling nagged at him.

“I was very excited that I had just won, but as I was standing there holding the trophy I realized something was missing,” George said. “I ended up feeling empty. I thought there had to be more to life than just this.”

George stepped down from the platform and slowly walked away from the track. Since a young boy he had dreamed about becoming a racecar driver. He had planned his whole life towards that goal, but now he just walked away from it.

“Being a professional racecar driver, it’s like any athlete. It’s totally consuming. You’re always thinking, going over tracks. It’s a 24-7 job,” George explained. “If you’re not completely 110% in it, you’ll never make it. I realized at that moment it just wasn’t what I wanted in life.”

George grew up as a Reform Jew in California, surrounded by many other non-observant Jews. Even as a teenager he felt that there had to be an order to the world and a higher divine purpose. He looked deeply into his Reform Judaism but felt that it lacked the answers he pursued. He investigated nearly every other religious system he could find. He explored parts of Christianity, looked into Native American beliefs and tried Eastern religions. Nothing rang true.

“I kept finding castles in the sky that didn’t turn out to be anything,” George said. “I was always searching for truth. I knew there was something out there.”

George was at a loss for answers to his religious questions, but applied his energy towards his goal of racing. As a child he constantly watched races on television and daydreamed about races. Once he learned to drive, he tried to race whenever he could. As a teenager he begged his parents to let him become a professional racecar drive, but they repeatedly refused.

But the years of nagging paid off. At age 18 when he was a freshman in college, he convinced his parents to let him attend the Bob Bondurant Driving School in California for one day of advanced driving training. George drove exceptionally well on the course. His instructors told him that he would make an excellent driver and that he had a successful career ahead of him. But again his parents refused.

“Over our dead bodies,” they told him. But realizing that they could not limit his choices forever, they added, “But if you really still want it, when you graduate college you can do it.”

After graduation George found a job in commercial real estate. He saved up enough money to travel to France to attend a two-week session at an elite racing school. He raced Formula Renault Turbo Martinis and absolutely loved it.

George returned to America and started working for the Skip Barber Racing School in California. It was in that job that he raced on the nearby racetrack and had his epiphany on the winner’s podium.

After realizing that his lifelong dreams were over, George began looking for other outlets for his energy and new paths to pursue in life. Soon after, a friend told him about a local class hosted by the Jewish outreach organization Aish HaTorah. He attended it and was hooked. In the class a rabbi presented popular secular topics and solicited feedback and discussion from the attendees. At the end of the class he provided the Jewish outlook on the topics. Every answer hit home with George.

“Every time I noticed how right [the Jewish perspective] was. I knew I was going on the correct path.”

With his interest lit, George began attending more local classes and then decided to attend a six-week Aish HaTorah summer program in Israel. This program solidified his realization that Orthodox Judaism held the answers to his questions. He came back for another year to learn.

Throughout his religious growth, George shared some of what he was learning with this sister and parents. During his year in Israel George’s sister graduated college, and he convinced her to try an Aish program in Israel. She loved it and stayed on to learn. Their parents had retired at a young age, and so came to visit George and his sister in Israel. They attended a handful of classes at Aish, spent time in the Aish community, and decided that this was for them as well.

Now the entire Gottlieb family is observant, all thanks to George’s constant curiosity. The fervor and dedication that he had applied towards his earlier goal of becoming a successful racecar driver led him and family towards the correct course on the racetrack of life.

* Not his real name

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 michaelgros@gmail.com More articles at http://www.michaelgros.com

Published in The Jewish Press in June 2010

Unlikely Beginnings

Ken and Beth Broodo of Dallas were inspired on their religious journey by a pair of non Jews, and credit a Rabbi’s blessing with helping them to have children.

The Broodos were both raised in non-Orthodox Jewish homes. Ken is a lawyer by trade and years ago he and Beth ran a small business selling Amway products.

Amway recruits people in local communities to sell its products and provides them with ongoing training, sales seminars and self-improvement classes. Sales people are strongly encouraged to attend the seminars, which are always on Saturdays. The Broodos were not observant at the time, so they attended the events without qualm.

At one of the regional sales conferences, the Broodos attended a sales seminar by the motivational speaker Les Brown. One pithy comment hit home with them.

“One of his refrains was, ‘if you put G-d first, you’ll never come in second,’ ” Ken said.

The Broodos had not thought much about G-d outside of synagogue and the major holidays, and especially never thought about bringing Him into their business. But this one comment made them realize that there is a spiritual element to business success which they needed to explore.

At a later Amway event in Conroe, Texas, the Broodos had another epiphany, also from an unexpected source.

They had arranged a meeting with one of the top-selling Amway representatives at the time, a non-Jew from the Deep South. People flocked to meet him for his advice and guidance. He was in such high demand that the Broodos had to wait for hours to meet with him, and finally got a chance to sit down with him at 3:00 am in a local donut store.

The Broodos shmoozed with him about his successes, their business and life in general. One of his comments made a profound impression on them. Ken recounts the conversation:

“We were sitting there talking about G-d and G-d-type topics. Not Christianity, not Judaism, but just G-d. I said to him jokingly, ‘It’s like you’re becoming my Rabbi.’ His eyes got very big. He said, ‘No I’m not, and you need to go find one.’”

These two comments led the Broodos to start thinking introspectively about their life, their values and their religion. The comments by this man and Les Brown helped them to see that there was more to life than they thought. They beginning thinking that maybe they were missing something spiritual.

After returning home, Beth and Ken began checking out different non-Orthodox synagogues in their area.

“Nothing rang true. They all seemed superficial in their observance and service,” Ken said.

The Broodos continued their quest. One day they attended a seminar given by a local Jewish organization, the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA). The seminar was about the upcoming holiday of Purim. The event presented ideas the Broodos had never heard before, about the hidden messages of the holiday and the spirituality of Judaism. The Broodos were especially impressed by one of the speakers, Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum.

Following the seminar, the Broodos began attending other DATA classes. They began hearing amazing truths of Judaism, and saw that it held the spiritual secrets that they were pursuing. The Amway speakers were correct – the Broodos needed to bring G-d into their life, and they realized that their Judaism was just the way to do it.

Over time the Broodos began spending Shabbat at the home of the Feigenbaums and other families in the community. They were attracted by the lifestyle and the values they were seeing. They wanted so much to become part of the community, but were intimidated by some of the religious practices. In particular they thought that Shabbas was an all-or-nothing thing, that they had to commit to keeping it in its complete entirety or to keeping none of it. Rabbi Feigenbaum showed them how they could take it on gradually.

Rabbi Feigenbaum gave them other practical suggestions. The Broodos followed his advice and began slowly taking on some of the observances of Shabbat. But it took them some time to grow into fully observing Shabbat.

The Broodos eventually moved close to an Orthodox synagogue in Dallas and later became fully observant. A new Orthodox synagogue called Ohr HaTorah was founded in their living room. The Broodos remain deeply involved in DATA and the synagogue to this day.

Ohr HaTorah had its first services in their home on Sunday morning, the 14th of Shevat, 1999. The day before, the Broodos attended the annual DATA Shabbat retreat. Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser was the guest speaker of the weekend, and the Broodos had many conversations with him.

In particular, they asked him for advice about a major source of sadness in their lives – after many years of marriage, they were unable to have children. Even repeated medical treatments and experimental therapies were unable to help. The Broodos literally cried on his shoulders asking him for guidance.

Rabbi Goldwasser had heard that Ohr HaTorah was planning to start in their home on the following day. He gave them a blessing that in the merit of the synagogue starting in their home, Hashem should grant them children.

Exactly one year later on the 14th of Shevat, 2000, the Broodos were blessed with twin girls whom they named Rachel and Leah Esther.

Rabbi Goldwasser’s blessing held true. DATA and the community had given so much to the Broodos, and they had given so much back. It was in that merit that their two beautiful daughters were born.

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Finding G-d In Gaza

Daniel Peer first found his Jewish spark on a battlefield in the heart of Gaza.

Peer grew up in Nivot Alit in the north of Israel. Though he didn’t grow up observant, he knew how to pray and occasionally put on tefillin.

Peer entered the IDF in November 2001. As a boy he had learned Taekwondo, and the IDF trained him further in hand-to-hand combat. When he finished basic training, Peer was sent to Gaza.

Peer typically worked in teams with three other soldiers. Their mission was to scout out territory, collect information and find and destroy Kassam missile factories. They also routinely were assigned the job of locating and arresting wanted terrorists. Peer’s close-combat experience proved essential for the assignment.

“Every day in Gaza people are trying to kill you,” Peer said. “A lot of bad things were going on. It was scary.”

In addition to combat missions, Peer was also trained later as an operator of the IDF’s large armored bulldozers, some of which are the size of monster trucks. He was sent to Gaza on several occasions to destroy missile factories and terrorist hideouts.

Peer spent a lot of time in Gaza, both in his bulldozer and on foot. He would prefer to forget most of the missions, but one experience will always stay with him.

He and another soldier were in Gaza on an operation. They were running between buildings just feet from each other. Suddenly Peer saw his partner stumble and then crumple to the ground. His uniform was stained with blood. He had been shot by a sniper hiding in a nearby house. Within minutes, his life drained out of him.

The incident was a wake-up call for Peer. The fact that he had survived when the other soldier did not left a deep impression on him.

“HaKodesh Baruch Hu saved my life. It was not like lot there were a lot of people. There were only two people and it was either him or me. Something was going on. You have to believe it.”

Peer clearly saw Hashem’s hand in his salvation. He knew that Hashem had saved his life, but he did not understand why.

Peer was discharged from the IDF in 2004. He was called up for reserve duty in the summer of 2005 to help remove Jews from Gush Katif during the Disengagement. The IDF sent him one letter calling him up, then another and finally a red letter, which is typically followed by arrest if not followed. Peer refused all of the orders.

At the time, the Israeli government was debating whether IDF soldiers should tear down synagogues in the communities of Gush Katif. Though they eventually decided against it, if the government had given the order to destroy the synagogues, Peer knew that it would be his job as a bulldozer operator to carry it out. Hashem had saved his life in Gaza and Peer knew he could not return now to destroy a synagogue there.

Something deep inside Peer cried out to him to refuse the orders. The pintele yid in him, the Jewish spark that he had discovered on the Gaza street, reminded him that synagogues were places of holiness.

“I couldn’t take Jews out of Gush Katif. I told them I won’t do it,” Peer said. “I would have had to destroy a Beit Knesset.”

The Disengagement came and went. Peer did not participate, and yet he somehow avoided arrest. Throughout this time questions kept filling his head – Why did I survive? Why did G-d save me? What’s my purpose in this world?

Following that summer, Peer moved to the United States with an army buddy and settled in New York City. Peer’s friend had family members who lived in Lakewood and who invited him to come for Shabbat. After a few months in America his friend decided to spend a Shabbat in Lakewood and Peer tagged along.

With their long hair and sandals, the two men looked exceptionally out of place in Lakewood. But the family welcomed them with open arms.

Though he had gone to synagogue every Saturday growing up, this was the first real Shabbat he had ever experienced. During Shabbat they sang songs together with the family and delved into the deeper meaning of many fundamental Jewish concepts. They also learned together some of the laws of Shabbat. Peer was deeply touched by the experience. He was mesmerized by the love he saw in the family and the beautiful community of Lakewood.

“Baruch Hashem my soul liked to listen to everything,” Peer said.

Peer felt the strong tug of the Jewish spark inside of him. After Shabbat he went back to New York City, packed up his stuff and soon after moved to Lakewood. He wanted desperately to soak up everything, to learn more about his religion.

“HaKodesh Baruch Hu kept me safe and sound in the army for this.”

Peer learned for one year in a yeshiva in Lakewood, and then spent time learning in Monsey and Boro Park. He’s now back living in Israel. The spark that he discovered on the Gaza battlefield has been the thrust of his Jewish growth ever since. And just as it helped him to survive his physical battle, it continues to inspire his daily spiritual battles as well.


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 michaelgros@gmail.com To receive Michael’s articles via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

Published in the Jewish Press in February, 2010

The Holy Potato

The state of Idaho is not a place where one would expect to find many Jews, but that hasn’t stopped Chabad Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz and his wife Esther. They moved to Boise, Idaho five and a half years ago with the goal of building up the local Jewish community. When they arrived, they were greeted by fields upon fields of potatoes, but little else. The state had only a single synagogue, a Reform congregation, but virtually no other organized Jewish community resources. However that’s exactly the environment that the Lifshitzes were looking for.

“I was working as a rabbi in Bal Harbor, Florida when we got married. Esther and I decided we wanted to do something special for other Yidden and help them,” Rabbi Lifshitz said. “I was doing kiruv work out there and helping them, I was very involved, but I realized as much as we were doing, we wanted to be in a place where we were really needed.

“In Florida or New York, rabbis are a dime a dozen. There are plenty of Jews that need to be reached out to, but we wanted to be in place where there’s not much going on and our presence would be crucial. We started looking into different options through Chabad. The name Idaho came up. The first time it came up, we didn’t know what to make of it. People hear Idaho and think of potatoes, not Jews.”

The Lifshitzes took an exploratory trip to Idaho to gauge whether they could make it work. They traveled the state, met with the few Jews they could find, and scoped out the Jewish resources. The low cost of living has attracted newcomers and even major corporations to the state over the last several years, and handfuls of Jews have been moving in. The Lifshitzes decided that Idaho was exactly what they were looking for. So immediately after Pesach, they packed up their bags and moved out west.

As soon as the Lifshitzes arrived, they began looking to meet local Jews. One day, Rabbi Lifshitz walked into a local office to meet a Jewish man whom he had heard worked there. Suddenly the man burst out of his office with a look of horror on his face. When he was told by the receptionist that a Rabbi had come to see him, he immediately assumed that there had been a death in his family, because he didn’t know any other reason why a rabbi would be visiting him!

Another time, Rabbi Lifshitz was shopping in a supermarket in Boise with his son. The two were speaking to each other in Yiddish when a man approached them. He introduced himself and said he was also Jewish. He had read an article about Rabbi Lifshitz in the local paper. The man said he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in California and had moved from there to Idaho three years earlier. Having not heard Yiddish in years, his ears perked up when he heard it. Rabbi Lifshitz schmoozed with him and invited him for Shabbat dinner. The man took him up on his offer several weeks later.

“You never know what type of yid a person is and what will inspire him,” Rabbi Lifshitz said. “He’s looking for chicken soup and kneidilach, but his neshama is looking for a connection to Yiddishkeit.”

The Lifshitzes had several such experiences of Jews coming out of the woodwork to introduce themselves, but it was difficult when they first arrived. The challenge was compounded by the fact that Esther gave birth to a baby boy soon after they moved in and they were making a bris. They needed to invite ten Jews to the bris to make a minyan, but how could they go about finding them?

Their challenge was solved just in time, literally by a knock on the door. Rabbi Lifshitz opened the door, to find the local mailman hand-delivering his mail. The Lifshitz’s house had a mailbox by the street, but the mailman decided to bring the mail to the door to welcome the new family to Idaho.

The mailman stuck out his hand and introduced himself.

“I’m Hershel the mailman.”

Rabbi Lifshitz was too shocked to answer.

“Your name is really Hershel?” Rabbi Lifshitz finally stammered. “I’m Mendel. I wasn’t expecting to find a Hershel in Idaho.”

The mailman explained that he was originally from Long Island, New York. Other than knowing that his first name was Jewish, he had little other connection to Judaism. He had grown up in a mixed-marriage home, and when he was 11 and his parents got divorced, he moved with his non-Jewish father to Idaho. After that he had no other Jewish connections until Rabbi Lifshitz arrived.

Rabbi Lifshitz points out the clear Hand of G-d present in the story. This wasn’t Hershel’s normal route as he was just filling in for another mail carrier who was on vacation that week. However he knew of other Jews in the area, which helped the Lifshitzes to gather a minyan together for the bris.

The morning of the bris arrived, and the Lifshitzes were surrounded by an unexpected group of new Jewish friends. That group has grown significantly in the few years since then, and many people have taken on new mitzvot and other observances. The Lifshitzes have also brought many new Jewish resources to the state, from kosher food to Jewish education. Now when people think of Idaho, they don’t just think of potatoes, but they think of Jews too!

Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to michaelgros@gmail.com To receive the column via email or see Michael’s articles published in other publications, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

Published in The Jewish Press January 2010

What Not To Do At The Shabbat Table

The Broodo family of Dallas, Texas is now a well-established Orthodox family. They’re leaders and role models in their community. However one event during their first Shabbat experience almost derailed their teshuva journey. If it was not for the quick thinking of their hosts, their lives might have been very different today.
Ken and Beth Broodo were both raised in non-Orthodox Jewish homes. Ken is a lawyer, and several years ago a local Jewish organization, the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA), the “community kollel,” sponsored a onetime lunch-n-learn at his law firm. It was delivered by a big-name visiting rabbi. Ken attended the event and enjoyed it, but didn’t feel particularly changed by it.
The event put the Broodos on DATA’s mailing list, and six months later they received an invitation to a DATA seminar on the upcoming holiday of Purim. The Broodos acknowledged that they knew very little about their Judaism and were very curious to learn more, so they decided to attend the event.
At the event, DATA rabbis spoke about various topics of Purim. One topic, the Hidden Mask of Nature, peaked their curiosity. The speaker, Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum, surprised them by pointing out that Hashem’s name is never mentioned in the Megillah but His hand is apparent throughout the whole story.
“Only when you look back do you see Hashem’s hand in it. Even when I say it now I get chills. I had never heard something of that depth about the Torah. It was an interesting phenomenon to me,” Ken said.
Ken was fascinated by the presentation and impressed by Rabbi Feigenbaum. Ken stayed afterwards to drill him with a slew of other questions.
Following the seminar, the Broodos began attending other classes sponsored by DATA. Ken began studying one-on-one with Rabbi Feigenbaum each week. He and his wife began seeing the truth and beauty of Judaism and began to realize that this was the spirituality they were craving in their lives. However they were somewhat intimidated by the observances and cautious about jumping into anything too religious.
Rabbi Feigenbaum had given them an open invitation to come to synagogue on a Friday night and to his home for Shabbat dinner. The Broodos were intrigued by the opportunity to learn more and to get closer to the Feigenbaums. They were uncertain about what the experience would be like, but were excited about the opportunity. One Friday night they decided to take him up on it.
As soon as they entered the Feigenbaum’s house, the Broodos were made comfortable by their hosts’ warm welcome, the beauty of their Shabbat table and the obvious love and holiness that filled the home.
“It was my first Shabbat dinner. I was very taken by the whole scene – the white tablecloth, the silver Kiddush cup, the candles, the singing and the Divrai Torah,” Ken said.
Ken especially loved Mrs. Feigenbaum’s homemade Challah. He had never eaten homemade challah before, and he found it to be absolutely delicious.
After finishing his first piece, Ken craved a second slice. The challah was sitting in a metal wire basket in the middle of the table, amidst all sorts of dishes and just on the other side of Mrs. Feigenbaum’s beautiful silver Shabbat candlesticks. Ken tried asking other people to pass him the bowl, but he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. So he decided to lean across the table and pick up the challah bowl himself.
The challah basket was lined with a napkin. As he carried the basket over the items on the table, Ken lifted it over the Shabbat candles, and within a second, it caught fire and turned into a giant bowl of flaming challah!
Ken dropped the burning basket onto the table and was about the douse it with his glass of water, when the rabbi leaned over the table and said ‘Stop!’ Rabbi Feigenbaum picked up the basket, carried to the front porch and let it burn out.
Ken felt extremely embarrassed that he had set the Feigenbaum’s challah on fire. He was ready to leave the meal at the first opportunity and never come back again. But when Ken and wife finally did put on their coats to leave, without missing a beat, Mrs. Feigenbaum responded in a way that immediately turned around his negative feelings.
“Stop worrying about it,” she said to Ken. “The next time you want toast for Shabbat, just let me know in advance!”
Mrs. Feigenbaum’s quip put a smile back on Ken’s face and helped the Broodos stay on their path of growth towards Jewish observance.
“When Mrs. Feigenbaum said that, we all laughed. I realized that no one judged me for making such a ridiculous mistake. Then I felt accepted” Ken explained. “When you’re not frum and you’re around people that are, the one thing you feel sure of is that you are being judged and not accepted.”
The burning challah episode was a critical point in the Broodos’ life. If their hosts had handled it in any other way, they might have never come back. Instead they returned for many more meals in the Feigenbaum home and grew extremely close to the family. They began attending additional classes and started coming to the community frequently for Shabbat.
The Broodos eventually moved into the neighborhood. Several years later, the new local Orthodox synagogue was founded in their living room, and they remain extremely involved to this day. They also now frequently host newcomers to the community. And for anyone who seems uncomfortable by being in an Orthodox home for Shabbat, Ken eases their worries by telling them the story about the Shabbat night that he set the rabbi’s challah on fire.

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 michaelgros@gmail.com To receive Michael’s Teshuva Journey column and other articles via email, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

Published in the Jewish Press in March, 2010

From Skinhead to Orthodox Jew

After the Iron Curtain was lifted in Europe twenty years ago, a surprising thing occurred – thousands of people who had been raised as gentiles came to the startling realization that they were actually Jews. Poland is home to thousands of such stories. During the Holocaust and under Communist rule, many Jews there hid their identities and continued to conceal them even after the fall of Communism. On their deathbeds, some of them have revealed their true identities to their children or grandchildren. Other people found out from old family records or through other means.

Once they discover their roots, people often turn to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an American who has been the Chief Rabbi of Poland since 2004. Rabbi Schudrich has been the guide for multitudes of Jews to return to Torah Judaism. They turn to him for guidance and direction, and he tries to help them to reclaim their proud heritage that had been hidden for so many years.
Several years ago, Zbiszek, a 52 year-old man from Bialystock, came to Rabbi Schudrich’s office in Warsaw. Zbiszek told him that his mother had passed away four months earlier. Following the funeral, Zbiszek was approached by several neighbors who told him astonishing news – this woman who had raised him, whom he knew to be his mother, was not his actual biological mother.

They told Zbiszek that he had been born Jewish. In 1942, as Jews throughout Poland were being exterminated, Zbiszek’s Jewish parents gave him to the woman for adoption in case they were killed. His biological parents did not survive the Holocaust, and so the woman raised Zbiszek as her own son.

She had risked her life to save him during the war, and so she never wanted him to know the truth. She swore her neighbors to secrecy, and they dutifully remained silent for five decades. Now that she had passed away, they decided it was time to reveal the secret.

Zbiszek trembled when he first heard the news and didn’t know what to do. He spent a long time in deep introspection. Should he continue living his comfortable life as a Christian, as he had been raised, or should he embrace his newfound religion, of which he knew nothing?

Zbiszek decided he wanted to live proudly as a Jew, but didn’t know how. So here he was in Rabbi Schudrich’s office, looking for answers. Zbiszek told the rabbi that he felt most guilty that he never had a “Jewish baptism.”
Rabbi Schudrich calmed his fears and taught him the basics of Judaism. Zbiszek spent the next few years studying together with Rabbi Schudrich and attending classes in the community. Today he goes by Zecharya Asher, and is an active member of the Polish Jewish community.

Another unique story is that of Pawel Bramson. He was raised in an observant Catholic family. As a teenager, he joined a skinhead gang. He was virulently anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Gypsy.

Pawel married his Catholic high school sweetheart. They had two children, and at the age of twenty, Pawel’s wife found out that she was really Jewish! The news shook Pawel. However over time he was able to reconcile his previous hatred of Jews with the knowledge of his wife’s religion.

Several years later, Pawel’s wife decided to bring some Jewish traditions into their home. She began making Shabbat meals and Pawel consented to her desires. When he told his parents about the meals, they reacted with anger. They tried to pressure Pawel to make his wife sweep her Judaism back under the rug.

Pawel continued to support his wife, despite his parents objections. One day, his parents revealed the source of their anger – they were both Jews themselves! Pawel’s parents had hid their Judaism out of fear of anti-Semitism in Poland. The religious life that Pawel’s wife was beginning to explore represented everything they had tried to run away from.

The news stunned Pawel, and it took him a long time to accept it. The same Jews that he had hated as a teenager were now his own people. But Pawel slowly accepted the discovery, and he and his wife began bringing more traditions into their home. They are now fully observant.

Pawel has three brothers, one who is his twin. The twin still believed in many of the anti-Semitic myths that Pawel had rejected. And yet he has been influenced by Pawel’s religious growth in some small ways.

One Friday night, Pawel’s twin brother tried calling him on his cell phone but could not reach him. The twin went to the synagogue to try to find him, but Pawel was not there. That Friday night the synagogue had only nine men in attendance, just one short of a minyan. So when Pawel’s brother walked in, Rabbi Schudrich asked him if he could stay in the synagogue to be the tenth man. He said yes.

Such is the rebirth of Jews in Poland. Even Jews far removed from Judaism, with seemingly no connection, still have a tiny spark of Judaism deep inside them. With the right impetus, that spark can ignite into the beautiful fire of a proud Jewish soul.

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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 michaelgros@gmail.com
Published in The Jewish Press in December, 2009

A Life-Changing Moment

Some people can accomplish more in a single moment than the rest of us do in our entire lives.

The Baraisa (Avodah Zara 17a) recounts the story of Elazar ben Durdaya who dedicated his life to empty pursuits and pleasures. One day, a chance comment caused him to realize how meaningless his life had been. He immediately broke down in tears of sincere penitence, accepted responsibility for his misdeeds and committed himself to changing. At that moment he died, and a voice called out from heaven and said, “He has been readied for the life of the World to Come!”

When the incident was reported to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, he said the sincerity of Elazar ben Durdaya’s teshuva was the key to its acceptance. He said some people acquire their place in the World to Come through many years of work, and some can acquire it in a single moment.

Doniel Goldrich* witnessed a similar moment of life-changing teshuva nearly 20 years ago. Doniel participated in a learning program sponsored by Partners In Torah. Once a week, Doniel and several other men from Lakewood drove to a synagogue in a neighboring town where they learned one-on-one with community members.

Doniel was paired with 38-year old Marshall Lichtenstein*. Marshall’s two sons attended the nearby religious Shalom Torah Center school, but at home the family kept very few practices.

Doniel and Marshall studied the Torah portion of the week together and used it as a springboard into many other topics, including Jewish philosophy, mitzvot and holidays. Over the two years that they learned together, Doniel was constantly inspired by Marshall’s excitement for learning and his passion for the material.

When Marshall was a young man, he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. But after years with no episodes, he assumed the condition had passed. However a year and a half after Doniel started learning with him, Marshall began feeling ill. After a battery of tests his cardiologist said that he needed a valve replacement as soon as possible. He went through open-heart surgery to have a pig’s valve inserted, and when the procedure was unsuccessful, his doctors performed a second round of surgery.

“Through the process we got to know him,” Doniel said. “We went to the hospital to visit him. He wasn’t religious at all, but he put on Tefillin in his hospital room for the first time. He was very appreciative that we visited.”

Committing to particular mitzvot can be a major source of merit for a person in a difficult situation, so Doniel suggested some small religious steps that Marshall could take. Religious growth is based on taking baby steps, and Doniel suggested a few preliminary ideas.

“I said to him ‘would you want to take on something, to bring to action things that we’ve talked about? It might bring fulfillment to your life. You don’t have to keep completely Kosher, but at some level you might consider keeping Kosher in your home, or maybe your wife would like to light Shabbas candles,’” Doniel said.

“That’s an amazing idea,” Marshall said. “Let me think about it.”

The following week Doniel spoke to him during their learning session after he had been released from the hospital. Doniel could see a difference in him, a certain excitement that he had never seen before.

“I could tell that something had changed. His face was lit up,” Doniel said. “Marshall said, ‘we can’t keep Kosher in our home now, but every Thursday night we go out on a date to particular restaurant, because of our favorite dish on the menu which is made of pork. We decided we won’t go to that restaurant anymore. We’ll change our weekly date because it’s not Kosher. It’s something we accepted on ourselves because of your suggestion.’”

“You could see the happiness on his face. It was not an easy decision. It was very hard,” Doniel said. “I told him how wonderful it was.”

For Marshall, it was a major step. To give up a favorite dish and restaurant takes a lot of self-control, but Marshall and his wife were committed to their decision. They understood that the value of their decision outweighed their enjoyment of the particular dish.

Ten days later, Doniel received a call from Marshall’s wife at 6:00 in the morning. She said that Marshall had passed away during the night.

Doniel put the family in touch with a local Orthodox funeral home which gave him a full kosher burial. Doniel and several of the other men from Lakewood attended the funeral. A Rabbi from the sons’ school delivered the eulogy. He knew Marshall and over the last two years had witnessed Marshall’s growing excitement for Jewish learning. The rabbi quoted the first Mishnah in Bava Kamma that refers to man as maveh, a word which comes from the root “to search or inquire.”

“He said that’s the root of human beings – we’re always searching, always looking to make ourselves better. This was Marshall. He was able in mid-life to become a searcher, to accept new opportunities.”

At the cemetery, Doniel and his friends made sure that Marshall was buried in the proper way. Everyone else had gone home after the service, but the men wanted to make sure everything was done perfectly. They threw shovelful after shovelful of dirt into the grave until it was full.

“After we finished putting dirt in the hole, a woman came over to us, hysterically crying. She said ‘I’m Marshall’s first cousin. To see what I just saw, he must have done something in his life to merit having people like you burying him.’”

That was Marshall. With his one major decision, Marshall transformed his life both in this world and the next world. How much can we achieve, not just in one special moment, but over a lifetime of dedicating ourselves on the proper path?

* Not his real name

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 michaelgros@gmail.com To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com

The Teshuva Journey: A Message From The Past

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.

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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 michaelgros@gmail.com

(published in The Jewish Press June 2007)

The Teshuva Journey: Hashem Has a Sense of Humor

By Michael Gros

Throughout Adele and Jack Kaufman’s life, they have repeatedly felt Hashem’s hand guiding them towards Jewish growth and observance. However the ways He has chosen to do so have been comical: their teshuva journey began at a Christian Marriage Encounter weekend, and a major turning point in their life was influenced by an inspirational button.

Adele was raised in a Modern Orthodox home. Her parents attended a local Young Israel synagogue, but she felt that she could not receive satisfying answers to her many questions on Judaism.

“I never received answers,” Adele said. “Now I know I didn’t get answers because they themselves didn’t know.”

Adele grew up, married Jack, and the couple settled on Long Island. They joined a Conservative synagogue and raised a family. They felt like their life was perfect.

“It was a wonderful life. We were very happy. If anyone would have told me we would become Baalei Teshuva, I would have laughed at it,” Adele said.

Though they had a successful marriage, the Kaufmans accepted a friend’s offer to attend a Christian Marriage Encounter Weekend. The weekends, organized by a church, tried to teach couples better communication techniques and other strategies to help them improve their marriages.

The weekend concluded with a Mass service. The Kaufmans and the few other Jewish couples sat in the back of the room and watched the service, feeling greatly out of place.

A few weeks later, a friend suggested they start a Jewish Marriage Encounter weekend. A few couples got together and started one. Adele and Jack went on the Jewish Marriage Enecounter weekend and learned how holy a Jewish marriage is, consisting of husband, wife and Hashem.

Also attending the weekend was a local Chabad couple, who wanted to find out what it was about. Afterwards the Chabad couple offered to start monthly Jewish groups in local homes. Adele and Jack decided to host the groups in their house. In addition to marriage, the classes covered Kashrut, Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Adele was finally getting answers to her questions.

One week the Chabad Rebbetzin asked Adele if she lit candles on Friday night.

“I said no, since I work all week and we go out to eat on Friday night,” Adele said. “The Rebbetzin explained that the mitzvah of lighting candles is not erased by going out to eat. ‘Try lighting candles, and don’t tell me what you do afterwards. Bring in the light and beauty of Shabbat.’”

Adele took her up on her offer and began lighting candles at home. After a few months, she decided to start making Shabbat dinners at home each week.

“I said to my husband, ‘Why go out? Let’s make a Shabbat meal so we can enjoy the beautiful Shabbat candles.”

From there, Adele and Jack began bringing other small observances into their home. For the first time they decided to kasher their home for Passover. Adele made a full-blown Passover Seder in their newly kosher home.

One day, Adele decided that it was time for her husband to start putting on Tefillin each morning. He owned a pair, but did not put them on regularly. So Adele began dropping subtle hints and suggestions to get him to start using them, but she soon saw that it wasn’t working.

“What does a wife do when she wants her husband to do something? She nags. I asked him to put on Tefillin again and again,” Adele said. “Finally he told me to stop nagging. I decided my marriage was more important and so did not mention it anymore.”

Hashem had different plans.

A few days later, a friend called Adele. She had visited Crown Heights for the day, and in a store window saw a sign that read “Buy One Bag Of Buttons, Get The Second Bag Free.” So her friend bought two bags, and was calling to ask Adele if she wanted one.

“I didn’t want to hurt her. I’m not a button person, but I said ‘sure, come over.’”

Adele was in for a surprise when she opened the bag.

“The first button I saw when I opened my bag read ‘Have You Put On Tefillin Today?’”

Adele dropped the button in shock. She could not believe the wording on the button, but now had a dilemma: She had promised her husband that she would no longer nag him, so what to do with the button?

“I said, ‘Hashem what should I do?’ I decided if it doesn’t come out of my mouth, it’s ok,” Adele said. “I decided to put it in his underwear drawer so he would notice it when he showered. I was very nervous. He would either laugh or get upset.

“I was sitting in the kitchen. He went upstairs to shower. The next thing I knew, I heard him laughing so hard.”

The following morning Adele came downstairs for breakfast, and there was her husband, praying and wearing Tefillin. For him it was a major step, one of many more that have come since.

Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Jerusalem. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to michaelgros@gmail.com To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com