(Names and identifying information have been changed)
Before my husband and I were married, when the relationship was first getting serious, we happened to be driving on a Saturday morning past a synagogue where people were just leaving. This was about 16 years ago and I don't recall the name of the town or why we happened to be there. I do remember, though, that some of the men were walking home wrapped up in long talleisim.
Totally unfamiliar with the sight at the time, I was embarrassed for them, and looked around to see if they were drawing attention to themselves from people on the street. I mumbled something to Al about Orthodox Jews always needing to overdo it. He said something that threw me off balance.
"Is that how you react when you see an Indian man in a turban or an Indian woman wrapped in her 'sari'?"
I had to admit it wasn't. He then told me something that blew me away. In his late teens, he said, he had gone on a summer tour of Israel and had landed up on a religious kibbutz. That experience influenced him to start leading a religious lifestyle. He came back home and kept it up for a while, before his motivation fizzled out.
But he remembered enough to know that the men wore their talleisim home from synagogue not to flaunt their being religious, but because for religious Jews, carrying on the Sabbath was forbidden.
I felt ashamed of my judgmentalism. But I was more disconcerted to hear that he had once been religious. As if he had once had some kind of disease.
"Would you ever go back to that way of life?" I wanted to know. (Is it possible the disease might recur?)
"No chance." He sounded pretty definite but an alarm had gone off in my head and was still zinging. 'Religious' in my mind meant living a life of stifling restriction and religious authoritarianism
"Because," I said, "I could never live that way. It’s so much against my grain, I could never marry someone who believed in all that."
He looked at me and laughed. "Want it etched in stone?"
Right then and there, we actually made a pact - jokingly, but with an undertone of "This is serious stuff" - that if we did decide to get married, we would absolutely never be religious.
Never Say Never
Flash forward 16 years. Al and I live in Freehold, New Jersey. We have two children and one of them, our 12 year-old daughter Tracy, recently prevailed upon us to change her school so she could be with some Jewish friends she made in summer camp. Her new school is Shalom Academy, a religious day school. Al and I decided to make the switch despite our forebodings that the school would try to 'proselytize' us into becoming religious.
We made the decision because we were troubled by certain unhealthy goings-on in Tracy’s public school. What’s so ironic is that it took a 12-year old’s urgings to move us out of our inertia. With all of our concern, we were acting as though we were basically helpless to change the situation. Somehow, Tracy had to lead the way. Very humbling for a parent.
A few months into the school year we received a flyer from the school urging all parents to attend a weekend retreat together with their children, sponsored by the school. Al and I signed up immediately, curious to meet the other parents and to see Tracy’s new peer group up front.
This was our introduction to Gateways, an organization that has literally spun our lives around. It’s hard to point to one specific class or encounter that generated the strong emotional and spiritual impact the weekend had on us. It was the entire mosaic, something you can't grasp until you've been there and participated.
From the very first class, which was on anger-control, we felt a kind of awakening. In the back-to-back lectures, broken up by beautiful Shabbos meals and refreshments, a fascinating panorama opened up. The unsuspected depth and richness of Judaism amazed us. That the Torah had a unique perspective on human nature, child-raising, men and women’s roles in marriage and human relationships in general, was eye-opening.
Not that we didn't have trouble with some of the most fundamental concepts. Was the Torah literally G-d’s word, handed down to the Jewish people over 3,000 years ago through Divine revelation? Was it meant to apply eternally? These seemed fantastic assumptions - difficult to swallow whole.
But. many of the lectures offered strong proof of a Divine Revelation at Sinai. The rabbis had a very broad sweep of Jewish learning and history and took several approaches to prove that human authorship of the Torah was not just unlikely, but just about utterly impossible.
Some of the most riveting classes were about what they called "fingerprints of Divinity," which explored the many logical proofs of the Torah’s authenticity. One talk we were floored by was on specific prophecies in the Torah that materialized - exactly as predicted and often totally counter to logic - hundreds of years after they were first recorded.
I was sitting there listening to this and, suddenly, I had this spine-tingling sensation. The flashing sense of an omniscient and all-powerful Someone in full control of history was new and overwhelming.
For Al and myself, an especially moving idea was the concept of "Bearers Of The Torch" - the idea of the Jewish people carrying down the corridors of a 3-thousand year history a rich and priceless legacy - generation to generation to generation. Throughout centuries of persecution and dispersal to all corners of the globe, there were Jews who had stubbornly held that torch high. So if Judasim was still on the map today, one had to admit, it was only because of them.
To Be A Torch-Bearing Jew
That generational thing tugged at my heart. I remember my grandfather as a "torch-bearing Jew." I still remember as a child seeing him wearing tefillin. But his children did not pick up the torch after he died. For all I knew as a child, tefillin-wearing itself had died along with Grandpa, along with keeping Shabbos, eating kosher, and the outward signs of Jews being Jewish.
That thought had never saddened me when I was younger. Now it did.
Our son, Jay, had his bar-mitzvah in our conservative synagogue. Not surprisingly, once the big day was behind him, Jay showed no interest whatsoever in attending services, or in any other aspect of Judaism for that matter. Even the few things we did Jewish as a family, like some of the festive aspects of the holidays, had little appeal for him.
That thought had not particularly saddened me. Now it did.
In the days after that first Gateways seminar, we pondered the thought that without Jewish pride and Jewish identity, without practicing authentic Judaism, or seeing it practiced, our children had not more than a 50% chance of marrying someone Jewish. And those odds would narrow terribly for our grandchildren, if by some miracle they were born Jewish.
In our own lifetimes, we realized with sinking hearts, we might witness the total cut-off of our family’s Jewish line.
Over the course of the next four months, during which we attended three more Gateways events, Al and I came to a decision. We could not afford the luxury of exploring Judaism in the slow and leisurely way we would have preferred. That slow journey - a few classes here and there, a seminar once in a while, until we had the 100% clarity that would justify a complete lifestyle change - was for people with very young children.
For us, with one teenager, and one pre-teen, time was of the essence. People we met at various seminars who were making the journey back to their Jewish roots in mid-life, confided how terribly hard it was on the family, how much tension and alienation it caused when older children, quite naturally, resisted the changeover to a religious lifestyle.
That realization galvanized us. We threw ourselves into learning with a frenzy. The Gateways staff was an incredible help. After launching us on the journey, they made certain we had the perfect "rest stops" along the way. Working together with local outreach groups, including Gesher, Jewish Learning Center and Monmouth Torah Links, they guided us from one milestone to another.
For a while I was taking three morning classes and two evening classes a week. Al came home from work, ate supper quickly, and was off to his evening classes several times a week.
Four months after our first seminar, we had koshered our home, were keeping Taharas Hamishpacha and steadily increasing our Sabbath observance. If we hadn't believed in Divine Providence until then, something incredible happened that left no doubt that H-shem was pulling the strings. Tracy was doing beautifully in her day school, but one of our biggest dilemmas was how to persuade our son to switch from public school to yeshiva.
What would possibly motivate this young man to leave his pleasant and familiar high school environment - where he was at the top of his class, came home at 2:30 and had plenty of free time - for a yeshiva? There he'd be a total stranger, know less than the class dummy, and have to be in school until 5 or 6 o’clock. We felt licked before we began.
But that locked door suddenly swung wide open. Before we even broached the subject of transferring to Yeshiva, Jay began having some trouble in school. He came home complaining of a few class bullies picking on him, being physically and verbally abusive, even once locking him into a closet. Al and I looked at each other in disbelief.
Seizing on this development, we began talking to Jay about the advantages of a private school. Eventually - primarily in order to escape the harassment at school - he agreed to try out a yeshiva. We found one with a good "mechinah" program, where a car pool had already been set up for boys that commuted.
Starting at the bottom hasn't been easy for Jay. The whole transition to a religious life has been a difficult struggle for him. But considering the odds, he’s doing very well. He has what it takes to succeed.
Once I believed that the most important task of parenthood was to raise ethical and kind children. Now I know there is no morality or ethics without G-d. In the hopelessly complex world out there, one man’s virtue is another one’s vice. Without putting G-d in the picture - right in the center - no one has much chance of navigating his way, of staying on course.
Once I thought that being religious stifled human nature. When I sat shivah for my mother a few weeks ago, I discovered, once again, how very wrong I was. I thought I knew all about shivah, from having lost my father three years earlier, when we still belonged to the conservative synagogue.
Shivah was a grand, week-long party, where hordes of people piled in and your role was to provide the food and entertainment. Jokes, laughter, bantering - on the surface you wouldn't even know anyone had died. But then the party is over, and you’re alone. The expectation is, stop crying and get up and go back to business. Except you can't. You haven't even begun to grieve.
When I sat shivah for my mother, everything - from the atmosphere in the house to the most fundamental way of coping with grief - was different. Al and I had already built up a number of contacts with a number of families from Lakewood involved in outreach groups. The outpouring of practical help and emotional support that these people gave me is indescribable.
People thought of every conceivable thing I would need. They offered their comfort quietly. There was no trace of partying. They drew me out about my mother. As painful as it was, I found I needed to talk about her, not try to hide the grief and the fact that she died.
One of the women learned the laws of mourning with me, and I was struck at the wisdom of those laws, and how they helped me cope. Questions about the afterlife came to the surface. I thought about my mother and how, even though, while alive she didn't understand what we were doing by becoming religious, now, in the World of Truth, she certainly understood. And, above all, was having nachas.
Gateways’ next 4-day seminar is scheduled for the end of December. That event will follow the first Gateways Annual Dinner on December 18, honoring individuals of outstanding dedication, and featuring Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yisroel Lau as the guest speaker.