Inspiration

Hidden In Plain Sight, NCSY Success Rediscovered Over Shabbos in the Mountains

January 20, 2014

Danielle Sudwerts and her family.

As a twelve-year-old in the Mark Twain public school in Brooklyn, Danielle Lantor dreamed of being a dancer on MTV and being the most popular girl in her school. It was only when one of her dreams came true that the troubles began.

“I absorbed the methods of public school,” she said. “That the most important thing was to be as cool as you could be. By seventh grade I had achieved everything and I had this realization of utter emptiness: Is this what my life is about?”

Danielle had been living with questions for a long time by then. Years before, a close cousin was seriously injured in a fire and left unable to talk or move. She saw the poverty-stricken lives of her classmates. More and more, she began to feel that there was no order governing the world. Danielle’s life began to falter. Her grades slipped and she was always angry; she began hanging out with what she calls a “bad crowd.”

Her concerned mother reached out to an Orthodox co-worker and asked if she knew any positive outlets for teens. The woman recommended that Danielle attend an NCSY Shabbaton and Danielle’s mother signed her up for one, without having a clear understanding about what it was. Danielle wasn’t unhappy to attend, though, she, too, didn’t know what it was.

“I had a no idea what a Shabbaton was. I didn’t know what Shabbat was,” she said.

A friend came along with her and, as davening began on Friday evening, the two began mocking the other NCSYers as they prayed. “They were moving but not going anywhere,” she recalled. “It looked very bizarre. We were sitting in the corner laughing our heads off.”

The next day, as davening began again, an NCSY advisor, Adi Gidali, asked Danielle if she knew what everyone was doing. “I said, ‘No, but they look stupid,’” she recalled. Gidali took her aside and showed her a siddur and read through the morning berachot with her. Gidali read the Hebrew and Danielle read the English and answered amen to the berachot. The effect was transformative.

“All of a sudden, I had my questions answered. For the first time in my, life I was thanking God for giving me life,” she said. “I was appreciative of not being born blind and not being a paraplegic and all these other things I took for granted. I realized in that moment that everything in a person’s life is given directly for their life’s journey. I realized all the things that up until then I thought were important— how we dress, how we look — were on the outside. Judaism was screaming the opposite: everything that’s important is on the inside.”

“I had a million questions and I kept on going back,” she said.

When she finished eighth grade, Danielle considered continuing on her career path to New York’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, but Rabbi Jeffrey Greenberg, then the director of New York NCSY, asked her to consider going to a Jewish high school, Ezra Academy, instead. “I actually ended up going to yeshiva without any inkling of becoming religious in any way, just to get my questions answered,” she said.

She slowly became more observant. Each step, she says, was a challenge for her and becoming more religious was a struggle. Initially, Danielle believed the only two restrictions of Shabbat were not handling money and not using electricity. Her friends would pick her up on Friday night and they’d pay for her to watch a movie; afterwards they’d go to a diner and Danielle would tell the waitress it was her birthday to get free food. “I was stealing and watching movies and eating treif and I thought I was being the best Jew ever and that was how I kept Shabbat.”

Looking for an even more religious environment, she transferred out of Ezra to Shulamith High School for Girls and, after graduating, spent the year at Sharfman’s, a seminary in Israel.

Danielle also began giving back to NCSY, serving as an outreach coordinator on New York’s regional board in 11th grade and as regional board president in 12th grade — all while being an active member of Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s division that promotes inclusion of special needs individuals in the greater Jewish community. For her work, Danielle was made a member of NCSY’s prestigious Ben Zakkai Honor society.

During that time, her father was undergoing his own religious transformation. In the words of his daughter, Noah Lantor was always a spiritual person. He spent time in India. He undertook months-long fasts for purification and even met the Dalai Lama’s brother. However, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for until he stumbled into a Kaballah class given by a local Chabad shaliach, Rabbi Yitzchok Winner. Slowly, he found himself becoming more and more dedicated to living an Orthodox life. His religious turn didn’t please his wife.

“My mother grew up just as television was being invented and she watched this footage of concentration camps being liberated every day,” Danielle explained. “At a young age, she could not get over it. It made such a strong impression on her that she became an atheist and didn’t believe in any organized religion.”

Eventually, as Danielle’s father became closer to Rabbi Winner, he invited the family over for Shabbat dinner. While her mother declined several times, the rabbis’ persistence eventually won her over. The Shabbat dinner went well, until halfway through the meal.

“All of a sudden, my mother takes her fist and slams it down on the table and she yells: How can you live your life as Orthodox Jews? How can you think your God is just, if he does horrendous acts like the Holocaust?” Danielle recalled.

The rebbetzin validated her feelings and said that they were too close to the tragedy to make sense of it. Then the rebbetzin asked what Danielle’s mother was doing about the Holocaust in this generation?

“The Rebbetzin pointed at me and asked if she could guarantee I would marry a Jew? Hitler was trying to kill our bodies but now Jews are finishing his work with assimilation.” Hoping to refute her husband’s arguments, Danielle’s mother signed up for a class on Judaism. It turned out to be given by Rebbetzin Esther Winner, the sister-in-law of her husband’s Chabad rabbi. “She started learning the Torah and she read it over and over,” Danielle said.

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Danielle’s father and mother (pictured above) undertook their own spiritual journey.

The family grew in tandem, each one through their individual journey. Soon after Danielle returned from Israel, she met her future husband, Naphtali Sudwerts, a shidduch proposed to her by none other than Gidali, the advisor that first showed her how to pray. Danielle and her husband have four children and live in Far Rockaway. Danielle teaches dance to ‘at-risk’ Jewish girls in a school in Brooklyn. “It’s really amazing to take my talents and use it for kedusha,” she said.  She and her husband also teach at Be’er Hagolah Institute, a school founded to provide Jewish education to families and children who emigrated from the Former Soviet Union.

“I’ve been involved in kiruv ever since I became religious and I haven’t stopped,” Danielle said, adding that her home is always open to her students in various capacities.

Recently, her family spent Shabbos at a camp in the Poconos that was also hosting NCSY’s Leadership Weekend.  At havdalah, her kids became so caught up in the moment, dancing with the music, that the NCSYers invited them into their circles. As she watched, with tears streaming down her cheeks, Danielle ran over to Dr. David Luchins, whom she recognized as an advisor to the Ben Zakkai Honor Society, and exclaimed: “Those kids with peyos and who go to Bais Yaakov are children of an old NCSYer who once didn’t even know about Hashem!”  He was intrigued and realized that she was a missing Ben Zakkai member whom NCSY had been trying to track down for years. It was believed that she had intermarried and was lost to the Jewish people, he told her. Instead, he was moved to see her religious family, continuing on the path that NCSY paved for her.