Finding Freedom

21 Oct 2020

“It’s time for bentching.” Talk about a confusing term! As a former high school varsity basketball player, this word was reserved for kids who didn’t play well and were unceremoniously yanked from the game to sit on the bench. I had never heard the term in connection with something to do after eating bread. Needless to say, there was a lot to learn on my religious journey.

My path didn’t start with learning a new way to think about a basketball term. It might, however, trace back to a work relocation experience in beautiful northern California. The region is stunning! It’s 70 degrees and sunny most days. Hiking and biking options abound. The trees are gigantic. Huge trunks with a bouquet of forest green leaves entice you to read a good book under the ample shade. It feels like freedom when that Pacific Ocean breeze glides past your face. This was my life for six months while working for American Express. Although based in New York City, my boss relocated me to Mountain View, California (40 miles south of San Francisco) to cover for an employee on temporary leave.

It gets even better. American Express reimbursed 100% of my living expenses and provided a free company car. I wasn’t married yet and literally had zero responsibilities after work. I could drive anywhere and do anything. How might you feel in this situation? Some might describe it as ultimate freedom. For me, I longed for a return to my family and friends on the east coast. That was probably my first realization of how important community is for the soul.

As a teen, how much time do you think about community? I rarely did. I took for granted how easy it was to make friends at school, through sports, and via my parents. College was even easier with hundreds of us living on the same campus pursuing the common purpose of higher education. But something happens after graduation as you’re no longer part of a defined community. You need to work harder to find your place and foster relationships.

As humans we all desire to be grounded and feel at home. As my journey progressed I really started to appreciate the feeling of being anchored in a modern orthodox community. But to truly understand the roots of my path let’s take a quick detour about my childhood and upbringing.

I grew up in New City, New York. No, not New York City, I’m talking about a Rockland County suburb 30 miles north of Manhattan. Throughout my childhood, New City had a heavy concentration of conservative and reform Jews. Interestingly, Monsey was a mere five miles away and chockfull of Orthodox Jews. Same religion but two very different lifestyles. It’s that neighborly view of Monsey that formed my earliest perspective on Orthodox Judaism. My friends and I witnessed a different dress code and were loosely aware at the time of some seemingly prohibitive rules (i.e., no driving on Saturday).

Meanwhile, my personal exposure to Jewish life consisted of apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, eight gifts on Chanukah, a modified Pesach Seder, and a Bar Mitzvah pulled off via private tutoring to learn transliterated Hebrew. I certainly identified as Jewish but being American was a much stronger label.

Have you ever thought about your identity and how you define yourself? Have you ever considered how that label might evolve over time? I sure didn’t as a teen. If you could interview my sixteen year old self and ask me to define Shabbat in one word I would say “restrictive.” Years later, surrounded by a community full of friends and family, Shabbat means “freedom” to me. Could two words be any more dissimilar? How might you define Shabbat and is it possible your feelings could change over time? Mine did and what follows highlights the key moments that dramatically shifted my life trajectory.

As I mentioned, the Northern California experience planted the first seeds of wanting to be grounded in a community. I didn’t know at the time but my late father-in-law nurtured those seeds by urging me to read one Bible chapter per week. He delivered this advice over a decade ago as he proclaimed all of life’s answers can be found in the Torah. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my wife Carol’s father was setting a foundation for me to read the weekly parsha. He was living with us as he battled diabetes including thrice-weekly gut-wrenching dialysis sessions while waiting on a kidney transplant. Challenge accepted, I placed the Bible on my night stand and set out to follow his advice.

On July 30, 2010 Carol’s father sadly passed away while she was with him and her cousin in the hospital. Her cousin contacted Rabbi Benjamin Yudin in Fair Lawn, NJ, believing he would quickly know what to do next. He quickly jumped into action arranging the funeral, shiva visits, and burying her father in Israel. Two days later Rabbi Yudin paid a shiva visit and suggested I attend his beginner’s class on the parsha. Truth be told, I accepted the invitation merely out of curiosity and began attending the class “religiously” every Monday night. Early on he asked me to grab an extra Chumash from the sanctuary. Not knowing the word Chumash I simply brought back one book of each color. Never one to embarrass a pupil and utilizing his natural kiruv talents, Rabbi Yudin said, “Perfect, I needed all of these books too!”

Over the next few years our path accelerated as we started eating kosher, keeping Shabbat, enrolling our kids in a Yeshiva day school, and planning our move to Fair Lawn. Flash ahead to a recent, pre-COVID casual dinner with my secular Jewish friends from college. They’re curious about the contrast between secular and religious life. Allow me to share a few of the main highlights from that conversation as I believe it pinpoints the benefits of a religious lifestyle.

The world’s biggest fraternity

If I were creating a kiruv brochure I would be sure to emphasize the benefits of community life in attracting more Jews to a religious way of life. There are countless benefits stemming from living in a religious community. These include meals when we have a baby, playdates for my kids, regular lunch invites to make new friends, places to stay when we travel, babysitters to watch my kids on date night, chavrusas who became lifelong best friends, free classes on an array of Jewish and life topics, and even basketball Tuesday nights with guys from shul (without the benching since there’s no coach to evaluate your performance on the court)! It really is the world’s biggest fraternity where we all take care of each other. As I mentioned before, feeling a part of something is so critical to maintaining mental health in your adult years. The isolation many of us have experienced during the pandemic has further highlighted that need for connection and inclusion.

Faith based decision making

Decisions in the secular world are typically based on fact, emotions, and/or gut instincts. Faith doesn’t factor into the equation. I learned this lesson the first time Carol and I were approached to donate a significant sum of money to someone in our family who had fallen on a series of hard times. The old me would simply run an excel spreadsheet on the impact of the donation. The new me sat down with Rabbi Yudin. First, he explained the laws of maaser of income and asked me if we could keep the lights on in our house after donating the money. Assuming yes, he recommended giving the tzedakah with faith we are doing the right thing to help someone less fortunate. Two days after writing the check my uncle passed away at the age of 84. My mother informed me he left me money in his will as a thank you for helping him manage his finances and household as he aged. Would you believe the money from my uncle matched to the penny the donation we made 48 hours prior? Talk about a reward for having faith in Hashem or what I now know as bitachon!

Shabbat is a day of Freedom

From my roots in New City you can see that I originally viewed Shabbat as restrictive. You can’t drive, you can’t call people, you can’t watch television. It’s one long list of what you can’t do. Now I most closely associate Shabbat with the word “freedom.” It’s the one day to unplug from technology and plug-in to the lives of my family and friends. A meal around the table without smartphone disruptions is the perfect antidote to our hectic weekly routine. In fact, my children have even said they like us as parents the most on Shabbat (because we’re fully present). You might panic at the thought of a day without your trusty phone. I hear you. That ding of a new text is powerful. It’s your phone’s way of saying someone wants to connect with you. However, face-to-face interaction is even more powerful and when you live amongst a community of people willing to put their phone aside once per week you’ll forge even deeper connections.

My community didn’t have an NCSY chapter when I was in high school. So I missed the opportunity to grow up with like-minded teens and didn’t have the benefit of NCSY directors who could gently show me and teach me about the beauty of Orthodox Judaism.

The new world that was opened up for me later in life is constantly being opened for thousands of teens through NCSY programs and educators. NCSY advisors are the positive role models with whom teens can identify and bond. Because I came to Orthodox Judaism as a young adult, I truly appreciate how NCSY allows teens to see the beauty of Torah, the glory of a Shabbat experience, and the sharing of values with others on the same path, first-hand. NCSY inspires teens and gives them a personal connection to their Jewish heritage.

Teens can easily put value on celebrity, influencers, sports figures and rock stars they are exposed to every day. I personally support NCSY to give teens the opportunity to put even greater value on themselves and becoming productive members of our Jewish community.

Overall, I now marvel at how my younger self so fully misunderstood Orthodox Judaism. My beliefs were formed through assumptions and judgments, not personal experience and understanding. I’m so thankful for all the people and experiences that contributed to my joining one of the greatest global communities. Where are you in your journey? I urge you to take a step and see what happens to your Jewish flame. You never know when one class or one NCSY event just might ignite your soul into pursuing an unbelievably rewarding journey.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.