My journey from Reform to Orthodox Judaism has taken many unusual turns. Perhaps the most unusual is that, despite living in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, it was not until I arrived in Peoria, Illinois, that I became a baal teshuvah.
How did a Reform rabbi become an Orthodox Jew? I need to begin by explaining how I became a Reform rabbi.
My upbringing was totally in the Reform movement, but it was not what I would now consider to be typical of Reform Judaism. My family was active in a unique Reform congregation.
It was a congregation where most of the members were deeply involved and where Jewish education was taken seriously. I went to Hebrew School three days a week and attended Friday evening services regularly. I went to camps run by the Reform movement and when I went to Israel for the first time, my Hebrew was quite good and I felt myself to be a fairly knowledgeable Jew.
I remember the first time I went to an Orthodox synagogue in Israel, I decided very quickly that it was not for me. I spent an entire year in Jerusalem, never once questioning who I was or making any attempt (except for my one and only trip to a synagogue) to explore the possibilities of Jewish life in Israel. I had many Israeli friends and basically lived as a secular Israeli. The same thing is true of my second year in Israel as a first-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. Again, I spent a whole year in Jerusalem, not once thinking that there was any reason to look at any other kind of Judaism. The truth is that I was firmly rooted in Reform and, based on my experience, felt that it was certainly as serious, if not more serious, than Orthodoxy. I believed that Orthodoxy was out of touch with the modern world and represented an attempt to freeze Jewish life in a moment in history, while we Reform Jews were actively engaged in making choices that integrated Judaism with modern life.
My wife and I moved to Brooklyn and lived on the border of Flatbush and Boro Park for two years, while I attended HUC-JIR in New York. To make a long story shorter, let’s say it was pretty much the same as my two years in Jerusalem. Despite the fact that I did study a little Talmud with our neighbor’s son (who was a yeshivah bochur) to prepare for class, I never found myself interested in any exploration of the Orthodox community in which we were living. I spent one week laying tefillin at an Orthodox shul (as a class assignment) and quickly gave it up. We went to the only Reform temple in Boro Park on Friday nights. So what changed things for me? After three more years of rabbinical school in Cincinnati and four years in the graduate program, I was still a strong Reform Jew. After the birth of our second child, I decided to leave the Ph.D. program at HUC-JIR and took a position as a rabbi in a Reform congregation in Peoria, Illinois.
Before I begin to recount the factors that caused me to look at things so differently, let me first say that the Jews in Peoria are wonderful people. They have been extremely nice to me and they are trying hard to keep Jewish life going in a small mid-western city. Also, I do not believe that the faults I found with Reform Judaism are in any way unique to Peoria. What I observed there has been confirmed by surveys and by my conversations with colleagues in larger communities. Almost immediately, I discovered that only a tiny proportion of our congregation had any kind of serious involvement with Judaism. Very few members even thought of themselves as religious Jews.
Clearly they were looking for something, as they had joined — but it was a minimalist Jewish identity that mainly had to do with having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I discovered that most people knew almost nothing about Judaism. Except for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and the first night of Pesach, most Jewish holidays were observed by only a small fraction of the congregation. We had to employ all kinds of gimmicks to get people to come. Usually it meant giving their kids a part in the service. And then there were the demographic issues. I became very disheartened when I saw the large number of intermarried couples and the high percentage of children who thought they were Jewish because of patrilineal descent. Many of my congregants were only accepted as Jews by the Reform movement, but were not part of Klal Yisrael. Despite my Reform upbringing, I was passionately committed to the unique importance of the Jewish People and to the State of Israel. When I realized how many of our congregants would not be accepted as Jews in Israel due to traditional Jewish laws, I was devastated. I started arguing with my colleagues that Reform was on a path to a complete separation from the rest of the Jewish People and besides, with so few of them seriously committed to religious life, what kind of Jewish future would this be?
After two years in Peoria, I saw the problem, but I didn’t know what the solution could be. I can remember sitting in a restaurant with one of my colleagues, eating a treif meal and vehemently warning him that Reform Judaism had no future in Klal Yisrael and that most Reform Jews would fade out of existence in the next few generations.
The power of Torah study is truly remarkable. I continued to be interested in learning and someone lent me some study tapes for Maseches Shabbos in the Mishnah. I sat down to start learning the mishnayos. What I discovered had a tremendous impact on me. The issues of concern in the Mishnah seemed to be totally removed from anything I knew, or anything that I had ever heard of. Here I was a rabbi, and I did not know that it was forbidden to carry on Shabbos, which is what the Mishnah was primarily discussing. For the first time, I began to question whether Reform was indeed a continuation of historical Judaism. As I read and studied more, I came to see that Reform is a dramatic break with the past, not the next step in its historical evolution as I had believed. But I still didn’t know what the central difficulty was until I read an article by Yeshayahu Leibowitz in which he argues that halachah is not just an aspect of Judaism, but the defining aspect. Many of my colleagues had called Reform “non-halachic Judaism:” I now knew that term to be an oxymoron. But what was I to do? Most people who become observant can still make a living — but it’s not so easy when you’re a Reform rabbi! We were keeping strictly kosher and I was as shomer Shabbos as I could be. For two years I still continued to serve the Reform congregation. We sort of lived like Marranos: secretly, I had become Orthodox, but very few people knew. I wanted to find a job where I could live openly as an Orthodox Jew, but I couldn’t find anything suitable. I had started davening at the traditional congregation in Peoria and when they heard that I wanted to leave my Reform congregation, they asked me to become their rabbi. And that is what I have been doing for the past three years. My new congregation has been extremely warm and welcoming. They even had to overlook their by-laws to hire a rabbi with Reform semichah. Ever since I was a child, I have yearned to be a religious Jew and take part in building the Jewish future. With the help of the Chicago Torah Network, I have learned that the Orthodox community is not stuck in the past, but is vibrant and dynamic; and it’s the only hope for the Jewish future.
As I write this article, my wife and I are making the decision to move to Chicago so that I can learn more intensely, and I hope to be able to get an Orthodox semichah. I haven’t written here about the challenges to our family life which resulted from my transformation, but with God’s help, things have worked out. My son is a freshman at the Skokie yeshivah and my two daughters are also making the adjustment. My wife is rediscovering much of what she lost from her past as the daughter of traditional Tunisian Jews who grew up in Israel. I believe that as Orthodox Jews our lives are richer, more committed to God, and more securely rooted in the Jewish past and in the Jewish future.
Michael Arsers is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim in Peoria, Illinois, and runs a home remodeling business with his wife, Pnina.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.