Inspiration

In the Place Where a Baal Teshuva Stands

August 22, 2017

It is hard to believe that we already halfway through the month of Elul.

Elul conjures different images, such as teshuva and, on a more mundane level, menus. In a rabbinic home like ours, Elul also brings the stress of drasha writing, High Holiday programming and designing their accompanying flyers, classes to prepare and invitations for meals to issue. In this busy month which we sometimes dub as “tax season for Rabbis/Rebbetzins”, it sometimes seems like our own personal teshuva efforts get bumped to the bottom of the list with other shul matters vying for our attention. But the month of Elul also two marks two special anniversaries in our community- one of a yahrzeit, and one of a wedding- both which serve as reminders of all that the yamim noraim can and should be. I hope that by sharing this story with you, it will offer the same inspiration it brings to us:

It’s been two years since the night that I walked up to the sweaty but radiant chattan and kallah and asked each of them for a bracha. Both of them responded the same way, “I should give you a bracha? You’re the rebbetzin!”

I looked at them with surprise. I had accomplished nothing in my life as compared to the spiritual upheaval they had just undergone. Didn’t they understand they were my role models?

The Gemara teaches: Makom she’baalei teshuva omdim ein tzadikim gemurim yecholim la’amod bo. In the place where a baal teshuva, a returnee to Judaism, stands, a completely righteous person cannot stand.

Words I had learned and taught and thought I understood until I truly experienced them. I looked with wet eyes into the tear-filled eyes of the chattan as he blessed me with beautiful and touching words as his father, who had witnessed our relationship develop, stood watching with his own tears. I looked at the glowing face of the beautiful kallah as she offered her own words of blessing. Her words were exactly what I needed to hear, because she knew me so well. We had been through so much together. No one could ever truly know the full extent of their journey. But as their rabbi and rebbetzin, and close friends, my husband and I had a window, a glimpse of their unbelievable path.

I stood with her in the mikva room when she officially accepted the mitzvot and converted. I attended her again when she dipped to become a kallah, a mere three weeks later. I was the first to hug her the moment after her new husband stepped on the glass and, after a ten-year relationship, she finally became his wife. I witnessed their struggles, their commitment, the frustrations that could easily have pushed a strong person away, their passion for their new way of life, their devotion to each other and their unbelievable joy.

When I first met them, they had been together for eight years, having met in high school. He, a redhead who had  been known as a wild-child, had been somewhat tamed by his very-head-on-straight and beautiful (also redheaded) girlfriend. She was not Jewish and the two were far removed from a religious life.

As he said on the shabbat of his aufruf, “If anyone would have suggested I should even try a shabbat, I would have said, no thanks, that’s not for me.”

But something happened to them the night his grandfather passed away. His grandfather, a former president of our shul, was a man in the community who was well-respected for his patience, wisdom, commitment to Judaism and his close relationship with his family. Upon his grandfather’s death, this couple decided to embrace Judaism.

They met with my husband, wanting to learn how she could undergo an Orthodox conversion. I don’t know if at that initial meeting they had any idea of how difficult it would be or how different their lives would start to look after that conversation. In order for her to convert, they had to move into the Jewish community and they had to engage in hours of studying the laws that they would both have to agree to keep for the rest of their lives. They had to agree to embark on the journey together.

They already owned a large property that they loved, far away from the Jewish community. This did not deter them. They found a small house within the boundaries of the local eruv. They started keeping kosher, which is no easy task in Charleston, South Carolina. They started observing shabbat, through all the challenges this sometimes proved to be, and which would ultimately cost him his job. She became an expert challah-baker and as a lineman, he became an eruv expert and one of the key builders of our community eruv. They became closer than family with many families in our shul. And they became like family to us. On any given night, I would come home and find them learning with my husband, with a burning curiosity and desire to know more, that inspired us.

She and I went to Israel together with an amazing group of non-observant women. I watched as she fell in love with the land that would soon become her birthright as a Jewish woman. I watched the eyes of the other women as they talked with her and laughed with her and observed this amazingly normal woman who was changing her entire life to become Jewish. I saw them take a deeper look at Jewish tradition and see it all through the excitement and newness that was in her eyes; that sentiment was familiar to me as I felt the same awareness in my own eyes, having gained a new appreciation for my own Jewish lifestyle after befriending her.

The whole community waited with bated breath for the administrative details of the conversion to be worked out. Almost two years to the day of his grandfather’s funeral that started this couple on their journey, we finally got the call and with an hour’s notice, we were in my car, on a five hour trip to the Beit Din. She was quiet for much of the ride, likely contemplating the tremendous step she was about to take.

We stood before the Beit Din. The rabbis asked her if she would keep kosher, if she would keep shabbat, if she would send her children to a Jewish day school. Questions I take for granted in my own life. Questions that she had asked herself, searched her soul for answers over the course of two years. She answered in the affirmative with strong clarity, and tears. They asked her if she would take challah from her dough and the expert challah-baker, who had instructed me on how much dough to take when she baked challah with my children, looked at me and we exchanged a smile.

She came out of the waters with the Hebrew name, Batya, daughter of G-d, a radiant Jewish woman. Her face was aglow with a spirituality I could never have imagined.

Every first mitzvah, following her conversion was so exciting. Her first “real” shabbat. Her first “real” time taking challah from her dough. Her enthusiasm for mitzvot was contagious. We were all afraid to “contaminate” her by speaking lashon hara or saying anything negative in her presence.

They planned their wedding with three weeks’ notice. They decided to get married in our shul, the scene of their growth, and the place where his grandparents and great-grandparents had devoted so much time, energy and love. On the way back from the conversion, I had played “L’maancha” for them in the car. After hearing the song one time, they decided they wanted Eitan Katz to play at their wedding; by some miracle, he was available with three weeks’ notice on Labor Day Weekend. Amazingly, so was the caterer of their choice. She found the perfect dress. The upcoming wedding was all anyone in the community could talk about.

My husband and I spent an unbelievable aufruf with the chattan and his family. We listened as each of them spoke about this unbelievable man who had come so far. They spoke about his heart of gold, his giving nature, his tenacity, his commitment to doing the right thing and the love that turned his whole life around. They spoke about the peace and happiness that his commitment to Judaism has brought to his life. They spoke about how proud his grandfather would have been and how he we all knew how proud he was now, watching from heaven. There was not a dry eye in the room.

And then came the wedding. The look of profound joy on the faces of this couple when they saw each other for the first time after spending the emotional days leading up the wedding, apart. The palpable sense of unbelievable simcha that everyone in that room felt, the sense of rightness, our sense of awe of all they had gone through together, and the sense of completion that this long-awaited marriage brought. Seeing the happiness on their faces was tasting a bit from the World to Come.

At the end of one of the most special weddings I had ever attended, I looked back into the eyes of this chattan and the kallah who had taught me so much, who had brought such inspiration to my life and I felt a sense of utter humility. I told them the truth that it was such a merit to receive a blessing from them. To know them. To have been through this experience with them. That I was in awe of them and of their journey.

It’s been two years since that story took place. She has since left her job working in home health care to work in Admissions and Development at our Jewish Day School to share her passion about educating children Jewishly. He started a successful business after his previous job refused to accommodate his observant lifestyle. They are the parents of the most adorable little (redheaded) boy, named after the grandfather whose passing set their whole process of growth in motion. Two weeks ago, he read from the Torah for the first time, in honor of his grandfather’s yahrzeit. Together, they have inspired and brought in a group of young couples into our community.

They have also inspired the kids of our community and taught them that Judaism is worth sacrificing for. My daughter recently made the difficult choice to give up a solo in the school play because it was after her bat-mitzvah and it would mean singing in front of a mixed audience. She told me that while it was really hard for her, she found the strength to give up something she really wanted to do, because she saw how this man was willing to give up his job to be Shomer Shabbos.

When I think of Elul and what it means to become a new person, to truly recreate ourselves anew, I think of them. Year after year, we arrive at Rosh Hashana, more or less the same people we were the year before, and wonder, is change even possible? I look at this couple, and I know it is.

Watching this couple has reminded me that true growth is not for the faint of heart. That inspiration can be fleeting if we do not follow it up with sweat in our efforts. That the measure of success is not necessarily how high we climb but the struggle and the effort that goes into each small step. As someone who has always been an observant Jew, my experience with them is a reminder that life is not about what rung of the ladder we were born on or how many mitzvot we already do, it is about what direction we are going on the ladder. We can all be Baalei Teshuva. And Elul is our month to kick start the process.