NCSY and Birthright Israel Make a Shidduch: How Yaakov and Tovah Found Judaism and Each Other

22 Aug 2007


By Bayla Sheva Brenner

On Thursday, August 30, Jake Freedman, 25 and Tovah Schafer, 23 will be married in an Orthodox ceremony in Teaneck, NJ. Less than two years ago, neither one of them could have imagined making the choices that led them to each other, nor to the kind of home they now plan to build. As their wedding day approaches, this is the story of the long and sometimes winding road that led them to the chuppah:

The winter 2005 NCSY Taglit-birthright israel trip was a typical one; 25 percent of the young men and women enrolled were religious and 75 percent were not. Jake and Tovah were among the latter group. He signed up eager to find out what Judaism really looked like. She was looking for a fun and interesting way to spend her winter break from university. It was a birthright trip that marked the beginning of their journey to an observant Jewish life – together.

(NCSY is the national youth program of the Orthodox Union. Taglit-birthright israel provides a gift of first-time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26, from around the world. NCSY is a trip organizer for Taglit).

Throughout his young life in Newton, MA, Jake, the namesake of his great-great- grandfather – the last observant relative in his family – harbored an unquenched curiosity about Judaism. His family went to synagogue twice a year, where he would brace himself for two hours of confusing calisthenics. “It was ‘all rise, all be seated,’ and all say stuff you don’t understand,” he quips. “I knew there had to be more.”

Hebrew school for Jake wasn’t any better. “When I was first learning how to read Hebrew, I loved it and studied it more than my actual homework,” says Jake. “The problem was when we started learning the prayers I asked what they meant. The teacher said I didn’t need to know. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ He put his quest for his Jewish self on hold and applied to William and Mary College in Virginia.

A disturbing incident at college unleashed that desire again. After a classmate’s anti-Semitic slur and the fistfight that ensued, Jake started looking into what it really meant to be Jewish. He took a course at college on Jewish thought. Sensing Jake’s pressing desire to get to the heart of his heritage, the instructor encouraged him to take a trip to Israel. After being turned down for the second time by other programs, someone contacted Jake to inform him that, if he would be interested, there was space on an NCSY tour. He was interested.

Tovah’s Conflicts, Jake’s Questions

Unlike Jake, Tovah sat squarely on the fence concerning Judaism. Throughout her childhood in Yardley, PA, her parents kept a kosher kitchen and occasionally attended synagogue. During her senior year in high school things at home began to change. Her parents befriended a local rabbi and steadily increased their mitzvah observance. Although not inclined to join them in their fervor, Tovah retained some of the rituals at Boston University. She kept kosher and observed the holidays, except for Shabbat. “I wasn’t perfect,” she admits. “I figured I would deal with it later on.” Tovah didn’t count on “later on” coming so soon.

Winter break of her final year at college drew closer and a friend suggested she try NCSY birthright israel; she had heard “it was fun.” Tovah recalled that her younger siblings had taken part in a number of NCSY programs and enjoyed them. She decided to sign up for the trip.

While climbing up Masada and on their hike up to Tzfat, Tovah and Jake had their first real conversations. “Do you think you’ll marry someone Jewish?” asked Tovah. Jake’s response: “Maybe; if it happens.” Disappointed, she asked him why he wouldn’t. He answered with another question: “Why would I?” It was a question that continued to resonate in both their minds and begged investigation.

Jake chose to initiate that inquiry at one of the group’s first lectures. As the invited speaker explained the sanctity of the Jewish male-female relationship, the idea of a soul mate – an ezer kenegdo — and the importance of refraining from physical contact during the dating process, each concept pushed hard against Jake’s secular sensibilities. He challenged the speaker with oppositional comments and questions.

After the talk, tour leader Rabbi David Felsenthal, the Director of Orthodox Union Alumni Relations, known to most as “Rabbi Dave,” took Jake aside. “I told him there are different types of people in this world,” he says. “Some have an Avraham personality: warm and outgoing; some are like Yitzchok: internally focused; and some are like Yaakov, truth-seekers, always having to dig for the answers. That’s you, and it’s a great quality.”

The Wall that Breaks All Barriers

Erev Shabbat, Rabbi Dave took the group to the Western Wall. Jake watched guardedly from the men’s section as the mosaic of Jews gathered in prayer. At one point while singing prayers welcoming in the Shabbat, the group locked hands in dance and Jake began to weep. “I had no idea what it meant to be Jewish,” he says. “I [always] wanted there to be real value to it. I just couldn’t find it.”

Knowing he had struck gold, Jake approached Rabbi Dave for advice. “He told me he had to have more of this,” says Rabbi Dave. “He asked me what he should do.” In the most matter-of-fact tone he could muster, the delighted rabbi asked: “Why don’t you try yeshiva?”

Jake decided to stay an extra week after the tour to learn at Aish HaTorah, an outreach yeshiva. His parents urged Jake to come home for his approaching interview with Harvard Medical School, reassuring him he could then return to Israel. He acquiesced. “I put on a shirt and tie, but the whole time my mind was on Israel,” he says. “I was asked what I had been doing that year. I told them I just got back from Israel and can’t wait to return.” He didn’t get into Harvard.

Jake started wearing a yarmulke and stopped eating non-kosher. He and Tovah continued to correspond after the trip. “We spoke about what it meant to be Jewish,” says Jake. “We had debates – like do you have to go ahead and follow Jewish law to be Jewish? Can one go part way; keep kosher, but not Shabbat? I really wanted to go back to Israel [to learn].”

He delayed his admission to the University of Massachusetts medical school and signed up for the Aish HaTorah Essentials Program in Jerusalem. Tovah told him she was also considering going back after graduation and maybe attend “some program.” He left in April and they agreed to take a break from their relationship.

His entry into yeshiva life took some adjusting. “I saw people wrapping tefillin and thought it was kind of weird,” he says. That Shabbat evening, his discomfort dissipated with the setting sun. “I went to an Aish rabbi’s home in the Old City,” says Jake. “As soon as he stood up to recite the Kiddush, all the children stopped playing and running around; it was like magic. The entire room fell silent. They looked up at him and he had his eyes closed; it was the most beautiful thing. I’ll never forget the look on his face.”

Needing to share his excitement about Judaism, Jake reopened communication with Tovah. She received frequent phone calls filling her in on every detail of his learning. “I probably drove her crazy,” he says. “She was a constant for me during my mini-crises over making all these changes in my life.” After three months of yeshiva, Jake returned to Massachusetts to face the daunting challenge of starting medical school and reintegrating the person he was with the person he was becoming. “I didn’t know exactly how actively committed I was with Shabbat, with davening, with all of it,” he says. Tovah was going through her own mini-crisis. “I was graduating from university and didn’t know what to do next,” she says. Her parents offered her a tempting option. “They said if I went to Israel I wouldn’t have to look for a job.” She gladly accepted the proposal.

Tovah’s Time for Torah

Tovah flew across the Atlantic in August, 2006 for a year of study at Hebrew University. She enrolled in some graduate courses and kept thinking more and more about her Judaism. “I began forging close friendships with the dati (observant) students and took classes like Biblical criticism,” she says. “I discovered it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to learn Torah.”

Tovah looked into different learning programs and decided to go to Nishmat: The Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women. After the school year, she stayed on for the summer program. During that time, she got to see Jake (now “Yaakov”), who had come back to Israel to lead an Aish HaTorah summer birthright tour. They happily acknowledged their spiritual strides and decided that upon her return to the United States, they would start dating seriously. By the end of the summer, Tovah felt completely smitten with Israel. If it weren’t for her family and Yaakov waiting back home, she would have found it nearly impossible to leave. She was relieved to land a job at Nishmat’s American headquarters in Manhattan – permitting her to continue her increasing connection to the learning and the land.

Unbeknownst to Tovah, another crucial life-connection was about to be made. One Shabbat, Yaakov showed up unexpectedly at her house. After the festive meal, he took a walk with her father to ask him if it was okay if he and Tovah were to get married. Both father and daughter approved of the shidduch. “We ultimately want to live in Israel,” says Tovah. “First Yaakov has to finish medical school and do his residency. He would also like to go to yeshiva and learn for a while. I think he has the potential to be a great scholar, a rabbi, and I know that’s what he wants, too.” The admiration is reciprocal on the groom’s part. “She has a great take on what it means to be Jewish,” he says. “As we grew as individuals, our relationship grew.”

Rabbi Dave feels honored that he merited being the first friend to hear the good news. “He said: ‘Rabbi Dave, I’m engaged,” tells the rabbi. “She’s a frum (observant) girl, Tovah Schafer, from our birthright trip.’ He told me NCSY changed his life and he thanks God that he went on the trip.” As far as Yaakov is concerned, anything Rabbi Dave needs from him to inspire others – he’s there.

Rabbi Dave was right about his previously leery birthright participant; Yaakov, the truth seeker, keeps digging deep for the answers. And he looks forward to continue finding them with the help of his ezer kenegdo, Tovah, who joins him this month under the chuppah.

Mazal tov!

Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer in the Orthodox Union’s Department of Communications and Marketing.