In a blur of colors and a roar of engines, the Formula Ford race cars sped around the race track at the Riverside International Raceway in California. Hitting 125 miles an hour, George Gottlieb* pulled his car away from the pack. Lap after lap, the other cars tried to keep up with him but to no avail. After ten laps the checkered flag waved as he crossed the finish line, far ahead of his competitors. The thrill of his first victory filled his body as he jumped out of his car in a high.
Minutes later, George stood atop the winner’s podium clutching his trophy. It was a moment he had waited for literally his entire life. This was just the beginning of his career and he could already picture himself on the podium many more times after future successful races.
However as he basked in his victory, a feeling nagged at him.
“I was very excited that I had just won, but as I was standing there holding the trophy I realized something was missing,” George said. “I ended up feeling empty. I thought there had to be more to life than just this.”
George stepped down from the platform and slowly walked away from the track. Since a young boy he had dreamed about becoming a racecar driver. He had planned his whole life towards that goal, but now he just walked away from it.
“Being a professional racecar driver, it’s like any athlete. It’s totally consuming. You’re always thinking, going over tracks. It’s a 24-7 job,” George explained. “If you’re not completely 110% in it, you’ll never make it. I realized at that moment it just wasn’t what I wanted in life.”
George grew up as a Reform Jew in California, surrounded by many other non-observant Jews. Even as a teenager he felt that there had to be an order to the world and a higher divine purpose. He looked deeply into his Reform Judaism but felt that it lacked the answers he pursued. He investigated nearly every other religious system he could find. He explored parts of Christianity, looked into Native American beliefs and tried Eastern religions. Nothing rang true.
“I kept finding castles in the sky that didn’t turn out to be anything,” George said. “I was always searching for truth. I knew there was something out there.”
George was at a loss for answers to his religious questions, but applied his energy towards his goal of racing. As a child he constantly watched races on television and daydreamed about races. Once he learned to drive, he tried to race whenever he could. As a teenager he begged his parents to let him become a professional racecar drive, but they repeatedly refused.
But the years of nagging paid off. At age 18 when he was a freshman in college, he convinced his parents to let him attend the Bob Bondurant Driving School in California for one day of advanced driving training. George drove exceptionally well on the course. His instructors told him that he would make an excellent driver and that he had a successful career ahead of him. But again his parents refused.
“Over our dead bodies,” they told him. But realizing that they could not limit his choices forever, they added, “But if you really still want it, when you graduate college you can do it.”
After graduation George found a job in commercial real estate. He saved up enough money to travel to France to attend a two-week session at an elite racing school. He raced Formula Renault Turbo Martinis and absolutely loved it.
George returned to America and started working for the Skip Barber Racing School in California. It was in that job that he raced on the nearby racetrack and had his epiphany on the winner’s podium.
After realizing that his lifelong dreams were over, George began looking for other outlets for his energy and new paths to pursue in life. Soon after, a friend told him about a local class hosted by the Jewish outreach organization Aish HaTorah. He attended it and was hooked. In the class a rabbi presented popular secular topics and solicited feedback and discussion from the attendees. At the end of the class he provided the Jewish outlook on the topics. Every answer hit home with George.
“Every time I noticed how right [the Jewish perspective] was. I knew I was going on the correct path.”
With his interest lit, George began attending more local classes and then decided to attend a six-week Aish HaTorah summer program in Israel. This program solidified his realization that Orthodox Judaism held the answers to his questions. He came back for another year to learn.
Throughout his religious growth, George shared some of what he was learning with this sister and parents. During his year in Israel George’s sister graduated college, and he convinced her to try an Aish program in Israel. She loved it and stayed on to learn. Their parents had retired at a young age, and so came to visit George and his sister in Israel. They attended a handful of classes at Aish, spent time in the Aish community, and decided that this was for them as well.
Now the entire Gottlieb family is observant, all thanks to George’s constant curiosity. The fervor and dedication that he had applied towards his earlier goal of becoming a successful racecar driver led him and family towards the correct course on the racetrack of life.
* Not his real name
Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org More articles at http://www.michaelgros.com
Published in The Jewish Press in June 2010