Joel Kessler’s path towards becoming Shabbat observant was filled with potholes, but he was guided by G-d’s hand and in the end received an unbelievable salvation.
Joel’s journey began in April of 2005. His father had just passed away and he made a commitment to go to synagogue every day to recite the Kaddish prayer in his memory. Joel began attending his Conservative synagogue’s daily prayer service, but Saturday mornings posed a challenge. He worked as the manager of a nearby electronics store and needed to leave to open the store before the 9:00 am Shabbat morning service at his synagogue.
He heard that the local Orthodox synagogue, the Young Israel of Plainview, had an early Saturday morning service at 7:30. Joel decided to try it. He knew that he would not be able to stay for the entire service, but would be able to say a few Kaddishes.
That Shabbat morning he drove to the Young Israel and was warmly received. He stayed for a little while and then excused himself and drove off to the store.
Joel decided to attend the Young Israel every Saturday morning and started going to the morning service during the week as well. Over the next few months his friends at the Young Israel’s daily morning service served as an ad hoc support group and helped him through his bereavement. He felt part of a huge, caring family.
“I was brought there, I was guided there for a reason. You have to believe in Hashem. Things like finding that synagogue don’t just happen by accident,” Joel said.
After a few months, the Saturday morning service had become a staple of his life and he looked forward to it all week. But now he had a different challenge. He enjoyed the service so much that he dreaded having to leave early.
At this point a perfect opportunity arrived. For many years Joel and a friend had contemplated opening their own electronics store. By mid-2005 they had saved up enough money and opened a store. For Joel it meant that he now had a partner who could watch the store while he was in synagogue!
Joel began attending the entire Shabbat morning service each week and stayed for Kiddush afterwards. He still left to go to his store after services but loved his few hours each week in synagogue. Now he began wishing he could quit his job and commit to Shabbat. But he saw no way out. It was his store now.
Joel eventually got his wish, though not in quite the way he had hoped. From almost the beginning the store had financial problems and through 2006 business was on a downward spiral. The store went bankrupt in October 2006.
Joel was absolutely frightened. The store was his livelihood and he wasn’t sure how he would be able to make ends meet.
At the same time he was beginning to see G-d’s hand in his life. He realized that G-d had provided him with the opportunity to keep Shabbat.
“Part of my life was ending, but I knew that something new was beginning,” Joel said. “It’s such a calming feeling to have Shabbat.”
After the store folded, Joel began spending the entire Shabbat in synagogue and with families in the community. His wife and children joined him on occasion, and his teenage son now walks to synagogue with him every Shabbas.
It was the first time in his life that Joel had found peace. During his 16 years as a store manager, employees constantly called him even during vacations and Jewish holidays. For those 16 years every Rosh Hashanah was spent the same way: in the morning he went to synagogue with his family, and in the afternoon returned all of the work calls that had piled up while he was praying.
“It’s such a calming feeling to have Shabbat and to know that nobody will call me and beep me,” Joel said. “Now I found peace.”
So at the end of 2006, a year and a half after he first stepped foot in the Young Israel, Joel began keeping Shabbat. But he was now without a job. He went on lots of interviews, and during each one explained that as an observant Jew he could not work on Saturdays or Jewish holidays. Since Saturday is the prime day in the retail world, no one hired him. But despite all the rejections, Joel never compromised on Shabbat.
Joel eventually heard that the electronics store B&H Photo in Manhattan was expanding so he applied and was given an interview. Lo and behold he was hired to work in the home entertainment division!
B&H is owned by Orthodox Jews and is closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. It shuts early on Fridays. The store even has a Mincha service each afternoon.
The B&H job was Joel’s salvation. His desire to keep Shabbat was so intense and he had given up so much for it, so G-d sent him the perfect job to let him to do so.
“I have faith in Hashem, and he’s leading me somewhere. The whole time he’s been taking me by the hand and leading me,” Joel said.
King David refers to G-d as “your shadow” (Psalms 121:5). Just as a shadow copies its owner’s actions, G-d reacts to our actions. If we exert ourselves to keep Shabbat, G-d reciprocates and arranges events to help us do so.
Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com
(published in The Jewish Press February 2007)