Every Jew has a different road back to Orthodoxy and unique events which inspire his journey. For Mark Schwartz*, his journey towards becoming observant was marked by two ironic events – a spiritually uplifting experience which he barely appreciated and a religious test which he failed. Only when he later appreciated the significance of the moments did he realize the impact they had on his life.
Mark grew up in a completely non-observant home. His father had been raised Orthodox, but turned away from it and raised Mark and his siblings with no religious upbringing. However, most of his extended family remained observant. When Mark was a young boy, he was very close to his first cousin Shloimie. The two spent lots of time playing marbles in the streets or in each other’s Lower East Side apartments. Shloimie was descended from a long line of Rabbis and his family was well-connected to the religious establishment of New York.
When Mark was five he was once at Shloimie’s house on a Saturday afternoon. After hours of playing together, night had already fallen and it was time for Havdalah. Mark still clearly remembers being chosen to hold the Havdalah candle, but recalls nothing else of the evening. Years later his cousin told him that two of the biggest Rabbis in America were at Havdalah that night in the apartment – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Rabbi Feinstein lived in the same building as Shloimie’s family, and was related to Rabbi Soloveitchik. The latter had come to visit him that Shabbat afternoon and the two had joined Shloimie’s family for Havdalah).
Righteous individuals such as Rav Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik bring a feeling of holiness to their surroundings that leaves an impression on those around them, whether they realize it or not. For Mark the experience lit a spark in him that would eventually burst into a flame to guide him back to Judaism.
For over 20 years that flame flickered silently inside Mark. He grew up, went to college and married a woman named Donna in 1970. They settled in New York. But their lives felt empty and they soon realized they needed spiritual meaning. They started attending a local Conservative synagogue and began taking on some Shabbat practices.
Over the next few years they slowly grew in their Jewish observance and considered becoming Orthodox. For Mark one of the hardest challenges in their growing religious practice was not being able to answer the telephone on Shabbat. Answering machines were not yet prevalent and the Schwartzes did not own one. Mark felt that every phone call was urgent and needed to be answered. Donna tried to persuade him to stop answering the phone on Shabbat but he was reluctant to give it up.
“Each individual phase of our growth took a little bit of self control. But the phone was different. It rang all the time,” Mark said. “You can put your lights on timers and then you don’t have to worry about them. But the phone was always a constant.”
After several years, Donna and Mark decided to move to a community better suited to their changing needs. They were the only young couple in their synagogue, and they wanted a congregation with families their age and that could provide more opportunities for spiritual growth. They were still straddling the fence between being Conservative and Orthodox, but chose an Orthodox community on Long Island.
They eventually found a house near an Orthodox synagogue and applied for a mortgage. It was a stressful time period: they were at a crossroads in their lives religiously, were anxious about their move and were unsure if they would be approved for a mortgage.
A Yom Tov came in the middle of this period and offered a much needed respite from their worries. However the holiday brought a challenge too. On Yom Tov we have most of the same restrictions as on Shabbat, including a prohibition on answering the phone.
Mark and Donna were home in the afternoon of that weekday Yom Tov. The phone rang and Mark could not resist picking it up.
It was the bank, calling to tell them that their mortgage application for their new house had been rejected.
“I looked at Donna, Donna looked at me, and we said ‘enough is enough.’ It was a clear message from Hashem,” Mark said. “That was the last time I answered the phone on Yom Tov or Shabbat.”
After months of trying to wean himself from his dependency on answering the telephone, it took just one big slip to make him stop. Sometimes failing a test is just what a person needs to help him embark on the correct course of action.
“When people decide to go to therapy for help, they decide to go because they finally admit that something is wrong. That call told me, ‘this is the message. You’ve been wanting to stop answering the phone, so just stop it.’ ”
Mark and Donna eventually applied for another mortgage and were approved. Several months later they moved into their new house on Long Island, and within a few years became fully Orthodox. And Mark never picked up the phone on Shabbat or Yom Tov again.
* The Schwartzes names have been changed.
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 May 2007)