The journey of Jeff and Amy Brooke was born out of tragedy, but through it they were able to see the tremendous joy and beauty of Judaism.
Jeff grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Norfolk, VA. For years the region had the heartrending status of having the highest intermarriage rate in the country, at 90 percent. But over the last twenty years a small frum community has been growing in the area and is having some success at turning the tide.
Amy grew up in a similar nonobservant home in Brooklyn. After the couple wed, they settled in Norfolk. Amy’s parents moved to the area soon after, with visions of migrating south to a quiet vacation home on the water. They found lots of water in Norfolk but not much else and grappled to find sufficient recreational activities.
So one day her parents turned on the television. They stumbled upon a televised class given by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. They were mesmerized by her persona, her passion and her material. They quickly contacted her NY-based outreach organization Hineni and ordered many of her tapes and books. Over the next few years, Jeff and Amy watched in disbelief as her parents became observant, literally before their eyes.
“We thought they were acting a little bit odd,” Jeff said. “We were observing them in an interested but horrified way.”
During this time, Amy became pregnant with their first child. Jeff realized that they needed a more spiritual direction in their life to help guide them in properly raising their child.
Simultaneously Jeff’s 25-year old brother experienced a relapse of the leukemia which had afflicted him during childhood. Every procedure was attempted, including a bone marrow donation from their mother. Sadly, all of the efforts were to no avail. Jeff’s brother passed away just a few months after his relapse.
The two events left Jeff grappling for answers and direction.
“Putting the two together – having any kind of loss makes one think about his place in the cosmos, and having a child makes you think about where you are and where you’re going. It was a time of spiritual searching,” Jeff said.
Just before Jeff’s brother passed away, Norfolk gained its first outreach Kollel as Rabbi Shlomo Goder moved from Monsey with three other families. The Kollel members heard that Jeff’s brother had passed away and so came to pay a shiva visit at their parents’ home.
Jeff was incredibly impressed – the Kollel members had just moved to town and Jeff had barely met them, and yet here they were going out of their way to show their care and concern to a Jewish family simply because they were fellow Jews. For Jeff, the presence of the religious Jews in the shiva house also provided a much-needed grounding and perspective.
“Shiva in a non-observant Jewish home is a joke, or worse, it’s offensive. There are usually a lot of loud mouth relatives knocking around, eating bagels, trading stock tips, clapping each other on the back,” Jeff noted. “It’s bad enough when an older person died, but it’s horrendous when it’s a young person.”
At the back of his parents’ house was a den, and Jeff would steal away there during shiva to escape the cacophony of visitors in the front sitting area. Jeff was joined there on many nights by one or more members of the Kollel. They spoke to him about the Jewish perspective of death and also gave him an opportunity to share his tormented feelings.
“They were not working me over, but were sincerely concerned about our family. We spent a lot of time talking about life and death,” Jeff said. “In retrospect I couldn’t tell you once [specific] thing we talked about. But it was just the fact that someone would care enough to come and be there.”
The genuine concern of the Kollel members also helped Jeff and Amy to begin to appreciate Torah-true Judaism and understand the religious path that her parents were following. They began to see the religious lifestyle as something truly beautiful and meaningful.
Following shiva, one of the Kollel members invited Jeff and Amy to their house for Shabbat. They were hooked! They soon got involved in the local Orthodox synagogue, which just happened to be located near their house. They received many more Shabbat invitations and made friends in the community. Jeff began learning one-on-one with a Kollel member and loved it.
Jeff’s learning helped him to realize something else that he had sorely misunderstood about Judaism. Jeff felt that there had to be a spiritual side to life. He just didn’t know how to find it and never thought that Judaism had the answers. But now when he came face-to-face with Torah-true Judaism, he immediately knew that it held the spiritual direction he was seeking.
“To know that my own religion was the source of something so true and spiritual, it was an awakening,” Jeff explained.
Since those events nearly twenty years ago, Jeff, Amy and their two children have been on a direct upward shot. They’ve become fully religious and have helped to found and lead many local Orthodox organizations. Amy’s brother and sister-in-law have also become frum.
The puzzle that Jeff and Amy began assembling during the shivah has been steadily growing, piece by piece. It’s now a beautiful picture of a life lived with love, deep purpose and spiritual meaning.
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. To read more articles and sign up to receive them via email, visit http://www.michaelgros.com