The little acts of kindness that we do every day can have life-changing impacts on people. Jay Cantor is proof. The common interactions he had with religious Jews helped him to understand the eternal relevance of Judaism and to overcome the lifelong stereotypes he had possessed.
Jay lived in Manhattan and worked in sales. He had grown up in a non-observant home, and had reached a point in his life that he felt that something important was missing but could not identify it. Two of his close friends, neither Jewish, had gone through emotional challenges and had found spiritual support from their religious beliefs. Jay longed for something similar.
“I felt burned out in my life. I’ve always been very curious, sensitive and operated from the heart. I felt like things just weren’t put together,” Jay said.
Jay worked in a real estate office with 50 other salespeople. He had been a salesman for his whole life, but felt like he was stuck in a rut.
At the end of each month the company announced the name of the most successful salesperson. Nearly every month it was the same person, an unassuming, serious man. The man always wore a dark suit and a baseball cap, but other than that he didn’t stick out at all.
Jay hoped that he might be able to glean some wisdom from the successful salesman. One day he approached him and asked for advice.
In the conversation Jay found out that the man, Sammy Rappaport*, was a religious Jew. Sammy was eager to speak with him, but the conversation took a direction that Jay could have never predicted.
“I said to him, ‘I want to know your secret.’ [Sammy] spoke to me but didn’t speak one word of business,” Jay said. “He just listened to everything I was saying about my life. He figured out that I was single and Jewish and needed some direction. He started tossing things out to me, giving me ideas for my life.”
Jay found out later that Sammy’s suggestions were based on Mishlei, Pirke Avos and other Jewish sources. At first Jay doubted that Judaism could hold the answers to his challenges.
“I thought, ‘what will this Orthodox Jew, living in some shtetl, know about my life?’” Jay said.
Jay’s mind was filled with age-old stereotypes about religious Jews and he assumed they all applied to Sammy. But as he listened to Sammy in the first conversation and subsequent discussions, he slowly began to see the wisdom that Sammy possessed.
“This guy was pulling ideas from a thousand years ago, of people that experienced the same things I was experiencing. He could pull these stories and apply them to my life. I said there’s some real wisdom here.”
Jay and Sammy began meeting everyday, sometimes for just a few minutes, other times over lunch. Sammy continued to give him additional practical ideas for life.
One day at work Sammy asked Jay if he would be interested in putting on Tefillin. Jay had never done so and jumped at the chance. The two men headed for a nearby fire exit and Sammy taught him how to wear them.
That one experience turned into a daily practice. Jay and Sammy would rendezvous for a few minutes each day on the fire escape so Jay could put on tefillin. Sammy also began teaching him the tefilos during their outdoor meetings.
Sammy connected Jay with several local outreach organizations. At Aish NY he met Rabbi Avraham Goldhar, the organization’s educational director. Jay was immediately impressed with him. Rabbi Goldhar also disproved Jay’s misconceptions of Orthodox rabbis – he was young, clean-shaven and approachable.
A few months later Jay attended another Aish event. The room was packed but Jay spied Rabbi Goldhar across the room. Rabbi Goldhar’s reaction upon seeing Jay amazed him.
“I thought he sees hundreds of people a day. I thought he wouldn’t remember me, or would just nod at me and walk right past me to his office,” Jay said. “But he came up to me. He didn’t just say, ‘what’s your name?’ or ‘Jay, where have you been?’ But he said ‘Jay Cantor, how have you been?’ At that moment I said, “wow, these people are real.”
Jay then attended a weeklong Aish learning program in Israel. He was inspired by the classes and trips, but was even more inspired by the average frum Jews he met. Everyone showed a sincere concern for him just because he was a fellow Jew.
Following the trip Jay went back to America, packed up his life, and then returned to Israel for another two and a half years of learning. He became fully observant during his time in Israel. He then returned to America, got married and went back to school to become a social worker. He’s now living in Passaic, New Jersey.
Jay’s journey was launched and guided by the average religious Jews he met in his life. He’s now trying to give other Jews the same opportunity, from hosting non-observant friends for Shabbat to sharing Torah thoughts via email with family and friends.
“The idea of Jews being a light to the world is that we’re supposed to do what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to be ourselves, and that will then give off a light,” Jay said.
The frum Jews that inspired Jay showed a true concern for him. He’s now returning the favor by showering other people with true Jewish love.
Originally published in The Jewish Press in November 2010
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
* Not his real name