The Dreamer

Jeff ran in terror. The gigantic dog was gaining on him and he had nowhere to hide. He knew that within seconds it would sink its razor-sharp sharp teeth into him. And then suddenly, the dog lunged at somebody else and Jeff got away.

Jeff Feder awoke in a cold sweat. He couldn’t shake the nightmares. The dreams about wild dogs and other savage animals had filled his sleep every night since he had arrived in Eilat.

Jeff had grown up in a non-observant home in New Jersey and spent his high school years with long hair, a lip ring and enmeshed in a counter-culture lifestyle. He searched desperately for meaning and substance to life, but felt only frustration at the inability of the world to provide serious answers to his existential questions. After he finished his first year at Emory University in Atlanta, GA in May 1996, Jeff decided not to return for a second year. Instead he set off to travel to try to find his place in the world.

His journeys took him all the way up to the frigid waters of Alaska, where he worked on a fishing boat, and down to the sandy beaches of Key West. He thought he would relish the freedom and independence, but he had never felt so alone and frustrated in his life.

In the midst of his journeys his mother offered to sponsor him to fly to Israel to record a video of his great-aunt speaking about how their family had survived the Holocaust in Hungary. Jeff flew to Israel, recorded the video, and then set off for a 10 day vacation across the country.

Jeff spent the first few days in Jerusalem with an observant cousin named Asher and his wife Yehudit. They asked him if he would be interested in attending a fascinating series of classes on Judaism at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah. He found the classes to be interesting but not life-changing.

He then traveled south for three days to Eilat. It was there that his nightmares began. The first night he dreamt that he was being attacked by savage, monstrous creatures and skeletons of wild animals. The next night he dreamt about the dog. After three days in Eilat, Jeff traveled to Tel Aviv. His nightmares became progressively more vivid and terrifying each night. A non-Jewish friend suggested that maybe G-d was trying to send him a message through the dreams. Jeff initially doubted the thought but eventually considered it.

“The idea of G-d trying to give me a message was completely different from my concept of G-d,” Jeff said. “My concept of G-d was that it was some kind of force that doesn’t have a will of its own, but in my dreams someone was trying to send me a message.”

The fact that some power was trying to communicate with him stood in contrast to the deep loneliness he was feeling. He felt comforted by the thought of a divine force looking out for him.

One evening Jeff decided to walk through downtown Tel Aviv to try to find answers to the chaotic thoughts cramming his head. There, in the middle of Disengoff Square in a pouring rainstorm, everything began becoming clear.

“I had this whole idea through high school of being invincible, that I was the center of things,” Jeff recalled. He had never been egotistical, but simply believed that he was always correct and the rest of the world’s was wrong. “After all these dreams, I had a moment of internal reckoning. None of this is working. I have to make a change. G-d wants me to change.”

Once he made room for G-d in his life, Jeff felt extraordinarily happy. He realized that he needed to learn more about G-d and the messages that He was sending. He decided to return to Jerusalem the next morning.

That night Jeff had only good dreams.

Jeff stayed again with Asher and Yehudit. He told them about his dreams and in particular the dream of the vicious dog. Asher told him that when people have nightmares about dogs, it is customary to read the verse (Shemot 11:7) that recalls that the dogs of Egypt did not bark when the Jews departed in the Exodus. The verse records that the dogs differentiated between the Jewish slaves and their Egyptian masters.

Jeff said he never understood why G-d would distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. But in the verse and in his dream he saw that even dogs knew the difference. The dog in his dream only attacked the other man. This helped Jeff realize that Hashem also could differentiate between people.

“I thought, ‘if he’s the G-d of all humanity, why does it matter who I am?’ But He was telling me you’re a Jew and I care,” Jeff said. “When I realized I was a Jew, I knew that Jews and G-d have a certain relationship. I had to find out about that.”

The next day Jeff went back to Aish HaTorah. He skipped the introductory classes and signed right up for classes on practical Judaism and mitzvot. Within a very short time he became an observant Jew. Once he had stumbled upon Hashem through the explanation of the dreams, and living in the spiritually fertile atmosphere of Israel, it was a very quick road to becoming religious.

Jeff spent six weeks at Aish and then returned to America. He now felt much more confident about the value of the world and his place in it. He finished Emory, and soon after returned to Israel. He now goes by the name Yitzchak and lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem.

While in Atlanta after his return to America, Jeff was at synagogue one Shabbat morning and received an aliyah to the Torah. His jaw dropped when he realized that the aliyah included the very verse from Parshat Bo that he had recited in his cousin’s house in Jerusalem.

“It was like G-d was keeping an eye on me. It was like he was saying, ‘are you sticking with the plan here? It was kind of scary,” Jeff said.

Once again, Jeff realized that Hashem was looking out for him.

Originally published in The Jewish Press in January 2011

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

6 comments on “The Dreamer

  1. Spiritual pain may just be the pain of growing up. At Aish Jerusalem, at Chabad, you find a cross-section of people seeking help.

    What they may need help for is depression, loneliness, anxiety, ADD, OCD, social phobia, Aspergers, bipolar, pot-abuse, immaturity, and lax parenting, or absent parenting.

    What they may need is time, maturity, help developing a career, help getting off pot. Help that a therapist, a physician, a mentor, and yes, a rabbi (!) could give them.

    What they get is a kiruv rabbi who recasts their problems as due to a lack of Torah. When speaking to a vulnerable young person, this angle works. In a way, the rabbi is out of his depth – carried there by his supreme belief that Torah will fix whatever ails you (whatever that means!)

    Vulnerable young folks, boys and girls, not thriving, in difficulty, in pain. And kiruv rabbis telling them what’s what.

    There is an element of recklessness in bringing these groups together.

    And there is the fallout: quick marriages that fail painfully, often with young children in the picture. Young men who are suddenly fathers and husbands but are often ill prepared for the mature, adult, well-paying work place. And parents who are thrust for years into the role of supporting their now spiritually awakened child and grandchildren.

    There’s more to this picture. There is the rather unJewish idea that Hashem will quiet simply take care of your material needs. There is the utter disdain for the goyim, for goyishe ways. There is the belief in Jewish superiority. The casual acceptance of full time welfare from parents, and state. The view of Hashgacha Pratis – where every good that happens is Hashem being helpful.

    Hashgacha Pratis is pretty controversial, no? Didn’t Rambam qualify it pretty heavily? How did we get from the Rambam to where we are now, and why? Could it be cause the current view is a hit with the bal tchuvah?

    I don’t even really understand it all. But the main starting point is with the kiruv rabbi, so I think it starts there.

    One final rememberance: I have a relative who is a black hat kiruv rabbi. I was telling him about my friends – married, clean livers, good careers, committed to family and children, and honest as the day is long. And even humble, even though some are wildly accomplished. Some have never even smoked a cigarette, and in their entire lives, perhaps had one experience with pot.

    “Are you serious?” my cousin said. “I hate those kinds of people…”

    He can’t really reach them. Not with the usual kiruv message. What’s that tell you about the state of the kiruv industry, and what they are really selling, and to who, and how?

    The above is rather harsh – please understand: I am a Jew, and I care, but I also seek emmes. And I got some strong opinions!

    May you have an easy fast,


  2. What we have now is a great, aching void among many Jews because they have become alienated from Judaism. or because they were brought up to be alienated. Many kiruv organizations and workers try to fill this void, but, unsurprisingly, not all have the depth, direction, or skills to do the job perfectly or even acceptably. That does not make kiruv itself an unworthy enterprise.

    Those who want to educate Jews and don’t like the connotations of “kiruv” can call their approach whatever they want. Rabbi Cardozo, for example, has another description for what he tries to do, but I’d say that functionally it still falls under the broad heading of kiruv.

  3. Loneliness / anger / alienation is a disease of advanced societies.

    All tightly knit communities have the potential to deliver a person from a place of existential angst to firmer ground.

    I had a pretty close friend, years ago before I knew anything about Judaism, who went to AA meetings every day after years of quietly drinking and drugging.

    He said something that stuck with me: he sort of felt sorry for people who didn’t have a meeting to go to everyday. He found fellowship and support like he had never experienced. He also took the role of being someone’s sponsor, and having a sponsor of his own, quite seriously. It gave him a kind of satisfaction he had not known to that point in his life. It changed his life profoundly.

    We hear about military types who find a career and extended family in that world. I know two fellows who graduated US military academies and had their “table set” by their choice to serve. Even church and a commitment to family, fatherhood and sacrifice were kicked off by their “hashkafas” – instilled in them along with their (in one case) naval aviator skills, and in the other, infantry skills (he is now a major and his wife a physician in the army).

    One thing Orthodox Judaism does is provide answers, sacred routines, community, to say nothing of helping and guiding a person to marriage, parenthood, and how to educate and shape your child’s development.

    This is probably the secret to successful kiruv: the opportunity to have community, a spouse, and children. I have seen many people gravitate to orthodoxy in order to fulfill these hopes.

    But I remain disdainful of the kiruv process. It is often times built on bad “proofs,” and very one sided approaches to Torah, science, the goyim, and even hashem.

    And it somewhat slyly dangles the promise of finding a husband or wife for you if you sign on to the orthodox lifestyle. There’s something not-so-kosher about that (but I suppose it works to a pretty significant degree and it beats Torah proofs.)

    If you want to be blown away by a b’al t’chuvah turned orthodox rabbi, click over to Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s audio lectures on why he stepped back from the kiruv process (over at the David Cardozo Academy website).

    Shana Tova,

  4. Well, my reaction was similar to both Tuvia’s and Belle’s, but I don’t draw quite the same conclusion from it.

    I could not agree more that baalei teshuva “sometimes have alienation issues / loneliness issues,” because baalei teshuva are human beings. Human beings sometimes have alienation issues / loneliness issues. It does indeed seem that Jeff did. I know I did. Maybe I still do. These amateur psychology insights, which I enjoy as sport as much as the next guy, are however of no clinical value, to put it mildly.

    Belle, I spent six weeks at Aish and returned to the U.S. “religious.” I agree with the quotes, but what can I do? I try my best. Or my “best.” Actually I skipped most of the sixth week because of law school registration. I don’t know if there is anything less healthy about it than any other course of progress. Some people are quick on the uptake!

    You make the point of adding, “especially when the catalyst was something as murky as one’s dreams.” But you know what? Maybe that’s as good a catalyst as any, even from the most mechanistic psychological point of view you like.

    Every dream, Freud tells us, is a wish. It is clear, without invoking Divine intervention — something the Sages warn against, though our culture is still full of nocturnal portents — that dreams are a way the brain, among other things, works out “issues,” or tries to.

    So: Jeff is unhappy and he knows it. He knows it on several different levels. He’s traveling — “looking all over the world for God,” as Reb Noach Weinberg z’l used to say. Something inside him is telling him he’s getting colder, not warmer. Maybe even something angry. I know a little about anger, and I bet I am not the only one.

    Long story short: He’s tossing, turning, yearning. He reaches for an extended hand. Jeff is not telling this story to inform us that he is a prophet. This was just his mental dialogue with God; with himself; with all the voices and growls inside. Those are to be added on to the six weeks, in my view. My “six weeks” were just the last six weeks of what had been years of internal dialogue and external searching. It seems as if Jeff’s were, too.

    I agree everyone should learn in yeshiva, and for a year or two at least, and ideally do so before getting married. But there’s nothing in his story suggesting anything but a happy ending. Why do we have to be so dour about it?

  5. Of all the kiruv stories I have heard, I find this one a bit disturbing, perhaps many details have been omitted. But assuming the story above is accurate, in particular I find it disturbing that Jeff spent all of 6 weeks at Aish and then returned to Atlanta “religious.” This is not a spiritually healthy way to grow toward mitzvah observance, especially when the catalyst was something as murky as one’s dreams. The snippet above does not mention how long he studied in yeshiva after he returned after finishing at Emory and before he married. I hope he spent at least a year or two learning first.

  6. These kinds of stories make me believe that b’al t’chuvahs sometimes have alienation issues / loneliness issues. I think a good therapist might say Jeff is in this category. A fair therapist would also say that Jeff found a decent solution to his problem by joining the frum world.

    As an aside, you can read similar stories of hashem speaking to people who are gentiles, and who are “born again.”

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