There’s No Going Back

In the beginning of the BT journey, it’s easy to feel on fire, excited about what is ahead, determined to plow ahead no matter the obstacles. Then, as the years unfold and the children start coming, and growing, and requiring more money than we can fathom for their stellar yeshiva education, I would presume that most BT’s have a few conversations like the one I had the other day with a friend.

My friend, we’ll call her, “Tina”, and I were commiserating about the new bill for rising yeshiva tuition, the increasing property taxes for the community we live in, and the ever-rising price of kosher food, insurance, clothing, and all other needs, combined with both of us worried about husbands employed in very volatile jobs. It’s easy to joke about pulling the kids out of yeshiva and sending them to public school, or selling our homes and moving to a place in the country where housing is a fraction of the cost. We can pretend this is a viable solution in a moment of panic, but both of us know the truth – we are way too far down the path to ever turn back. No one ever said it would be easy. Sometimes, it feels much harder than we ever imagined it would be, but she and I have been frum for a decade or so, and the option of chucking it all and moving to an inexpensive community with kids in public school, is as much an option for either one of us as donning a nun’s habit and joining the cloisters.

A few days ago I had a “kitchen accident” that was, in its own way, a strong metaphor for this conversation. I was cooking some meat and I placed it in an ovenproof glass pan and roasted the meat for a few moments at 450 degrees.

I opened the oven door and with my oven mitts, pulled the pan out of the oven to check the meat. Within a few seconds, the pan exploded. With a loud boom, the glass pan, apparently unhappy about the transition from the hot oven to the room temp of my kitchen, shattered into thousands of pieces of glass – all over my kitchen, the oven, and me. There are no words to describe the mess it created (and I’m an author by profession!) It was just awful. Meat was intertwined with glass, meat gravy was splattered all over my nearby fridge and my clothing, and my kitchen floor was now coated in tiny pieces of glass.

Apparently, my “ovenproof” pan was not a good candidate for the oven, after all.

It took me hours to clean up the mess. It is now, as I am writing this column that it occurs to me that it serves as an excellent metaphor for the “no going back” statement. I could just as soon put my kids in public school and move to Hobunkville, as I could separate out the meat from the glass and serve it for dinner. It’s not happening. It’s too late. There’s no going back.

My husband and I daven every day that Hashem will continue to give us the means for providing for our family, so that our children should grow up to be under the chuppah, then B’ezras Hashem, become parents themselves, so that they can have the same conversation with their frum friends: “How are we going to do it?”

It’s a much better question than, “Should we do it?”

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.

It’s All in the Details

By Azriela Jaffe

The difference of just two words can make all the difference. I learned that today.

I’m the college professor of English, journalism, and public speaking for Yeshiva at IDT, a yeshiva program for bochurim who learn Gemara in the Beis Midrash in the morning, and earn a bachelor’s degree in the afternoon. I travel two days a week from my home in Highland Park to the IDT building in Newark, NJ, which is a 90-minute journey each way.

Since I don’t have a parking pass, and you have to wait till someone dies to get one (or you have a very good friend you can borrow one from), I park my car about a half-mile away from the station where it’s legal to park, and walk to the station, toting my overstuffed briefcase and dreaming of parking passes the whole way.

My good friend, Vicky Krief, works for IDT. She is the fortunate holder of the coveted parking pass, so she is able to park in the train station. If I’m lucky enough to be on the same train as her coming home from classes (which happens often), she gives me a lift to my parked car, saving me the walk when it’s cold, dark, and my feet hurt from teaching all afternoon.

Earlier today, Vicky asked me if I would be at work, and I replied that I would be, and I hoped to see her on the train, unless I caught the one before, which sometimes happens. She replied that I should wait for her because she had THE CAR. I figured that from her point of view, it was worth delaying my departure a few minutes so that I’d have the advantage of her giving me a lift from the train station.

At the end of my class period I got an email from Vicky asking if I was leaving and I replied ‘yes’, and shut down my computer and packed up to go. I walked outside and waited in the usual spot for the Light Rail that shuttles me to the Newark Train station. No Vicky, as I was expecting. I boarded the train, and then my cell phone rang. It was Vicky asking me where I was. “On the train, where are you?” I replied. She answered, “I’m waiting for you! I told you I have THE CAR. I’m in the parking lot!”

Oh, she had the car. At IDT. It never occurred to me that this is what she meant. Creature of habit, I just presumed it was the usual ‘I have the car in the train parking lot.’ Likewise, it didn’t dawn on Vicky that she had to spell it out anymore than telling me that she had the car. Wasn’t it clear to me what “I have the car” means?

As I’m on the train, Vicky is texting me over and over again, first with apologies for the miscommunication, and then with general chattiness and I’m getting really worried. I stop texting her back because I don’t want to encourage this dangerous habit, as I visualize her negotiating the highway with her blackberry on her lap, poking at the keyboard while she drives. My absence from texting only serves to fuel Vicky’s concern further that she has upset me by leaving me on the train and not giving me the opportunity for a ride home. She continues texting. Finally I spell it out. “Don’t text me while driving. It’s okay. I’m fine with the train.”

To which she texts back: “I’m not driving. Nachum ( another friend of ours who also works for IDT who understood he was driving home with Vicky) was actually driving her car home while she was texting me. I felt much better and we chatted by text all the way home, her in the car, and me in the train. I got out of the train and began my long walk to my car, and a few blocks away, there were Nachum and Vicky waiting for me in her car – so that she could give me a lift to my car from the train station, per usual. Now, that’s a really good friend.

And so, today it struck me in a visceral way why Hashem in all His wisdom, gave us the oral law. “When I instructed you to bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be totafos between your eyes, let me tell you what I really meant by that. . .

Vicky and I only had the written communication; we needed the oral as well. ‘I have THE CAR.’ What exactly does that mean?

It Takes a Village – Part 2

When I speak about my dear friend and mentor, Esther, Z’l, I feel as if I am not only mourning the loss of a dear friend, but I am also mourning the loss of the very soul which helped my neshama, and my husband and children’s neshamas, to return to G-d.

When Marsha Smagley, of Highland Park, Illinois, needed help for getting through the loss of a dear loved one, tragically, her Partner in Torah, Esther Solomon, Z’l, could not help her because it was Esther herself whom Marsha mourned, after Esther was killed in a tragic accident while crossing the street in Brooklyn. Marsha, a writer herself, is hard-pressed to find the words to adequately describe the impact that Esther and her husband, Nosson Solomon had on her entire family.

When Marsha started learning with Esther, her husband Norm and children, Jeffrey and Jamie, were trailing behind her in observance, but that all changed in 2004 after Esther and Nosson graciously invited Marsha and her family to spend all 11 days of Pesach with their family in Brooklyn. At the time Marsha had been married to Norm a number of years, and they had recently transferred their children from public school to day school. Marsha was worried that Flatbush would be too intense for her family, but they embarked on the adventure, and Marsha sees this time as pivotal to the religious transformation of her entire family. She elaborates:

“My husband and I have always lived in a very secular Jewish community. He never wore a kippah every day, but when he returned from Flatbush, after wearing a kippah every day in the Solomon’s home, he went back to work in a secular company wearing a kippah every day. Esther and Nosson had a tremendous impact on my husband and it was wonderful for our shalom bayis. They completely warmed my husband’s heart, and he got the chance to see that all of the changes I wanted to make to be more observant were actually normal in a frum community, and they weren’t just coming from me. Esther’s cooking was beyond phenomenal, and our whole family learned how to make Pesach through her example. We spent two entire Pesachs with her and Nosson, and then the Pesach after she was niftar, we all came to help Nosson make Pesach without her. Although it was incredibly sad, I felt Esther’s bracha in the kitchen.
Read more It Takes a Village – Part 2

It Takes a Village – Part 1

When I attend a wedding, Bar Mitzvah, or other simcha in the frum Jewish community, I am more than a guest. I am a researcher. I study all the details, always poignantly aware that I have no sister, mother, or Bubbe to guide me down the path of planning a simcha. While I look forward to these milestone events in our family’s future, B’ezras Hashem, they also terrify me. How will I know what to do? Even more importantly, what not to do? There are so many rules, so many accepted norms. I have no history dotted with family simchas to look back on, and no relatives to call with an urgent, “Is this the way to do it?” question. For this wisdom, I am counting on my friends and community. They will light the way for me, as if I am an orphan taken under their wing.

Hilary Rodham Clinton first coined the infamous expression: “It takes a village to raise a child.” For Robin Black, a bala’as teshuvah adult, it took a frum community to get her to the chuppah, and no less than 100 people were actively involved in setting Robin and her now husband, Dan, on the frum derech of chassan and kallah.

Robin relates how the frum community, (and too many special mentors to count), was instrumental in her journey:

When I looked around the wedding hall after the chuppah, the first thing I thought was, ‘all of these people got me here!

“I was living in Somerset NJ, and Hashem placed me in, of all things, a Masters in Speech Therapy program (where just a few frum students were attending!). I was Jewish, but not the least bit observant, married to a secular Jew, and the mother of a baby boy. I met my very special friend, Hadassa P. who was also a student in the program, an observant Jew from Monsey. I’m a very curious person by nature, and I started asking Hadassa random questions like, ‘why do you wear skirts all the time?’, and ‘why, during Chol Hamoed, Sukkos were there so many girls in the class who wouldn’t write?’ Then one day, she and I were in the bathroom at the end of the school day together and I saw her stop for a moment, mumble something to herself, and keep walking. I asked her if she was okay and she told me about Asher Yatzar. I was totally fascinated. Hadassa recommended that we became Partners in Torah, learning over the phone each week, and I very enthusiastically said, “Yes!”

“That was in February of 2004. I never stopped asking her questions, and I started my journey with one small step – I decided to take one hour out on Friday nights away from watching television! By July 2005, I had given up pork and shellfish and eating milk and meat together. And then, in August of 2005, my marriage fell apart. I didn’t want to be home on the weekend with my soon to be ex-husband, so Hadassa invited me to her house for Shabbos, and the next two Shabbosim, and by then I decided that Shabbos observance was a practice I wanted to keep.

“This is when the frum community really sprang into action. There were nine frum girls in my class, and I rotated between all of their houses and even their parents’ houses, never missing a Shabbos, and then the clocks changed and I had a problem. I was working in an internship and couldn’t get to Passaic, Brooklyn, or Lakewood before Shabbos began. This so-called problem was gam zu letovah.

“My friend, Hadassa was a mentor at Moodus, (now known as Sinai Retreats) which is a summertime kiruv program located near Lake George, NY for college students and professionals. She knew Rabbi Drucker, Rav of Agudath Israel of Highland Park, NJ from this program, and I called him on her recommendation. He set me up with the Feuers of Highland Park for Shabbos. The Feuers are pillars of the community, and my community rapidly started expanding. Zehava introduced me to many of her friends, who were very welcoming, so then I started rotating Shabbosim in Highland Park amongst her friends. When Zehava went to the country in the summer, she introduced me to Rikki Samel, a phenomenal sheitle machor in town who knows just about everyone. Rikki introduced me to a whole new set of friends, and then I met Adina Pruzansky, another well-connected member of the community and Adina introduced me to everyone she knew. My circle got wider, and wider, until it seems as if I was meeting, and eating by just about every frum family in Highland Park/Edison, NJ! How could I not commit to becoming a fully Shomer-Shabbos observant Jew with all of these wonderful people inspiring me?

“Chol Haomed Pesach of 2007, my divorce was final and I moved to my own apartment in Highland Park. The community did not rest until I met my bashert, Dan Black on December 4, 2007, and then we needed help with absolutely everything related to getting married, from planning a vort, to a wedding shower, to a wedding, to sheva brachas.

“My mother finally understood what I love so much about being frum, when she saw the love that the community poured all over Dan and me. One moment I will never forget: Under the chuppah, Rikki Samel saw that my mother was standing alone. She left her seat and went to stand next to my mother, to explain to her everything that was happening under the chuppah. Zehava Feuer, Hadassa, and a large group of women undertook every detail of my wedding day and Sheva Brachas – all Dan and I had to do is show up! When I looked around the wedding hall after the chuppah, the first thing I thought was, ‘all of these people got me here!

“Dan and me and my son, Zach now live in Highland Park as full-fledge frum members of the community. Dan has been as welcomed as much as I was. The community arranged for him to have the right seat in shul. The community helped offer guidance about my son’s educational choices, and they continue to feed us. We’ve been married for six months and I have yet to make a Shabbos lunch!”

Being a mentor doesn’t just involve the fun stuff. Making a shiva visit to an observant friend who is sitting together with non-observant family members is also a great opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem. – and to help mend fences. (Rabbi Eli Gewirtz)

Robin’s story does not at all surprise Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, Founder and National Director of Partners in Torah, since 1993. Partners in Torah matches Jewish men and women who have an interest in Judaism but who lack the necessary foundation with a carefully selected frum mentor, for up to an hour a week of in-person or over-the-phone study and camaraderie. Their goal is to provide unaffiliated Jews with a personal connection to Judaism and to offer them the support or the space to decide how they want to incorporate their knowledge into practice. With13,000+ weekly participants now in action, and 30,000 Jewish adults from over 1,100 cities who have participated, not a week, or even a day, goes by without Rabbi Gewirtz hearing of a mentor’s involvement in their partner’s life in an expanded way beyond the hour-long commitment of Torah study. Rabbi Gewirtz explains:
“The needs of people who have become observant are quite different than those of a person in the learning process. Very often, it’s not a question of whether they should do this or that but ‘how am I going to manage?” FFB’s sometimes don’t understand the anxiety of coping, for example, with Pesach preparations or the psychological pain of spending Yom Tov alone. To say, “it’s not easy” to have no family to go to for Yom Tov is the understatement of the year. But worse than that is the situation where people who were falling all over them to invite them for Shabbos and Yom Tov before they became observant , now almost forget that they exist. It’s always a good idea to check in with baalei teshuva to make sure they’ve gotten their Yom Tov plans taken care of.

“More often than not, mentors get very involved with their Torah partners; some for many years after their formal learning comes to a close. Many treat their partners as extended family members – whether or not the person has become fully observant. I’ve been to numerous weddings, Sheva Brachos and Bar Mitzvos where I was introduced to a family member’s Torah partner who traveled a long distance to be at their mentor’s simcha. It’s a special thrill to see partners standing together in a family picture. I’ve actually been to a few “re-do” weddings (where they were previously married but not k’din) that were fully arranged by the mentor. One such wedding took place recently in Lakewood at the home of Avi and Tzippy Braude. Everything from the flowers, to the chuppah, to the music, to the meal was as elegant as it would have been in the fanciest hall. The whole community got involved. When partners go beyond the call of duty like this, it goes a long way in reassuring their previously non-observant partner that their mentor is their lifelong friend and that they have a community they can call ‘home’.

Rabbi Gewirtz continues with this warning: “A mentor’s involvement is undeniably essential with a simcha involving non-observant family, but it’s essential to be tuned in to the family dynamics. Family members may sometimes welcome your involvement; at other times it may be best to stay in the background. Adjusting to a daughter’s or brother’s newly observant lifestyle isn’t always easy. As strange it may sound, a wedding for some family members can be viewed as a tragedy. A wedding can as easily be seen as gaining a new son-in-law as it can be seen as losing a daughter. It’s incredibly important to be sensitive to this. The last thing they want is an outsider acting as if it’s their simcha.

“When it’s done well, the mentor meets the family, is introduced as a close friend, and expresses pleasure to meet the people he/she has heard so much about. The mentor might say: ‘I don’t know if you’ve previously been to an Orthodox wedding but there are many customs you may be unfamiliar with. If you’d like, I can go through the ceremony with you.’ The mentor may show them their own wedding pictures so that they can really get a feel for what to expect. This is almost always appreciated, but it’s important to first ask if they want or need your help.

Being a mentor doesn’t just involve the fun stuff. Making a shiva visit to an observant friend who is sitting together with non-observant family members is also a great opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem. – and to help mend fences. Resentments sometimes felt by parents or siblings can melt away while people are grieving and experiencing life from a different lens.

“Explaining the Jewish approach to mourning and some of the minhagim is one way to help. In fact, Partners in Torah just launched a new website www.mykaddish.com to help such people acquire a deeper understanding of the Jewish way of mourning. Physically being there however, and getting them to talk about the niftar is even more important, and can permanently alter long-held resentment. In general, when the family sees that the mentor really cares, and that he or she is not trying to impose his or her halachos on the non observant family, their involvement is usually gratefully welcomed.”

Rabbi Gewirtz’s words ring true to me. Over the last seven years, I have learned with two partners in Torah mentors. Although I will always give PIT the credit for making the shidduch, long ago, I stopped thinking of these dear women as my PIT mentors, and started thinking of them as friends whom I hope will be a part of my life for many years to come. The title of “mentor” makes it sound as if one person is the teacher, and the other, the student. I can safely say, because my mentors have told me this, that on more than one occasion, I was a teacher for them as well. They know more halacha than me, and they have a longer history of being frum than I do, but we have discussed concerns as Jewish women, wives, and mothers, as equals, and as friends. I dare say they would tell you that I have helped them as much as they have helped me, and we now think of ourselves as friends who learn together, instead of mentor and mentee.

This article was originally published in Mishpacha, Family First, on 11/5/08. Part 2 will be published next week.

The Yom Kippur Fast, Oh, How I Love You (Yeah, right)

When it comes to the Yom Kippur fast, I have experienced three basic emotions throughout my 48 years). The first was apathy. In our home growing up, we went to synagogue two days a year, Yom Kippur being one of them. And then we came home and had lunch. I didn’t fast for the first time until my mid-thirties. For all of my upbringing and my twenties, I felt no guilt, no ambivalence, really, nothing about it. Fasting on Yom Kippur was for other people, and had no relevance for me. I can’t even say that I felt regret about not fasting. That would have been like asking me if I regretted not ever going para sailing. Nope. It just wasn’t part of my reality, and I didn’t think it should have been, and I felt just fine about missing it.

The next phase of my Yom Kippur fasting we can label “ defiance.” In my thirties, as I began this long process of discovering Judaism, I started looking at the fast differently. Now, I could no longer ignore it. It seemed to have great meaning for so many Jews, and I had begun practicing many other rituals. I now believed that there was a G-d who cared about me, and for whom these practices mattered. I label this phase of the fast – which took about seven years – defiance, because I convinced myself ( with the help of other equally defiant peers), that a G-d who really loved me and wanted my teshuva cared much more about my drawing close to Him, than He cared about me fasting.

I really thought: “If fasting makes me ill, so that I can not pray, certainly G-d doesn’t want that, and if I have to choose between fasting and so-so praying, or fervent praying with a full belly, it is so clear to me that G-d would chose the latter.”

I was so sure of that belief, I was defiant about it ( read – feeling guilty, rationalizing, not ready to face the possibility that the Torah was written by G-d, and that fasting on Yom Kippur was part of the program, lightheadedness or not). In fact, when I attempted fasting for a few years, and gave it up part of the way through the fast because I felt so sick, I was furious about it. I was angry at a religion that would do something as ridiculous (I thought) as expect someone to simultaneously reach emotional depth and soul healing while trying not to faint. I was angry with the Jewish community for making the fast such a big deal. (I had a rebbetzin once tell me that I should be fasting, no matter what, as long as I didn’t need an ambulance to cart me off to the hospital, and that didn’t go over well with me at the time). I was angry with myself for not being able to fast when so much of the Jewish community seemed to do it, young, old, or pregnant. Instead of apathy, I felt shame, and to cover up the shame, I got angry.

And then my children entered day school, and we started growing spiritually as a family, and they came home from school with the knowledge that Mommies and Daddies fast on Yom Kippur. For a few years I snuck food when they weren’t looking, but like so many of the rituals I now keep, I finally “got with the program” so that I could be a good role model for my children, and not create mixed messages about Yom Kippur fasting in the house.

This is when I eventually moved into the emotion I still hold on to today which I’d call “surrender”. I still don’t “get it, why Hashem designed the system the way He did, but I’ve come to accept that this is what it is, and as a Jew, I am commanded to do it. I still feel lousy on fast days, and yes, I’ve tried all the tricks for making it easier and some have worked somewhat, but bottom line, it’s just a day I try to survive, and I count the minutes till the fast is done.

Which brings me to a confession. My davening stinks on Yom Kippur. I am not yet spiritually elevated enough to get past all of my physical symptoms, and to, as they suggest, “ feel like an angel.” I understand the importance of davening on this day, and what is at stake. Each year I try to do better. But I am being honest with you – at best, I might reach a C minus when it comes to davening on Yom Kippur, and more realistically, I probably hover closer to a D.

Call this a rationalization, or perhaps this is a good example of Hashem accepting a BT where we are, as long as we keep striving for better. For me, the Yom Kippur fast is my prayer. I offer it up to Hashem as my sacrifice. I ask Hashem to accept my fast, and the miracle that in my life, surrounded by family who think fasting is stupid, it’s an accomplishment in and of itself. As the afternoon and early evening tests my physical and spiritual and emotional strength, I speak to Hashem, not from a prayer book, but from my heart. And I ask Him to forgive me for my sins of the year, and for not davening properly. I ask Him to take my fast as a symbol of my obedience to him and His Torah, because surely, if He didn’t say do it, I never would.

I learned once that it isn’t proper to wish you an easy fast. I should instead wish for you a meaningful fast.

From one faster to another, I hope that your day is meaningful, and your fast is easy!

First Published on October 8, 2007

My Elementary-Aged Kids are Smarter than Me!

The BT journey is a humbling one. On the one hand, you become convinced that Hashem did write the Torah, and he chose YOU and your family to carry out its mission. You come to feel that G-d does care what goes into your mouth, what is spoken by your tongue, and even, whether or not you fast on Yom Kippur. But just in case you start feeling too arrogant, there’s nothing like the embarrassment of not being able to help your kindergartner with homework to bring you right down to size.

Along the journey of the past ten years there have been thousands of moments when I have felt just plain stupid. When I didn’t know the words to pray, or that I should be standing up when I prayed them. When I sewed up all the slits on my long skirts in an inspired, momentary, desire to dress frum enough for my black-hat, wigged, shul, only to realize after the fact that those slits are put into these skirts for a reason! When I’ve asked a question of my Rav, only to reveal how little I really knew about the subject at hand, as he asked probing questions. Oh, the list goes on and on. But no list of embarrassing moments reads as long as the itemization of each and every time that my ineptitude in Hebrew made it impossible for me to assist my children in school, or the way I want to slink down into my seat when I attend “meet the teacher night” and I can’t really understand what the Hebrew teacher is giving over.

As we now school the children in Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway, NJ, half the student body is frum from birth with parents the same, and the other half are like my kids – their parents may be BT’s, but these kids are already fluent in Rashi and able to converse in Hebrew at the Shabbos table. We parents all look the part, as if we’ve been observant for generations, but some of us are trying to learn a few choice Hebrew words we can slide into the conversation so that our lack of learning isn’t plastered all over our foreheads like a billboard. A few Yiddish words, interspersed with a few of the more common Hebrew expressions bantered about, and hopefully, we’ll “pass.”

Until one of my children, maybe aged 11-years old, comes crying to me and says, “Mom, I don’t understand my homework!”. Or I go to shul on a Shabbos that has something different about it, and I’m lost in the service, flipping the pages of my siddur back and forth and trying to figure out where I am, and where the rest of the community is. And then, despite all of my learning, and commitment, and ongoing efforts to make up for my lack of yeshiva education, I am red-faced again, experiencing what I now call one of those “BT moments!”

I’ll share with you how deep this insecurity can run sometimes. I was a professional speaker for a Gateways seminar, and was both delighted and nervous to be receiving this honor. I had recently published my book, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” and I was there to help other BT’s deal with family issues that have arisen because of increased observance. It was candle lighting time, and perhaps fifty women were standing in front of a large table of tea lights, ready to light. I couldn’t get my tea light to light. No matter how hard I tried, the flame would not ignite the wick. Meanwhile, ladies were waiting behind me for their opportunity. In a flash, I experienced one of those “BT moments”. It went something like this in my head: “Here I am, such a stupid BT, I don’t even know how to light one of these stupid candles. I bet this never happens to FFB’s!”

Now of course, this kind of self-talk is crazy. My problem was with my candle, not my technique, or my lack of learning. It was just a bad habit, for me to sink into momentary despair at my stupidity.

I’d like to tell you that these moments don’t happen for me anymore. But that would be a lie. They still happen frequently, but when they do, I try to snap myself out of them quicker. If I sink into despair, I refocus my attention either, away completely from the topic, or, I make myself think of something I have accomplished, rather than what I have not, or, never will, accomplish.

I will never learn enough Hebrew to keep up with my kids. Thank G-d. We have sacrificed so much, my husband and I, so that our kids will far surpass us in their Jewish learning. My husband takes great pride in the fact that our 9-year old son is starting to give him a run for his money. My kids know that Mom can’t help them with their Hebrew homework, but they also know that she puts out a beautiful Shabbos table, that people in the community think of her as a woman who does chesed, and that she really lives by her firm commitment not to speak loshon hora. I know they are embarrassed by me sometimes. But really, what kid isn’t embarrassed by a parent from time to time? I should be rejoicing that their embarrassment is because of my lack of Hebrew background, rather than raising a household of kids who could care less.

When I cry, and I do, in those moments when I feel just too stupid to pull off this journey and do it well, this is what I believe I must think. How wonderful that I am in a place in my life where those tears arise, when I can cry about what I do not know, rather than being in a place where I have not a clue what it is that I am missing. There was a time I never shed a tear about what I’ve missed out in my Hebrew learning. That’s far sadder than all the times I now cry because for me, it really is too late to catch up. Yes, I know, Rabbi Akiva didn’t start till age 40. Yes, I know, theoretically, it’s never too late. But it is, for me, too late for some things. I’m too old to have another baby. I’m too fat to fit into sized-eight clothes. My bunions hurt too much now for me to walk ten miles. I’m not going to learn Rashi, and my kids have learned to ask their friends and teachers for help with homework. I can’t do it all, and some of it, I can’t do very well.

And so be it. Because I’m on the journey, and so are my kids, and maybe I’m bumbling along this road some times, but bottom line, I’m
ON THE ROAD. And really, I hope, that’s what matters.

Cry with me sometimes, and laugh with me. At least we are on this
journey together.

Serving G-d with Joy

My family and I recently returned from a journey that left me thinking about what I learned there long after the bags were unpacked and the pictures downloaded on to the computer.

Fifteen years ago, before I married my husband, Stephen, I was very active in a funky, Reform shul with a national reputation as a very special place. Indeed, this shul is still alive and vibrant with the kind of joyful energy I have been seeking ever since I left it. Shabbos services are packed, hugs are abundant, the singing is joyous, the Torah study before services is stimulating, and the female Cantor has the voice of an angel. Although generalities are dangerous, most of the congregants seem to be happy, both in synagogue, and outside of it in their daily lives.

During our most recent vacation, we paid a visit to a couple we have not seen in fifteen years, since their wedding day. She was a member of the shul when I was there, and I matched her up with a friend of mine. They fell in love, married, and then we lost touch. She “googled me” and found me a few months ago. They now have three kids and a house and a life together, and they are both still quite active in the same shul I long ago left behind.

Visiting with them flooded me with memories of my former life as a Reform Jew. As I listened to them talk with reverence about how special this shul is, and as I remembered for myself all of my own joyful experiences there, I found myself feeling a twinge of regret that I had to leave it behind. I was happy there. This couple seems happy there. Am I really happier now, as an Orthodox Jew, than when I was immersed in my Reform Jewish path?

This question has plagued me since we returned from our vacation. Very serious, committed Jews now surround me. Their learning, and their allegiance to the Torah continually impress me. I believe we are on the right path, the one designed by Hashem for our family. Are we happy? Does it matter if we are, or are not?

Yes, it matters. We are supposed to serve Hashem with joy. That is what He wants. Certainly, if we expect our children to follow in the derech, we better make sure the path is joyful. It was easy to be happy as a Reform Jew, because when I went to shul, I was not really focused on serving G-d with joy. I thought that is what I was doing. Except that I was driving to synagogue, and eating trafe, and ignoring all of the commandments that didn’t give me personal meaning or joy. In other words, I was serving myself, in the context of my religion. It really had nothing at all to do with serving G-d. It was easier to be happy when I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, and when I wasn’t paying yeshiva bills and a NJ mortgage and worried about parnussa all the time. It was easier to be carefree when I really believed that all that G-d wanted from me was to be happy and Jewish, and I could decide what that meant.

Now, I am committed to serving G-d with joy, with the emphasis first on serving G-d. Up till recently, I’m not so sure I was focused enough on the “with joy” part of that journey. So concerned have I been with “getting it right” and teaching my children, much of the journey has been quite serious in nature. Sure, there is the attempt to create joy on Shabbos and the holidays, but there is also the stress of preparing for the holidays and figuring out “how to do it” that has lessened the potential joy I could have felt. And, as so many in this community understand, the challenges of being a BT with non observant family has also cast a shadow at times.

I came back from this vacation with a renewed commitment to put more emphasis on the end of the sentence: “Serve G-d with joy.” I have plenty of scapegoats for missing the mark, whether it is the bills, or the lack of confidence in myself, or missing my family. My husband and I have determined that serving G-d is our obligation, and our opportunity. Now it’s also our obligation and opportunity to figure out how to do so with joy, not just during times of simcha, but every day. I can be happy when my religion and synagogue and practices exist for the sole purpose of entertaining me. Can I also be happy when my focus is on serving my Creator? I would hope that the joy and nachas I find from the observant path is of a different and more profound nature than the self-centered happiness of my previous Reform journey. And if that isn’t so, then I’ve really missed the mark.

I ask you to ask yourselves this same question. “Am I serving G-d with joy today?” If not now, when?

What is Hashem Telling me?

I was in a car accident last week. Or perhaps the right words are, “I caused a car accident last week.” The guy in front of me slammed on his brakes because the guy in front of him did, and I crashed into his car. I didn’t respond fast enough when he suddenly stopped, and now I have a sore body and a car with significant damage and since I live in NJ, I can look forward to G-d knows how much of a bill when you add up tickets, points, and deductibles.

I keep living the accident over and over again, this constant nightmare in my head. I can still hear the crash, feel it in my body, and that sinking “Oh no!” that comes from it. I had plans, an appointment I was on my way to, and so did the other driver. But this happened instead. Now it’s insurance adjusters, and body shops, and chiropractors, and apologizing over and over again to my husband for messing up his car. There is also a renewed and deeper fear of leaving my house, of driving anywhere, of recognizing that every day I don’t know if and when I’ll return to the house — or if my family will — in the same shape they left, or even, at all. This awareness haunts me, terrifies me, makes me cry.

I share this incident with you because I am acutely aware of how being frum shaped the way I responded to the accident from the first minute. I’ll share with you what I mean.

My first response after “OH NO”, was thank you, Hashem, that no one was injured. Even though the accident happened because the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes, I am considered at fault because I hit him. I wish it hadn’t happened. But it did, so I thank Hashem that it wasn’t much worse.

The other guy was rushing to an appointment. The damage to his car was minor. He suggested not bothering with the police, and just trading car insurance info. I should have done that, would have saved me a lot of money in points and insurance increases. But I knew the right thing to do was to call the police, and in that instant, I chose to do the right thing and call the police. (I admit several moments since then of clunking myself on the head and saying, “you idiot, what were you thinking?!!!!”)

At the end of the transaction, I approached the man and apologized to him for hitting his car. Although this in itself was an admission of guilt, and perhaps I should have been taking the stand of, “Hey, this is YOUR fault for putting on your brakes!”, I chose in the moment to just say, “I’m sorry for hitting your car.” He softened immediately, told me it was all right, and asked me what my first name is. I told him, “Azriela, a Hebrew name which means G-d is my helper.” He smiled, and quoted me back a bible verse from his religion. For a moment, we were just two people recognizing that G-d is in charge, and we forgave one another. I wished him a good day and he wished me the same.

Ever since the accident, I keep asking myself over and over again — if this was from Hashem, and I must believe it is, why? Am I being punished for something I’ve done wrong? Am I being warned to stop doing something I’ve been doing? Am I being given a wake up call? Why the expense right now we really can’t afford? Did I come by some money in the wrong way, and Hashem is taking it back from me now? Was this not a punishment, but actually saving me from something? Now that my car will be in the shop for who knows how long, did Hashem take it off the road because if that hadn’t happened, something much worse could have happened while driving it? Does the accident take the place of something so much worse, and I should be grateful for it?

And then, there is the sinking feeling I try to avoid dwelling on, that now consumes me. Life is so fragile, gone in a second, one crash and it’s all over as we know it. I kiss my children goodbye in the morning and pray they will return to me. I hug my husband before he heads off for work and pray for his safe return. Every morning, what is so dear to me can slip through my hands. I can’t hold on to it no matter how much I want to. It’s really all in Hashem’s hands.

And that is, for me, a really scary thought.

This is the moment when I am supposed to take the high road, and increase my bitachon, and feel a sense of serenity in this wake up call that reminds me that Hashem is in control. This is the moment when I should just be concentrating on my gratitude that the accident only resulted in broken metal, not broken bones, and that the guy I hit wished me a good day by the end of it.

And what does any of this have to do with being frum? Simply this.

I keep reviewing the whole accident with G-d in mind. G-d is always in mind. What does G-d want of me? Why is G-d doing this to me? What did I do wrong? What can I do better? Why today, and what does it all mean? Why was this G-d’s plan for me today?

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it’s important that I keep asking the questions.

Do the Details Really Matter?

People often ask me, “what mitzvah was the hardest one to take on? Was it covering your hair, or eating kosher, or the laws of mikvah?” I reply: “None of the above. It was the attitude change I had to make, which I still struggle with to this day, even after over a decade of observance.”

“Does G-d really care about this detail?” This is the question that haunts me. Why would the creator of the Universe care about whether I wait 3, 4, or 6 hours after eating meat before I enjoy an ice cream cone? Why does the Almighty concern Himself with which bird is sacrificed for which sin, and the actual materials that go into the building of the mishkan? If I listen to music today, or my husband and son get a haircut, and it’s not Lag B’Omer yet, this matters to Hashem? The same creator who gave us oceans, and mountains, and oxygen? Details, details, details, the Torah is filled with millions of them, and my former allegiance to being Reform crops up time and again. I make Judaism a me-centered religion every time I ask this question: “Why can’t I just do it my way instead?”

It’s been sinking in slowly over the last ten years: to become observant means that I believe that G-d does care about these details, and even when I question a certain detail, I ACT as if G-d cares, because I now believe that if it’s in the Torah, and if it’s been passed along by the oral tradition for thousands of years, then G-d really does pay attention to what I put in my mouth, or on my head, or in my heart. I can’t fathom it, but that’s my limitation.

Yesterday I made a silly faux pas in the kitchen, and it led me to think about this question metaphorically.

I was making brownies from scratch for Shabbos — Ultra rich godiva chocolate fudge brownies. Even though I published a kosher cookbook for those concerned about eating kosher food with less fat, calories and carbs, this recipe was NOT in that book! Nothing dietetic about them. I placed them into the oven to bake and started to clean the kitchen. One finger swipe of the chocolate ganache pan told me these brownies were going to be worth the calories. Then I took another finger swipe from the batter bowl — and gagged. It was one of the worst tastes I could ever describe. What went wrong?

It didn’t take long to figure out that I had mixed up the two jars in my kitchen — one that read salt, and one that read sugar. Long ago I poured sugar and salt into glass jars that sit on my kitchen counter to make it easier to bake without shlepping the sugar or salt out of my pantry. Do you know what brownies taste like when you put 1 1/4 cups of salt into the batter instead of 1 1/4 cups of sugar?

Pretty darn awful.

I had to throw away the whole pan, and as I was cleaning up the mess, I got to thinking. I learned my lesson — my salt and sugar will now be put in dissimilar looking jars. I’ll only make this mistake once. But more than that:

What if G-d has a very precise recipe for how the world is supposed to operate, and how I, as a Jew, am supposed to live my life? Maybe the sugar and the salt look a lot a like, but substituting one for the other results in one lousy tasting brownie.

To be observant means that when I’m tempted to substitute my own ways for Hashem’s, I can remember the taste of that brownie gone wrong in my mouth.

Torah is the recipe I am to follow. Lucky for me, there’s more sugar in it than salt.

Living in Highland Park, NJ as a BT

I remember like it was yesterday, four years ago, when we took our first look at Highland Park, NJ with a real estate agent. We had made the decision as a family to move to the area because we wanted to put our three then elementary-aged children into a yeshiva that separated the boys and girls, and offered the best frum and secular education we could find for them. The ideal school we could find is where they are now, “Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion” in Piscataway, NJ. The problem was, we would have to move. I drove the children from Pennsylvania to NJ for six months, three hours of driving a day, while we engaged in the house hunt.

Our lovely home in PA was worth about 250K in that local market. We had a huge plot of land in a beautiful neighborhood. That first day of house-hunting in Highland Park left me in tears. We looked at houses with a half a million dollar price tag that were substantially smaller than our PA home, on a postage stamp plot of land, and all of them needed some work. The real estate agent, a frum Jew from Highland Park, kept saying the same thing to me: “You aren’t just buying a house here, you are buying a community!” I couldn’t see it. I felt despondent.

We finally got what my husband calls “Highland Park-atized.” Meaning, we considered any house that had a place to sleep and a bathroom, and we started figuring out how to make just about any available structure on the market work for our family. We ended up in quite an adventure — living as a family in the finished attic of a 100-year-old two-family house for six months while we gutted the house below us and turned it into a one family house. The end result doesn’t look like like a half a million dollar house. It’s too small for our family. There’s no land to speak of. We are still in shock after all these years every time we have to pay the mortgage and property taxes. This is by no stretch of the imagination our “dream home.”

And yet, it is. It took a year or so to realize how ideal Highland Park is for us as a BT family. We are grateful every day that we had the courage and the determination to move here. We understand now that the real estate agent was right — what we bought was a community, and a place to live while we raise our children in Torah.

Highland Park is a very unique community. There are about 1000 shomer shabbos Jews living within 2 square miles, and six Orthodox synagogues from which to choose. The first thing that really stands out is that all of the Rabbis get along and are mutually respected. There are shiirum all over town, and none of the all-to-common- “I will go to this shul but not that shul” mentality. Residents here often daven at one place, but typically will go to lectures and social events in any shul. My husband is able to learn Daf every night, when his work schedule allows. I go to two shiirum during the week, and often take advantage of frequent illustrious speakers who come in to town.

We did not know when we arrived here which shul we would join, and who would become our Rav. We say now that we thought we were moving to Highland Park for the Yeshiva, but Hashem knew all along that it was also for our Rav, Rav Drucker, the Rav of the Agudath Israel in Highland Park. We established a relationship with him early on, and have grown in reverence and affection for him over the years. Dayeinu, if the schools had turned out to be excellent for our children — and they did — it would have been enough — but finding a Rav for our family whom we hope to be close to for years — that is an amazing, cherished blessing.

The other exceptional thing about Highland Park is the sheer number of BTs here who are all over town. You’d never know it. Lots of us look the part of FFB, and it’s only after some conversation that we are surprised to find out that this family, too, has been on a similar journey. Highland Park is full of BTs who are fully committed to the Torah path, and are working hard to raise their children frum from birth. The other nice benefit of living here is the lack of judgment for being a BT. If anything, BTs are often appreciated and admired.

It has taken me a good long while to stop mourning the big house and beautiful landscaped neighborhoods, as well as the much more affordable monthly expenses of our former community. But the rewards of our decision to move are evident every Shabbos when my three beautiful children come to the Shabbos table with their dvrei torahs and most of all, their love for Shabbos and Hashem. My children love being frum Jews. My husband is learning in the evening. I am growing in Torah every day. We have an amazing Rav who cares for our family. We are contributing to the community with friendship and chesed, and receiving it as well. You can’t put a price on that! Maybe we don’t really own our house, the bank does, and my husband has to give up gardening for now. We’ve got a different garden to tend, and the soil of Highland Park has turned out to be very fertile for our BT family.

Do BT Parents Risk Kids Off the Derech?

I knew I was in trouble when the reporter for a Jewish publication started off his interview with me as follows: “So, you wrote “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home?” because you became religious and your family is not, right? We had one orthodox relative, my mother’s brother, and he refused to come to my wedding even though I was marrying a Jewish girl. Ridiculous. My mother hasn’t spoken to him since.”

Well, now I understood where the reporter was coming from. Throughout the interview, his anger towards the BT/secular family tug of war oozed out in his questions. And then, he really nailed me with this one: “You see how much pain you caused your family when you became religious. Do you ever wonder how you’ll react if one of your children grows up to follow a different religious path than you want for them?”

Subtext of his question — “are you prepared for pay back time when one of your kids does to you what you’ve done to your parents?”

Ouch.

Of course I’m not prepared for this possibility — chas v’shalom! My husband and I have given up financial security, family vacations, the pleasure of a big suburban house and a yard, never mind all the relaxed get-togethers we could have had with our family, and the non kosher restaurants we no longer visit. If it were not for paying yeshiva tuition since preschool, we could retire at age sixty, with enough money to be comfortable. Now my husband figures he’ll be working till age 90, because there IS no retirement fund. These sacrifices we would make again in a heartbeat, because look at the rewards! Priceless! But after all this, what do you mean, they might choose another religious path?! Impossible!

I gave the reporter the answer he was looking for — “I would, of course, be devastated. I hope, if that event should ever transpire, that we would be able to communicate about it in such a way that we remained a close family.”

The interview came to a close, and I have been thinking about his question ever since. I read in frum publications like the Yeted, Jewish press and Mispacha all of the angst about frum kids off the derech. I reassure myself into magical thinking that our children have grown up with the kind of exposure to yiddishkeit we never had, and two parents who role model a committed frum life. They couldn’t possibly leave this behind. . . could they?

And then, I remember. It still shocks me. My children are FFB. They are as much at risk as any frum family doing everything right. Even when we’ve given every ounce of our resources towards pointing our children on a torah-observant path, there is no guarantee to BT parents that reads: “Given the financial and emotional investment you have made in your children, and the price you have paid in family upheaval, you are guaranteed frum grandchildren and plenty of nachas.”

Our children are shaped by us, but not in our control.

So, this is my honest answer to that reporter’s question.

I hope that I would NOT get bent out of shape if my second-born daughter married a real mensch who happens to wear a knit kippah and jeans instead of the black hat and white shirt her father wears, or if my first-born daughter falls in love with a Hassid who won’t eat my cooking unless I buy meat only from his butcher when they visited. I’d like to believe that if my exceptionally bright son announces to me when he’s all grown up that he wants to go directly to college after high school instead of the expected year or two of yeshiva in Israel, that we could find a “kosher” way for him to follow his professional dreams. Are my children still committed to the basics of Torah observance? Do they love being frum and do they look forward to raising children who will be? Do they love Hashem, and do they believe that Hashem loves them? These are the questions I hope I would ask. My job as their mom was to provide the foundation of a loving, Torah observant home, and a yeshiva education, from which they will carve their own journey.

If, G-d forbid, any one of my children chose to leave Torah observance all together, as that reporter insinuated could happen? My heart would be broken, just like I broke my parents’ heart when I left their secular derech. We would call in the professionals, pour our hearts out to Hashem, and never give up trying to bring that child back to the derech of Torah observance. I would not easily accept the notion of “as long as it makes you happy” — the romantic ideal of an unconditionally loving mother. I would storm the heavens with my prayers for their return to Torah. I daven every day for the nachas of watching our children grow up to build their own observant Jewish home, with Hashem’s blessings. Am I prepared for anything else? Absolutely not.

Azriela Jaffe is the author of “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home, A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and their Lesser Observant Relatives Can Still Get Along”, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble