In January my wife invited the family for Shabbat in celebration of my 50th birthday. Except for my dad (who we’re working on), everyone lives here in Israel. (We managed to grab a quick picture after Shabbat). It was truly very special to be surrounded by all these loved ones for this momentous birthday.
As a special treat, my daughter emailed a few of my friends and asked them to write a little something for the occasion. We had a lot of fun over the course of Shabbat as she read the responses and I had to guess who wrote them. One of the responses was from the Rav of my Shul back in Edison, NJ. In part he wrote:
Michael – you have done amazingly well with the first 50 years of your life. You are constantly redefining yourself and becoming a new and improved version. You are a living model of Hachodesh Hazeh Lochem. I think if someone would have met you once a decade for the past 50 years, each encounter would be a surprise because you continuously have changed.
As a person involved in software design, the idea of creating new and improved versions struck a chord with me. Isn’t that what we’re really all about? The Teshuva process, and of course this isn’t just limited to BT’s, involves an effort to constantly create and release new “versions” of ourselves. Some versions are just “patches” while others are major revisions.
Selecting 35 years as the amount of time I’ve been a BT was an interesting exercise. How do you define version 1.0 of a person’s development? Even though I attended a Yeshiva day school through 8th grade it wouldn’t be accurate for me to consider the things I did while I was there as a part of the process since these were things I did just because I was told to. For example, though I wore a Kippa and Tzitzit to school, I’d throw them off the minute I got home.
Even so, much of that early “programming” must have had an impact, as within just a few months after entering 9th grade in public high school I experienced, what I consider to be, my BT starting point. Just around my 15th birthday I flew down to Florida to visit my grandmother in Boca Raton. On the way down I ate the regular airline meal, but on the way back I ordered a Kosher meal. The process had begun.
Over the next year and a half I attended no less than 30 NCSY Shabbatons. During that time, among other things, I began walking 4 miles to Shul on Shabbat. In the beginning I’d actually return from that 8 mile round trip trek and hop in the car with my folks to go to a mall or the beach. But by the end of that period I was pretty much Shomer Shabbat. There wasn’t yet a lot depth to my Frumkeit as, well let’s face it; I was involved in NCSY mostly for the girls. (Something which turned out to be a good thing as I met the girl who was to become my wife during those years.)
My first philosophical epiphany came in my senior year of high school during the course of an anatomy elective. No, it had nothing to do with the fact that the cheerleading captain was my lab partner. It did have to do with the fact that we spent nearly a year dissecting a cat. After becoming so intimately aware of the intricacies of this magnificent creature, it became impossible for me to believe that this extremely complex creation wasn’t “designed”. I now had the belief to go along with my actions.
Yet, still I cruised through college and the early part of my marriage with a very basic level of observance. The combination of the birth of my first child and the death of my mom soon after forced me to confront a couple of key issues. How was I going to transmit the beauty of Torah observance in a “do as I say not as I do” mode? And, if I truly believed that, as part of this religious system I now adhered to, my mom was in an afterlife. shouldn’t I be more consistent and careful in how I approached everything? If this religion thing was for “real” then I had to treat it as such. So I embarked on an effort study and apply as much Halacha as I could.
This led me on a path to the “right”; in the shuls I attended, the schools we sent our kids to, and even my appearance. As, it seemed to me then, that’s where all the serious people were. Eventually, though, I ran into some obstacles. Not the least of which was that I consider myself a Zionist and even in the most laid back of right-wing Shuls this is not always an easy fit. Zionism has always been a core part of my belief system, even since before I was Frum. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my dad’s middle name is Herzl. Whatever the case, I was finding it difficult to be in a place were people were, at best, neutral to, what I saw as, the numerous miracles evident in the founding of the modern state of Israel. Like in my high school anatomy class, it had become just as impossible for me not to see the “design” in the founding of the Jewish state as for me not to see the design of that cat. I endeavored to tread the line between being to the right and being a religious Zionist. Though this is not easy to do in America, I managed with this tension until we were finally able to make Aliyah.
We arrived in Israel nearly five years ago. Here in our community and Shul in Beit Shemesh I found my ideological home. Our Rav is a major Talmud Chachom, our congregants are very serious about their Yiddishkeit and we are all proud religious Zionists.
Living in Israel, however, has brought a whole new set of realizations and challenges. For instance, there are many very Frum and learned people who don’t look the part, at least as we defined it in America. Conversely, there are many who have the “look”, but who are sorely lacking in many areas. There are others who aren’t Frum as we traditionally define it, but who are nevertheless very religious. And there are still others who are neither, yet through their contributions to the nation and its security have earned great merit.
Partly as a result of this exposure, I’ve experienced a shift in emphasis from the personal to the communal. I find that here in Israel, much more so than in the U.S., our individual religious choices impact on the broader community and even the nation as a whole in ways that are complex and far-reaching. This realization is leading me to reweigh my priorities. Even the last 3 years I’ve spent learning in Yeshiva part-time has caused some unexpected shifts in the way I view my role in the Torah world. It’s a work in progress.
So, as my Rav predicted, I’m in the process of changing again. My goal is always to become an “improved” version. With the help of G-d, wonderful Rabbis, friends and family (my beta testers) I will continue to endeavor to do so. I hope to report back in a few years and let you know how version 6.0 is doing.