From Skinhead to Orthodox Jew

After the Iron Curtain was lifted in Europe twenty years ago, a surprising thing occurred – thousands of people who had been raised as gentiles came to the startling realization that they were actually Jews. Poland is home to thousands of such stories. During the Holocaust and under Communist rule, many Jews there hid their identities and continued to conceal them even after the fall of Communism. On their deathbeds, some of them have revealed their true identities to their children or grandchildren. Other people found out from old family records or through other means.

Once they discover their roots, people often turn to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an American who has been the Chief Rabbi of Poland since 2004. Rabbi Schudrich has been the guide for multitudes of Jews to return to Torah Judaism. They turn to him for guidance and direction, and he tries to help them to reclaim their proud heritage that had been hidden for so many years.
Several years ago, Zbiszek, a 52 year-old man from Bialystock, came to Rabbi Schudrich’s office in Warsaw. Zbiszek told him that his mother had passed away four months earlier. Following the funeral, Zbiszek was approached by several neighbors who told him astonishing news – this woman who had raised him, whom he knew to be his mother, was not his actual biological mother.

They told Zbiszek that he had been born Jewish. In 1942, as Jews throughout Poland were being exterminated, Zbiszek’s Jewish parents gave him to the woman for adoption in case they were killed. His biological parents did not survive the Holocaust, and so the woman raised Zbiszek as her own son.

She had risked her life to save him during the war, and so she never wanted him to know the truth. She swore her neighbors to secrecy, and they dutifully remained silent for five decades. Now that she had passed away, they decided it was time to reveal the secret.

Zbiszek trembled when he first heard the news and didn’t know what to do. He spent a long time in deep introspection. Should he continue living his comfortable life as a Christian, as he had been raised, or should he embrace his newfound religion, of which he knew nothing?

Zbiszek decided he wanted to live proudly as a Jew, but didn’t know how. So here he was in Rabbi Schudrich’s office, looking for answers. Zbiszek told the rabbi that he felt most guilty that he never had a “Jewish baptism.”
Rabbi Schudrich calmed his fears and taught him the basics of Judaism. Zbiszek spent the next few years studying together with Rabbi Schudrich and attending classes in the community. Today he goes by Zecharya Asher, and is an active member of the Polish Jewish community.

Another unique story is that of Pawel Bramson. He was raised in an observant Catholic family. As a teenager, he joined a skinhead gang. He was virulently anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Gypsy.

Pawel married his Catholic high school sweetheart. They had two children, and at the age of twenty, Pawel’s wife found out that she was really Jewish! The news shook Pawel. However over time he was able to reconcile his previous hatred of Jews with the knowledge of his wife’s religion.

Several years later, Pawel’s wife decided to bring some Jewish traditions into their home. She began making Shabbat meals and Pawel consented to her desires. When he told his parents about the meals, they reacted with anger. They tried to pressure Pawel to make his wife sweep her Judaism back under the rug.

Pawel continued to support his wife, despite his parents objections. One day, his parents revealed the source of their anger – they were both Jews themselves! Pawel’s parents had hid their Judaism out of fear of anti-Semitism in Poland. The religious life that Pawel’s wife was beginning to explore represented everything they had tried to run away from.

The news stunned Pawel, and it took him a long time to accept it. The same Jews that he had hated as a teenager were now his own people. But Pawel slowly accepted the discovery, and he and his wife began bringing more traditions into their home. They are now fully observant.

Pawel has three brothers, one who is his twin. The twin still believed in many of the anti-Semitic myths that Pawel had rejected. And yet he has been influenced by Pawel’s religious growth in some small ways.

One Friday night, Pawel’s twin brother tried calling him on his cell phone but could not reach him. The twin went to the synagogue to try to find him, but Pawel was not there. That Friday night the synagogue had only nine men in attendance, just one short of a minyan. So when Pawel’s brother walked in, Rabbi Schudrich asked him if he could stay in the synagogue to be the tenth man. He said yes.

Such is the rebirth of Jews in Poland. Even Jews far removed from Judaism, with seemingly no connection, still have a tiny spark of Judaism deep inside them. With the right impetus, that spark can ignite into the beautiful fire of a proud Jewish soul.

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. Send comments to
Published in The Jewish Press in December, 2009

A Life-Changing Moment

Some people can accomplish more in a single moment than the rest of us do in our entire lives.

The Baraisa (Avodah Zara 17a) recounts the story of Elazar ben Durdaya who dedicated his life to empty pursuits and pleasures. One day, a chance comment caused him to realize how meaningless his life had been. He immediately broke down in tears of sincere penitence, accepted responsibility for his misdeeds and committed himself to changing. At that moment he died, and a voice called out from heaven and said, “He has been readied for the life of the World to Come!”

When the incident was reported to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, he said the sincerity of Elazar ben Durdaya’s teshuva was the key to its acceptance. He said some people acquire their place in the World to Come through many years of work, and some can acquire it in a single moment.

Doniel Goldrich* witnessed a similar moment of life-changing teshuva nearly 20 years ago. Doniel participated in a learning program sponsored by Partners In Torah. Once a week, Doniel and several other men from Lakewood drove to a synagogue in a neighboring town where they learned one-on-one with community members.

Doniel was paired with 38-year old Marshall Lichtenstein*. Marshall’s two sons attended the nearby religious Shalom Torah Center school, but at home the family kept very few practices.

Doniel and Marshall studied the Torah portion of the week together and used it as a springboard into many other topics, including Jewish philosophy, mitzvot and holidays. Over the two years that they learned together, Doniel was constantly inspired by Marshall’s excitement for learning and his passion for the material.

When Marshall was a young man, he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. But after years with no episodes, he assumed the condition had passed. However a year and a half after Doniel started learning with him, Marshall began feeling ill. After a battery of tests his cardiologist said that he needed a valve replacement as soon as possible. He went through open-heart surgery to have a pig’s valve inserted, and when the procedure was unsuccessful, his doctors performed a second round of surgery.

“Through the process we got to know him,” Doniel said. “We went to the hospital to visit him. He wasn’t religious at all, but he put on Tefillin in his hospital room for the first time. He was very appreciative that we visited.”

Committing to particular mitzvot can be a major source of merit for a person in a difficult situation, so Doniel suggested some small religious steps that Marshall could take. Religious growth is based on taking baby steps, and Doniel suggested a few preliminary ideas.

“I said to him ‘would you want to take on something, to bring to action things that we’ve talked about? It might bring fulfillment to your life. You don’t have to keep completely Kosher, but at some level you might consider keeping Kosher in your home, or maybe your wife would like to light Shabbas candles,’” Doniel said.

“That’s an amazing idea,” Marshall said. “Let me think about it.”

The following week Doniel spoke to him during their learning session after he had been released from the hospital. Doniel could see a difference in him, a certain excitement that he had never seen before.

“I could tell that something had changed. His face was lit up,” Doniel said. “Marshall said, ‘we can’t keep Kosher in our home now, but every Thursday night we go out on a date to particular restaurant, because of our favorite dish on the menu which is made of pork. We decided we won’t go to that restaurant anymore. We’ll change our weekly date because it’s not Kosher. It’s something we accepted on ourselves because of your suggestion.’”

“You could see the happiness on his face. It was not an easy decision. It was very hard,” Doniel said. “I told him how wonderful it was.”

For Marshall, it was a major step. To give up a favorite dish and restaurant takes a lot of self-control, but Marshall and his wife were committed to their decision. They understood that the value of their decision outweighed their enjoyment of the particular dish.

Ten days later, Doniel received a call from Marshall’s wife at 6:00 in the morning. She said that Marshall had passed away during the night.

Doniel put the family in touch with a local Orthodox funeral home which gave him a full kosher burial. Doniel and several of the other men from Lakewood attended the funeral. A Rabbi from the sons’ school delivered the eulogy. He knew Marshall and over the last two years had witnessed Marshall’s growing excitement for Jewish learning. The rabbi quoted the first Mishnah in Bava Kamma that refers to man as maveh, a word which comes from the root “to search or inquire.”

“He said that’s the root of human beings – we’re always searching, always looking to make ourselves better. This was Marshall. He was able in mid-life to become a searcher, to accept new opportunities.”

At the cemetery, Doniel and his friends made sure that Marshall was buried in the proper way. Everyone else had gone home after the service, but the men wanted to make sure everything was done perfectly. They threw shovelful after shovelful of dirt into the grave until it was full.

“After we finished putting dirt in the hole, a woman came over to us, hysterically crying. She said ‘I’m Marshall’s first cousin. To see what I just saw, he must have done something in his life to merit having people like you burying him.’”

That was Marshall. With his one major decision, Marshall transformed his life both in this world and the next world. How much can we achieve, not just in one special moment, but over a lifetime of dedicating ourselves on the proper path?

* Not his real name

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. Send comments to To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

The Teshuva Journey: A Message From The Past

The Teshuva Journey: A Message From The Past

Becoming observant often requires a person to make radical changes in his life as he takes on new observances and practices. For David Wachtfungel*, an encounter with the memory of a deceased great-grandfather helped him overcome these hurdles.

David grew up non-observant in Michigan. During college he began to realize the importance of passing Judaism onto his children. David’s parents had gotten divorced years earlier, and his father had remarried a non-Jewish woman and had non-Jewish children with her. David’s brother married out of the religion. His sister followed suit and did not raise her children Jewish. David recognized that he was the only person left who could continue the religion. “I was going to be the last one to carry on the Jewish tradition in the family. I felt I owed it to myself to start asking questions about my Judaism,” David said. “I realized it’s ending with me, this Reform Jew. I don’t have a clue about Shabbat and Judaism.”

David went to Israel after graduation to increase his knowledge of Jewish culture and history. He spent two years there and loved it. He was all set to make aliyah, when he tore two ligaments in his ankle and had to return to Michigan for surgery. After the surgery David spent several months in Michigan recovering. He longed to return to Israel. Even though he still knew very little about his religion, he felt the most connected to it there.

While in Michigan he met several Orthodox Jews and began learning more about Judaism from them. He soon realized that it wasn’t the country of Israel that he missed but the religious feelings he had experienced there. David began working for a small company in Michigan owned by Shimon Traeger, who himself had become observant a few years earlier. During work the two men often discussed Judaism and Shimon tried answering David’s many questions.

After a few months, Shimon invited David to spend Shabbat with him and his family. David came and had a beautiful time. Still, he had many doubts about Orthodoxy. He loved the deep intellectual traditions, but felt that Judaism was too foreign to his lifestyle and too alien from how his family practiced the religion.

On Shabbat afternoon, Shimon and David went to a small Chassidic synagogue for Mincha. After the service Shimon introduced David to the Rabbi of the synagogue, Rabbi Stein. He was a middle-aged man and the son of the founding Rabbi of the synagogue who had passed away years earlier. He lived in New York and traveled to Michigan only a few times a year for the Jewish holidays and an occasional Shabbat.

“Rabbi, this is my friend David Wachtfungel,” Shimon said.

The Rabbi stood in shock for a second.

“David Wachtfungel?” the Rabbi replied. “Was your grandfather Ira Wachtfungel?”

David nodded in confusion.

“Stand right here. I have something for you.”

The Rabbi returned a minute later holding two dusty plaques. They were acknowledgements of contributions made many years earlier to the synagogue. Inscribed on them were the names of David’s grandfather, great-grandfather and great-grandmother!

Rabbi Stein said that David’s great-grandparents, who were Orthodox, had been active members of the synagogue in its early days. One plaque was from David’s great-grandfather in memory of his wife, and the other was from David’s grandfather in memory of his father. The plaques had been sitting untouched in the synagogue for thirty years.

David’s great-grandfather passed away when David was very young. When he was five, David remembers visiting his great-grandfather and receiving a kiss from him on his forehead. His great-grandfather said something to him, and while David doesn’t remember what it was, he thinks it was a blessing or a prayer for him. That memory has always remained with him.

“I have always felt a closeness to him as if he was watching over me,” David said. “I can’t help but feel grateful to him and those words he said to me.”

For David, the plaques were pieces of the puzzle he was missing. His biggest hurdle was trying to understand Judaism as a way of life with particular behaviors we must do every day. Here were members of his own family who lived based on those principles.

“These were my roots. I realized this is not a cultural thing, but this is my family,” David said. “I was interested in Judaism, but the gap seemed too far. It always appeared like two different worlds. How do you bridge that gap? That was a big breakthrough when I saw that my great-grandfather was religious.”

David had also been hesitant to adopt an observant lifestyle because he felt like doing so would cut off his family. But he realized that he wasn’t breaking with his family but was actually returning to their traditions.

The guiding hand of G-d is clear in David’s story. David and Shimon just happened to go into the synagogue, the Rabbi just happened to be there that Shabbat and the plaques just happened to be still be sitting there after 30 years. G-d arranged the events behind the scenes in precisely the order that David needed to return.

David’s story also proves that you never know the result of a good deed.

When Rabbi Elazar Meisels, who is affiliated with several outreach organizations, heard the story from David he said, “Your grandfather thought he was helping the Rabbi when he gave him the money. What he didn’t realize is this money that he gave was going to insure that his family would continue, because it’s only from you that he would have Jewish offspring.”

* The names in this story have been changed with the exception of Rabbi Meisels.

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. Send comments to

(published in The Jewish Press June 2007)

The Teshuva Journey: Hashem Has a Sense of Humor

By Michael Gros

Throughout Adele and Jack Kaufman’s life, they have repeatedly felt Hashem’s hand guiding them towards Jewish growth and observance. However the ways He has chosen to do so have been comical: their teshuva journey began at a Christian Marriage Encounter weekend, and a major turning point in their life was influenced by an inspirational button.

Adele was raised in a Modern Orthodox home. Her parents attended a local Young Israel synagogue, but she felt that she could not receive satisfying answers to her many questions on Judaism.

“I never received answers,” Adele said. “Now I know I didn’t get answers because they themselves didn’t know.”

Adele grew up, married Jack, and the couple settled on Long Island. They joined a Conservative synagogue and raised a family. They felt like their life was perfect.

“It was a wonderful life. We were very happy. If anyone would have told me we would become Baalei Teshuva, I would have laughed at it,” Adele said.

Though they had a successful marriage, the Kaufmans accepted a friend’s offer to attend a Christian Marriage Encounter Weekend. The weekends, organized by a church, tried to teach couples better communication techniques and other strategies to help them improve their marriages.

The weekend concluded with a Mass service. The Kaufmans and the few other Jewish couples sat in the back of the room and watched the service, feeling greatly out of place.

A few weeks later, a friend suggested they start a Jewish Marriage Encounter weekend. A few couples got together and started one. Adele and Jack went on the Jewish Marriage Enecounter weekend and learned how holy a Jewish marriage is, consisting of husband, wife and Hashem.

Also attending the weekend was a local Chabad couple, who wanted to find out what it was about. Afterwards the Chabad couple offered to start monthly Jewish groups in local homes. Adele and Jack decided to host the groups in their house. In addition to marriage, the classes covered Kashrut, Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Adele was finally getting answers to her questions.

One week the Chabad Rebbetzin asked Adele if she lit candles on Friday night.

“I said no, since I work all week and we go out to eat on Friday night,” Adele said. “The Rebbetzin explained that the mitzvah of lighting candles is not erased by going out to eat. ‘Try lighting candles, and don’t tell me what you do afterwards. Bring in the light and beauty of Shabbat.’”

Adele took her up on her offer and began lighting candles at home. After a few months, she decided to start making Shabbat dinners at home each week.

“I said to my husband, ‘Why go out? Let’s make a Shabbat meal so we can enjoy the beautiful Shabbat candles.”

From there, Adele and Jack began bringing other small observances into their home. For the first time they decided to kasher their home for Passover. Adele made a full-blown Passover Seder in their newly kosher home.

One day, Adele decided that it was time for her husband to start putting on Tefillin each morning. He owned a pair, but did not put them on regularly. So Adele began dropping subtle hints and suggestions to get him to start using them, but she soon saw that it wasn’t working.

“What does a wife do when she wants her husband to do something? She nags. I asked him to put on Tefillin again and again,” Adele said. “Finally he told me to stop nagging. I decided my marriage was more important and so did not mention it anymore.”

Hashem had different plans.

A few days later, a friend called Adele. She had visited Crown Heights for the day, and in a store window saw a sign that read “Buy One Bag Of Buttons, Get The Second Bag Free.” So her friend bought two bags, and was calling to ask Adele if she wanted one.

“I didn’t want to hurt her. I’m not a button person, but I said ‘sure, come over.’”

Adele was in for a surprise when she opened the bag.

“The first button I saw when I opened my bag read ‘Have You Put On Tefillin Today?’”

Adele dropped the button in shock. She could not believe the wording on the button, but now had a dilemma: She had promised her husband that she would no longer nag him, so what to do with the button?

“I said, ‘Hashem what should I do?’ I decided if it doesn’t come out of my mouth, it’s ok,” Adele said. “I decided to put it in his underwear drawer so he would notice it when he showered. I was very nervous. He would either laugh or get upset.

“I was sitting in the kitchen. He went upstairs to shower. The next thing I knew, I heard him laughing so hard.”

The following morning Adele came downstairs for breakfast, and there was her husband, praying and wearing Tefillin. For him it was a major step, one of many more that have come since.

Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Jerusalem. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

Searching For Brilliance

By Michael Gros

Growing up in Atlanta, GA, Asher Siegelman was surrounded by the values and culture of America. But he felt that the society was empty and he was disappointed by the ideals around him. He was especially frustrated by the lack of genuine role models he could follow.

“In my senior year of high school, I had realized that I had never really found people I could look up to in a really serious way,” Asher said. “I had always been looking for people who were not only brilliant, but good people. Good men who treated their wives well and had good families. It’s not a model that’s very prevalent in Western civilization.”

The role models that America swoons over – the sports stars, actors and politicians – left Asher wanting. With the rags filled with the daily scandals of these seemingly perfect people, Asher groped in the darkness for someone to rely in, someone to aspire to be like.

“I had seen many people when I was secular whom people looked up to as mentors, who cheated on their wives, were dishonest in business and were crooked individuals. People need someone to look up to, need someone to follow, someone to help them out in life,” Asher said.

Like many Jews searching for answers, Asher traveled to Israel and spent a year studying at Hebrew University. He felt that Judaism could answer some of his questions, and so he immersed himself in his religion. He spent the year learning Hebrew and experiencing Jewish culture, practices and holidays. He also deliberately searched for Jews he could learn from.

He began finding role models throughout Jerusalem, from simple Jews eking out an existence in the Old City to leaders of communities and yeshivas in other neighborhoods. These were all people steeped in their religion and whose moral beliefs pervaded their daily lives. He was impressed by their sensitivity and intelligence and the deep respect they showed to others. These were the role models he had always craved.

The more that Asher got to know such people, the more he realized that their values and convictions came from their religion. Judaism is centered on moral and ethical standards and extols us to be “a light amongst the nations.” As the Talmud writes, “Any Torah sage whose interior is not like his exterior is not a Torah sage” (Yoma 72b). It’s not enough to look pure and upright, but one must have these values at the core of his being.

Asher was introduced to Yeshivat Machon Shlomo in Jerusalem, and spent two years studying there. In the yeshiva and community he met many more brilliant, upstanding Jews.

One of the rabbis at Machon Shlomo left a particularly deep impression on him. Rabbi Meir Triebitz attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before receiving a PhD in mathematical physics from Princeton University at age 22. He eventually found his way to Israel where he became a rabbi and Torah scholar.

Meeting brilliant, intellectually honest and observant people such as Rabbi Triebitz helped Asher appreciate the beauty and eternal relevance of Judaism.

“A person like that, with that kind of brain, wouldn’t be falling for something stupid,” Asher said. “I met amazing people. People who had come from the secular world and were at the top in terms of brain power and were religious people, who became religious via free choice. I recognized that this was the best way to live.”

With these experiences, Asher in time became observant. His family had separately become religious, and his brother even moved to Israel and joined him to study at Machon Shlomo.

Asher’s role models also helped him with another challenge for some ba’alei teshuva: for someone not raised learning Torah, it can be intimidating to dive into it.

“Often times people think of the Torah as basically impossible, a closed book. They get frustrated,” Asher said. But seeing others immersed in Torah study can help them relate to it. “It makes you think maybe I can do this. He’s doing it, so maybe I can get to the point where I can have the same kind of energy.”

Throughout Asher’s journey, his role models have had a dramatic impact in helping to shape his direction and life. The relationships he has built and the lessons he has learned from them have left an indelible mark on him. And if there’s one lesson he can impart to other Jews, it’s to take advantage of the amazing Jewish leaders around them.

“I’m very fortunate to be Jewish and been able to access these individuals I have reached. It’s a terrible thing to not be able to,” Asher said. “Many Jews never have the chance to meet these kinds of people.”

Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

His Whole Life Turned On A Sandwich

by Michael Gros

You never know what event will spark a person’s interest to return to Judaism. Art Sherman was an assimilated Jew married to a Polish Catholic woman. He owned a non-kosher Italian hero shop, and an unbelievable comment one day by his Rastafarian employee sent him on a life-changing journey.

After their wedding in 1973, Art and Karen moved from place to place, first to Philadelphia and then to Brooklyn. There, he decided to open a small sandwich store. He made all types of sandwiches, from five different kinds of cheese steaks to Italian hoagies stacked high with ham, pork-salami and provolone cheese. Customers loved the sandwiches and business was great.

Over time, he started noticed specific groups of people who would not eat particular sandwiches. He had lots of Jamaican, Seventh Day Adventist and Muslim customers who said they didn’t eat pork because it was prohibited in the Old Testament.

Art continued to devour his non-kosher sandwiches, but over time he began to sense the irony of his non-Jewish customers attempting to follow religious dietary laws which he ignored completely.
Read more His Whole Life Turned On A Sandwich

Telephone Temptation

Every Jew has a different road back to Orthodoxy and unique events which inspire his journey. For Mark Schwartz*, his journey towards becoming observant was marked by two ironic events – a spiritually uplifting experience which he barely appreciated and a religious test which he failed. Only when he later appreciated the significance of the moments did he realize the impact they had on his life.

Mark grew up in a completely non-observant home. His father had been raised Orthodox, but turned away from it and raised Mark and his siblings with no religious upbringing. However, most of his extended family remained observant. When Mark was a young boy, he was very close to his first cousin Shloimie. The two spent lots of time playing marbles in the streets or in each other’s Lower East Side apartments. Shloimie was descended from a long line of Rabbis and his family was well-connected to the religious establishment of New York.

When Mark was five he was once at Shloimie’s house on a Saturday afternoon. After hours of playing together, night had already fallen and it was time for Havdalah. Mark still clearly remembers being chosen to hold the Havdalah candle, but recalls nothing else of the evening. Years later his cousin told him that two of the biggest Rabbis in America were at Havdalah that night in the apartment – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Rabbi Feinstein lived in the same building as Shloimie’s family, and was related to Rabbi Soloveitchik. The latter had come to visit him that Shabbat afternoon and the two had joined Shloimie’s family for Havdalah).

Righteous individuals such as Rav Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik bring a feeling of holiness to their surroundings that leaves an impression on those around them, whether they realize it or not. For Mark the experience lit a spark in him that would eventually burst into a flame to guide him back to Judaism.

For over 20 years that flame flickered silently inside Mark. He grew up, went to college and married a woman named Donna in 1970. They settled in New York. But their lives felt empty and they soon realized they needed spiritual meaning. They started attending a local Conservative synagogue and began taking on some Shabbat practices.

Over the next few years they slowly grew in their Jewish observance and considered becoming Orthodox. For Mark one of the hardest challenges in their growing religious practice was not being able to answer the telephone on Shabbat. Answering machines were not yet prevalent and the Schwartzes did not own one. Mark felt that every phone call was urgent and needed to be answered. Donna tried to persuade him to stop answering the phone on Shabbat but he was reluctant to give it up.

“Each individual phase of our growth took a little bit of self control. But the phone was different. It rang all the time,” Mark said. “You can put your lights on timers and then you don’t have to worry about them. But the phone was always a constant.”

After several years, Donna and Mark decided to move to a community better suited to their changing needs. They were the only young couple in their synagogue, and they wanted a congregation with families their age and that could provide more opportunities for spiritual growth. They were still straddling the fence between being Conservative and Orthodox, but chose an Orthodox community on Long Island.

They eventually found a house near an Orthodox synagogue and applied for a mortgage. It was a stressful time period: they were at a crossroads in their lives religiously, were anxious about their move and were unsure if they would be approved for a mortgage.

A Yom Tov came in the middle of this period and offered a much needed respite from their worries. However the holiday brought a challenge too. On Yom Tov we have most of the same restrictions as on Shabbat, including a prohibition on answering the phone.

Mark and Donna were home in the afternoon of that weekday Yom Tov. The phone rang and Mark could not resist picking it up.

It was the bank, calling to tell them that their mortgage application for their new house had been rejected.

“I looked at Donna, Donna looked at me, and we said ‘enough is enough.’ It was a clear message from Hashem,” Mark said. “That was the last time I answered the phone on Yom Tov or Shabbat.”

After months of trying to wean himself from his dependency on answering the telephone, it took just one big slip to make him stop. Sometimes failing a test is just what a person needs to help him embark on the correct course of action.

“When people decide to go to therapy for help, they decide to go because they finally admit that something is wrong. That call told me, ‘this is the message. You’ve been wanting to stop answering the phone, so just stop it.’ ”

Mark and Donna eventually applied for another mortgage and were approved. Several months later they moved into their new house on Long Island, and within a few years became fully Orthodox. And Mark never picked up the phone on Shabbat or Yom Tov again.

* The Schwartzes names have been changed.
Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press May 2007)

The Teshuva Journey: Just One Marble

If you want to know how long Mira Bergen has been keeping Shabbat, just ask to see her marble collection.

On New Year’s Eve in 1999 Mira was at a crossroads. She had been coming to the local Orthodox community for Shabbat on and off for over 10 years and loved it. She especially cherished the warmth of the Shabbat table and seeing families spending quality time together. But as much as she loved the lifestyle, she had been unable to commit to keeping Shabbat.

However in 1999 as everyone was talking about the New Millennium and Y2K, Mira saw something else. She had always been interested in New Age ideas and pop spirituality. When New Year’s Eve fell on a Friday night, Mira saw the intersection of Shabbat and the new millennium as a sign from G-d that it was time to observe the Sabbath and become Shomer Shabbat. But it was intimidating to give herself that title, so she decided to celebrate just one Shabbat at a time. She resolved to make December 31st her first one.

“I saw the new millennium and said OK, time to start being Sabbath observant. But I can’t be Shomer Shabbat. I can’t use that label,” Mira said. So she decided to keep just that one Shabbat. “I’m making a commitment one Shabbat at a time.”

Mira learned the lesson from her mother, who taught her that if you’re trying to cut a roll of salami it can be overwhelming to do it all at once. But if you slice it one bit at a time, it’s much easier to do it.

“Many people think that observing Judaism is an all or nothing action, that you must take on all the obligations at once. But growth in Judaism is really about constant baby steps, about taking on small commitments,” Mira said. “G-d appreciates anything we do to get closer.”

For Mira this meant making one commitment at a time. In every area of her Jewish growth she heeded her mother’s advice and cut off only a small bit at a time.

“If someone is not ready to keep Shabbat each week, why not try to keep it only for an hour? If someone is not ready to keep kosher full time, then try to give up only one particular food,” Mira said. “People think they have to do everything at once. They don’t know that G-d looks highly at everything we do. You’re making a distinction, you’re trying to have a relationship with Hashem.”

So on Friday night, December 31, she was sitting with a local family watching the clock as it struck midnight. It was the first time she had ever spent New Year’s Eve not watching the ball drop in New York on television. But instead of lamenting that she was missing the televised celebrations, Mira felt wonderful as she reflected on the start of the new millennium quietly and in G-d’s way. The frenzied revelry of the secular New Year had been replaced by the spiritual bliss of Shabbat.

That one Shabbat turned into two and within a short time she had kept Shabbat for a month. She kept track of each Shabbat by placing a marble into a wine decanter. By now she has over 430 marbles.

With each marble she added, the number of that Shabbat also took on a deeper meaning. Each Shabbat she looked for a connection between the week’s number and an idea in the Torah portion of the week or other current event. Every number is significant in Judaism and has a particular meaning, and members of the community began pointing out some of the deeper connections of the number of her marbles.

On Shabbat number 13, her Rabbi taught her about the 13 Attributes of Hashem. Mira’s 40 Shabbat was Rosh Hashanah. The number 40 is deeply related to birth and new beginnings, so it was a perfect timing.

On Mira’s 50th Shabbat the family she was staying with baked a special challah in the shape of the Hebrew letter Nun, which has the numerical value 50. When she traveled to Israel and spent three Shabbats there, she added three unique items to her collection: a small blue chamsah “hand,” a blue glass circle and a blue fish. For her 100th Shabbat she put a battery into the jar because “Shabbat keeps me going!” People in the community have bought other special marbles for various Shabbats, such as the handmade marbles a friend recently brought her from China.

Mira originally collected marbles as a way to make herself accountable and maintain her Shabbat observance, but soon she began looking forward to each Shabbat and especially to putting another marble into the decanter. With each new marble, Mira gained a deeper level of appreciation for Shabbat.

“A lot of people don’t understand. They think that I live the most rigid life, full of shoulds and have tos, that I have to do this and this. However my life is filled with such pleasure and joy and laughter,” Mira said. “G-d loves me so much because He gave me Shabbat.”


Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press April 2007)

The Teshuva Journey: A Bumpy Road

Joel Kessler’s path towards becoming Shabbat observant was filled with potholes, but he was guided by G-d’s hand and in the end received an unbelievable salvation.

Joel’s journey began in April of 2005. His father had just passed away and he made a commitment to go to synagogue every day to recite the Kaddish prayer in his memory. Joel began attending his Conservative synagogue’s daily prayer service, but Saturday mornings posed a challenge. He worked as the manager of a nearby electronics store and needed to leave to open the store before the 9:00 am Shabbat morning service at his synagogue.

He heard that the local Orthodox synagogue, the Young Israel of Plainview, had an early Saturday morning service at 7:30. Joel decided to try it. He knew that he would not be able to stay for the entire service, but would be able to say a few Kaddishes.

That Shabbat morning he drove to the Young Israel and was warmly received. He stayed for a little while and then excused himself and drove off to the store.

Joel decided to attend the Young Israel every Saturday morning and started going to the morning service during the week as well. Over the next few months his friends at the Young Israel’s daily morning service served as an ad hoc support group and helped him through his bereavement. He felt part of a huge, caring family.

“I was brought there, I was guided there for a reason. You have to believe in Hashem. Things like finding that synagogue don’t just happen by accident,” Joel said.

After a few months, the Saturday morning service had become a staple of his life and he looked forward to it all week. But now he had a different challenge. He enjoyed the service so much that he dreaded having to leave early.

At this point a perfect opportunity arrived. For many years Joel and a friend had contemplated opening their own electronics store. By mid-2005 they had saved up enough money and opened a store. For Joel it meant that he now had a partner who could watch the store while he was in synagogue!

Joel began attending the entire Shabbat morning service each week and stayed for Kiddush afterwards. He still left to go to his store after services but loved his few hours each week in synagogue. Now he began wishing he could quit his job and commit to Shabbat. But he saw no way out. It was his store now.

Joel eventually got his wish, though not in quite the way he had hoped. From almost the beginning the store had financial problems and through 2006 business was on a downward spiral. The store went bankrupt in October 2006.

Joel was absolutely frightened. The store was his livelihood and he wasn’t sure how he would be able to make ends meet.

At the same time he was beginning to see G-d’s hand in his life. He realized that G-d had provided him with the opportunity to keep Shabbat.

“Part of my life was ending, but I knew that something new was beginning,” Joel said. “It’s such a calming feeling to have Shabbat.”

After the store folded, Joel began spending the entire Shabbat in synagogue and with families in the community. His wife and children joined him on occasion, and his teenage son now walks to synagogue with him every Shabbas.

It was the first time in his life that Joel had found peace. During his 16 years as a store manager, employees constantly called him even during vacations and Jewish holidays. For those 16 years every Rosh Hashanah was spent the same way: in the morning he went to synagogue with his family, and in the afternoon returned all of the work calls that had piled up while he was praying.

“It’s such a calming feeling to have Shabbat and to know that nobody will call me and beep me,” Joel said. “Now I found peace.”

So at the end of 2006, a year and a half after he first stepped foot in the Young Israel, Joel began keeping Shabbat. But he was now without a job. He went on lots of interviews, and during each one explained that as an observant Jew he could not work on Saturdays or Jewish holidays. Since Saturday is the prime day in the retail world, no one hired him. But despite all the rejections, Joel never compromised on Shabbat.

Joel eventually heard that the electronics store B&H Photo in Manhattan was expanding so he applied and was given an interview. Lo and behold he was hired to work in the home entertainment division!

B&H is owned by Orthodox Jews and is closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. It shuts early on Fridays. The store even has a Mincha service each afternoon.

The B&H job was Joel’s salvation. His desire to keep Shabbat was so intense and he had given up so much for it, so G-d sent him the perfect job to let him to do so.

“I have faith in Hashem, and he’s leading me somewhere. The whole time he’s been taking me by the hand and leading me,” Joel said.

King David refers to G-d as “your shadow” (Psalms 121:5). Just as a shadow copies its owner’s actions, G-d reacts to our actions. If we exert ourselves to keep Shabbat, G-d reciprocates and arranges events to help us do so.


Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press February 2007)

The Teshuva Journey: An Untold Miracle From The Summer 2006 War In Lebanon

Israel’s war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 left behind many powerful stories, from courageous sacrifices to tragic destruction and numerous miracles. One of the most powerful stories is that of a young Naval sergeant who found G-d on a ship in the middle of a heated battle, as told by Rabbi Lazer Brody.

Rabbi Brody runs the Emunah Outreach Program which offers classes and a widely-read outreach blog. He grew up secular, served for many years in an elite special forces unit in the IDF and is a veteran of the first Lebanon War. During that war he himself had a miraculous experience in the streets of Beirut which helped him find his way back to Orthodoxy. He’s now known as Rabbi Rambo and speaks frequently to Israeli military units.

In mid-October 2006 Rabbi Brody was on a train in Tel Aviv on its way to Haifa. A young Israeli Naval sergeant entered the car and sat down in a nearby seat. Rabbi Brody smiled at him. The sergeant, whom we’ll call Moshe, sighed deeply and sheepishly asked, “Can I talk to you, Rav?”

“Of course,” Rabbi Brody said and asked him how he knew that he was a Rabbi. Moshe replied that he had heard Rabbi Brody eulogize a fallen friend during the war.

Moshe had the clear look of a fresh ba’al teshuva – a new beard was growing on his face, and the knitted kippa on his head was still stiff from being worn only a short time. After a few moments he began sharing the miraculous story which happened to him during the war.

Moshe had been onboard the Israeli missile ship Hanit on Friday night, July 14 when it was anchored off the coast of Beirut. The evening began as a typical quiet Friday night, but quickly turned into a rollercoaster as the sailors saw the miracles of Hashem’s hand again and again.

“Usually, the crew would eat Friday night dinner in two shifts,” Moshe told Rabbi Brody. “But this time, since we were in a war zone, our three religious crewmen went to Lieutenant Colonel A., the skipper, and begged that we all need Hashem’s help. The first miracle is that the skipper agreed to leave only four sailors on the bridge, and allowed the rest of the crew to pray together. The four sailors were non-Jews and volunteered to allow their crewmates to participate in a proper Sabbath meal. The rest of us piled into the synagogue and said a lengthy Mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat.

“I was bored and wanted to eat quickly and then catch a few hours sleep because I had the midnight watch. But I stayed with the rest of the crew. Then all of us had a Shabbat meal together: 15 different sailors said Kiddush, each in the custom of his fathers. I’m talking about guys that aren’t even religious! The meal was drawn out. I had a headache and was dying to go to sleep.”

Just as the sailors began to bentch after the meal, a Hezbullah missile fired from the shore slammed into the rear of the boat. Flames shot skyward as the entire end of the boat was burned. First the missile, and then the blaze should have sunk the ship, but miraculously it stayed afloat. The missile missed every critical piece of the ship, and instead hit a crane above the chopper landing pad which absorbed the impact. In another astonishing miracle, the nearby helicopter-refueling tank, which was full of fuel, did not explode.

Only the four sailors on the bridge were killed. The rest of the crew should have died as well, but were saved by their Shabbat dinner in the galley.

Moshe had beads of sweat on his forehead and tears filled his eyes as he continued
with his story.

“The newspapers don’t write about the miracles that we all saw. I ran to my bunk on the deck right below the landing pad. It was charcoal; my metal bunk was completely melted down and all my possessions were ashes. If I hadn’t been detained in the chapel and in the dining hall for Shabbat meal, I would have been charcoal too. I haven’t stopped thanking Hashem since then. I’ve changed my life.”

Moshe reported that even more miracles happened aboard the ship that night. The engine room was burned to a crisp, but a pair of Tefillin in perfect condition was found nearby. And in the middle of the destruction the sailors found a Book of Psalms, also unscathed. It was found open to Psalm 124, which acknowledges the unceasing protection Hashem gives us. Among the words in Psalm 124 are these:

“Had not Hashem been with us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their anger was kindled against us. Then the waters would have inundated us; the current would have surged across our soul.”

Moshe saw Hashem’s hand repeatedly that night. He should have lost his life, but Hashem sent him miracle after miracle to save him.

The Israeli military never expected the Hanit to be hit. It assumed the boat was far enough offshore to be safe, and didn’t know that Hezbullah had missiles of the range to hit it. Within a few seconds, those security misconceptions were shattered. Within those few seconds, Moshe’s many misconceptions about life and Judaism were shattered as well. The many miracles opened his eyes to Hashem’s constant involvement in our lives. Hashem is always with us, usually below the surface, but sometimes He sends a miracle to remind us of His constant watchful presence. Sometimes it takes a whole series of miracles to bring someone to recognize Him.

As Rabbi Brody described it, the Hanit took a direct hit from a Hezbullah missile, but Moshe turned the navy’s military setback into a personal spiritual victory.

Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the kiruv organization The Atlanta Scholars’ Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press August, 2007)

The Teshuva Journey: A Very Unlikely Messenger

Many ba’alei teshuva can point to a particular person or event which started them on their journey towards becoming Orthodox. Whether it’s a Rabbi, a Shabbas invitation or a co-worker, there is often a fixed point of disembarkation.

A Buddhist priest in the farming village of Yobito, Hokkaido in northern Japan was the inspiration that Jason Katz* needed to begin his journey home towards Judaism.

Jason grew up in the Detroit area and was very involved in his Reform synagogue, but it was a religious experience that lacked religion.

“There was no G-d involved. The only mention of G-d was in prayers, but otherwise nobody spoke about G-d,” Jason said.

Jason went to Japan as an exchange student during high school and lived with a family in Yobito. His host father Mitsuo Kiyosu is a 49th generation Buddhist priest and the spiritual leader of the village. Jason developed a deep rapport with him and over the years has had many deep conversations with him. He has always been impressed by the priest’s wisdom, his understanding of the purpose of life and his respect for all people.

Years earlier during his training to become a priest, Mitsuo Kiyosu had studied with a Christian minister and a Rabbi. He therefore had some understanding of each religion, but never pushed Jason towards any particular observance.

After college Jason lived in Japan for seven years and frequently visited the Kiyosu family. It was finally time to return to the United States but before leaving he paid one more visit to see them.

For Jason it was a time of great soul searching as he was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

While sitting together with his host father Mitsuo Kiyosu in the kitchen sipping green tea, Jason unburdened the challenges he was facing. The conversation turned from his job search to his larger search for direction in his life.

“My host father realized that I was searching not only for a job, but for spirituality,” Jason said. “He told me that when he dies ‘there will be such and such spirit in the next world who will save me. I live this life with confidence because I know I will be saved when I die. On the other hand, a Christian person has Jesus. A Christian person has Jesus, who is a bridge to the Jewish G-d. That’s how he will be saved when he dies.'”

“‘But you, you are a Jew. You have a direct connection to the Jewish G-d. What more are you searching for?'”

That comment opened Jason’s eyes. He grew up hearing about G-d as the Judeo-Christian G-d, but he had only ever heard Christians speak about G-d. His host father said No! It is not Christianity that has a direct connection to G-d, and not even Buddhism. It is the Jewish people who have a direct conduit to G-d.

“He woke me up to the fact that I have a unique place in this world as a Jew and an intrinsic relationship to G-d,” Jason said. “G-d had been just a philosophical concept to me and the last thing I was searching for.”

While Jason didn’t initially recognize it, something had changed inside him.

“At that time I still knew virtually nothing about G-d, nothing about Torah, but my heart was different, like a seed was planted inside,” Jason said.

Jason returned to Florida and a few months later a family friend recommended a class given by a local Chabad Rabbi. He soon began going each week. The class focused on the weekly Torah portion in particular and the Jewish perspective on life in general. Jason was stunned by what he heard.

“It was so profound, so deep,” Jason said. “I had been searching my whole life around the world. I had been to missionary camps, spoke to Buddhist priests and Hare Krishnas. I had no idea that there were such depths in Judaism.”

Over the next two years the Rabbi spoke often about G-d and G-d’s relationship to the Jewish people, and it gave new life to that seed inside Jason. The class helped Jason acknowledge his personal connection to G-d, which gave him the reason to begin keeping mitzvot and delving into Jewish learning.

Throughout Jason’s journey the seed planted by the Buddhist priest was forever in him, pushing him forward to find the truth.

How does one take such a path? How does one find traditional Judaism through the direction of a Buddhist priest? Hashem put in every Jew an innate desire to look for spirituality and connect with larger truths. He hopes we’ll use this desire to find our place in Judaism, but sadly, scores of unaffiliated Jews find spiritual fulfillment in other religions. Out of the masses that try other religions, a small number find their way back to Judaism through the experience.

This trend is actually predicted in the Torah. Before his death Moses reminded the Jews of the blessings and curses that would befall them based on their future behavior:

“And it will be that when all these things come to pass – the blessing and the curse, which I have placed before you, then you will return to your heart in the midst of all the nations where G-d your G-d dispersed you.” (Devarim 30:1)

The Sforno biblical commentary, written 500 years ago, has an amazing explanation of these words. As explained by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber in the book Days Are Coming, the Sforno writes that Jews will join other nations and religions, and will eventually find their way from there to Judaism:

“You are going to probe and research the destructive nature [of the lifestyle of those nations amongst whom you live], and you will reflect and be struck by the sharp contrast between truth and falsehood. And with this you will perceive how far you are from G-d and you will be lifted up [out] of the knowledge and practices that are not according to His Torah.”

The Torah predicts that there will be a mass return of Jews to Judaism, and many of them will find their way back through other religions. That’s precisely what happened with Jason. G-d knows what catalyst each of us needs to start us on our journey home, and He sends the right person in exactly the right time. The irony with Jason’s story is the perfect person was a Buddist priest halfway around the world.

Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the kiruv organization The Atlanta Scholars’ Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press July 6, 2007)

* Not his real name

The Teshuva Journey: The Miraculous Sukkah of Afghanistan

For Rabbi Nosson (Mark) Sachs, a Reserve Chaplain in the U.S. Army, building a Sukkah last year in Afghanistan against all odds showed him Hashem’s hand more clearly than almost any other experience of his life.

Rabbi Sachs traveled to Afghanistan in 2006 for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot to lead services for American personnel. For most of his time there, he was based at the Bagram Air Base. When he arrived, the Presbyterian chaplain at the base assured him that the base had not just one, but two sukkahs for the coming holiday. Rabbi Sachs was ecstatic – of the 15 personnel who attended his Yom Kippur services, 11 said they would be interested in coming back for Sukkot, so two Sukkahs would be enough to seat everyone.

Four days before Sukkot Rabbi Sachs opened the boxes and immediately realized they didn’t hold two Sukkahs, but the broken parts of a single small pop-up Sukkah.

Sukkot was starting on Friday afternoon, so Rabbi Sachs had to quickly design and build a new Sukkah. He sketched plans and brought them to the sergeant major involved with the base’s engineering corps to see if they could build it. The sergeant major handed him a stack of papers which required several signatures.

“How long do you think it will take to build it?” Rabbi Sachs asked. “The holiday starts in four days.”

“Maybe we could finish it by December,” the sergeant major replied.

Rabbi Sachs gulped.

Rabbi Sachs decided to try to build the Sukkah himself. He and the Presbyterian chaplain ran around the base for the next few hours getting all the necessary signatures.

Rabbi Sachs next went to the base’s building supplies store. The two Bosnian Muslims manning the store had never heard of a Sukkah before, but were eager to help. They said all the supplies would be available by Thursday afternoon.

The only items they did not have were metal L brackets to connect the sukkah to one wall of the chapel. In a country of mostly mud huts, metal brackets were almost nonexistent. Finally after an hour driving around the base looking for somewhere to acquire brackets, Rabbi Sachs finally found a building that made aluminum air conditioning ducts.

Rabbi Sachs ran into the building and asked the man inside, this time an Afghani Muslim, if he could make L brackets. He was so excited to make something other than air conditioning ducts.

“How many you need?” the man asked. “I can make a lot. A thousand?”

“Actually no. Twenty will be sufficient,” Rabbi Sachs said.

Rabbi Sachs returned two hours later. The man had made sixty brackets.

Thursday afternoon came and Rabbi Sachs picked up the rest of the materials. He had requested wood beams to build the frame of the Sukkah, but the only beams available were twelve feet long! So he borrowed a saw and began the long process of cutting the wood.

Also on the base were a group of civilian comedians who had been brought to entertain the troops. They were set to return to the U.S. but were unable to arrange a transport out of the country. Soldiers and military supplies are given priority on aircraft in a theater of war, so for civilians not essential to the war effort, finding a way out can be a challenge. Each day the comedians tried to arrange a flight back to America. It was especially pressing as one member of the group was set to get married the following Monday.

The groom happened to walk by Rabbi Sachs as he began cutting the wood and asked what he was doing.

“I’m building a Sukkah,” Rabbi Sachs responded.

“What’s a Sukkah?”

Rabbi Sachs explained the fundamentals of the holiday, and noticed a shocked look on the comedian’s face.

“Is everything okay?” Rabbi Sachs asked.

“You know what my full time job is? I’m a carpenter by trade. A carpenter!” he yelled. “Don’t you get it? Now I understand why I’m stuck here! If I help you, I’ll get out of here.”

“Halleluyah!” Rabbi Sachs shouted.

The carpenter began cutting the wood, and in three hours the two men had assembled the entire frame. And just as the comedian hoped, he and his friends caught the next flight home.

As they were finishing the frame, an officer came by and asked what they were doing. Rabbi Sachs described the fundamentals of the Sukkah.

“What are you going to use for the walls?” the officer asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” Rabbi Sachs said.

“Come with me.”

The officer brought Rabbi Sachs behind his quarters, where there was a large, unused bundle of camouflage netting. When they brought the netting back to the Sukkah frame to see if it would work, it fit to the inch.

For skach Rabbi Sachs used tree branches, but he had another problem: the valley surrounding Bagram experiences extremely strong wind storms every fall afternoon which threatened to blow the branches off the Sukkah.

In another miracle, just as Rabbi Sachs finished assembling his Sukkah, the wind stopped blowing and it didn’t start again until after Sukkot.

Friday night came and 11 Jews joined Rabbi Sachs in the Sukkah for a beautiful meal full of singing and dvrai torah. It was the first time most of them had ever eaten in a Sukkah. Here they were, in the middle of war, and for a few days could have the spiritual bliss brought by the miracle Sukkah of Afghanistan.

As Rabbi Sachs learned, when a Jew tries to bring light to a dark part of the world and inspire Jewish souls, Hashem makes anything possible.

Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the kiruv organization The Atlanta Scholars’ Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

The Teshuva Journey: From The Super Bowl To The Shabbos Table

He’s probably the only observant Jew to own a Super Bowl ring and one of the few Jews to ever play in the NFL. However for Alan Veingrad the journey back to his roots after his retirement was more exciting than any game on the field.

Alan played for five years as an Offensive Lineman on the Green Bay Packers, and then joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1991. It was with the Cowboys that he became the proud recipient of a Super Bowl XXVII ring, from their 1993 win.

After retiring in 1993 Alan faced a problem common to former NFLers: he had a complete loss of what to do with his life. Players in the NFL are constantly on the go and are always surround by teammates, so often have trouble filling their time when they retire.

“You go through this major void in your life,” Alan said. “I know players 10, 15 years out of the league who are still in the void. Where’s my locker, my itinerary, who are we playing next?”

During this period Alan and his wife received an invitation for a Shabbas dinner from a cousin who had become religious. It was their first authentic Shabbas experience, but wasn’t quite the life-changing moment one would expect.

“Throughout the meal he was talking about the parsha of the week. … Each of his four kids were giving over Dvrai Torah that they learned in school that week,” Alan said. “I was eating the Teriyaki Salmon, the brisket in large quantities. I was so focused on consuming food I wasn’t involved at all in the discussion. Nothing inspired me.”

After dinner, Alan’s cousin asked him if he would be interested in attending a local class given by a Rabbi. He accepted out of obligation. The class was held the following week in a mansion close to the Veingrads’ Florida home.

“For the first 59 and a half minutes of the 60 minute class I was so consumed with the location, this beautiful mansion hosting the class. I had never seen a house like this! I kept thinking, ‘Is this house worth four million or five million or six million?'” Alan said. Thirty seconds before the class ended, the Rabbi suddenly began talking about envy and materialism. He said if you let yourself be consumed by jealousy, it will only lead to emptiness and a complete void in your life.

“How did this rabbi know what I’ve been thinking for the last 59 and a half minutes?” Alan thought to himself.

The class ended, and Alan ran up to the Rabbi.

“Hey, I need more information about what you’re talking about!” Alan said. The Rabbi told him to come back the following week for the answers, and after that Alan began attending the class each week.

Over the next several years in the class, Alan began learning about Judaism’s focus on self-improvement and ethics, and especially its lessons for being a better spouse and father. He had always been interested in motivational tapes and books, especially those from famous athletes and coaches. He never imagined that he would find these lessons in his own religion. He always thought the Torah was just a history book, but when he discovered its deep focus on personal change, he jumped at the chance to learn more.

After a few years Alan and his family joined a local Chabad synagogue and were touched by the welcoming members and the warmth of the Rabbi’s family. The people Alan met were truly living the lessons he had learned in his class.

The camaraderie in the synagogue helped Alan fill the void he felt in his post-NFL life, and it would soon play an even more important role. Alan’s father passed away a few months after he became observant, and Alan was at a complete loss of what to do. He didn’t know how to organize a Jewish burial and mourning. The community rushed in and took care of all the arrangements, including providing meals for Alan and his family for the first few weeks.

“No teamwork I had ever seen in the NFL matched what I experienced in that little Chabad house in Fort Lauderdale.”

Throughout his life, Alan’s father had so much pride that his son had played football in the NFL. He carried Alan’s football card in his wallet, and showed it to everyone he met.

A few months before his death, he said something to Alan that would stay with him forever. He said he could really see amazing differences in his son and grandchildren since they had become religious. Because of this he was more proud to see his son in a yamacha than he had ever been to see him in his football helmet. “That was so powerful to me,” Alan said.

For each of us, every day is a Super Bowl. The real test is not how we perform for thousands of adoring fans, but how we treat our spouses, our kids and those around us. And while no one will ever receive a Super Bowl ring for this, we all have a chance to be MVPs in our own lives.

The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column by Michael Gros chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other
comments, email To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit

(published in The Jewish Press April 20, 2007)

It’s All In There

In my first Teshuva Journey column from The Jewish Press that appeared on BeyondBT, I wrote about the who, what, where, when and how of my journey back to Judaism, but the one question I did not fully answer is why. Answering that question is actually much more challenging than tackling all of the previous ones, because there simply is not enough space in a thousand-word column to mention all the reasons why Orthodox Judaism first attracted me and why it continues to do so.

Why does a Jew raised in a Conservative home, given all the conveniences, freedoms and choices of the modern world, find himself attracted to the seemingly restrictive and old-fashioned framework of Orthodox Judaism?

The Rabbis explain “Turn it [Torah] over and turn it over, because everything is in it.” (Pirke Avot 5:26) The Torah is the ultimate guide to everything. If you look closely enough, everything you need to know and do is contained within it.

For starters, the Torah is the decisive self-help book. The Torah and its Rabbinic commentaries teach people how to avoid anger, overcome poor self esteem, become more generous and beat addictions. It teaches people how to become better parents, better bosses and even how to be nicer to your pets. It contains essential lessons for how to succeed in business, and how to have a fulfilled marriage.

I became religious during college, while majoring in Psychology. As I learned more about Judaism, I realized that most theories of human behavior that modern psychologists have discovered in the last 200 hundred years were actually written down in the Talmud and other Jewish sources as long as two thousand years ago! For instance in 1965 Dr. Martin Seligman coined the theory of Learned Helplessness, as he discovered that a dog will accept even the most painful of situations if it believes there is no escape.

Seligman could have saved himself much work and the dogs much pain simply by looking at Jewish history. The Torah records that when the Jews were slaves in Egypt and G-d sent Moses back to free them, they did not want to hear about it. You would think the Jews would dance in the streets to welcome Moses and then go pack their bags, but they completely rejected him and his message of salvation. Several Rabbis explain that the Jews were suffering so much pain and persecution at the hands of the Egyptians that they had completely given up any hope of freedom. Sounds like the learned helplessness theory that Seligman “discovered” thousands of years later.

Growing up I often heard people lament at the complexity of life and wish they had a guide book for maneuvering through it. We Jews have that instruction manual! It’s called the Torah. The Torah was written by G-d in part as a guide book for us to know how to live our lives. And because He made all of us, He knows exactly what messages we need to hear. G-d knew in advance every event and struggle that the Jewish people collectively and individually would go through, and so He gave us the Torah to provide us direction.

In my Conservative Hebrew School I remember being taught that many of the Jewish commandments and traditions were old, worn-out customs applicable only to another time period. Years later as I started my teshuva journey I learned that nothing could be further from the truth! I finally learned about the eternal relevancy of Judaism and the Torah. Judaism teaches that there is something appropriate to do at every moment of our existence. Every minute presents us with the chance to choose between right and wrong, and shows us how to give our lives more meaning. The Torah’s commandments are practical ways to live our lives, to help us get the most out of this world and achieve our goals.

The American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” American society offers people every possible enjoyment, distraction and physical pleasure, but what are we left with when we’re done? After we’ve run from one pleasure to another, what’s left? We’re always looking for something better and brighter that we can write about to the folks back home. But the majority of people are never satisfied, as they’re always chasing another short-lived goal.

How to solve this problem? Judaism offers the antidote. While other religions believe that one can only become holy by withdrawing from worldly pleasure and living an aesthetic life as a monk high up on a mountain, Judaism teaches that we can become holy in the physical world by elevating everyday activities. I discovered that Judaism offers a way to still enjoy the pleasures of this world, but to dedicate them to a higher purpose. Nearly every enjoyable activity, from eating tasty foods, to even sleeping and shopping, can be used for a spiritual purpose. When we eat food and say a blessing to thank G-d for it and use the energy to help someone else or do a mitzvah, we’ve converted a pure physical need into something holy. If we sleep and then use the energy to learn and teach, we elevate the act to a level far greater than we could ever achieve by sleeping in late on a Sunday morning. Judaism teaches that when we do any action in the right way at the right time, we are living for a higher purpose than just our immediate needs.

For many people, an ideal vacation consists of going to a faraway beach, and spending quality time with family without the distraction of Blackberries and PDAs. But why save up to get such a dream vacation only once a year when you can get it every week? That’s what Shabbas is! Shabbas is a day to unplug from all our everyday distractions and spend time bonding with our families and having long meals with plenty of delicious food. It’s the Day of Rest, so yes, you get points in heaven for sleeping! What an amazing religion we belong to.

There is an endless list of other features of Judaism which first attracted me and continue to do so. Each person that becomes frum has his or her own list of reasons, which we will uncover as we explore amazing stories of other peoples’ teshuva journeys in future
issues of this column.

The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column by Michael Gros chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email

The Teshuva Journey

There are so many amazing, inspiring stories of how people returned to Judaism, and last week I started writing a monthly column called The Teshuva Journey in The Jewish Press chronicling some of them. The first column is about the journey I know best (my own), but future columns will be on other people.

“Abba, is it time to learn Parsha yet?” asks my four year-old son, as he and his two year-old sister scramble onto the couch, with eager eyes and parsha books in hand. As I begin to read it’s hard not to reflect in amazement how only ten years ago as I began my Teshuva journey I barely knew what Parsha was, and here I am today shlepping nachas from my children’s burning desire to learn it.

When I was around my son’s age, I remember going to my grandfather’s house and watching him put on his tefillin each morning. He wasn’t Orthodox, but grew up frum in Europe. When he emigrated to America he continued to put on Tefillin every day and continued to go to shul each Shabbas. Even at such an early age, I remember being enthralled by watching my grandfather put on his tefillin. The sight planted a seed in me that would one day sprout to a burning desire to do the same. Indeed tefillin was one of the first mitzvot that I took on when I started my teshuva journey at age 19. There was another dramatic impact my grandfather had on my life, though it only took place years later, even after he passed away.

There were several other events and people throughout my life that pushed me onto the path towards Orthodox Judaism, and by the time I was finally exposed to it in college, I jumped at the chance. I always knew there had to be more to Judaism than bagels on Sunday morning and some old customs. For Judaism to last for so many years through so many challenges and hardships, there had to be something more to it than I was getting in my Conservative synagogue growing up.

Over my first nineteen years of life I accumulated plenty of questions about our religion, the world and my reason for being here. I finally got the chance to ask all my questions and start getting answers during my sophomore year at Emory University in Atlanta. Atlanta is home to an amazing frum community focused on outreach and personal growth. Any experienced Jewish organization professional knows that free food is the key to getting people to come to an event, and it holds true nowhere better than for reaching cash-starved students on a college campus. Rabbis from the local Kollel run a weekly Pizza lunch-n-learn on campus, and that combined with plenty of Shabbas meals in the nearby community and an assortment of programs from a Chabad family on campus, made the ideal environment for myself and several other students to return to Torah-true Judaism. (Of course there were bumps along the way, but looking back it’s much easier to see it as continuous journey towards an end goal than it must have seemed at the time.)

I’ve always held Sukkot to be the anniversary of the beginning of my Teshuva journey, since one of my first experiences was being invited to a beautiful meal on the first night of Sukkot. When having new baalei teshuva for a meal, families will try to provide a meal soaked in spirituality and enlightened conversations. We came away from that meal not only uplifted from the dinner, but also drenched from the torrential rainstorm that night!

After finally drying out, we continued on throughout the year attending plenty of Shabbas and Yom Tov meals and inspiring classes. I planned to return home for the summer to the Middle of Nowhere, NJ, with the hopes of interning in New York City. As we say, man plans and G-d laughs. Not one of the dozens of companies I sent my resume to or even the handful of interviews that I had led to a job. Where did I end up for the summer? Back in Atlanta. I received an amazing internship at a huge company there, though I don’t recall ever submitting my resume to it! Being able to spend an extra two months in a holy community being immersed in spiritual growth, Torah study and in the company of some true Tzaddikm helped cement my desire to become frum.

When I was 20 I met the woman I would eventually marry. It was actually the second time we met. She grew up in my grandparents’ synagogue, and our grandparents were close friends. My grandmother had long kept an eye on her for me (yes, every grandmother tries to make a match, but hers actually worked!) We had met fours years earlier at a synagogue event before either of us was frum. In the interim we each went to college and became religious, and even though we were hundreds of miles apart, when we finally met again we had grown to the same level of observance.

It’s often said that a person becomes frum in part because of the merits of his or her predecessors. In our case it wasn’t just bygone merits, but active involvement. It was not only my grandmother working to get us to meet, but our grandfathers working upstairs behind the scenes pushing us to become more religious and eventually get together.

Every ba’al teshuva has a different path back to Judaism and a different element which attracted them. I always joked that it was for me it was the free food I would get at peoples’ shabbas tables, but the real draw was Judaism’s infinitely deep intellectual tradition. At seminars and lunch-n-learns I got to debate the creation of the world and evolution, feminism, morality, etc. The discussions were definitely more stimulating and genuine than any course I took in college. Little did I know that those discussions around a pie of pizza would lead to far deeper discussions half a world away learning gemorrah, halacha, etc. in yeshiva in Israel after college and currently in a smicha program in NY.

But the pinnacle of that intellectual pursuit is today learning Torah with my children, and having to figure out clever answers to their probing questions. What truly matters is the knowledge, philosophies and inspirations that we pass on to future generations. And once again it’s our grandfathers helping to push us along, for our Torah-loving son is named in memory of the two of them.