It was the summer of 2003 and I was lost. I had just finished my sophomore year of college; a year where I overloaded on difficult courses, switched majors and tried to find my bearings after the initial excitement of college grew stale. I was interning at the Brooklyn DA’s office and living in downtown Brooklyn, and I was looking for something. I just wasn’t sure what.
Shortly after moving into my summer apartment, I started exploring the library down the street. I happened upon a book by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, a”h: “The Committed Life—Principles for Good Living From Our Timeless Past.” I literally couldn’t put it down. Having been raised with a wishy-washy “Judaism-lite,” the picture of frumkeit and Torah life in her book was totally new to me and very compelling. The book is filled with inspiring stories of people who turned around their lives and the lives of their families through rediscovering their connection to Hashem and their Jewish roots. That book started me on a path that led to the Hineni organization, my first Shabbat, Hillel back at college, yeshiva in Israel, a semester at YU, and to where I am today, happily married with three kids and living in the Elizabeth/Hillside Jewish community.
It’s funny how a single book, a single moment really, can change your life.
This Elul, looking for some inspiration before the Yamim Noraim, I decided to re-read this book. As I read, I found that I still remembered many of the stories. And I felt, to some extent, that same burst of inspiration and hope as when I read it all those years ago. But I’m not the same person now as the person who read the book back then. And just like the re-reading of the Torah each year, where we find different meanings and new insights because we are different people than we were before, the experience of reading “The Committed Life” was different now. But how?
Back then, things felt much more black and white to me. After reading the book, I felt that I had finally found what I had been searching for and that the Torah path was the guidebook I needed to set me on the path of “good living.”
And while I still feel that way, like the gray hairs sneaking into my beard, my views are less black and white and much more nuanced than they were back then. I recognize now that living as a frum person is, in some ways, much harder than living a non-religious life. Perhaps not so much “harder,” but rather much more intense. The demands on our time, our finances, our stamina, and our spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual selves are much heavier for us than for our non-religious counterparts. We live in localized, close-knit communities, which can be an enormous source of blessing but can also lead to petty conflicts, irritations and jealousies. We proudly send our children to Torah-based day schools, but we struggle to pay tuition and sometimes find ourselves in conflict with our teachers and administrators. We love and respect the Torah and honor those who master it, yet we find that those with great Torah knowledge sometimes fall short of the values of justice and kindness that are the foundations of Torah life.
For skeptics like myself, who naturally lean towards glass-half-empty assessments, these challenges and inconsistencies of Torah life can sometimes stack up one by one, creating an unsteady Jenga tower of disconnection, difficulty and doubt. But then there is the flip side of the same coin. There is the beauty of Shabbat and the holidays, a time of pure rest and separation from the unceasing noise of our device-driven lives. There are our warm and caring communities, a rarity in modern life, where instead of being anonymous we feel a sense of true belonging and a collective responsibility for each other. There is the sense of mission and purpose, the feeling that our individual lives have meaning and that we are part of a great collective story. There is the rootedness of our living connection to a storied past and the hope of a constant striving for a brighter future. There are the guideposts of our tradition, which ground us in a world where values often seem as malleable and inconstant as the slime that our children are so fond of making. And there are the rules and laws that shape our lives and which, while they may sometimes feel constricting, serve to elevate and enlighten us and push us to become our best selves.
After my 17 or so years of life as a frum Jew, I understand that whether you’re frum or not, life can be hard. Bad things can and do happen, from time to time, to all of us. Difficulties, challenges and struggles are inevitable, whether you’re a Torah Jew or a regular dude. But whereas before I was frum, I often felt alone and lost, now I don’t feel that way. I have my family, of course, but also my friends, my community and Hashem with me. And that companionship, that connectedness, can be an enormous source of comfort and strength during the hard times.
The challenge that each of us—ba’alei teshuva, “FFBs” and everyone in between—faces is to hold on to that sense of freshness, inspiration and connection that I first felt that summer 17 years ago, and that we all feel from time to time, and to not lose sight of it in the churning swells of each day, each one much like the last, filled with small triumphs and frustrations and the innumerable details and to-do lists of daily life. The challenge for us all is to hold tight to the beauty and spirit of our Judaism and to not lose that connection amidst the shortcomings, challenges and disappointments that are an inevitable part of life in any living, breathing religious community.
The Yamim Noraim are our answer to that challenge. The shofar is literally an alarm clock, shaking us out of the humdrum rhythm of daily existence and calling us to connect to Hashem and to remember who we are. Yom Kippur is a chance to wipe away the disappointments and shortcomings of the last year, to start fresh with a renewed connection to Hashem and His Torah. But the transformative effect of these holidays does not happen on its own. It requires us to set aside our doubts, to disregard the snarky voice in our heads that is skeptical of all claims to truth and goodness. It requires us to be believers, to be vulnerable, to admit our shortcomings—to be our true selves and not the shell of Facebook-ready perfection that we project to the world.
So as we enter this high holiday season, my blessing to us all is that we set aside the critiques and grudges that we may nurse towards our communities, our schools, our leaders, our shuls, and our religious life in general, and that we try to recapture the freshness and inspiration of the Torah, that unparalleled power of our tradition to uplift the human spirit and make us better than we were before. May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a happy, healthy, and meaningful new year. Amen.
By Steven Starr