“Read one chapter per week.” This was the advice my late father-in-law delivered a decade ago as he proclaimed all of life’s answers can be found in the Torah. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Carol’s dad was setting a foundation for me to read the weekly parsha. He was living with us as he battled diabetes including thrice-weekly, gut-wrenching dialysis sessions while waiting on a kidney transplant. Challenge accepted, I placed the Bible on my night stand and set out to follow his advice. By week two my new routine failed as the text simply didn’t resonate with me. But why? Shouldn’t all Jews be naturally drawn to our most sacred text?
Baalei teshuva like myself often point to a key moment that ignited their Jewish flame. So here’s mine. On July 30, 2010, Carol’s father sadly passed away with Carol and her cousin in the room. They contacted Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, believing he would know what to do next. He quickly jumped into action, arranging the funeral, shiva visits and burying her father in Israel. His first words to me were… “Nice to meet you, but you can’t go in to the funeral hall.” This is how I learned a Kohen cannot be around someone who was niftar. As only Rabbi Yudin can, he finagled a way for me to deliver a eulogy anyway by setting up a makeshift gathering spot outside the funeral home for everyone.
Two days later Rabbi Yudin paid a shiva visit and suggested I attend his beginner’s class on the parsha. Truth be told, I didn’t even know what these classes were like but I accepted the invitation out of curiosity and began attending the class “religiously” every Monday night. Early on he asked me to grab an extra Chumash from the sanctuary. Not knowing the word Chumash I simply brought back one book of each color. Never one to embarrass a pupil and utilizing his natural kiruv talents, Rabbi Yudin said, “Perfect, I needed all of these books too!”
Days later, at a meal with some religious friends, one of them announced it was time for bentching. As a former high school varsity basketball player, this word was reserved for kids who didn’t play well and were unceremoniously yanked from the game to sit on the bench. Needless to say, there were many new words to learn! From there, our path accelerated as we started eating kosher, keeping Shabbat and planning our move to Fair Lawn. It even created the perfect on-ramp back that Carol needed.
Flash ahead to present day and a casual dinner with my secular Jewish friends from college. They’re curious about the contrast between secular and religious life and so I begin to outline three primary themes (among many others that I’ve come to understand).
1. Faith-Based Decision Making
Decisions in the secular world are typically based on fact, emotions and/or gut instincts. Faith doesn’t factor into the equation. I learned this lesson the first time Carol and I were approached to donate a significant sum of money to someone in our family who had fallen on a series of hard times. The old me would simply run an Excel spreadsheet on the impact of the donation. The new me sat down with Rabbi Yudin. First, he explained the laws of maaser of income and asked me if we could keep the lights on in our house after donating the money. Assuming yes, he recommended giving the tzedakah with faith we are doing the right thing to help someone less fortunate. Two days after we wrote the check my uncle passed away at the age of 84. My mother informed me he left me money in his will as a thank you for helping him manage his finances and household as he aged. Would you believe the money from my uncle matched to the penny the donation we had made 48 hours prior? Talk about a reward for having faith in Hashem or what I now know as bitachon!
2. The World’s Biggest Fraternity
Here’s where I want everyone working in kiruv to listen closely. The benefits of community life are not emphasized enough in attracting more Jews to a religious way of life. There are countless benefits stemming from living in a religious community. These include meals when we have a baby, playdates for my kids, regular lunch invites to make new friends, basketball Tuesday nights with guys from shul, places to stay when we travel, multiple consulting gigs landed through shul relationships, babysitters to watch my kids on date night, chavrusas who became lifelong best friends and free classes on an array of Jewish topics. It really is the world’s biggest fraternity where we all take care of each other.
3. The Meaning of Shabbat
Growing up if you asked me to define Shabbat in one word I would simply say “restrictive.” You can’t drive, you can’t call people, you can’t watch television. It’s one long list of what you can’t do. Now I most closely associate Shabbat with the word “freedom.” It’s the one day to unplug from technology and plug in to the lives of my family and friends. A meal around the table without smartphone disruptions is the perfect antidote to our hectic weekly routine. In fact, my children have even said they like us as parents the most on Shabbat (because we’re fully present).
I can’t help but reflect on how the investment by Rabbi and Shevi Yudin and countless others along this journey completely changed the trajectory of my life and future generations of Kohens. Then I reflect on the sage advice of my father-in-law a decade ago and realize he got me ready for chapter two of the sefer… and my life! I wonder sometimes if we all appreciate enough the blessing of maintaining our lifestyle in a modern world? The next time you find yourself at a Shabbat table talking shul politics or complaining about Yeshiva tuition take a step back and marvel at the wonders of religious life. You’ll soon realize what a privilege it is to live the way that we do.
Jeff Cohen is the president of Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, and can be reached at [email protected]. He would love to hear your own stories of kiruv, inspiration and getting on the path!