My brother first met Miriam when he was a 15-year-old high school sophomore from a Chicago suburb and she was a high school senior at a religious high school in Chicago. They were part of a Chicago Federation summer trip to Israel that included both Orthodox and non-Orthodox high school students.
At one of the organizational meetings for that trip, Miriam approached my mother and told her, “Don’t worry Mrs. Rosenblum, we’ll take good care of your son.” And she smiled. On the car ride home, my mother told my brother, “That Miriam, she’s special.” I’m not sure that either of them had ever met a religious Jew before, but both my mother and brother instantly sensed that Miriam was qualitatively different from all those they were used to meeting.
On the way to the Kosel that Tisha B’Av, Miriam explained to my brother the tragedy of Tisha B’Av and the significance of the loss of the Beis HaMikdash. At that point in his life, I doubt my brother had ever fasted other than on Yom Kippur. But that Tisha B’Av he fasted. If it meant that much to Miriam, he reasoned, it must be worth doing.
After they returned from Israel, Miriam introduced my brother to her wide circle of friends in West Rogers Park. Under the influence of his new friends, he was ready for a year on a religious kibbutz in Israel and was talking about becoming an Orthodox rabbi by the time he graduated high school.
In time, Miriam married a rabbi, Jerry Isenberg, the head of Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva), and became a legendary baalas chesed, both in her job as a school social worker and in the countless ways she found to help others, without fanfare, despite battling cancer most of her adult life. But her special qualities were all there from an early age — the smile, the intensity of her davening, the goodness.
Miriam came from a Modern Orthodox background. On that first trip to Israel, she confided to my brother that many of her friends were having difficulty on the religious kibbutz on which they had been placed because the kibbutz members frowned on the slacks they were used to wearing in Chicago.
But Miriam and the Modern Orthodox teenagers to whom she introduced my brother were the catalyst for four nonobservant Jewish brothers to become observant Jews.
The chareidi branch of the Rosenblum family today numbers over 60 members. I’d like all those descendants who never met Miriam to know that they are likely here today as shomrei Torah u’mitzvos in large part because of a group of teenagers whom they might be inclined to dismiss as insufficiently frum if they saw them on the street today.
Perhaps that knowledge would help immunize them from the temptation to puff themselves at the expense of others whose religious standards appear less stringent, while missing all the maalos that those not exactly like them possess.
I only wish I were more optimistic about my immunization program — even with respect to myself.