If inspiration is a desperately needed spiritual drug, Sarah N. Pachter, a 32-year-old mother of four, can be regarded as a successful distributor. Author of the recently released Small Choices, Big Changes (Targum Publishers), Pachter launched her career as a motivational speaker at the young age of 20. Today, in addition to lecturing, Pachter writes inspirational articles for, among other outlets, The Jewish Press, Aish.com, and the Jewish Home of Los Angeles, to which she contributes a regular column. She also serves as a kallah teacher and dating coach and mentor.
The Jewish Press: It’s evident from certain anecdotes you share in Small Choices, Big Changes that you are a ba’alas teshuvah. How did you become observant?
Pachter: My whole family started becoming religious together when I was around nine years old. My sister went to a Jewish camp one summer and when she came back, she begged my parents to send her to a Jewish school because a friend she had made in camp went there. My parents said no at first, but eventually they gave in.
Then, not long after, the rabbi of the high school she had joined invited us to spend Shabbat with his family. We went, and my parents were so moved by the experience that immediately afterward they called a family meeting and asked us, “Do you guys want to keep Shabbat?” I thought maybe we could just not watch TV or turn on the lights, but my parents really wanted to try to do it fully. So we all agreed and, little by little, we grew.
How did you go on to become a motivational speaker?
After high school, I studied in Israel for several years at Sharfman’s and Neve Yerushalayim. At the end of my second year, I came back to Atlanta, and as Shavuot approached I realized there was no learning whatsoever for women the first night of the chag. So I decided to make a shiur in my house. About 50 women came and, after that class, a fire lit up inside of me. I was like, “This is what I want to do!” I just loved teaching Torah and inspiring myself and others.
So I started teaching in shuls and schools. Then, when I was in Stern College in New York, the Jewish Enrichment Center was scrambling for someone to speak to its young professionals one day since the scheduled speaker couldn’t make it. My friend, who was a tutor at the JEC, suggested me. They asked her, “How old is your friend?” She said, “Twenty.” They said, “We’re not having a 20-year-old speak to 30-year old successful professionals.”
But my friend was persistent and, since it was last minute, they didn’t have much of a choice. So they asked me and, thank God, the class went really well. And everything catapulted from there. They invited me to speak every week after that and when I asked the students what they wanted to learn, I discovered they really wanted classes on universal topics like happiness, success, confidence, and good relationships. So it started becoming not just teaching Torah but motivational speaking through the lens of Torah since the Torah really helps us become great in every aspect of our lives – whether it’s financial, emotional, spiritual, or relationship-wise.
What’s your trick in motivating people?
When I speak I have to be excited and enthralled with the topic. I have to think, “This idea is so amazing that it’s going to change your life and mine.” I think that genuine enthusiasm is what causes people to say, “Oh my gosh, there’s something here.”
What sources do you base your lectures on?
I research both Torah and secular sources, and I use whatever makes me excited. So it could be a text I’m learning, a book I’m reading, a shiur I’m listening to, a beautiful thought I heard at a Shabbat table, or even an experience I had at the makeup counter in the mall if I need an analogy to make an idea relatable. One class can sometimes take months to create.
Is there a particular rabbi – for example, Rav Samson Rapahel Hirsch, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto, the Breslover Rebbe, or Rav Soloveitchik – whose teachings you especially draw upon? Or is it more of a hodgepodge?
A lot of it is a hodgepodge, but my teachers at Neve and Sharfman’s are particularly inspirational for me, so that would be Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, Rabbi Hanoch Teller, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Rabbi Label Sharfman, and Mrs. Ariella Gofman.
In Small Choices, Big Changes, you refer to Rosh Chodesh as a “restart app.” What do you mean by that?
I think sometimes people get into a rut and one way to get through it is Rosh Chodesh, which is when the moon starts getting bigger again. It’s like a “restart app” or a factory reset button on a phone. You get to start over, start fresh.
To me, the most inspiring “restart” story is that of my father-in-law. He was born on the run from the Nazis – his mother gave birth to him in the forest – and his first memories are of begging for food in the DP camps. His family finally moved to America and bought a dairy farm in upstate New York that they couldn’t afford. Already at the age of five, my father-in-law was milking cows and lugging milk. One day when he grew a little older, after he had spent hours loading up a sled with milk in freezing cold weather, the sled bumped into a chunk of ice and all the milk disappeared into the snow.
At that moment, my father-in-law’s family decided to press that restart app in their lives. My father-in-law started going to school and, although it was very challenging, he ultimately became one of the best doctors in the world. He actually was the doctor for several U.S. presidents. The moment the milk spilled was actually the turning point in his life.
So you have to be willing to start over when things aren’t working out. Sometimes it’s physically starting over and sometimes it’s a mental thing. Every month on Rosh Chodesh, Hashem literally gives us the power to reevaluate and start over and try to become great.
You reveal in the book that you’re something of an “old-timer” in that you often send handwritten thank-you cards to people. Why do you do that?
I think part of it has to do with how I started as a writer. It’s an amazing story. I live in Los Angeles now, but when I lived in New York, I was not used to having so much snow, and one evening as I was sitting with my husband, I said to him, “Thank you so much for shoveling the driveway every time it snows. You’re amazing. You don’t know what you’re doing for my New York experience.”
My husband turned to me and said, “I didn’t do it.” I didn’t believe him at first because he’s very humble, but he assured me it wasn’t him and I soon learned that it was actually our 60-something-year-old neighbor. He would wake up at the crack of dawn and shovel our driveway, and even though I saw him every single morning and said hello, he never even hinted that he was doing it. That’s like the definition of a tzaddik. So I bought him a gift and wrote a beautiful thank-you note. Later I found out that he kept the note in his wallet, and I was taken aback that it meant so much to him.
Why am I telling you all this? Because when I first started submitting articles to newspapers, I got a lot of rejections, and it was very disheartening. What gave me strength to keep trying was the thought, “Hey, if I can write a thank-you note that someone is keeping in his wallet, I know my words can affect people.”
Why do you send handwritten notes, though? Why not just an e-mail?
Because I know for myself, when I receive a handwritten letter or card in the mail it’s so much more exciting. I also think when you take the time to sit down and pull out a pen and card, it reinforces appreciation within yourself, which definitely creates inner joy. But I’m not trying to diminish a thank-you e-mail or text. I think that’s also beautiful if it’s heartfelt.
The title of your book is Small Choices, Big Changes. How did you choose that?
I think it’s the basis of growth. Who we are as people is not the result of big choices but small ones – the ones we don’t even really give much credence to. Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller made this point by analyzing the decisions of gentiles who hid Jews during the Holocaust. When a Jew knocked on their door, they had a choice as they opened the door whether to let the Jew inside. But their decision wasn’t made that moment. It was actually made years prior every time they stood for an elderly person, every time they helped an old lady walk the street, every time they picked up a piece of litter. All those tiny decisions flexed their “kindness muscle” till they became strong enough to be the type of person who would let a Jew inside.
And that’s why when they were asked years after the Holocaust, “How did you summon the strength to hide a Jew?” they responded almost with bewilderment, “What do you mean? How could we not?” It was obvious to them because they had become the type of person for whom that was not a decision at all.
So I titled the book Small Choices, Big Changes because we’re the result of the small choices we make in our lives. Small choices create and catapult into big changes.