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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Routes And Roots To The Truth

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The five-year-old boy was in a church in Puerto Rico with his parents. As they and his grandparents were Catholics, that made him Catholic – as far as his young mind could figure.

With an independent mind at such a young age the boy would not do as his parents did, namely bow down to a statue. Looking back decades later, he would say, “It seemed ridiculous” to do. But to avoid his parents’ probable spanking, he had to do something to appear as if he was interested in what was going on. So he moved his lips, pretending to pray.

Child number 10 of 19, he would not eat the pork his mother would cook. He would say later, “All my brothers would eat it and I wouldn’t.”

Why not? Why not just go with the program? Was he just a rebellious kid trying to be different from everyone else?

After many years of seeking his own way, he arrived at some startling facts and recalled certain remembrances. Research into his family background revealed that his ancestors on his mother’s side came from southern France. A key recollection was having seen his mother’s mother light candles on Friday night. When he asked her why she did this, she said she didn’t know.

After more research the fateful day arrived when, at the age of 40, he contacted a cousin in Florida who was also trying to understand his family history. She asked him, “Did you know we’re Jewish?” A short time later he confirmed his cousin’s statement, and after spending some time learning about his heritage he has been living the life of a shomer Shabbos Jew for nearly 15 years.

What a path the life of “Reuven” has taken! Brought up as a Catholic in a very religious home, his goal throughout that time was to search for Hashem. “I wanted the truth,” he said.

He read the New Testament and discovered that some central characters were Jewish but deviating from the right path. “They were trying to deviate from the path,” he said. “No one’s going to deviate from my path.”

The searching and learning processes went on. In the years before learning he was Jewish, Reuven went from being Catholic to being a Seventh Day Adventist in California. He kept learning from their leaders but they could not answer certain questions, raising his suspicions about what they were telling him.

Reuven felt like he was finding the truth when he began studying Jewish sources. “My family was very upset with me,” he said. “Some of them didn’t want to talk to me. I didn’t care. This is my life and I live it as I want. But it wasn’t easy.”

Of course it wasn’t easy. He was leaving behind the very foundation of his life’s first decades. And he was leaving it for what? For the joy of learning that he’d been Jewish all along.

While he lost some contact with his family, he found a new family among the people who warmly welcomed him in Brooklyn. It was there that he continued to investigate even more into his religious roots. And how has he taken to his new lifestyle of religious discovery and commitment? “The best part of being a Jew is that you know this is what Hashem wants.” Quite a statement from someone seeking the truth!

Reuven has faced many challenges along the way. Before ascertaining his Jewish roots, he was married with children – with whom he now has limited contact. In his new setting, rabbis urged him to undergo a bris milah. He complied.

And then there was the significant amount of property in Puerto Rico to be managed (before attempting to sell it). This forced him to live there, cutting him off from being involved in any type of meaningful Jewish life. Shabbos after Shabbos was spent sitting alone in his apartment – davening, eating and learning. But instead of this challenging period being a negative part of his experience, it strengthened his resolve and commitment to religious Judaism.

Things changed for the better and thankfully, over time, this gregarious and friendly man found a small religious community in San Juan. Warmly received there, he now spends Shabbos and other parts of the week in the company of fellow Jews.

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I was preparing a shiur to honor the memory of my father, Paul Magill, a”h, on the 20th anniversary of his passing, and I was looking at that week’s sedrah, Parshas Re’eh. I was struck by the words, “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others, that you did not know.”

Feeling more alone than at any time since arriving in New York, I looked inside myself for anything that could anchor me to bring me back to who I was, to move away from illusions of romance to my central sticking point. Suddenly and unexpectedly, being a Jew meant more to me than anything else in the world.

You don’t become a ba’al teshuvah overnight. There were many events in my life that contributed to the deepening of my religious commitment, including a party I attended with young, beautiful church members who tried to make me one of them, and how I met their “Jewish priest.” (I’ll discuss both experiences during the course of this continuing column.)

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