Back when we established Hineni, kiruv – outreach – was practically a foreign concept. The observant community had no confidence in these “newcomers” to Torah. “They will never last,” people warned me. “For a brief while,” they conceded, “it may work, but they have no real commitment, and their involvement is fleeting.” As for secular Jews, their attitudes ranged from hostility to outright suspicion and fear.
Generations have since passed and we now see both camps were wrong. The ba’al teshuvah movement has become a powerful force, changing Jewish lives throughout the world. The pintele Yid in the Jewish neshamah may be dormant, but with just a little spark we can ignite an entire soul.
Over the years I have received thousands of letters and e-mails, all testifying that just one speech – yes, just one speech — can change and elevate not only an individual but families and communities. The following are excerpts from one such e-mail I recently received. In our dismal world, it is inspirational and spiritually uplifting to know there is another side to the “assimilation coin” and that Jews of all ages and backgrounds are coming home.
Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis,
I must begin by saying Thank You. Three years ago my life jerked to a halt and I was forced to stop and think deeply for the first time. Had someone told me that night what was going to become of myself and my family, I would not have believed it.
I lived what one might call a typical suburban lifestyle — attending summer camp, playing sports, going to secular schools, being a Jew among Jews and non Jews, feeling partially connected because of the lifestyle we outwardly shared but partially disconnected because inwardly my family was different from the other families on the block, in my school, and in my temple. This was not only because I had a family that made an effort to sit down every night of the week to have dinner together, but rather because my father was searching for something he knew was missing from his life.
When my father hit his forties my mother told him he had to get his head out of work and “find a hobby.” Long story short, he went searching for G-d. My mother soon came to regret her suggestion to my father, as her entire world turned upside down.
My father grew in Yiddishkeit, slowly working his way from Reform to Conservative and then, Baruch Hashem, to Orthodox. Our regular family Friday night dinners slowly went from non-kosher matzah ball soup and challah to semi-kosher and finally to kosher. My father’s progression angered, frustrated, and challenged my mother, as with every new thing he took on she felt the infrastructure on which they had built their family slowly being taken down brick by brick.
My father’s rebbeim told him it was important he get his children learning — that they were young and needed a true understanding of Torah. So my older brother began, at the age of 9 or 10, learning a couple of hours a week after school and a few years later, also at about age 9, I began learning a couple of hours a week after school with a rebbetzin.
My parents’ household tug of war continued, but as they still loved each other very much, they eventually worked out every odd and end that came their way. As my brother and I got older, we continued living our lives in the secular school system with our secular friends. Our mother continued to stress sitting down every weekday and weekend dinner together, and eventually my father’s Shabbosim became my mother’s dinner parties.
As my father’s observance of Torah became stronger and stronger, my brother and I felt extreme guilt as Shabbos and Judaism became a burden to us. But our lives continued in relatively normal fashion. My brother went into the Israeli army, as my father had raised us to be strong Zionists (we had visited Israel almost every year from the time we were young children). Once again people viewed us as the strange ones — our father wore a funny thing on his head, didn’t eat out, had strings sticking out of his pants, didn’t go out on Friday nights or Saturday, and now my brother was crazy for going thousands of miles away to fight for what we believed to be our land.
Fast forward: The rebbetzin I had been learning with told me about a speaker who was coming to town. That speaker was you, Rebbetzin Jungreis. I had been reading your articles for years so I was looking forward to hearing you speak, though of course I had no idea what was in store for me.
That night, you spoke about a loss of Jewish self in our world and what would become our future if we did not take a stand and do something about it. Something deep inside me cried out. Who was I and what impact on the world was I going to make if I didn’t know what being Jewish meant to me? I held back my tears that night, but my mind was racing. I decided I wanted to have a future in which I knew what it meant to be Jewish and why it was so special, but first I had to figure it out for myself.
I decided that summer that I had to go to Israel to learn because that was the place where I was going to find out more about being a Jew.My journey took me to Jerusalem where I enrolled in the Jewel program and where, best of all, your granddaughter, Shaindy Wolff Eisenberg, was my powerful, inspirational teacher. Her teaching reminded me once again of that very night my neshamah was awakened by you.
I realized there was no bending of Torah rules, and after much discussion and the passage of time, my family became united through Torah. Initially this was extremely difficult for my mother, but she is an amazing woman and she did what every mother who loves her children does. She hopped, jumped, and skipped over hurdles for her family, and today, Baruch Hashem, we are all united and keeping Shabbos together.
It’s been three years since I last heard you speak. But your impact on my entire family has been tremendous. Just recently, you came back to our city to speak. My parents attended your lecture and were once again blown away, but this time I asked them to thank you for the immense debt we owe you and will continue to owe you every day of our lives.
My mother came up to you and briefly told you about me and that I had wanted to thank you. I know you meet a lot of people and are so special in the way you wait until everyone gets a turn to speak with you. You grabbed my mother’s hand and she became teary-eyed, and you took a picture with my parents.
In two weeks I will be a madricha on the Jewel program in Jerusalem, and I only hope I can pass on the Torah’s message and awaken other neshamas just as you awakened mine. Thank you.
Addendum: Of course I remember your parents. They made a very deep impression on me, and Shaindy, my granddaughter, says it is a joy to have you on the team. Please convey to your parents my warmest regards and tell them I said “Ashrei y’ladotah — happy is the one who gave life to this person” – and that person is you.