Latest update: March 2nd, 2012
Ever since he was a young boy, Jonathan Levenstein* knew the power of prayer. He prayed every night for as long as he can remember. So when his unborn son came close to dying, Jonathan’s natural response was to pour out his pain in heartfelt tefilah to Hashem.
Jonathan grew up in Canada. Both sets of his grandparents had emigrated from Europe and held on to their religious lifestyle even in their new country. One grandfather was the gabbai of his synagogue, and Jonathan can still picture him walking around the synagogue on Shabbat morning, his tallit flowing behind him as he gave out aliyot. Jonathan has clear memories of his other grandfather putting on tefillin each morning.
The tenacity through which Jonathan’s grandparents retained their religion left an indelible impression on him. Even as his parents strayed from religious observance and moved to the suburbs far away from any Jewish community, Jonathan held on to the prayers of his grandparents.
“Since I was 8 or 9 years old I have prayed to Hashem at night, [saying] the first, second and third paragraphs of the Shema. As events unfolded in our lives, I never missed a night of davening, no matter where I was,” Jonathan recalled. Every night he recited the formal prayers of the Shema, followed by his own requests from deep within his heart.
Jonathan grew up, and while not religious, continued his nightly pleas to Hashem. When his sister was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Jonathan’s davening increased in intensity. He prayed that Hashem would make everything right.
Then Jonathan married Barbara and they dreamed about settling down and raising a beautiful Jewish family. By 1974 they were expecting their first child. After an uneventful, normal pregnancy Barbara went into labor. Their baby suffered fetal distress and the doctor was unprepared. The baby’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and was strangling him. The doctors were unable to take him out. The OB-GYN approached Jonathan and said the baby had already lost oxygen and his heart had stopped. There was not enough time to take X-rays and there was no option but to do a crash C-section and hope for the best.
“I went into a little room and davened to Hashem. That was the natural thing to do. I promised Hashem that if he saved my son, if he came out alive, my son would know Hashem.”
Jonathan prayed like he had never before. The tears flowed freely. Jonathan always knew that Hashem listened to his prayers, but that day in the hospital the power of tefillah became clear. As the doctors tried every medical procedure in the operating room, Jonathan used every ounce of strength to plead and cry before Hashem.
After what felt like an eternity the doctor found Jonathan. He reported that after a difficult C-section the baby was out and alive, but had lost oxygen for extended periods and would have many health problems.
Jonathan was unconcerned. The fact that his son was alive was euphoric news. Jonathan knew that with Hashem’s help they would get through his challenges.
“I knew I had made a vow to Hashem and He had brought him out alive. I knew I had an obligation to do my best for my son to help him know Hashem.”
Making that vow a reality proved to be very difficult. The child, who was named Alex, faced many health challenges and language delays.
School was another difficulty. The blood loss had scarred his brain development, leaving him with learning challenges and social problems that took years to overcome. His mannerisms were different and he had a hard time fitting in.
Jonathan tried to teach him about the Jewish rituals and stories he remembered from his own youth. He brought him to synagogue most Shabbat mornings, but nothing seemed to sink in.
“I tried to teach him. I tried to get him to sit, but he always went away from us. I would look back and he would have his siddur upside down with an Archie comic book inside.”
In high school another young Jewish boy struck up a friendship with Alex. He was able to look beyond his external quirks to find his sweet inner core. He invited Alex to join him one Shabbat at a local Chabad House.
The two young men started attending services there every week. Alex found the Chabad synagogue to be warm and accepting. Over time he began putting on tefillin and took on other mitzvos. He later attended a six-week Aish Hatorah learning program in Israel and came back fired up. Now Alex led the way for his father in recognizing Hashem.
“As he got involved, I started taking more of an interest in it. I had wanted him to see me model it, but he became a role model for me!” Jonathan said. “I had to keep up with him.”
Jonathan, who had exerted himself to find ways to inspire his son to love Judaism, now sat back and watched as his son developed his own love for his religion.
“I walked around and said ‘thank you Hashem! How could it be that you helped me fulfill my vow?’ For me it was a miracle.”
Alex began attending other Orthodox synagogues in the area and spent Shabbasos and Yomim Tovim with many local families. The embrace he received from local families was heartwarming.
“Nobody looked down on him because he wasn’t frum from birth. No one said anything about his different mannerisms,” Jonathan recalled. “The community was so very warm and accepting, like another family.”
Jonathan also began putting on tefillin and took on many mitzvot himself. He became Shomer Shabbat and he and Barbara eventually kashered their kitchen and joined a local Orthodox synagogue. After a very successful law career Jonathan retired at age 50 and now spends much of his time learning Torah.
Alex moved to New York and through a shadchan began dating a sweet young woman, a social worker. They married and are now raising five beautiful children, and iy”H are making aliyah this summer.
Jonathan says he still looks back on his life and marvels at the amazing interventions time and again by the hand of Hashem.
“The fact that He brought my son into the world when the doctors said there was a fifty-fifty chance he would die, and then brought him to be a frum Jew, it’s incredible,” he said. “I attribute it all to help from Hashem. He knows I want to get closer. He helps me every day.”
Jonathan, who once wondered how he would ever get his son close to Hashem, now knows he wasn’t the only one who wanted it. Hashem had an interest in it as well, and made it all come together.
* Names have been changedMichael Gros
About the Author: Michael Gros writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To read more articles and sign up to receive them via email, visit http://www.michaelgros.com
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