For their first twenty five years of child rearing, the Stern family of San Francisco* seemed to be sailing smoothly. Their four children (three boys and a girl) obediently attended the High Holiday services in the local Reform synagogue with their parents and grandparents, just as their ancestors had done for several generations in America and Germany. Then, one by one, each of the children jumped ship and swam to the warmer waters of Orthodox Judaism.
The exoduses began with Dave. He dropped out of his freshman year of college and traveled to Eretz Yisrael to find answers. He was followed by Fred. However, when son Sam decided to postpone college shortly before the start of his freshman year and learn in yeshiva, the parents were flabbergasted.
“I was their last great hope for normalcy,” Sam says.
In the beginning of July 1979, Sam and a friend from high school decided to backpack through Europe before beginning college. Fred, who had been learning at Aish HaTorah for nearly one year, decided to meet up with them in Geneva, Switzerland.
Fred had flown to Switzerland with a secret agenda – to convince Sam to join him and Dave at Aish. Fred was not yet well versed in halacha or the philosophies of Orthodoxy, but he made up for it in his sincerity and engaging nature.
“Fred could laugh at himself and at Orthodox Jews and have a good time. We had some deep, meaningful conversations there.”
After three weeks in Europe, Sam decided to travel to Eretz Yisrael for a short trip. He had been there the summer before and enjoyed it.
When Sam and Fred arrived at Aish, Dave sat down with them almost immediately to commence Stage Two of the brothers’ attempts to convince him to join them. Dave opened the Chumash to the very beginning of Bereishis and began teaching Sam the first explanations of Rashi.
Rashi explains that the Torah began with the creation of the world as a statement of validation for the Jewish people’s right to Eretz Yisrael. He then says that the opening verse calls out to us, “Expound me!” begging us to delve into the Torah. Dave began teaching him the insights of Rashi and Chazal slowly, verse by verse.
“From the first pasuk, I was just blown away!”
Within a short time, Sam sent word to his parents that he would also be learning in yeshiva with his brothers.
Aish HaTorah was still in its infancy and the yeshiva was struggling when Sam arrived. It was inventing a brand-new type of environment, applying the yeshiva system of Europe to the hippie culture of the moment. The policies and methods were still being hammered out, and the relaxed environment bothered Sam more than it did his older brothers. He also felt torn because his older brothers had already spent time in college and dabbled in its physical pleasures before leaving for yeshiva, while he was considering settling down before doing so.
However, Sam decided to stay and learn for three primary reasons.
First, he immediately saw the serious, grounded Torah values displayed by members of the staff. He was draw to Rabbi Zelig Pliskin and other teachers due to their calm, mild-mannered natures.
“It didn’t take long to understand the depths of the Torah lifestyle. It was very meaningful and very real. It was undeniably very attractive. I had to be intellectually honest and recognize the goodness, normalcy and solidness of the rebbeim.
“My parents saw that too. They spoke to rebbeim and noticed they were normal and with character.”
Second, Sam quickly realized the absolute truth of Torah. If he wished to be honest with himself, he knew that he needed to commit to it.
“It doesn’t take long to get to the point of realizing that the either the Torah is true and the reality of Torah being G-d’s word is true, or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways. I quickly realized that you can’t run away from reality and you have to make decisions with consequences.”
The third factor was that his two brothers were already learning in yeshiva.
“Sometime I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t have two brothers there. Hashem must have known the perfect order to send the Stern brothers. It was like Yaakov Avinu sending Yehudah first to set up shop.”
One final consideration filled the mind of Sam and his brothers at this point. Their sister Julie was due to get married in America in October, only two months after Sam arrived in Israel. Even though their parents had engrained in their children the absolute importance of marrying a Jewish spouse (without ever explaining why this was important), Julie decided to marry her non-Jewish boyfriend.
Dave, Fred and Sam were all aware of Julie’s relationship, but the wedding announcement presented them with one of the biggest tests of their lives. Their family had always been close-knit, even with the turbulence of the three brothers suddenly going to yeshiva. Was it worth rocking the boat even more by making a statement and not attending the wedding? Their absence at the wedding would be obvious and painful to their parents and extended family.
Even Dave and Fred had only been observant for a short time. Was this worth the fight with the rest of their family? Or should they simply attend the wedding to maintain peace, and then fly back to yeshiva to continue their studies?
The emotions and ripple effects of that decision defined the brothers’ relationship with each other and with the rest of their family and will be explored in a future column. We conclude this one with a poignant thought on the direction which the three brothers decided to take.
“The fact that all of us were open to the possibility of changing our lives happens to be a reflection of our home we grew up in. I can’t pin it to any story or anything my parents said. I don’t know how to attribute it. It has to be an offshoot of the environment we grew up in,” Sam explains. “We internalized that we have to listen to other people and take in to consideration their world view and try to comprehend it.”
Sam’s comment may be the most ironic of their journey, especially from their parents’ perspective. As we noted in our first column, much of the siblings’ growth can be attributed to the strong values and proper upbringing they learned at home. When they were later exposed to proper Jewish values and had the opportunity to contrast them with the turbulent, decadent world around them, the choice was obvious.
The lessons and values they absorbed in their Reform household helped each of them to build their current Orthodox homes.
*Names and some details have been changed.