One by one, each of the three Stern brothers became observant. Their close family ties were shaken when their only sister, Julie, announced she was marrying her non-Jewish boyfriend Nigel. The three brothers refused to attend her wedding, though they knew it could lead to a family split. They chose to remain true to their beliefs.
With a great deal of love and respect, the brothers were able to maintain strong ties with their parents and sister. This enabled them to help Julie become observant after her marriage with Nigel ended.
In our last column, we shared the story of how Julie met Ken, who was learning in the same yeshiva as her brothers, Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Queens – it was also were Julie was employed as a secretary.
Ken Mendelson grew up in Chicago and attended a local Reform synagogue, much like the one Julie’s family had attended.
“We were members of Temple Emanuel. It was a big place. I remember being there on Saturday morning; as people were supposed to be saying the Shema, the women were putting on makeup. Today they would all be playing with their phones.
I was very turned off. I ended up doing nothing [Jewishly-oriented], zip for years.”
Ken attended the University of Chicago. He maintained his aversion to anything Jewish, but was driven by a quest for truth and direction in his life. He felt there had to be a greater meaning to his life and the world around him. He searched high and low, but never considered that his own religion held the answers.
“I always go far into things. I’ve always been a seeker. I was looking for tranquility, peacefulness, and accomplishment. Ever since I was kid, I was always looking for the spiritual side, something more than materialism.”
Ken was exposed to Eastern religions in college and was drawn to yoga, vegetarianism and Transcendental Meditation.
“Transcendental Meditation was total avodah zarah. Its attraction is in the calmness it brings you into.”
After graduating from college, Ken worked as a software engineer for a company in St. Louis. He was still unsettled in his personal life and was looking for meaning. He asked his company to give him a two-month leave of absence so he could attend an advanced yoga course run by the Transcendental Meditation Organization, which promised to provide attendees with additional clarity in their life.
Ken packed his bags and headed East, not to the top of a pseudo-mystical mountain in India as one would expect, but in the true center of spirituality, in Eretz Yisrael, in the holy city of Tzfas.
Ken was drawn primarily to the subject matter of the program, but its location in Eretz Yisrael offered an extra attraction.
“It was a non-Jewish program, but it was that point – being Jewish, being in Israel, trying to find out what and who am I. Going to Israel combined those factors and interested me.”
Ken increasingly found himself drawn to the sites in the city.
“I used to sneak away, to watch Chassidim davening, people at the Ari’s kever. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I realized that something was going on here that was very intense.”
After two months in Tsfas, Ken returned to America a very different person than when he had left. He threw himself into learning Hebrew on his own and the rudiments of Jewish ritual. He was still involved in the yoga movement, but over time it became less important in the face of his growing excitement for Torah-true Judaism.
“I became Shomer Shabbos on my own. I was a self-seeker. I realized that this is what I had been looking for. I was always interested in the religious side and wanted to express it, but I needed to express it in a Jewish way.
“I met some really bizarre characters who were also trying to figure stuff out. I would call them New Age Frum. They were trying to mix Eastern weird religious stuff with Yiddishkeit. One guy I knew was trying to figure out who he was and went to speak to Native American people. They told him, “Go look in your own backyard. You already have it.”
Ken began growing slowly but steadily in his observance. However, he still felt that something was missing – until he began learning Torah.
At night, Ken learned with the members of a local outreach Kollel in St. Louis. He finally felt the thirst inside him being quenched.
“I learned Gemara with these guys and realized that this is it. This is what I’ve been searching for – intellectual pursuit, fulfilling my spiritual side.”
Ken took a year off from his professional career to attend yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, his elderly father became ill after only a few months and Ken was forced to return to America to help his two sisters take care of him.
After several weeks, Ken’s sisters agreed that their father would move to California to be closer to them. Ken decided to remain in America and moved to New York. He began learning during the days at Yeshivas Eitz Chaim and attending graduate school at night. It was there that he met the new secretary of the yeshiva, Julie.
Julie had begun working at the yeshiva shortly after her relocation to New York. The mutual attraction Ken and Julie felt for each other proved detrimental to his learning, as his shiur attendance dropped radically.
“I was hanging out with the secretary. It was a bad combination for me.”
Ken and Julie eventually married and have since raised a beautiful frum family. They recently married off their last child. Their six children and two dozen grandchildren are spread throughout Eretz Yisrael and the United States.
Their wedding signified the tying of the knot of Julie’s life. She had come full circle from her marriage to Nigel, which her brothers boycotted, to her marriage to Ken which they were more than eager to attend.
Following their wedding, Ken began moving up the ranks in corporate America. He recently retired, and began the next stage of his life – sitting and learning full-time in Eretz Yisrael.
Dovid HaMelech wrote in Tehillim, “Toras Hashem Temimah” – the Torah of Hashem is perfect, “Meshivas Nefesh” – it revives the soul (19:8). The Yalkut brings a debate in how to understand the verse – is the Torah perfect because it revives the soul, or does it revive the soul because it is perfect?
The Imrei Da’as explains that when a person learns Torah perfectly, by immersing himself completely in it to the point that he forgets all of the pursuits of this world, his Torah learning will then restore his soul.
Since childhood Ken had been on a quest to find meaning in the world and his life. He pursued this ism and that ism, but none satiated him. Hashem created the Jewish people and the Torah as partners. A Jew can never feel truly happy and complete in the absence of the Torah. Only upon returning to his roots and diving into the waters of Torah did the void inside Ken begin to be filled, first in St. Louis, then in Eretz Yisrael, then in Queens, and now once again, in Eretz Yisrael.
With every daf of Gemara and each word of Torah that Ken learns, his soul is becoming filled with the incredibly sweet water of Torah.
* Names and some details have been changed.