Teshuva is contagious. One Jews return to his roots often has ripple effects well beyond him. When all four children from a single family become observant, at diverse points in their lives and with different stimuli, it causes one to take notice.
Julie, Dave, Fred and Sam Stern* grew up in San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s. Their family were proud, active members of the local Reform Temple, and had been so for four generations since they came to America from Germany. Today, all four siblings are proud frum Jews, the parents and grandparents of dozens of observant descendants. No single event stands out from their childhoods or their family’s background which would hint at their later journeys back to their roots.
Mr. and Mrs. Stern preached to their children the importance of being immersed in American society and success, while still practicing the “culture” of Judaism. However, they were unaware of many of the details of halacha, and did not seem to be concerned with the contradictions of their observance. Chametz was served at their Pesach Seder. In the Reform Temple which they attended for each major holiday, the men did not cover their heads while praying, yet the women wore hats in allegiance to societal norms.
The four Stern children reported that the religious observances felt like just that: observances of a culture with little relevance to their modern lives.
Two days each year in particular stood out for the Stern children. The days should have been a boost of Jewish pride, but each year they made the children stick out from their non-Jewish classmates and feel embarrassed to be Jewish: being pulled out of school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“The [services] lasted forever – about three hours,” Sam recalls. “We called The High Holy Days Services, The High Lowly Days.”
One of Dave’s memories of childhood is ducking in the car as they drove past their school on the way to synagogue for the holiday services. He was embarrassed to be seen involved in an openly-Jewish activity.
Though the services lacked in substantial substance (for instance the Rabbi’s sermons typically focused on the war in Vietnam and social issues), they did provide moments of amusement for the Stern children.
“One year the Temple hired a non-Jew to sing for the holidays. My father called him Singin’ Sam. He sang in a very operatic style and was so obviously not Jewish, so of course he was a great source of humor. But we couldn’t make any noise with our laughter. Later they hired a younger guy, also very not Jewish-looking, and we called him Singin’ Sam Junior,” Julie remembers.
The Stern children faithfully attended Sunday School in the Temple out of family obligation. Dave once again recalls being dragged in the car each week to attend. He renamed the experience “Bunday Bool.” The name stuck as his siblings had similar uninspiring experiences. Dave even adapted some of the words of the prayers he was learning to portray his misery at being forced to attend. He envied his non-Jewish friends who were off playing sports.
Their feeling was shared by their friends who attended Sunday School with them. Close to 75% of their classmates eventually married out of the religion.
At least for the Stern siblings, one clear message was repeated throughout childhood: Marry a Jew. It was never clearly explained to them why this was important, but it was a clear mantra in their family.
When asked for reasons for the rule, their parents would say, “Trust Us” or “You’ll understand when you grow up.” On other occasions their parents were more vague. “It’s hard to explain” or “It’s a feeling,” they would say. And, yet, their parents believed in the importance of marrying fellow Jews, and reminded them of this frequently.
The sincerity with which Mr. and Mrs. Stern taught the rule clashed with their inability to explain it. The contradictions of their lives also made it difficult to follow the rule in practice. The children were encouraged to be “regular American kids” and to associate with many non-Jewish friends. Indeed Julie even married her non-Jewish college sweetheart. They had a son together, and got divorced soon after.
Only years later, after leaving home, did the siblings begin to become observant. First Dave took off time from college to travel to Eretz Yisrael to find himself. His younger two brothers soon followed, Fred during college and Sam just before. It would only be after her divorce that Julie would follow them on them on the religious track.
Each sibling had his or her own impetus, but for all four to follow a similar route, it appears that there was some uniform message in their childhoods. If the Jewish lessons of their childhood religious experiences were ambiguous at best, what caused all four to jump from the Reform ship and swim to religious shores?
A message that all four siblings report is the strength of the morals and the expectations of upstanding conduct which were placed upon them by their parents and grandparents.
Their trips to the Temple for the holidays were lessons in how to act with respectable behavior. They were trained to sit politely, quietly and respectfully.
Spending time with family was a big part of their lives, and showing respect to elders, both to those inside and outside their family, was critical.
Other Jewish values seem to have trickled down through the family tree as well. Their parents excelled in the mitzvos of hosting guests and avoiding gossip. Their children were taught that it is embarrassing to have too many possessions or those which are too showy. Wasting food was a cardinal sin. Honesty reigned supreme in their home.
These values and behavior appear to have left a lasting impression on Julie, Dave, Fred and Sam, teaching them the proper way to view the world and their responsibilities to it.
Rav Elyah Lopian says we can learn a critical message about growth and serving Hashem from the command Avraham Avinu gave to his servant Eliezer in how to find a proper wife for his son. He did not tell him to look for a woman with a fear of heaven, but proper middos. Good middos are the foundation on which the rest of a person’s growth is built. A person with middos tovos can be taught to have proper fear of Hashem and fear of sins. Without this foundation, correct growth becomes much more difficult to achieve.
This appears to be one important message of the religious development of the Stern children. The groundwork of proper values their parents laid down succeeded in raising a new generation of proud Jews. And then when the four children were exposed to the messages of Torah-true Judaism years later, the lessons were able to penetrate their souls due to the critical framework which had been put in place by their proper upbringing.
This is only the beginning of the fascinating story of the Stern children. More specifics of their interconnected journeys, including how they traveled the world to find themselves while maintaining close ties to each other and their parents, will, be’ezras Hashem, appear over the next few months.
* Names and location details have been changed.