August 24, 2006
Don’t Hide From Outreach—It Will Find You!
I don't know where I got the idea or who put it in my head originally, but during my whole childhood the idea was clear: Orthodox Jews were "weird." Really weird. Of course as a kid my definition of "weird" ran closer to anyone who was the slightest bit different from me rather than someone you would actually see in a circus freak show. Still, while most things as a kid were not clear, save for baseball, one thing was: stay away from the Orthodox Jews. Which made sense.
I mean since Orthodox Jews were not of this earth, I should steer clear of them.
Which I did. In fact I took this idea so to heart that I managed to stay away -- far away -- from Orthodox Jews for the first 30 years of my life. Until the Orthodox Jews came after me.
It started innocently enough. My then-girlfriend, now wife of 12 years, and I were dating, and during one dinner we were discussing whether we were really compatible. Everything checked out. We had similar views on most things. As a throwaway we checked in on religion. We both knew the other was Jewish, but we discovered that although we were both born Jewish, we both knew "zip-a-dee doo-dah" about Judaism. All that Reform Jewish Sunday school didn't teach us anything about our heritage. So, we decided to try and find a class in Los Angeles on Judaism and learn something together.
We really did not know if such a class existed in Los Angeles (so disconnected from all things Jewish were we back in the day). Our only lead was an article I had read in the L.A. Times about a program called 20something at some place called Aish HaTorah. We decided that we'd go there and see if they could steer us in the direction of a class. We had no idea it was an Orthodox organization. We had no idea the organization focused on kiruv (outreach). Boy, were we in for a surprise.
The rabbi we met there was amazing, but still Orthodox, so that gave him two and a half strikes against him. Sure he was intellectual, kind, happy and smart, but come on -- he was Orthodox. Soon, his true colors came out: He started doing something really weird. He started inviting people from the class over to his house for dinner. I mean who in Los Angeles invites strangers to their house for dinner? At first, we were glad he didn't choose us, but then we started to resent him for not choosing us. You know -- it was like a bad party. You didn't want to go, but at least you wanted to be invited!
Finally, he did invite us. We were insulted it took so long, so we accepted. He told us to meet him at the shul around 5:30 p.m. on Friday evening. Like fools we thought this was just a neutral meeting point. When we got there we saw his real reason for telling us that time and place: There were Friday night services going on. That's right -- he had tricked us into going to synagogue! I felt betrayed. Even my father had never stooped to such levels to get me to go to services. At least he was always straight forward.
"Shut up and get in the car. We're going to synagogue!" he'd say. At the rabbi's home, we met his family. His wife and kids were nice, but again -- they were Orthodox. During dinner, however, they seemed very normal (for weird people) and Debbie and I really enjoyed ourselves. In fact we thought these Friday night "dinner parties" were great ideas. It was also amazing not to have any music playing while we ate because it encouraged conversation. And what conversation we had. Talking about the Almighty and His role in the world and the Torah. By the end of the evening we felt, well, elevated. This was so different than the feeling we got when we had dinner with our non-Jewish or Jewish, but secular, friends. There, the conversation usually went to new lows of gossip or worse. It was quite a contrast.
But then, on cue, the rabbi and his wife did something really weird. I guess they just couldn't help themselves. It was their nature. They actually suggested that we stay at their house for the night.
It doesn't get much weirder.
I mean why in a gazillion years would we want to spend the night at their house?
Did they think we were homeless street people who needed shelter for the night?
Hello! We have apartments! You know, like normal, nonweird people?
Of course when we got back to my apartment, we realized that we had locked both sets of our keys to our apartments inside and could not get them until the morning when the manager arrived. In short, we were stuck. We sheepishly went back to the rabbi's house with our tails between our legs and told him our lament.
He smiled and said, "You should have just accepted the invitation when we made it instead of going through all that!"
Pretty funny for a weird guy.
We quickly realized that these dinner parties on Friday nights were actually religious in nature. That was OK. We were there for the conversation and the food (his wife is an amazing cook). But soon it got to be a little much. I mean how could these people do this every single week? Why would you? So after a while of "doing Shabbat" we decided to take a break for a couple of weeks. One day I came home from work and there was a message on my machine from the rabbi. He said, "Where are you and Debbie? I haven't seen you for a while? Please call me."
I was furious. What, was he taking attendance? Was he tracking our coming and going? Who was this guy? I immediately called Debbie and told her of the intrusive call. I told her I'm going to call him and give him a piece of my mind. I'll teach that weirdo.
I called him.
"Rabbi? This is Ross," I said very curtly.
He didn't notice my rude tone.
"Ross!" he said. "It's so nice to hear from you."
"Yeah," I continued. "Look, I'm really upset about your message. I mean what, are your tracking us? Do you take attendance? This is really intrusive."
"Oh," he said sounding saddened. "I'm so sorry. It's not that at all. It's just that I really like you and Debbie and I miss you when you're not around."
I was shocked by his caring. I was also ashamed at my behavior.
"Hold on," I said. "I'll get Ross."
I hung up the phone after our conversation (which included yet another invitation to a Friday night dinner party) and just sat there stunned. "This guy really cares about us," I thought to myself.
I mean no one cares about anyone in Los Angeles, but this guy really cared about us. The thought was overwhelming. Suddenly this man and his wife were no longer "weird." They were actually something special to us. They were our friends.
Slowly, our view of Orthodox Jews started to change. Oh, sure, there were still some "weird" things that they did, like the seders that never ended and wherein you don't eat until 11:30 p.m. -- if you're lucky -- but we were more open to seeing what these strange practices were all about. And even though they ran contrary to our own childhood experiences where the seder at my house, for example, ran about an hour and we all watched TV after the festive meal, we were more willing to overlook the differences and started focusing on finding truth.
And we found truth. Among those weird Orthodox Jews that we are now proudly a part of. It wasn't easy and it took a lot of love, devotion and patience from our newfound friends -- the rabbi (who eventually officiated at our Orthodox wedding) and his wife. And it took a lot of time. But they never gave up on us.
Ross Hirschmann is a former civil litigator. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.