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Masters Of Return

Becoming Religious Changes People's Lives -- for Better and for Worse.

by Julie G Fax

September 9, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Not knowing the words to Friday night Kiddush -- in fact, not knowing that there was such a thing as Kiddush -- bothered Sharon Brous, but she got over it. She had always strongly identified as a cultural Jew, and there was no need to change that now that she was in college.

But one evening, when Jewish students gathered in the quad at Columbia University to memorialize victims of a bus bombing in Israel, Brous came up empty when she tried to join in singing the Israeli national anthem.

"I didn't know the words to 'Hatikvah' and I was so mortified, because I realized I was not even a good cultural Jew," she said. "I felt like for my whole life I had identified so strongly as something, but maybe I had no idea what that thing was."

That intense humiliation set Brous, now 30, on a path of exploration and discovery that would take her from Manhattan to Jerusalem to Los Angeles, where today she serves as rabbi of Ikar (www.ikar-la.org), a new spiritual community that reaches out to those who, like Brous 10 years ago, seek to reveal a Jewish identity that lies dormant in their souls.

Brous is a baal teshuvah, literally a master of return, the term used to identify someone who has newly taken on Jewish identity and observance.

Her story, along with those of so many other baal teshuvahs, brings into focus what it is that the High Holiday liturgy demands: a true and deep re-examination of ones values, priorities and actions, and figuring out how Judaism, God and mitzvot can organize those values.

The baal teshuvah's story offers a paradigm of real change, complete with the challenges and the payoff that goes along with consciously and deliberately putting one's life on a different course.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that for the past 20 years, more and more people are turning to a life of Jewish practice after having been raised without it. In the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, 60,000 people who now call themselves Orthodox were not raised that way, and that figure does not take into account baal teshuvahs whose expression of Jewish commitment is other than Orthodox.

Whether it begins with a determined search or happenstance, the journey is always one filled with the joy of discovering something new and the pain of leaving behind a past -- and often family and friends.

It is a journey marked by highs of new understanding and changes in lifestyle, and lows of being suspected -- sometimes even by one's own self -- of having gone off the deep end, of having been sucked into an easy fix to compensate for weaknesses or deficiencies.

For some, the journey is short-lived, a brief foray into observance and then a quick retreat; for others it means lifelong changes.

The "A-ha" Moment

Brous' encounter with her own ignorance launched her on a quest for Jewish knowledge and experience.

She tried and struck out at a string of Manhattan synagogues. Then one Friday night she found herself sitting in the back row of a church where Congregation B'nai Jeshurun was meeting while its building was being renovated.

"It was all in Hebrew, and everyone was singing, and for some reason instead of feeling alienated I felt like I understood every word. I had no idea what was going on, but I didn't feel at all lost. I felt I was precisely where I was supposed to be."

What Brous later pinpointed as the "unabashed, unapologetic authenticity of the place" gave her the emotional hook into Jewish life that made her realize there was something deep and real going on, and she wanted to know more about it.

Jennifer Rosky felt that same intuitive bond when she heard just a few notes of Hebrew prayer 20 years ago at a synagogue in Tujunga. Rosky, now 47, was raised with a mixture of Eastern spirituality and Christian holidays by her Jewish father and Italian mother, and began exploring Judaism as an adult by opening the Yellow Pages and finding the nearest Jewish institution. One of the old men who shuffled in for davening that day in Tujunga sent Rosky to other shuls and to the young professionals group at The Jewish Federation. Before long, she ended up at a cantorial concert at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

"I walked into the sanctuary and I felt something I never felt in my life before -- in my heart, I felt this elevation," Rosky said.

Soon after, a colleague at work suggested a singles weekend at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), where Rabbi Joseph Telushkin was the scholar-in-residence.

Nearly 20 years after that weekend, Rosky's voice still cracks when she talks about it.

"That weekend changed my life. I went there as a spiritual, nonassociated person, and Telushkin took everything I believed about spirituality and the forces of nature and put it into a Jewish framework," Rosky said.

Rosky continued to study, taking classes at Aish HaTorah, making Shabbat with a group of women she met at BBI and going on a Federation Young Professionals mission to Israel.

After she married, she and her husband joined Temple Israel of Hollywood (www.tioh.org), where this past June, after four years of studying, Rosky celebrated her bat mitzvah. Next March, the oldest of her three daughters will do the same.

The Israel Factor

Rosky's trip to Israel cemented her nascent interest in Judaism, inspiring her beyond anything she had experienced in the United States.

"When I was in Israel, I felt like everything I believed in fell into order," she said.

Aish L.A. (www.aishla.com), a premiere outreach organization on Pico Boulevard and Doheny Drive, sends about 200 people to Israel a year, using it as a primary tool to guide people toward the next stage of Jewish inquiry.

"There is nothing that compares to an experience in Israel, where you can really get the totality of the vision," said Chana Heller, director of women's outreach for Aish L.A. "It is like the difference between watching a movie on a black-and-white TV with a grainy picture or watching it in an Imax theater in larger-than-life 3-D."

After being turned on to Judaism at an Aish Rosh Hashana service, Sheryl Giffis spent three weeks in Israel and was driven to study more when she got back to Los Angeles. She was intrigued by the Orthodox lifestyle and embarked on what she calls a "spiritual investigation."

"The university head in me said, 'get evidence, go build a case and see what this is about,' " Giffis said. She spent Saturdays bouncing between different communities -- from Aish to the Westwood Kehilla to the Chabad in Pacific Palisades to the Jewish Learning Exchange in Hancock Park.

She was convinced enough to go back to Israel, where she went to three different yeshivas before she found her place at Neve Yerushalyim, where many women without Orthodox backgrounds study. She spent nine months there -- enough to solidify her commitment to leading an Orthodox life.

"I found this to be an extraordinarily interlocking system," she said. "Everything in the Torah loops back to everything else and is all interconnected. For me, a Torah lifestyle is really the physical manifestation of spiritual principals I've sensed and now understand to be true."

For some who return from Israel, commitment can take on extreme forms in a short time, with black hats appearing on previously bare heads and tank tops giving way to long sleeves and ankle-length skirts.

One mother remembers the period when her son returned from yeshiva after high school as one of the most difficult times for her family.

Though she had kashered her home when her son decided to become Orthodox at the age of 12, he returned from Israel and began throwing food out of the cabinets and making new demands.

"He came all of a sudden and so quickly with so much information," she said. "For him to protect himself from turning back to where we all were he had to build this fence around himself, and everything had to be even more machmir [strict beyond the law] than he was asked," she said.

Aish's Heller acknowledges that some baal teshuvahs who return from Israel need to slow down when they come home.

"In Israel there is a temptation to take things on quickly -- they get excited and get inspired, and get a vision for who they could be in terms of just being a better person," Heller said. "Sometimes they move too quickly and come back here and go, 'Whoa, I took on too much too fast, and I need help to slow down.'"

The Family and Friends

One of the toughest issues baal teshuvahs face is in redefining a relationship with their family and friends.

"I just don't have as much in common with some older friends," Giffis said. "Judaism is a religion of action, and sitting around and talking for hours is just not interesting anymore. What are you doing to change the world?"

That is the kind of attitude particularly annoying to one woman who ventured toward an Orthodox lifestyle and then retreated from the restrictions. She says some of the friends she met on an Aish trip to Israel and later studied with now have what she calls "tunnel vision."

"Some of them were more interesting before they went in than after they came out," she said. "They seem very robotic. You can't have a conversation for more than three minutes without God being brought in, and I refuse to believe that before going to Aish I had nothing to offer.

"Most people want to deny who they were in the past and be done with it," she said, noting that she is nevertheless thankful for the stronger Jewish identity she developed through Aish.

Perhaps most difficult is the notion that underlying it all is at best a lack of common interest, and at worst a mutual disrespect between the baal teshuvah and his family and friends.

The baal teshuvah's choice implies a rejection of a way of life that family and friends still find fulfilling.

On the flip side, family and friends often assume, outwardly or not, that a baal teshuvah has been sucked into a brainwashing cult.

When Brous returned from a year at Hebrew University and told her parents that she was now halachically observant and was going to be a Conservative rabbi, not a civil rights attorney, her mother said, "I thought you wanted to do something important in the world."

(Her parents have since kashered their home, founded a new synagogue in their New Jersey town, and are great admirers of Brous' work as a human rights activist.)

Heller points out that religious tensions often highlight the weaknesses in relationships that were not healthy to begin with.

"If people have bonds of respect and trust and love they try to accommodate. Even if they can't share what is going on with them on the deepest level, they can still maintain good, respectful relationships," she said.

But accommodation is often not easy.

One mother kashered her home when two of her four children became Orthodox during college and now consciously tries to hold the family together, refraining from things like criticizing her daughter's wig or the rabbis pictures in place of art on the wall. But she hasn't been able to bridge the distance religion has created between her children.

Her oldest son is married to a non-Jew, and the other two won't have anything to do with his wife.

"Gradually they locked everybody out of the family, and it is so sad for me," she said. "It breaks my heart that my oldest son is not part of the extended family life."

One woman who became Orthodox nearly 20 years ago, said, "I feel like I've divorced my mother, and we share custody of the kids."

Her mother never accepted or accommodated her choice to become religious, and over the years their relationship -- dysfunctional to begin with, she acknowledges -- has deteriorated.

"The sadness for me is that it has built this incredible wall between me and my mother, where I feel there is this place we don't go anymore, a place we don't talk about anymore. She sees it as this huge cultural and sociological difference that I've erected between us."

Husband and Wife

While parents or siblings can grumble about having to deal with a new reality, the story is entirely different when a husband and wife find themselves on different pages.

"You get married and have expectations of who that person is, and all of a sudden that person changes the guidelines," said Katie, who had dated her husband, David (not their real names), for 10 years, since high school. "I felt very betrayed. You're not allowed to change the rules."

In college, David got turned on to traditional Judaism by his younger brother, who was a baal teshuvah. Katie didn't take to it so quickly.

After they had been married for about six months, Katie and David both decided to give Shabbat a try, thinking it would help them together take a breath from the intense work weeks they had. After a few weeks, Katie resented the restrictions and decided she wasn't ready to jump in. David decided he couldn't go back.

They agreed to each do their own thing -- she takes on restrictions at her own pace, while he strictly adheres to Jewish law.

"I do what I can not to push her and to accept her for where she's at," David said. "But I do think that sometimes she holds it against me."

Katie has moved toward more tradition -- they keep the laws of family purity, they kashered their home in an Orthodox neighborhood, and she continues to appreciate the wisdom she gleans in the classes she takes. But she feels she has to make more compromises than David.

"I never thought that our marriage was threatened, but there have been plenty of tears and conflict and worry about the future," she said. "One of our biggest concerns is our 11-month-old baby."

The Payoff

Katie tries to focus on the benefits religious life has bestowed on her family. She enjoys the guests and the entertaining that Shabbat brings, and the quality time she gets with her husband. She says she has seen him grow -- he is ethical, and an incredibly devoted husband and father.

Ultimately, for most baal teshuvahs, it is not only the belief that God demands things of human beings, but also the day-to-day payoff of a religious lifestyle that keeps them motivated.

Rosky utilizes Jewish values in conducting her marketing business. Her children have internalized an intuitive love for Judaism and feel at home in shul.

Judaism carried her through the tragedy of losing a baby at the very end of a pregnancy. Since then, she and her family almost never miss a Friday night service.

"I sit in shul with my family on Friday nights and I'm so proud that sometimes I have to remember to breathe," Rosky said.

Brous said when she first pondered becoming Shabbat observant, she made a list of pros and cons, including the fact that she would lose hours worth of study and volunteer time if she kept Shabbat.

After just a few weeks all the cons were put to rest.

"All of a sudden I was so much more focused during the week on my work, because I knew Shabbos was Shabbos, and I wasn't going to do anything else. My grades got better and everything that should have fallen apart got easier, because I had this time with no pressure and I wasn't consumed by guilt."

What consumes Brous nowadays is figuring out how to open the tradition to more who are searching, a quest she has pursued since she went back to B'nai Jeshurun not to sit in the back row, but to stand at the pulpit as a rabbinic fellow.

"I would stand and speak in front of 1,200 people, realizing any one of them might have just come in off the street searching, feeling alienated and uncomfortable with just enough courage to make it to the back row," she said. "And suddenly I had the power to send them out, or to draw them in. And I knew I had to do whatever I could to draw them in."

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