Continuing to Embarrass Us
My wife and I have just returned from a glorious week spent in the Canadian Rockies, and I can fully echo Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch's remark after a visit to the Swiss Alps, "Now, I shall be able to answer affirmatively when Hashem asks me in the world of truth, 'Did you also see My Alps?'"
No word is more overused today than awesome (though I may be a little behind on teen lingo). But how else to describe majestic peaks, wreathed in clouds, under a glorious blue sky, and emerald lakes. One cannot help but be filled with a sense of awe for the Creator.
Our base for this magical week was Calgary, or more specifically the House of Jacob Mikveh Israel (HOJMI) shul. HOJMI is the kind of out-of-town shul that I love, where every person in the shul has a story about how they got there. A few members may have had an after school cheder background, but apart from the rabbi, rosh kollel, and kashrut supervisor, I only met one shul member with extensive yeshiva training.
Calgary is in some ways an ideal community for ba'alei teshuva. In a one-shul city, the worshippers are of necessity a variegated lot. A small community does not have the luxury of fussing about fine differences. All are accepted. A ba'al teshuva can focus on his inner growth, without concern about taking on alien styles of dress that might not mesh easily with his job as a car mechanic, blacksmith, or martial arts teacher.
Of those dressed in the familiar yeshivish black and white, with tzitzis out, a number turned out to be geirim, or in the process of conversion. In areas, like Western Canada, with lots of Bible-reading religious Christians, there tend to be lots of geirim.
MORE AWESOME EVEN THAN THE ROCKIES is the ability of these special souls to see the Truth so clearly -- as if hit straight between the eyes by bullets shot from the pages of TaNaCH itself -- that they are willing to turn their lives entirely upside down. Even a ba'al teshuva does not require such clarity. The ba'al teshuva feels he is returning to his authentic Jewish self, as he takes on religious observance; the ger has to discover an entirely new self.
One such special soul, Yehuda Gerlitz, approached me after Shachris one morning, to share his story. I had already heard him daven from the amud the previous evening in a manner that would have passed without notice in Boro Park.
Both Yehuda (Scott) and his wife Elisheva Miriam (Aimee) were raised in devout Christian families. In 2003, they decided to move from Calgary to Rocky Mountain House, a town of 7,000, with no less than twenty churches, more than two hours northwest of Calgary, to set up a branch of the Fortune 500 investment firm for which Yehuda works.
Over time, the Gerlitzs grew religiously disenchanted, until they attended a Christian presentation on the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), at which they were invited for a Sabbath meal by a family who belonged to a nearby "messianic" congregation. Messianics try to keep the commandments of the Torah, as they understand them, while retaining their Christian faith. That church would be the unlikely conduit to Scott and Aimee becoming Jews.
Within weeks of that first Sabbath meal, they decided to keep Shabbos and kashrus, and began driving over two hours to Edmonton (and later to Calgary) in order to purchase kosher meat. For Pesach, they threw out all their small appliances.
Trying to find out what Shabbos and kashrus entailed, they found their way to ArtScroll's website, and purchased The Shabbos Home and The Shabbos Kitchen by Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen. Those works introduced them to the 39 melachos, and as a consequence they had to leave their new church because they could no longer drive on the Sabbath.
Husband and wife spent hours every night pouring over TaNaCH and visiting the Aish HaTorah and Chabad websites. They began ordering an eclectic Jewish library – e.g., Mesilas Yesharim, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Tehillim, Pirkei Avos, a transliterated ArtScroll siddur, and works of Rabbi Shalom Arush. They were also learning Hebrew, together with their children, from children's aleph-beis books and educational dvds.
Eventually, they discovered Rabbi Tovia Singer's Outreach Judaism, and his 24-part response to Christian proofs. One day Aimee told her husband, "the Trinity is false." It was like a spell had been broken.
In the meantime, the Gerlitzs met Denise and Ivor Kavin, owners of a kosher deli in Calgary, on one of their shopping expeditions. (New faces are immediately noticed in Calgary's relatively small Jewish community.) Denise began sharing Shabbos recipes, and not so gently nudging the couple away from Christianity.
Natan Wolf, then an eighteen-year-old worker in the deli, was the first person to tell Yehuda, "You know, you could always just convert." This summer, Yehuda and Natan learned Gemara together, when the latter was home from Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Forest Hills for bein hazemanim.
In summer 2008, Yehuda contacted Rabbi Zev Friedman, who was then preparing to leave Calgary. Rabbi Friedman told him that he and his wife had gone as far as they possibly could on their own, and would have to move to Calgary or Edmonton. Yehuda spent that entire night pacing back and forth. The next morning he received a call from a partner in his firm's Calgary office, who told him that he was moving to the firm's Toronto home office and asked him whether he'd like to take over his Calgary clients.
Yehuda jumped at the opportunity. The hashgacha pratis of the Gerlitzs return to Calgary was even clearer than that of their departure. Yehuda began attending minyan and learning with Rabbi Chaim Safren, the founder of the two-man Calgary Kollel. "Having a rabbi changed everything," he told me. Suddenly, he and his wife could get answers to all the questions that had accumulated during their years of self-study. And the Safrens treated the Gerlitzs like family.
The rest of the community also received them with open arms. After their third child was born, even before their geirus, the community members supplied them with kosher meals for two weeks. When Rabbi Yisroel Miller was introduced to Yehuda, upon his arrival in Calgary in 2009, he embraced him in a bear hug, and told him, "I feel like I'm meeting an old friend."
Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5770, the Gerlitzs and their three older children (they now have six, bli eiyn hara) were ready for geirus before Rabbi Mendel Senderovic's beis din in Milwaukee. They have been Jewish less than four years. Yet Yehuda has already served as co-president of the local day school. On Purim, the whole family, with the children dressed in Purim costumes, goes to the local shopping mall to hand out mishloach manos to all the Israelis working in the mall. Not a familiar sight in Calgary. And it is safe to say that Yehuda is the only local investment counselor who goes to work every day wearing a large velvet kippah, with his tzitzis out.
Yehuda tells me with excitement of a new Dirshu Mishnah Berurah Yomis shiur to which he was introduced by a visiting rabbi from Lakewood, and of a series of Master Torah shiurim on Gemara that he has just downloaded. His biggest concern is that he and his family should be able to keep progressing rapidly in their Yiddishkeit. And he worries that he has not shown sufficient hakaros hatov to Hashem for the new neshama of which he is intensely aware.
At the aufruf, prior to Yehuda and Elisheva Miriam's chasanah, Rabbi Miller told Yehuda (in front of the entire congregation), "May you continue embarrassing us."
I know what he meant.
Why the Smile
On the above-described vacation, we did not content ourselves with what could be seen from roadside scenic outlooks. Armed with a list of highlights thoughtfully provided by a member of HOJMI we dragged ourselves up numerous winding trails.
One of those walks towards a mountain ridge was punctuated by repeated queries as to whether it was really necessary to reach the top. Driven by what my wife diagnosed as "oldest child's syndrome," which apparently mandates that tasks commenced must be completed, and buoyed by the thought of how impressed our children would be when they viewed photos of how high we had climbed, we pressed on. (We didn't tell the children that we were passed going away near the summit by a 75-year-old woman, who had already biked 31 miles through the mountains that day.)
Fortunately, the answer to the question of whether it was necessary to reach the top turned out to be a resounding yes, as the other side of the ridge opens to a magnificent glacial field.
One thing I noticed on these hikes up and down various trails was that almost everyone we passed going in the opposite direction smiled and said hello. The smile from those descending the trail seemed to offer assurance that however long the climb ahead it would be worth it.
It occurred to me that one of the reasons for the smiles is the feeling of sharing a common challenge, as nearly everyone – except for a few fit Germanic types in spandex -- finds themselves breathing a bit harder than usual. We smile and greet one another to offer encouragement.
A few kilometer uphill hike ranks pretty low on the scale of life's challenges. There is almost no one who doesn't carry around some hidden peckel of disappointments and challenges (even the most blessed among us) against which a mountain hike pales in comparison. That's part of the human condition.
Doesn't it make sense, then, for us to greet everyone who crosses our path with a smile, as an acknowledgment that we share something in common and to offer a bit of encouragement?