A Dying WishYonoson Rosenblum
Dave remained committed to Kathy's last request
Wednesday, May 09, 2018
y now, all of us have heard at least one story, and likely several, of a "converted" partner leading a spouse to religious observance, often through a series of "conversions," in ascending order of seriousness, culminating in a full halachic geirus.
But until recently, I had never heard of a believing Christian who was the impetus for her husband's religious journey to full religious observance. Now I have.
I recently met Dave, a successful businessman and Jewish communal leader, when his son, who lives in Israel, wrote me that his father was then visiting the country and had a story worth hearing. I'm always eager to hear a good story, so I invited Dave to stop by when he was next in Jerusalem.
Dave, who lives in a Southern city, has the kind of presence that fills a room, along with the deep, calming voice of a radio announcer. His story begins when he was 12 years old. As a result of court-ordered busing pursuant to a desegregation decree, he found himself suddenly together with students from more affluent suburban areas.
On his first day of class in his new school, Dave took note of an attractive classmate. At 15, he asked Kathy to marry him, and she agreed. Neither ever reconsidered that commitment prior to their actual marriage six years later.
While both Dave's parents were Jewish, he had little religious background. Whatever he knew about Judaism came from Kathy, who was a devout Episcopalian. And she was intent that he should know more. She would frequently say things to him like, "Without the Jews, there is no civilization."
One year, she asked him what he had done to celebrate Succot, using the Hebrew term. He had no idea what she was talking about, so she encouraged him to go speak to his Reform rabbi. Dave followed Kathy's suggestion. The rabbi pointed him to the "tabernacle" that had been built in the temple social hall.
When Dave spoke to Kathy about this encounter, she asked incredulously, "Doesn't the rabbi understand that the point of the holiday is to relive G-d's protection in the desert? And the succah must be outside, with nothing overhanging it!" She knew more about Succot from her reading in the World Book than did Dave's Reform rabbi.
Another time, when he and Kathy were 16, they went to visit a career fair in a local shopping mall. Before they entered, Kathy said portentously, "Dave, your future is not going to be found in here." Though she did not specifically say so, he understood that her comment had to do with his being Jewish.
Almost from the first moment they met, Kathy was intent on Dave's discovering what it means to be one of the Chosen People. Not only did Kathy constantly encourage Dave to learn more about his Judaism, but she discouraged him from any interest in her religion. He once accompanied her to a church, but when he reached for the communion plate, like everyone else around him, she caught his hand and told him, "This is not for you."
After her first semester in college, Kathy spent a semester in Israel as a foreign exchange student, and fell in love with the country. Upon returning, she chose Biblical archaeology as her major. And she urged Dave to fulfill his language requirement at the prestigious state university he attended by taking Biblical Hebrew.
Dave found himself at a severe disadvantage in the class. All the other students, it seemed to him, had at least some kind of Hebrew school background. The first semester, he received a D, even though he was otherwise getting straight A's. He wanted to drop the course, but Kathy urged him to persevere, and every semester for the next two years, he went up one grade. Besides learning to read Hebrew and the rudiments of the grammar, through that class Dave got to know the Orthodox rabbi of his hometown, who was the visiting professor for the course. He also took a class in medieval Jewish philosophy from another Orthodox professor.
Dave and Kathy planned to marry after graduating their respective colleges. Three months prior to their marriage, however, they were hit with a bombshell: Kathy was diagnosed with a metastatic cancer that required major surgery.
The wedding went ahead, but the next three and a half years were a nightmare of constant medical treatment and searches for possible new therapies, until Kathy's passing at 24. As the end neared, Kathy requested that the same rabbi who had been Dave's Biblical Hebrew instructor in college visit her in the hospital and give her a blessing. She did not make a similar request of any non-Jewish clergy.
Though Kathy made clear that she had no interest in converting to Judaism, she also insisted that the bottom of the burial vault be blasted out to comply with halachah.
The issue foremost on Kathy's mind in the months prior to her death was Dave's future as a Jew. "Your destiny is with your people," she told him. Above all, she instructed him, he should not marry another gentile. "And as soon as you can muster the strength," she urged him, "go to Jerusalem. The world was created for the Jewish People, with Jerusalem at the center."
BY THE TIME Kathy passed away, Dave had built and sold one business, and invested the proceeds in the stock market. At 24, he was already a millionaire. So when he came to Jerusalem, in fulfillment of Kathy's dying wish, he stayed at the King David Hotel.
On his first Shabbos in Jerusalem, soon after arriving, Dave went down to the Kosel, with an expensive camera around his neck. Once there, he began to take photographs of the Kosel. But every time that he lifted his camera to shoot, a figure garbed in traditional yeshivah dress jumped between him and the Kosel. Eventually, the obstructionist informed him that Jews are not allowed to take photos on Shabbos. He invited Dave to instead join him at a coffeehouse called the Jerusalem Connection.
The next two weeks were spent touring around Jerusalem. Dave left Jerusalem little wiser about how he would explore Jewish observance. But he remained committed to Kathy's last request: "Seek out and discover the meaning of your birthright."
The same person who blocked him from taking photos on Shabbos gave Dave the name of a chassid in Flatbush, Chezky Paneth, and after returning to the States, Dave made arrangements to join him for Shabbos. He happily set off for shul on Leil Shabbos jingling the coins in his pocket. Fortunately, Chezky heard the jingling and gently explained some basic hilchos Shabbos, as Dave ran upstairs to empty his pockets.
Yet three years later, Dave was ready to marry a young observant widow with two small children (one of whom is the son who contacted me). Around that time, Dave was defrauded of almost all his money by a stockbroker. He consulted the city's top law firm, and after reviewing the evidence, the lawyers told him that he stood to recover treble damages — millions of dollars — under RICO statues from the brokerage firm where the broker worked. They added that the broker, who was Jewish, would almost surely face criminal prosecution and end up in jail.
That Shabbos, as he was walking with his young children to shul, Dave concluded that he could not be the cause of another Jew going to jail — even one who richly deserved it — and still serve as a proper role model for his new family. Instead, he walked away from millions of dollars.
A few years later, Dave decided he wanted to go to Israel for up to a year to learn full-time. He was then a junior partner in a lucrative home construction business. But when he asked the senior partners of the Jewish-owned firm for leave, they reacted angrily, almost as if he had personally insulted them by his willingness to leave a thriving business for even a short period of time. In the end, he had to quit entirely. But he would not be denied the chance to immerse himself in Torah learning.
Over the past 30 years, Dave has raised over $10 million to support Jewish schools, yeshivos, and scholarships in both America and Israel. Those monies have been raised without costing the Jewish community anything.
And as the most active member of his state's commission on Israel relations, under a series of both Democratic and Republican governors, he has helped bring thousands of jobs to his state on behalf of Israeli companies looking to expand into American markets.
Kathy would surely be surprised and thrilled by how seriously Dave took her dying wish that he find his destiny with the Jewish People.
Yeish harbeh sheluchim laMakom