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"What kind of a G‑d wouldn't want a son to be with his mother on Rosh HaShanah?" my mother asked, exasperated when I said we couldn't drive on a Jewish holiday.

"For thirty-six years you don't care whether or not it's Rosh HaShanah. Now you care, but you can't bring your children to be with their grandmother?" I knew I was in trouble.

"I'm glad you've finally decided to be Jewish," she continued. "But do you have to be so religious that you can't eat in your own mother's house? This is what G‑d wants?"

I brought the complaint to Rabbi Samuels, the Milwaukee-based rabbi who brought me to this juncture seventeen years ago.

"The Torah is not sentimental," was his response. "It deals with the truth. And sometimes the truth is not what people want to hear. But if you trust the truth — which means if you trust G‑d — it will eventually lead you to where you want to go, though you may never know just how you got there."

My mother didn't buy it. Neither did my sisters. Looking back, I'm not sure I did, either.

Family relations for a ba'al tshuvah (returnee to Judaism) is a tricky, and often painful affair. Being the only one to follow Torah observance in a family that doesn't can impose separation from those you most love. And this separation often hits at the time you most want to be close: weddings, bar mitzvahs, family gatherings, even funerals.

"Okay, so the ceremony's not 'kosher' by your book. But can't you just come to the wedding anyway? It's my son. Your nephew. Isn't your love for us more important than all these rules and regulations?"

"You may not count women in a minyan, but we do. And we're going to say kaddish."

"We're having the anniversary dinner at the 'Pig and Whistle.' We'd really like you to be there."

"We're not Orthodox. We think her conversion is perfectly fine."

On and on. Over and over. Time and time again. Wrenching not just my heart to the breaking point, but theirs as well.

The strain continued through the final years of both my parents. It included painful disagreements over what level of medical care to administer. They were staunch advocates of "death with dignity" and "quality of life," while the rabbis advised that every chance for life was a chance worth taking. My father passed away regardless, though my intervention helped bring six more delicious years to my mother. But in both cases, there were miles of difference between my perspective and that of every other member of my family at a painful time that begged for consensus.

Long ago, except on some very rare occasions, I gave up talking to members of my family about many of the spiritual things that mattered to me or the Jewish experiences that most affected my life. I seldom even spoke of my new life in Israel - so great were our differences in political and religious leanings. My sisters and I spoke mainly about our children or our work or our parents. I chose to stay on safe ground in most of my conversations and keep the peace and family ties at all costs.

I learned this lesson in my first years of Torah observance. I was unnecessarily provocative in those days, projecting an "I've found the truth and you haven't" arrogance. I aggressively initiated contentious conversations and thrust the Torah's perspective into controversial issues such as abortion, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, politics - you name it. I was flexing my muscles, trying new attitudes and opinions on for size. I was pretty obnoxious.

But that was when I still thought that my mother and father would somehow live forever; when I still imagined that my new community of Torah-observant friends and rabbis would be able to take the place of my immediate family.

The truth is I have only one set of parents - one mom and one dad - and two sisters. And no one takes their place, just as no one could ever take the place of my wife and children.

My wife and I invest great energy in creating a Torah observant family of my own. I see before me in a few years hence a huge dining room table filled with children and grandchildren. In my fantasy this table stretches endlessly. There are so many siblings and offspring, I can barely remember everyone's names. This table stretches forward not only in space, but in time as well. It stretches forward through generations. Rabbis and scholars, businessmen and teachers, mothers and fathers are seated there, all a part of my family, all embracing the Torah. And though the Torah they embrace is a Torah of truth and not sentimentality, my vision is very sentimental. Tears well in my eyes. And I am very grateful for and proud of this new life my wife and I are forging together.

But it doesn't ease the pain caused by the distance from my relatives, just as the birth of a child does not replace the loss of a parent. They exist in different spheres.

And so, wherever and whenever we can, my sisters and I share our lives. And often we don't. With much love, we generally go our separate ways. They, too, hate the distance between us, and we try to bridge the gap with frequent expressions of our affection for one another, especially now that we've shared over the past eight years the sickness and loss of both our parents. After my mom died this year, we became almost gushy with one another. We never get off the phone without saying, "I love you."

On my last visit to the U.S., my sisters and I went to the cemetery to visit our parents. My sister brought rose petals still fresh from her daughter's wedding and spread them over the green grass under which lie our mother and father. The smell was so lovely. I laid a stone that I had brought from a recent visit to Sefad.

One sister read a beautiful piece about how when you lose sight of a boat as it crosses the horizon the boat still exists; and even though you can't see it, you know that there are others on the opposite shore waiting to welcome it. I brought a book of Psalms from which I had intended to read one or two chapters. I read in Hebrew, and my sisters and I then repeated the psalms in English. When we had finished the two I had picked out, one of my sisters said, "Let's read another one." After that the other sister said, "Let's do one more." And over the next half hour some one or the other of us would say, "Let's try another one," until we said a dozen or so different chapters. Some we liked better than others; some were familiar, others foreign and out of place to the moment. I stumbled over the Hebrew and sometimes we laughed when one of us would read the English faster than the others and we'd get out of sync.

Following that we went to lunch at a kosher restaurant near my sister's home. As we munched our sandwiches, my oldest sister told us that she had recently joined a synagogue for the first time in her life. And now that she's near retirement she wants to go to classes. "I want to learn more about Judaism and study Hebrew," she said. "Do you think I'm too old to start?"

My other sister (also older) has always belonged to a Reform synagogue. But she told us that now she is going to classes with an Orthodox rabbi and her husband studies with the same rabbi at a "lunch and learn" downtown several times a week. "But," she hurried to say, "I told the rabbi that we'll never keep a kosher home or anything like that. He just laughed", she continued, "and said, 'Never say never.'"

During this conversation I said very little other than to ask a question here and there. Certainly I was pleased with the changes in my sisters, but I was more engrossed in the closeness we had just shared at the gravesite and the pleasure and ease we were sharing at the restaurant. I was basking in the feelings of family unity and marveling at the power of my mother and father to still keep the family together. My sisters' religious changes were important, miraculous really, but now - in this moment - they just seemed part of the natural sharing that brothers and sisters do with one another.

On the ride from the restaurant both my sisters said that the visit to the cemetery had been "just perfect". I agreed.

I was returning to Israel in a couple of hours, and when we said good-bye, we each said "I love you" to the other. It was then that I felt the presence of the other three who had come to join us in this moment of parting - the three who created the bonds that had and will continue to hold us together and bring us closer.

Perhaps I only imagined it, but as we kissed goodbye I felt we had been joined by my mother and father, who I knew were smiling; and that all of us were being surrounded and enveloped by G‑d - whose mystery and benevolence unceasingly unfolds in the most unexpected ways.

"But if you trust the truth - which means if you trust G‑d - it will eventually lead you where you want to go, though you may not ever know just how you got there."

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website Chabad.org.
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Mrs. Marci Spiro June 12, 2011

Not enough help for baal teshuvas & their families There are not enough resourses to help baal teshuvahs and their families deal with the great changes that take place. I'm surprised that there is not more support. There needs to be a way for baal teshuvas to connect to each other, to share our experiences. The change that happens to the baal teshuvah changes her/her whole persona and outlook, and it often causes stress on shalom bais. Reply

Anonymous Metairie, La September 7, 2008

Family Thanks I needed that. I also am on a path of becoming more observent. There is a tremendous amount to learn and I am now trying to be more patient with those around me especially my wife who is moving at a much slower pace. Reply

Pearlena Bodzin Southfield, Mi. U.S.A. via chabadcenter.com May 7, 2008

many paths There are many paths to find one's spirituality. We must respect and be tolerant of each person's belief. The main thing is to stay connected with our families. Reply

Tzvi Freeman March 24, 2008

Re: Support (Joe) Adin Steinsaltz has a book specifically on this topic, entitled "Teshuva: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew." Exactly what you are looking for.
Find it at Judaism.com here: http://tinyurl.com/34swhr Reply

Joe March 21, 2008

support It's a difficult thing for a Jew to do teshuva when his family and friends don't agree. Are there more resources, guidelines, as well as a concise book of halachot for dealing with such an experience? Reply

Kathe Landiss Galgiani Tucson, Arizona April 19, 2007

My memories of Jay Simply looking back on my life to find people who mattered -- Fond memories of Jay and so happy he reconnected with his faith. So gladhe got to Israel. So glad he maintained his his family. My best Sharon from very long ago. Reply

mendel May 18, 2004

As always Jays articles move me to tears.
Thank you Jay
Reply

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