Working with these returnees to Judaism was very exhilarating. Most of these young men were in their late teens or early 20s. Many were Israelis, although some were Russian Jews. Having been born in Palestine in 1932 I was fairly fluent in Hebrew. My parents immigrated to Palestine in 1920 and spoke Russian at home. Thus I was able to converse freely with both these Israeli and Russian speaking Jews. More than a million Jews have left the former Soviet Union since 1989, most of them for Israel, some to America, Canada and elsewhere..
I quickly recognized the need to customize my approach. The Russians, after 70 years of atheist Soviet dogma, had zero experience with Judaism and could not fathom the concept of a God. Furthermore they were unable to read and understand Hebrew. The Israelis, on the other hand, invariably came from the secular background but could read and understand Hebrew. Growing up in Israel they were familiar with the basic tenets of Judaism but not with the ritual and certainly not with the Halacha.
Most were Israelis of Sephardic background whose parents purchased homes in my neighborhood (Mill Basin) of Brooklyn, New York. Those years the bulk of the Sephardic (mostly Syrian) Jews lived in the Ocean Parkway and Avenue S section of Brooklyn. Housing prices were astronomical causing many to look elsewhere. At about that time I, together with five others, built the Sephardic Center of Mill Basin. Word spread quickly and within a few years our membership soared beyond 150 families. Mill Basin, a quiet peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, was a most desirable area with prices far below those of the Ocean Parkway neighborhood. Furthermore most of these were single-family free standing houses, with an established Jewish community. Unlike the Russian returnees, these Israelis were somewhat older between 28 to 40 years of age. All were born in Israel and had served in the Israel Defense forces prior to immigrating to the United States. Almost all were married and had children. Most came from secular backgrounds. They claimed that they would never walk into a synagogue in Israel. Synagogue attendance in Israel went against the grain. Nevertheless, here in America they felt something missing in their lives. At first only a few ventured to the synagogue on Shabbat. Then with the passage of time they came with their friends and friends of friends. The warm welcome they received left an everlasting impression on them and they became regular attendees. They were perfectly comfortable reciting the prayers whose meaning was clear to them. They lacked the “how” and the “why” of prayer. That is where I came in. I made it my business to befriend each and every one both in and outside of the synagogue. Nor was I the only one to befriend them. Some of them brought their Russian speaking friends who were delighted to be able to communicate with me in Russian. Lacking fluency in English, they were unable to find meaningful jobs. Looking back it amazed me how quickly they created the concept of networking, long before its popularity spread. Job opportunities for these young men reinforced their comradeship. While most of these young go-getters were eager to make it in the “Goldene Medina” some of the recently arrived immigrants found difficulty participating in their new society, whose language and culture frustrated integration. Little by little they found employment and with it a refreshing breath of normality. Nevertheless they lacked something. That something was a reconnection to Jewish religious life. Attendance at synagogue services and communal lectures grew quiet and steadily.
I began to notice that increasing numbers of the Israelis who came brought with them a heightened sense of Jewish and Zionist identity that they wanted to preserve. They began to put their children in Jewish schools so they would not lose their knowledge of Hebrew. They began to affiliate more closely with their local Jewish organizations where they were able to put their first-hand knowledge of Israel and Hebrew to good use. Their Russian friends soon followed. I tried to build a personal relationship with each one of them.
Over the many years of my volunteering to work with Ba’alei Teshuva (returnees to Judaism) , we tackled together many issues that were troubling them. Included among them were :
* Are Prayers Always Answered?
* Can finite human beings communicate with the infinite Holy One, Blessed be He.
* Is there an innate human need for men or women to commune with their creator?
* The Talmud has the gumption to suggest that God, himself, prays. If so, to whom?
* What role does prayer have in the framework of our connection with God?
* Is prayer more than a cry for help in the midst of a crisis?
* Does praying on a regular basis engender any feeling in the one who is doing the praying? Does it really bring about a feeling of closeness to God?
I tried earnestly to answer these and many other questions. These answers may be found in my book, the How and Why of Jewish Prayer.