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Helping Returnees to Judaism

Rabbi David was so impressed with my success working with Rafi (See Blog # 002) that he introduced Micha to me. Micha (not his real name). Micha was a 14-year-old boy from a secular Jewish family whose parents yielded to the grandmother’s wish that the boy attend a leading Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn. When Rabbi Halpern introduced Micha to me, he had already been attending the yeshiva from the age of seven. For reasons I still do not fully understand family dynamics created stumbling blocks which prevented Micha from fully integrating into Torah life. The boy knew how to Daven (pray), was fully familiar with ritual and was generally versed in Halacha. Rabbi David had consulted with the Mashgiach of the yeshiva. It seemed that the problem rested with the absence of a male role model. I had no idea how to react or whether I would be able to help. My background was in engineering and not in psychology. Micha sat next to me in the synagogue from then on every Shabbat. On weekdays he would be praying at the yeshiva so my encounters with him were limited to Shabbat mornings. At the same time I was overwhelmed with lots of paperwork at my home office and needed someone to help me with the filing and clerical tasks. Micha jumped at the opportunity and thereafter whenever he would get out of yeshiva early or at any other opportunity he would show up at our home and help me with filing and other clerical tasks... His questions had nothing to do with Jewish prayer or ritual.

Micha was essentially self-conscious and self-concerned. He was struggling to cope with a changing body image, to develop controls over emotional drives, and to find his place in the world. Like many teens he had embarrassing acne whose pimples were irritated during the shaving process. He openly expressed his dissatisfaction with his weight or body shape. He may have been obsessed with his looks, his glasses or the shape of his nose. I conveyed to him that there was no need to accept society's current notion of the “perfect” body. Throughout, I felt that I was ill-equipped to answers some of his many questions or to guide him properly

It appeared to me from his conversations that his self-esteem was shaky. Perhaps he felt that because he came from a secular family he was deemed more of an outsider at the yeshiva. At times when boys invited their friends to spend a Shabbat or a sleepover with them, he was hesitant. He did not want his classmates to discover that his parents were not observant. Regardless of the facts of this social situation, Micha was rarely secure in his acceptance by peers and adults. Micha craved to be valued, and dreaded the possibility of rejection.

How could I assure Micha that he was normal; or that there was nothing wrong with him? Some boys get pimples. That is a fact of life. “Shave less frequently and visit a dermatologist for medical advice” I told him. I assured him, very gently, that we all went through a period of puberty and its manifestations. Yes, I commiserated with him about the teen-age issues that troubled him. At the same time I sensed from his facial expressions that all his questions were circling the innermost question that he could not (or would not) blurt out. Something was indeed troubling him. My heart cried out to him, but I could not pierce that most intimate protective shell. I dared not probe further, but suspected that anxiety over physical development may not really be the main issue.

I continued to answer his questions as honestly as I could and assured him that it is “normal” for everyone to be different, that everyone eventually gets through puberty, and that the anxiety and confusion caused by puberty are not permanent conditions. I wanted his m to know that he is not alone in his self-doubts and fears and that I also went through that stage in my life. He had invited his learning partner to spend a Shabbat with him, where his friend met Micha’s parents. That friend also came from a non-observant family. As incredible as it may sound Micha’s parents and the friend’s parents, came from the same town in Poland and survived the Holocaust. Together they shared stories and in the process were able to sort out their individual issues. With time, Micha developed into a handsome young man, a top-student proudly boasting that he now had many friends. We kept in touch until the summer of 1995 when we moved to New Jersey.

There were others, older boys whom the Rabbi Halpern directed to me for help and guidance. By 1982 I had already retired from my job and was able to devote precious time to working with Returnees to Judaism. Much of it started after we had established the Sephardic Center of Mill Basin. During the next 15 years I worked with returnees to Judaism during which time I compiled numerous notes, answered hundreds of questions and researched responses to those questions that were not very clear in my own mind. The subject matters eventually formed the basis for my book, the How and Why of Jewish Prayer.

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