I walk up to the sweaty but radiant chattan and kallah (groom and bride) and ask each of them for a bracha. Both of them respond the same way, “I should give you a bracha? You’re the rebbetzin”.
In a flash-back like moment, I hear my own voice teaching my 7th and 8th grade students ten years ago. We were learning the topic of Teshuva, repentance, in my Oral Law class and were studying some of my favorite selections in Maimonides’ Laws of Teshvua:
Makom she’baalei Teshuva Omdim ein Tzadikim Gemurim Yecholim La’amod Bo. In the place where a Baal Teshuva, a returnee to Judaism, stands, a completely righteous person cannot stand.
My students were puzzled over that Rambam (who is quoting a Gemara). A baal teshuva can have quite a colorful past; how can it be that he is holier than the person who has been a righteous tzadik his whole life? And I hear myself explaining, as I did then, that when a person who has been frum his whole life (which is by no means the definition of a completely righteous person, but as an example) walks by a McDonalds, he has zero desire to go inside and eat a cheeseburger. But a person who has been eating cheeseburgers his whole life has to conquer his yetzer hara, his evil inclination not to go inside because he knows how good it tastes (I imagine?). And therefore, because his battle is so much greater, his spiritual level is so much higher.
Words are cheap, I now realize. I look with wet eyes into the tear-filled eyes of the chattan as he blesses me with beautiful and touching words, as his father, who has witnessed our relationship develop stands watching with his own tears. I look at at the glowing face of the beautiful kallah as she offers her own words of blessing. Her words are exactly what I need to hear, because she knows me so well. We have been through so much together. No one will ever know the extent of their journey as much as they do. But as their rabbi and rebbetzin, and now close friends, we have had a window, a glimpse of their unbelievable path.
I stood with her in the mikva room when she officially accepted the mitzvot and converted three and a half weeks ago. I attended her again when she dipped to become a kallah right before her wedding. I was the first to hug her the moment after her new husband stepped on the glass and, after a ten year relationship, she finally became his wife. I’ve witnessed their struggles, their commitment, the frustrations that could easily have pushed a strong person away, their passion for their new way of life, their devotion to each other and their unbelievable joy.
Makom she’baalei Teshuva Omdim ain Tzadikim Gemurim Yecholim La’amod Bo.
And with their permission, I will now share a bit of their amazing story with you, from my limited perspective.
I met this amazing couple two years ago following his grandfather’s funeral. After a year of living in Charleston, we were very close with his grandmother, as my husband had accepted the rabbinic position of our shul- largely due to her encouragement/persistence. But I had never met her family, including her redheaded grandson and his girlfriend, before her husband passed away.
This couple had been together for eight years, having met in high school. He, a redhead like his grandmother, a known wild-child, had been somewhat tamed by his very-head-on-straight and beautiful (also redheaded) girlfriend. She was not Jewish and the two were far removed from a religious life.
As he said at the Shabbat of his aufruf, “If anyone would have suggested I should even try a Shabbat, I would have said, no thanks, that’s not for me”.
But something happened to them the night his grandfather passed away. His grandfather was a man in the community who was well-respected for his patience, wisdom, commitment to Judaism and his close relationship with his family. Upon his grandfather’s death, this couple decided to embrace Judaism. I can’t accurately describe what led them to this decision but she will speak about their journey at BSBI, our shul on Rosh Hashana, during a break-out session.
They met with my husband, wanting to learn how she could undergo an Orthodox conversion. I don’t know if at that initial meeting they had any idea of how difficult it would be or how different their lives would start to look after that conversation. In order for her to convert, they had to move into the Jewish community and they had to engage in hours of studying the laws that she would have to agree to keep. They had to agree to embark on the journey together.
They already owned a large property that they loved, far away from the Jewish community . This did not deter them. They scoured the neighborhood and moved into a small house, close to our satellite minyan and walking distance from our main shul, which they walk to often. They began to study with my husband. They started keeping kosher, which is no easy task in Charleston, South Carolina where there are no kosher restaurants and if you want kosher meat, it needs to be ordered from Atlanta. They started keeping Shabbat, through all the challenges this sometimes proved to be. She became a challah-baking master and as a lineman, he became an eruv expert and one of the key builders of our community eruv. They became closer than family with many families in our shul. And they became like family to us. On any given night, I would come home and find them learning with my husband, with a burning curiosity and desire to know more, that inspired us.
She and I went to Israel together with an amazing group of women on a mission called the Jewish Womens’ Renaissance Project. I watched as she fell in love with the land that would soon become her birthright as a Jewish woman. I watched the eyes of the other women as they talked with her and laughed with her and observed this amazingly normal woman who was changing her entire life to become Jewish. I saw them take a deeper look at Jewish tradition and see it all through the excitement and newness that was in her eyes; that sentiment was familiar to me as I felt the same awareness in my own eyes, having gained a new appreciation for my own Jewish lifestyle after befriending her.
The whole community waited with bated breath for weeks for the administrative details of the conversion to be worked out. And finally, we got the call that it was time. We jumped in our minivan with this young couple squished around my kids and drove together for five hours to the Beit Din. She was quiet for much of the ride, likely contemplating the tremendous step she was about to take.
We stood before the Beit Din. The Rabbis asked her if she would keep kosher, if she would keep Shabbat, if she would send her children to a Jewish day school. Questions I take for granted in my own life. Questions that she had asked herself, searched her soul for answers over the past two years. She answered in the affirmative with strong clarity, and some tears. They asked her if she would take challah from her challah dough and the challah-baking master, who had instructed me on how much challah dough to take when she baked challah with my children, looked at me and we exchanged a smile.
She came out of the waters with the Hebrew name, Batya, daughter of G-d, a radiant Jewish woman. Her face was aglow with a spirituality I could never have imagined.
Every first mitzvah, following her conversion was so exciting. Her first “real” Shabbat. Her first “real” time taking challah from her dough. Her enthusiasm for mitzvot was contagious. We were all afraid to “contaminate” her by speaking lashon hara or saying anything negative in her presence.
My husband and I spent an unbelievable Shabbat aufruf with the chattan and his amazing family, who we have come to know well over the past two years, as well as his (and our) close friends who have become the couple’s extended family. They sat around the table and we listened as each of them spoke about this unbelievable man who has come so far. They spoke about his heart of gold, his giving nature, his tenacity, his commitment to doing the right thing and the love that turned his whole life around. They spoke about the peace and happiness that his commitment to Judaism has brought to his life. They spoke about how proud his grandfather would have been and how he we all know how proud he is now, watching from heaven. There was not a dry eye in the room.
And then came the wedding. The look of profound joy on the faces of this couple when they saw each other for the first time after spending the emotional days leading up the wedding, apart. The palpable sense of unbelievable simcha that everyone in that room felt, the sense of rightness, our sense of awe of all they had gone through together, and the sense of completion that this long-awaited marriage brought. Seeing the happiness on their faces was tasting a bit from the World to Come.
Now, at the end of one of the most special weddings I have ever attended, I look back into the eyes of this chattan and the kallah who have taught me so much, who I thank Hashem every day for the merit of being a part of their lives, who have brought so much inspiration to my life that I sometimes cry in grocery stores when I think of them, and I feel a sense of utter humility. I tell them the truth that it is such a merit to receive a blessing from them. To know them. To have been through this experience with them. That I am in awe of them and of their journey.
This is the simple and yet beautiful story of regular, normal people who have seen something beautiful in a life that I have always taken for granted. Of simple people who are truly not simple people, who have turned their lives upside down and have found meaning in doing sacred things that I have sometimes treated as mundane.
This Rosh Hashana, I walk into my new year with a tremendous appreciation for the words of the prayers that I once saw as rote. With an understanding of the spirituality and tranquility of Shabbat, a day I’ve sometimes found lacking in meaning. Inspired by my challah mentor, I have started to make my own challah in the hopes of bringing more spirituality into my home and to excite my children more about Shabbat. I have renewed my commitment to learning, which I have become lax on, attributing this laxness to my busy life as a mother, Rebbetzin and administrator at our school.
Watching this couple has reminded me that true growth is not for the faint hearted. That inspiration can be fleeting if we do not follow it up with sweat in our efforts. That the measure of success is not necessarily how high we climb but the struggle and the effort that goes into each small step.
And it has reminded me that even though I am, and have always been an observant Jew, life is not about what rung of the ladder we were born on or how many mitzvot we already do, it is about what direction we are going on the ladder. We are all Baalei Teshuva. Or at least, we should be.
I can’t imagine ever being able to ascend the steps of the ladder this couple has climbed with such commitment and enthusiasm. But as I approach Rosh Hashana, I am inspired to try.