Not long ago, I started thinking about why I became religious way back when I was 16. The story I usually tell is that I visited Israel for the first time, and I realized how my ancestors must have sat in the same places I was sitting. That definitely had an impact, but I have nagging doubts that it wasn’t really the whole story. I know I had read books and articles that were meant to persuade about the historical veracity of the Torah, and why keeping mitzvot is the best way to live. They generally made sense, but I don’t think even now I could fully use them to convince someone who hadn’t already made a leap of faith.
So what was it? How did I get here — here as an Orthodox Jew, here in Israel, everything about who I am today?
It dawned on me as the tears were rolling down my cheeks at the funeral yesterday of Shlomo Rindenow z”l. Shlomo was a soldier killed on Sunday in the north of Israel. The news reports describe him as a “lone soldier,” which is technically true since his parents currently live in New Jersey. But Shlomo was the youngest son of one of the most amazing families I have ever known. When I first came to San Francisco in 1984 (at the age of 12), Shlomo’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Rindenow was my teacher at the Hebrew Academy. His charisma and warmth, his smile and the look in his eyes, drew me to him in a way that I didn’t understand then. He always calls me “Dovid,” something I’ve never called myself, but in a way that calls deep into my soul. Over the next four years, I got to know other members of the family — his dedicated and patient wife Mindy, and the older children who were born by that point. Even though I was not religious, it was clear to me that Rabbi Rindenow was a leader, and I followed him — even to summer camp in Mexico (a crazy story for a less poignant post.)
And then when I started becoming religious I began to spend Shabbat and holiday meals at their home. Or maybe I should reverse that sentence. It might be more accurate to say that because I spent Shabbat and holiday meals at their home, I started becoming religious. Because what I experienced there was something that can’t be written in a book or delivered in a seminar. What all of the Rindenows showed me was that at the very core of Judaism is family. Even more than we are a nation or religion, we are a family. And the basis of that family, like any family, is love. That love has to be experienced, and when that love is there, when the feeling of family is there, everything else just sort of falls into place.
When God told Abraham to go to the Land of Israel, he went without asking questions. When the Children of Israel were taken out of Egypt, they experienced the event before the Torah was given. And even when they received the Torah, they said “we will do” before “we will understand.” From the outside, that looks like blind obedience. But nothing could be further from the truth. What it is — is love. In a family, when you love someone, you do what they want even if it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes you understand, and sometimes you don’t. And of course you want to understand, you want to learn — but that comes from love too, because as you get to know what they want, as you learn the Torah, you can be a better member of the family.
After I graduated high school, I came to Israel to learn in a yeshiva, and then joined the army as a lone soldier. The Rindenow family came to Israel that year, and once again took me in to their home. Over the next several years, my life remained entwined with theirs. They took in my then fiancé Toby as they did me, Rabbi Rindenow stood under the chuppah at my wedding, and they were present at the birth of my first child (Mindy the nurse, and their daughter Yocheved serving in Sherut Leumi), and at the brit of our son.
They went back to the States shortly after that, which was difficult for me, but I understood because I knew how important it was for Rabbi Rindenow to finish his studies and become a therapist, so he could continue to give to others, people who needed the most. But of course we kept in contact, and I danced at the wedding of his children in Israel, and was privileged to spend shabbatot at their home in Passaic, where I could sing the same songs, eat the same delicious food, and simply experience the same loving family that I now attempt to pass on to my own children.
And now the Rindenow children are grown up, the kids who I viewed as my little siblings have children of their own. Each one of them has taken a different path in life, a rainbow of Jewish practice and thought. But those differences don’t make their family any less united, but rather show exactly how in a family we need to love each other for who we are, and the differences simply add to the mosaic. And again, I can learn from here how to treat the larger Jewish family, the people of Israel. Respect the differences because that’s what you do when you are in a family.
In my last few visits with the family in New Jersey and Israel, I spent time with Shlomo talking about his plans to join the Israeli army. Of course it’s clear that such a step shouldn’t be taken for granted, but it was such a natural thing for him to follow in the steps of his older siblings who served the Jewish nation. Why? The same reason you get up and help clear the table at the end of a shabbat meal, because when people need help you help them. That applies to Rabbi Rindenow’s clients, Mindy’s patients or all of Israel by serving in the army. And this family, who taught me just how important giving is, gave everything. They gave Israel their son, and Shlomo gave his life — there was and is no ending to giving.
Standing at the funeral, I didn’t know what to say. I came over after and gave hugs and simply had no words. But then one thing at the shiva gave me hope.
The middle son Moshe was born when I was 16 (actually 17, since he was born on my birthday). I had never regularly held a baby before, but whenever I asked to hold baby Moshe, Mindy was happy to let me (with six other kids in the house I can understand why). Those days of learning how to hold a baby served me well with my own children.
At the shiva, Moshe was there with his children, including 5-month-old Adir. Trying to find some way to help, I picked up Adir and walked around with him, rocking him back and forth, the same way I did with Moshe, the same way I’ve done with my own children. And I realized that this is what family is about. This new generation of the Rindenow family helped me know that this family will continue. That the entire Jewish people will continue.
So I didn’t become religious because there were answers to questions. If that was the case, how could I possibly continue having faith after the tragedy this week? There are no answers to the “Why?” everyone was crying yesterday. I became religious because in a family the love continues even when there are no answers. That can only be experienced. I experienced it 30 years ago, and I experienced it again yesterday. I can only thank the Rindenows for welcoming me into their family, I can’t imagine my life without them.