Elizabeth Brenner Danziger

43 Years of Baby Steps

Baby steps. (Alexandra Dummer, Unsplash)
Baby steps. (Alexandra Dummer, Unsplash)

On the Friday night of Shabbat Shuvah 43 years ago, I began my return to Judaism. I was living in Marina del Rey at the time, and I said to my roommate, “It’s Shabbat Shuvah and I am shuv-ing!” I’d been wrestling with whether to become more observant for over a year, and on that night, I committed to taking the first step.

I strolled up the Venice Boardwalk to the Pacific Jewish Center, now known as Shul on the Beach, in Venice, California. I came to the door, where  Michael Medved, co-founder of PJC, greeted me with a smile. When the services were over, I prepared to leave; I’d promised a friend I would meet her for coffee after shul. Michael approached me and asked if I would be available to go to someone’s home for Friday night dinner. I was amazed. The last person who had invited me to their home for dinner was my mother. I stammered that I had to cancel my plans with a friend, and Michael said it was no problem; my hosts would wait. I walked up the Boardwalk to a payphone and put in a dime (this was 1980, remember). I told my friend we’d have to reschedule and hung up. The dime came back. My first thought was, “God doesn’t want me to spend money on Shabbat!”

I enjoyed a lively Shabbat dinner and was soon a regular attendee at the Pacific Jewish Center. If you had told me in 1980 that in 2023, I would be a senior member of that shul, that I would have been married for 38 years, and have Torah-observant children and grandchildren, I would have been incredulous. Yet over the years of regularly attending Shabbat services, being hosted graciously in many homes, and absorbing the beauty of Torah life, I became an observant Jew.

On Rosh Hashana, I hosted a group of people who were at the beginning of their Jewish rediscovery. Seeing them struggle with the blessings after the meal, I remembered that at my first Shabbat meal, the blessings seemed both interminable and incomprehensible. Today, I know them by heart. When I began trying to daven the silent prayer, the Amidah, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of deciphering all that Hebrew. Rabbi Daniel Lapin suggested that I take it one paragraph at a time, moving at my own pace until I felt comfortable enough to move on. Today, the prayers flow smoothly.

Personal transformation rarely happens in a moment. It’s about taking baby steps. Lighting Shabbat candles, even if you turn on the TV after you light. Forgoing the side order of bacon at brunch, not because you don’t like bacon but because it’s not kosher. Letting that Saturday phone call go to voicemail because it’s Shabbat and you are going to refrain from answering that one call. Every small thing we do because we believe that is what Jewish tradition demands from us is a step toward a more spiritual life.

Looking back, I find it hard to wrap my head around the notion that I have been on this path for most of my life. At Shul on the Beach, I have seen many rabbis and key congregants come and go. But what remains the same? Shabbat. Yom Tovim. Community. Torah.

As we travel the time-carved path from Rosh Hashanah through Shabbat Shuvah and now into Simchat Torah, I relax into the knowledge that the spiral keeps turning, that the rhythm of Jewish life continues and will continue after me, baby step by baby step.

About the Author
Elizabeth Brenner Danziger is the author of four books, including Winning by Letting Go (Harcourt Brace: 1985) and Get to the Point! (Random House: 2001). Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is the president of Worktalk Communications Consulting. She has four grown children and many grandchildren. She has been living an observant Jewish life for 40 years.
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