By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg
Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
While I would not be brazen or foolish enough to think that I can speak on behalf of the entire community, or even part of the community, nevertheless I would like to offer a heartfelt apology to one young lady whom I only met once and whose name I don’t even remember. I hope she can find it in her expansive Yiddishe heart to forgive me along with the rest of the community.
Permit me to explain.
Klal Yisrael is divided into two distinct groups, the kiruv workers and the non-kiruv-workers. The kiruv community is relatively small; the majority of us are in the non-kiruv community. Though there are some wonderful organizations out there trying to change that status quo, I don’t have the statistics to know if they have been effective.
I am part of the majority of non-kiruv people and that’s why I jumped at the opportunity and accepted an invitation from Rabbi Fully Eisenberger, the dynamic director of the Jewish Resource Center, a phenomenally successful kiruv program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to be the guest speaker at their annual shabbaton in Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit.
Several times a year, Rabbi Eisenberger, together with his incredible and equally dedicated wife Shani, host dozens of Jewish students from the university for Shabbos, where they are divided up into small groups and they spend Shabbos with frum families, many for the very first time in their lives. In addition to their exposure to what a real Shabbos family experience is like, the shabbaton is highlighted by an oneg Shabbos at the home of an old friend from my NCSY days and one of the most prominent Torah askanim in the country, Reb Gary Torgow, and a communal lunch at the beautiful home of Mrs. Ann Newman, the inspiring matriarch of the kiruv community. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the students, lecturing to them, interacting with them, and being afforded the opportunity to see Shabbos from the fresh eyes of youth exposed to it for the first time.
The unbelievable success that Rabbi Fully has encountered in changing the lives of these students, many of whom go on to marry and live their lives as shomrei Torah and mitzvos, is astounding. The hakaras ha’tov that we, the majority of non-kiruv people, owe these young and dynamic kiruv professionals who are out on the front lines of the battle for the souls of our alienated brothers and sisters is impossible to measure. The least we can do is support them with the funds necessary to continue their efforts.
My wife and I went to help inspire, and instead we came back thoroughly inspired. It was an enjoyable and uplifting Shabbos—that is, until the last few hours of Shabbos, when one brief conversation with one young lady ruined it all, at least for me.
It was following a talk I had given the students on Shabbos afternoon that resulted in some continued follow-up discussion with some of the students. Prior to their comments, I asked each one where they came from and why they selected the University of Michigan for their college education. Most of the students identified themselves as coming from different cities with little or no Orthodox community that they were exposed to. However, one young woman, who just from the excitement in her voice made it plain that the beauty of Torah and Shabbos had deeply touched her soul, introduced herself as coming from Long Island, New York. I assumed she came from all the way out in deep Suffolk County, 20 miles from the nearest Orthodox shul. But when asked to be more specific, she responded, “I live in Lynbrook.” She went on to explain how she went to Lynbrook High, had lived there her whole life, and attended Hebrew school in her Reform temple, but had not been there in years. My wife and I shared that we live in Cedarhurst and that we were neighbors, and upon further discussion discovered that we use the same bank, frequent the same bagel store in the morning, and fill up at the same gas station.
What we have not shared, however, is even one word of greeting or acknowledgment in the many times that we probably crossed paths. How do I know? Because she made the most painful statement to us in passing, that until she came to University of Michigan and had the good fortune of meeting Rabbi Fully and Mrs. Shani Eisenberger, she had never before in her young life spoken to an Orthodox Jew. I asked her why she thought that was so, and she responded, “I always thought that Orthodox Jews only care about Orthodox Jews and did not consider me a Jew.” That all changed when she met the Eisenbergers.
After our brief encounter, I could not shake the feeling that I had about her experiences with Orthodox Jews like myself. What about the countless other non-Orthodox Jews that we come into contact with every day in a wide variety of venues and who will not have the opportunity to meet people like Fully and Shani later in life, and whose opportunity for experiencing a real Shabbos will just never happen? What will happen to their “nitzchiyus” (eternal reward)? And for letting this happen to them, what will be with ours?
Avraham Avinu was the first person that Chazal describe as being “megayeir anashim” (bringing people closer to Hashem). Where did Avraham learn that this is something he should do? The Chasam Sofer explains that he learned it from Chanoch. The Torah tells us that Chanoch had followed in the ways of Hashem and Hashem took him away before his time. Avraham reasoned to himself, why did Hashem do that to such a righteous person? And he surmised that it must have been because he only took care of himself and did not reach out to others, and Hashem disapproved of that. So Avraham took it upon himself to dedicate his life to bringing others under the influence of Torah and mitzvos.
When Chazal list the people who had to endure galus in their lives, one of the names prominently featured is Yaakov Avinu. The question begs to be asked, we know that the punishment of galus is for those who killed someone unwittingly (hence the Arei Miklat). Where do we find that Yaakov Avinu was guilty of such a terrible sin?
A gadol once explained that since Yaakov failed to influence Eisav and bring him to teshuvah, even though it appeared to him that Eisav was a lost cause, Yaakov was held responsible for, in a sense, the “unwitting spiritual murder” of Eisav. Abandoning one’s own brother who might be led back to teshuvah is equal to an unwitting murder, even for someone on the level of Eisav. How overwhelmingly important is our obligation to reach out to another and share with him or her the beauty of a Shabbos!
When a dedicated group of activists of Lev L’achim once came to Rav Shteinman, shlita, for some chizuk, they were extremely excited to share with him some wonderful news. A new school in a completely secular area was to open up with seven girls and then at the last minute they all backed out. The dedicated activists worked day and night with the families and were able to get six of the seven girls back into school, and they were now ready to open. When Rav Shteinman, shlita, heard the story of their victory, he broke down in tears. “How can you celebrate the success of the six girls when the seventh one has been lost to us?” he cried.
Thanks to people like the Eisenbergers, this one girl “from our own back yard” was saved, she and her future generations, despite our years of ignoring her existence whenever we were in her dalet amos; but who will cry for the countless others that were not saved?
And so, at least to this one young future mother of Shabbos-observant children, I apologize and ask for mechilah on behalf of myself and the entire community. Please accept our forgiveness for ignoring your existence all these years. We will try our collective best not to repeat our mistakes with the next young boy or girl not yet religious that enters our space.
To Rabbi Fully and Mrs. Shani Eisenberger, we are indebted to you for doing what we should have done years before. May you be zocheh to continue to bring countless other brothers and sisters home to Avinu Shebashamayim. v