Russian Convert and the High Holidays: To Begin Again…

What are the Yomim Noraim/High Holidays and what should they mean to us? Pose that question to an observant Israeli Jew and I imagine they will sum it all up with one word, “Teshuva – Repentance”; but pose the same question to a secular Israeli and you are bound to hear something different such as festival, or apple and honey, or perhaps a new beginning. All the responses are correct but  there is a common thread which encompasses the meaning of the High Holidays and binds us all together.

I have mentioned in the past about my student Niko from Mechina Asher Ruach Bo; a pre military academy for young men who can be classified as juvenile delinquents but who are interested in turning their lives around, which is precisely what the Mechina offers.  Niko is not Jewish – and he opted to do the conversion course through the army called Netiv but he had no support from his parents and very limited connection with them. Through his connection with me at the Mechina, he called me and asked if I would serve as his adopted family and teach him about Judaism and Shabbat. During his conversion course Niko would meet me in shul on Friday night and join us in our home quite often for seudot Shabbat. Yet, towards the end of the course I began to hear less from Niko and, while I wondered why he became scarce, I did not want to confront him and cause him to feel uncomfortable, so I decided to give him the breathing space that he may have needed. Nonetheless, I wondered what had become of him and particularly of his quest to become a Jew.

A week ago I went to speak at the Tzanchanim/Paratroopers base. I was asked to speak twice but I was told that there would be an hour window between the two shiurim and if I wanted I could opt to leave after delivering the first Shiur. I told my wife, Gabi, that I would probably just stick around to deliver the one shiur to which she advised that I stay for both as I would find something to during the hour in between (I suspect she was weighing the advantage of having me out of the house for an extra hour). The first shiur was off base in the surrounding fields and when I returned to the base to wait for my second shiur I noticed that I received a message from none other than Niko who asked if I was still in the Tzanchanim base. He reminded me that he was serving in Tzanchanim and that he knew I was on base and wanted to come speak with me.

When I saw Niko we gave each other a warm greeting and he began to explain to me that he was forced to leave the Tzanchanim combat forces for various reasons. He was given a job to monitor who enters and leaves the base. When I arrived at the base the soldiers at the main gate radioed ahead to the monitoring station asking if a rabbi named Shalom had clearance to enter the base; Niko was the soldier on duty at the station and he explained to me that he was the one to give the ok for me to come on base because as far as he knew, there was only one rabbi named Shalom who went around speaking on bases. Niko then told me that he ran out of his station and started chasing my car because he wanted to talk to me, but I had not noticed and I drove on at which point he texted me. He explained that the reason he lost contact with me was because he was not sure now whether he wanted to go through with becoming a Jew and he did not want me to be disappointed. He said that all the obligations one has as a Jew are burdensome and too restricting and he was just not sure he could make such a commitment; besides he was unsure where God fit into the entire picture, if at all.

I thanked Niko for making the effort to find me in order to discuss the matter. I then told him that he was always welcome in our home regardless if he was Jewish or not; but then I told him of how Gabi convinced me to stay for both shiurim,  and were it not for her having done so, I may not have had the opportunity to meet up with him again. Happenstance? I think not. Was it a coincidence that Niko was in charge of monitoring the base that day and that he happened to be by his station at the very moment they radioed in about my arrival? I was given ample opportunity to explain to Niko that he should not be overwhelmed by the opportunities Judaism had to offer, and that sincere spiritual growth can only be accomplished one step at a time because at the end of the day all Hashem expects from us is to try to take the next step. While he wasn’t completely convinced, Niko was overcome with relief and willing to consider his affiliation with the Jewish people once again.

The Yomim Noraim are about  apples and honey, festivals and family, and they are also about recognizing that for reasons we usually don’t understand, we somehow are graced with the encouragement to take a deep breathe and start again .
As we concluded our conversation, I asked Niko if he would come join us again next Shabbat, and he said that he would but I was not convinced that he meant it and so towards the end of the week with admittedly a bit of skepticism, I texted him to find out if he was coming to join us for Shabbat. Without pause Niko texted me back,

“Are you kidding me? I’ve been looking forward to Shabbat at your house the entire week ”

Ahhhhhh… begin again

Shana Tova

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