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Rebuilding Myself

Riki Goldstein

“I was born this way,” we tell ourselves, myriad times a day, as we plod through life entrenched in habit. “I can’t help it, that’s what I saw at home…” But we have genetic capability within us; the legacy of fathers who left the path of idolatry and blazed new trails to G-dliness and faith. Four Jews share how they found the courage to abandon the paths of habit and upbringing, forge their way forward to truth, and recreate their very selves.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

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From Riches to Reality

I sat on the veranda watching the sun paint Sydney in shades of pink and orange. The lighthouse was an immense white pencil pointing up to the darkening sky. Behind me, our home was lit up. Newly decorated with fine art and luxury furnishings, it was the envy of our friends.

Life was busy, full. Ours was an exciting lifestyle. Extravagant, though I’m not proud to say it now. I was a prominent, high-profile member of the Sydney Jewish community, traditionally Jewish and fabulously rich.

Could I afford it? Well, yes, but obviously I had to keep chasing deals and accumulating assets to ensure that I could continue to afford our cars and vacations, artwork and entertainment. Because when you’re in that social set, you have to keep up.

When things began to turn against me, I took some paths I’m ashamed of. Unknown even to my wife and family, those twisted paths narrowed and darkened, led me further from the high road. I borrowed from one company’s assets to pay back another, to buy what my family needed to have. The pressure to support them, to buy for them, to provide what they were all accustomed to, drove me into a frenzied chase, and eventually I got involved in irresponsible and illegal financial transactions.

Despite these desperate struggles, I eventually couldn’t keep up the life of luxury. Quickly and soundlessly, erstwhile friends fell away. Our house was lost. Our cars were lost. Our assets were lost. Our belongings were lost.

Soon enough, my behavior caught up with me. Those shady transactions, when brought out into the open, were crimes. I was a criminal. The judge’s gavel banged down on my freedom. I was sentenced to four years, and then two and a half years of parole.

My marriage was unable to stand the strain of my secrets, my overwhelming shame, and my sentence. It disintegrated and was buried under the ruins of our old life.

Prison shocked me. It was a world more harrowing than I had ever imagined. I was surrounded by 70 men and learned quickly that fellow inmates are not friends. There was tolerance and coexistence at best, open hostility at worst, but no friendship, no sharing.

New South Wales has a very punitive jail system, which rewards them with a repeat offender rate of around 75 percent, the highest in Australia. I was allowed basic clothing and a couple of pictures, but that was the extent of my belongings. As for my rights, they were even fewer.

For most of my sentence I was the only Jew in the jail, and as a Jewish white-collar offender, the level of anti-Semitism coming from the officers was horrific. There was hatred, an attitude of That’s what Jews do — they steal money. I was the best-behaved guy there, but they took every opportunity to rip my cell apart, searching for drugs or contraband. I would walk into my cell to find my clothing strewn across the floor, my thin mattress kicked around by muddy boots. Just because they could. And I was helpless.

This ugly world presented two stark choices. Either I could wallow in self-pity and be sucked into the world of prison, or I could look upward and outward, toward survival and life.

I had lost everything. Well, almost everything. Even at that lowest point, I still had my health. I still had my precious children, who were so loving and supportive during my phone time and visiting slots. I had personality. I had a soul.

I chose life. I would get out of there intact, perhaps even improved.

Opportunities in jail were few, but there is always some path that leads upward. To reeducate myself and help others, I applied for a job in the prison library and studied to become a librarian. Between those skills and my business know-how, I was able to help young offenders improve their literacy and numeracy skills, and even answer questions on tax issues. At one point I gained enough brownie points to be assigned to the Prison Officers Training Academy library.

As a model prisoner, I qualified for Australia’s best rehabilitation program, open to less than one percent of the jail population. The work-release program meant being released from jail in the morning, given civilian clothing, and allowed to go to work, tracked, of course, by a discreet ankle monitor. On my return, I was searched and locked up in my cell.

Fourteen years and a lifetime before, a rabbi had called me and asked me to help fund his dream of building a huge kitchen, to cook free food for people of all faiths and communities. I had given him money, maybe just to get rid of the calls, but he had appreciated it, and gone on to actualize his dream. Unbelievably, that kitchen was one of the three sites in our region approved for inmates’ work. I called him from prison and asked him if I could come and do the work-release program. He said, “You helped me, and I will gladly help you.”

And that was the last year of my prison sentence: a daily two-hour journey back to my old neighborhood, ankle monitor under the leg of my pants, back to the Jewish community where everyone knew me and my crime. Waves of shame washed over me; the encounter with the familiar faces throwing the ignominy back in my face and the familiar streets leaving no place to hide.

I spent the days working in the kitchen, the nights in my cell. Every day I endured the trauma of release and lock-up again. Yet the day’s work was worth it. The chance to give to others lent meaning to it all. Returning to my old community under such different circumstances highlighted my inner differences. I was not the person who had once lived there.

I found my release more frightening than being locked in jail. I felt myself under a community microscope. Financial survival is a looming difficulty. But, out from under the chokehold of shame and guilt, life had to begin again.

When my sentence ended, the rabbi and director asked me to stay on at Our Big Kitchen. My business knowledge is an asset to the programs they run, teaching school kids and adults about giving and compassion.

I am a free man again now, but I am not the man I was. My priority is to spend time and share love with my children, to nurture relationships with people. Above all, I have learned that a good life means possessing the only thing that matters: the freedom to give.



Finding the Road

I was a confused spectator. Technically, we were a frum family. But while I learned in yeshivah about muktzeh and the three conditions for returning a pot to the flame on Shabbos, at home I saw my mother apply makeup and use her blow-dryer on Shabbos. The first day of Yom Tov my Dad made Kiddush and we ate a Yom Tov meal, but on the second day, he closed the window shades and put on the TV.

Still, I knew not to open my mouth. In addition to the fact that Yiddishkeit didn’t govern my parents’ lives, our home was not a safe place. Physical and verbal abuse was rife. I had no one to talk to. Life was hopeless. At times, I thought of ending the struggle.

I did attend a decent, frum school, but it did not serve as a refuge. Confused by fear and pain that I had no idea how to express, I acted out and caused trouble. Soon, I was viewed as a troublemaker there, too, which only lowered my self-esteem further and scared off potential friends.

Somehow, my heart told me things could be different. The life I had was definitely not what I wanted for myself. I wanted better, brighter, higher.

I had no idea how to get there.

As a teenager, I got involved with NCSY. The NCSY movement gave me mentors, it gave me opportunities. It supplied real, honest, admirable people and exposure to normal, healthy families.

Soon, it gave me leadership opportunities. For the first time in my life, I was trusted and successful.

The door had been opened. A process of change began. The Yiddishkeit of my new mentors was obviously no charade. It was something they really owned — a path of conviction and faith — and it drew me.

Of course, no struggle ends so fast; no life turns around in one moment. Life continued to be a series of challenges, with twists and turns, difficulties and hurdles. But once I had taken hold of this first Heaven-sent opportunity, Hashem gave me the strength to keep moving forward.

I was zocheh to marry, but that stage was not easy for me either. It involved many challenges, adjustments I had not foreseen, endless personal work. My parents continued to affect my life and my self-esteem negatively. My pregnancies were difficult, my in-laws threw additional obstacles my way.

Time after time I have had the choice whether to turn right or left. I try to choose the way that will bring me closer to the person I want to be. Just making the right choice now, today, is what takes us one step closer to actualizing our full potential.

At every juncture of my life, when encountered with obstacles, conflict, or confusion, I prayed and reached out to mentors, and Hashem gave me strength. I learned to disconnect from my parents’ negativity, leave behind the harsh childhood suffering, and take control of my life. I built a home, and I built myself.

Then, my mother became ill with a rare terminal illness. The tools I had gained as I worked to disengage from the chains of pain now stood by me — I had done my inner work in time to meet this challenge. I never would have thought I could support my Mom, but Hashem helped me, and I found I could. I researched her condition, made all her appointments, and located organizations that could help her. Somehow, I, the daughter who had suffered the most from the dysfunction of our childhood home, was able to take the reins and become my mother’s advocate. I was able to open my heart to her unstintingly in her time of need.

The relationship between us has never been this good. Sometimes, she even expresses regret for the way she raised me.

I feel like I am a person reborn through intense personal work. I have broken out of the cycle of darkness and abuse, decision by decision, step-by-step, to a path of light and personal growth. Depression does still visit sometimes, for perhaps one never completely forgets, but grasping at every lifeline I am thrown, I fight it.

My life has never been easy and continues to be a series of challenges. Because it is often the hard road that will take you where you really long to go.


My Brand

Call us rookie parents, but we’d been looking forward to the PTA meeting at our seven-year-old’s public school. After all, this was our chance to get familiarized with the educational philosophy and the ideals they would be instilling into our child, and we wanted to hear about the school’s ethos and principles.

But as teachers droned on about their subjects and the principal talked about curricula, we found ourselves increasingly frustrated. What about ethics? Morals? A sense of right and wrong? A feel for decent behavior? It seemed that the only things that counted were academic milestones.

We managed to find the principal later that evening and question her about her educational philosophy. Her answer rang hollow. It seemed that the halls of the school were as empty of meaning as they were of students. We came home, my wife and I, and realized that we wanted more for our family.

We had been spiritual seekers before, in a New Agey kind of way, but everything we had tried seemed to detach us from the world. And as young parents, we needed an approach that could involve the whole family, which had a place and purpose for children, and which could allow us to engage with a community.

We found Judaism, in the form of a wonderful chassidic rabbi and his congregation. We loved the lifestyle we saw, and the community embraced us and our children. The beauty and fulfillment their lifestyle offered was so clear. I want to be like them, I thought. This man became our mentor, his congregants our close friends and almost family.

For the next 15 years we were a happy, growing baal teshuvah family. I became chassidic in both garb and custom. We rejoiced that we had found meaning for ourselves and our growing family.

Again, it was one of our children who sparked the next change. Our teenage son came over to us as we sat on the deck one day. “I don’t feel comfortable in this,” he said, indicating his long coat and peyos. It felt like a costume to him. So we watched as he took off the trappings of chassidus and began to dress like a regular yeshivah boy. And our next son did the same.

If they don’t feel comfortable…. Do I? I looked at my Judaism. Who was I, underneath it all? Who had I become? I wanted so badly to be chassidish, to fit into this group. I wore the garb, shtreimel, beketshe and all. I kept the customs. I sprinkled Yiddishisms into my speech. But truthfully, despite the welcome, I wasn’t one of them. Even as I adopted their ways as well as I could, if I was brutally honest with myself, I knew I wasn’t it. I was no chassidish Yid.

Around this time the fabric of my life began to fray beyond repair. My wife left Orthodoxy. Together with me she had turned her life upside down — for the good of our marriage and our sons. She had committed to working with me to provide them with a meaningful future. But as her inner commitment weakened, her Judaism fell away and our connection weakened as well.

Just when the waters got choppy, the boat was rocked even further. I suffered an injury that ended my career. For three decades I had been a successful chiropractor. Now, a herniated disk and the attendant nerve damage meant I would never be able to use my limbs in that way again. I owned no other skill.

For three months I lay in an agony which surpassed the physical pain: My marriage and my career had unraveled,I was painfully disabled, and my Jewish identity had been shaken. Everything I had thought was me had gone.

I was a man alone. For all my adult years I had had a partner, shared my life with another half. Now, in my time of pain, I was utterly, wrenchingly, alone.

So who was I?

What kind of Jew?

What kind of man?

I tried to be secular again. I did it for one day, then realized I couldn’t be. I needed halachah and I loved it deeply. More importantly, G-d wanted it from me.

Grueling inner work and 12-step meetings guided me through the pain. Baruch Hashem, I did not reach for addiction to numb the pain I was in — I waded through it, wallowed in it, and, at length, learned to swim. Under the layers of successful career, married man, wannabe chassidic Jew, I eventually found myself, the essential inner reality I had never encountered, but that had existed underneath all along.

I had a reality, a soul uniquely mine. I was a colorful person. I was a baal teshuvah who wanted deeply to fulfill G-d’s will. I had a love for Yiddishkeit and I had many rich experiences from my 40 years of a secular lifestyle that I could bring with me. I had my own brand.

With that realization, I removed the shtreimel and beketshe. I accepted, finally, that my then-wife and I had chosen disparate paths and made choices that could not be reconciled. It was over. I searched for a new career that would suit not only my new limitations, but also my newly discovered strengths.

Yes, I still admire the chassidic rabbi whom we tried to model ourselves on all those years ago. My heart is drawn to the well of chassidus and any other path of personal growth.

But I am no longer trying to force myself into that mold. Into any mold.

The search eventually lead me to rebirth, to a new life. Myself as Me. I think that G-d wants me to be me. Colorful, baal teshuvah me. Effective life coach me. Me who enjoys many streams of personal growth and closeness to G-d and His Torah. Finally, I feel authentically, unlimitedly whole.


Back from Oblivion

I was just 13 when, desperate to escape an often-violent home life, I fell in with a group of kids who offered acceptance and friendship. They also offered me alcohol.

Except for heavy Kiddush wine, I had never tasted alcohol before — what frum girl has? — but it seemed to loosen me up. A little more and I was laughing, hard. Some more and I was dancing.

It only took a couple of weeks before drink became the escape route from the nightmare of my abusive stepfather and terrified mother. It numbed the pain.

In school, I did exactly what I liked, which was mostly causing big trouble. I give them credit for how long they kept me even when I was far, far gone. Eventually, they had to draw the line, and I was thrown out. I flitted from school to school. I tried a few different programs and, at one point, a farm. That was pretty cool, but I wasn’t able to stay long. Because by then, I was into drugs, as well.

The next five years were a blur. Highs and terrifying lows. I could have died many times over, but when my life was handed back to me, I didn’t even recognize its value. Those dark days tasted of hopelessness.

Realization dawned — my life had become worthless. And then I decided that I needed to stop destroying myself. Alone, I tried to come clean. Failed. Tried again. It was useless. I was an addict, and an addict needs more than his own willpower to escape.

Today, I wonder where I’d be now if not for that anonymous tzaddik. Through a heroic organization’s efforts, this donor quietly paid $50,000 for eight months of my rehab. Without even knowing who I was, he saved my life.

The rehab program was tailored for me and expertly run. At age 19, I left the drugs and alcohol behind, and rejoined society, clean. I got a job on the West Coast and actually did well for myself, making money and building up my self-esteem. But beyond working and accumulating, my life had no purpose, no inner content or meaning.

That Yom Kippur I lay in bed, listless, when I felt a terrible pressure. The room swam around me and then faded, the world went black. I couldn’t breathe. I was about to die, I knew it.

To die now? With nothing to show for myself?

I spoke desperately to G-d, “If You save me, I will figure out my life and do what’s right.”

The deathlike feeling subsided. A few weeks later I was on a plane to Israel to study in seminary and find out what life was all about. That Yom Kippur was a new start to my life. Hashem sent me a clear message: “I saved your life. I pulled you back from darkness and death. Now go and do what’s right.”

In seminary, I was drawn by the very real goodness of the people, and the clear explanations they offered. My eyes were opened to layers of meaning and depth behind every facet of Yiddishkeit. I listened, I learned, and slowly I absorbed. Truth, undeniable, penetrated to the core of who I was.

Still, I wavered. I left the seminary and flew to Europe. In each city, I found some kind of work that paid enough to keep me going. I was drawn by different aspects of each culture and met colorful people. Each time though, something brought me back to Judaism and to Eretz Yisrael, to the heritage that was clearly mine, waiting for me to reclaim it.

Finally, I did. Torah life embraced me, and a few years later came the ultimate joy, when I was zocheh to build a Jewish home of my own. I remain closely connected to my teachers and mentors, and in a clear sign of grace from Hashem, my lack of high-school certificate and college degree has not prevented success in business. If He gives you, you get.

Living on the West Coast, I’m also able to volunteer at the program that helped me get off drugs. I’m able to sponsor recovery, like my own anonymous savior. More, I can relate to the agony of suffering many of these kids have endured and the hopelessness they feel when enmeshed in the trap of addiction. And my encouragement carries the ring of truth as I tell them, “You can choose a way out of the suffering — there is something else out there. Life and peace and meaning are within your grasp. If you choose them.”

 (Originally featured in Family First 458)

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