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My Brother's Keeper

Gila Arnold

For these four families of accomplished Jews, one brother brought another… and sometimes yet another, transforming teshuvah to a family affair

Monday, September 18, 2017

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Ephraim came home that summer before heading back to Israel for the year, and Raphael was taken aback by the change he witnessed. “We’re twins, we’d always been at pretty much the same stage in life. And all of a sudden, here was my brother, suddenly showing a lot more maturity and sensitivity. I thought, hey, he’s got something on me! But, based on our Hebrew-school experience, I believed it couldn’t possibly be Judaism that was causing this change” (Photos: Family archives)

A terrified mother picks up the phone. It’s Bobby on the other end of the line, calling from Jerusalem. Though now, he says, he wants to go by his Hebrew name, Baruch, and, by the way, he intends to stay in yeshivah a few weeks longer.

Weeks stretch into months, so Bobby’s parents dispatch his brother Sam to rescue their wayward son. Has he been captured by a cult? Sam arrives and surveys the scene. Bobby sure is different. Gosh, he’s even being nice to me after all those years of fighting. And, wait a minute, he’s got some interesting new ideas to share….

After a few years, Baruch and Shmuel return home to visit their parents. Their dress is different and they have a new way of speaking, but their eyes shine and their kind touch is evident in everything they do. Can the parents kasher the kitchen so the brothers can eat there? Outrage turns into acceptance, and then the parents return to the Yiddishkeit of their grandparents.

Sounds like a fantasy, you say? Not for thousands of baalei teshuvah and their families, some of whom have had the rare pleasure and distinction of making the journey together. In this collection, you’ll meet brothers who did teshuvah together, one influencing the other to greater heights.



The Shore Brothers

David: Hollywood Producer

Ephraim: Deputy Executive Director, Aish HaTorah

Raphael: Founder, Jerusalem U.


They were three brothers growing up in the 1960s in the Canadian city of London, Ontario. David was the oldest, followed by twin brothers Ephraim and Raphael. While their parents raised them to be Zionistic, they had little exposure to religious Jews or Judaism.

“We had the perfunctory Hebrew-school education,” says Ephraim. “My twin and I were kicked out so often we were finally expelled — and it was pretty hard to get expelled from Hebrew school.”

Aside from pulling stunts like jumping out of classroom windows, Ephraim recalls asking questions and not getting very satisfactory answers. “I once asked a rabbi, ‘Why should a modern person believe in G-d?’ He answered, ‘Well, everyone has to believe in something.’ ”

 

Ephraim ran away from home one Yom Kippur to go to school, leaving a note saying, “I don’t believe in this anyway. Why should I go to synagogue?” He had to be bribed to have a bar mitzvah. Judaism, to him, was something shallow and meaningless.

And then the moment of transformation came, from as unlikely a source as possible. It was, of all things, an article he read in Rolling Stone magazine when he was 17 that changed everything. While the pop-culture magazine was not exactly the place one would expect to find a thoughtful article about the philosophy of Judaism, Ellen Willis, a Rolling Stone writer, had published a long, in-depth article describing her brother’s return to Judaism while studying at Aish HaTorah.

“It was the first time in my life that I saw Judaism presented in an intellectual manner,” Ephraim explains. “That there was actually evidence that G-d existed? It was shocking.”

A year later, in 1979, he was in Israel, and found himself in the Old City of Jerusalem. “Suddenly, I saw a copy of that Rolling Stone article sitting on a table. I looked up at the building next to it and realized, this must be the place!” Someone noticed him and invited him in, where Rav Noach Weinberg was teaching a class on the 48 Ways of Wisdom.

“I expected it to be about praying or rituals — but the class was about laughter.”

Hooked, he came back the next day, and the next. He sat in on classes discussing G-d’s existence and how to get the most pleasure out of life, which he found both compelling and petrifying.

“I didn’t want to end up like that guy in the article, who became Orthodox. On the other hand, I needed to know if there was something meaningful in my heritage.” (

Terrified, he escaped to volunteer on a kibbutz on the Lebanese border. But as hashgachah would have it, the kibbutz said they had no room for volunteers. So it was back to Jerusalem and Aish HaTorah where, slowly, he began the teshuvah process. He describes it as a particularly lonely time.

“In those days, no one became religious. There was no supportive social culture like there is today.”

In addition, his family back home was not happy, to say the least.

“I told my parents I was pushing off my scholarship to the University of Toronto to study Torah for a year. They responded that they would cut me off financially, they would never speak to me, and they would sit shivah. Meanwhile, my twin brother, Raphael, was convinced I’d been captured by a cult, and plotted together with some friends in university to rescue me.”

“Well, I didn’t really think it was a cult,” says Raphael. “But I did think he’d been brainwashed. I bought my parents a book on brainwashing techniques of cults, so we would know what we were up against.”

Ephraim came home that summer before heading back to Israel for the year, and Raphael was taken aback by the change he witnessed. “We’re twins, we’d always been at pretty much the same stage in life. And all of a sudden, here was my brother, suddenly showing a lot more maturity and sensitivity. I thought, hey, he’s got something on me! But, based on our Hebrew-school experience, I believed it couldn’t possibly be Judaism that was causing this change.”

Deciding it must be the school itself, Raphael determined to come to Israel the next summer to see what was going on there. “And to convince me to come back,” adds Ephraim. To prepare for his mission, he spent the year in university taking every class he could on comparative religion, philosophy, and anything else he thought would arm him against the yeshivah’s brainwashing attacks.

“I came very well briefed.” Raphael laughs. “And it just helped me fall harder. I knew the other side. There weren’t any questions I hadn’t seen. I fought the whole summer and by the end, I was clearly out of arguments.”

Ephraim continues, “He came back to all those college friends who’d been helping him with his ‘rescue mission.’ They asked him how it went and he said, ‘I want to kasher my kitchen.’ They thought he was joking. But, eventually, many of those friends ended up becoming frum as well, and his closest confidants are now all rabbis or in kiruv.”

Interestingly, the only family member who was supportive of Ephraim from the start was his older brother David who, while very Jewishly identified, is not frum today. Ephraim recalls, “David said, Ephraim’s a smart guy. If this is the direction he’s going in, we should respect him.”

David describes his feelings at the time. “When my brothers became Orthodox, I think I first dismissed it as a phase. When it because apparent that it wasn’t, I decided to look into it myself. It wasn’t from the point of view of ‘hmm, maybe they’re onto something,’ it was more ‘are they being held without food or sleep in a dank basement, being fed insane ideas?’ I found the study academically fascinating, the intellectual and moral debates rigorous and exciting. I walked away impressed but not personally sold.”

Their parents took a lot longer to come around. “They sent rabbis to talk me out of this, and hired deprogrammers to meet with me,” says Ephraim. “They finally came to visit themselves, where they met Rabbi Weinberg and other Aish rabbis. This calmed them down. When I told them I had plans to become a rabbi, they were actually happy to hear the news. At least I’d have a way to make a living.”

 

Over the years, the Shore parents have moved closer to Yiddishkeit as well, becoming very active in Aish HaTorah’s newly opened Toronto branch. Today they are members of an Orthodox shul and are very proud of their children and all of their accomplishments — which, in the case of the Shore brothers, are quite remarkable.

Ephraim has devoted his life to kiruv, and is today the deputy executive director at Aish HaTorah and founding director of HonestReporting.com, Jerusalem Fellowships and Hasbara Fellowships. Raphael worked at Aish for many years as well; in his capacity as program director he helped create many of the yeshivah’s flagship branches and programs,    including the Discovery Seminar and Jerusalem Fellowships. In 2009, he left Aish to start Jerusalem U, an organization dedicated to making young Jews proud of their heritage and connected to Israel. And David, who is raising his children with a Jewish education, is an Emmy-winning Hollywood television producer who often incorporates Jewish philosophical ideas in his work. He says that he is particularly proud of his relationship with his brothers today.

“While our answers to the most fundamental questions remain different — perhaps diametrically opposed — we respect each other’s right to choose, and each other’s passions. It would have been very easy for us to have drifted apart. But I think there’s a fundamental understanding by all three of us that our superficial differences, though significant, are dwarfed by what we have in common — and not just a history of having been raised in the same home.”

The brothers attribute much of their success to their mother, who instilled in them a strong self-confidence in their abilities.

Raphael also identifies a trait unique to the successful baal teshuvah. “Strength,” he says. “You need the strength of inner conviction, the self-confidence to proclaim that you are the one thinking straight, not the rest of the world. And you need the strength of self-discipline, to actually make those changes and move away from much of your former life.”

It’s the strong people who are most successful at becoming frum, especially in those early days when baalei teshuvah had to go it alone — and that is why, Raphael maintains, so many great leaders have emerged from the ranks of that first baal teshuvah generation, particularly at Aish HaTorah.

 

The Medved Brothers

MichaelRadio host, author, commentator

Jonathan: Venture capitalist

Benjamin: Marriage and family therapist

Harry: Communications director

 

“I’m uncomfortable with the term baal teshuvah,” celebrity radio-show host, author, and political commentator Michael Medved says, prefacing his family’s story. “The words imply there was something to do penance for, and I don’t believe that applies to my family, or to many of the families of people who went on to greater religious observance.”

He points out that in a large of number of these cases, the families were already more Jewishly committed than their peers. The Medved family was no exception.

“All four of my grandparents were Orthodox at one point,” relates Michael. “My parents, while not observant, were very strong Zionists.” A few months after he was born, they went to Israel for a year and strongly considered making aliyah. Though they decided to come back, eventually settling in San Diego, the Medveds were always the most Jewishly involved of their peers. “My mother would light candles Friday night, and my father made kiddush. My mother was famous for her large Pesach Seders, to which she would invite Jewish sailors and Marines stationed at the military installations near our home.”

Michael, the oldest of four brothers, says the most important influence on his life was his uncle Moish, who, 21 years older than his father, was more like a father figure to Michael’s father, and a grandfather to the boys. “He was a brilliant man; an early Zionist as a teenager in the Ukraine who lived in Israel for some time even before independence.”

Two of Moish’s three children made aliyah in the 1960s, after his wife and their mother passed away, so he eventually made his way to California to live with his brother’s family.

“While he wasn’t Orthodox, he was extremely Jewishly knowledgeable, and would encourage others to take on religious practices. He could learn a blatt Gemara. We would exchange letters when I was a kid, and he was always urging me to go beyond my bar mitzvah learning, recommending books for me to read.”

 

One of the seminal incidents in Michael’s own return to observance centered around his uncle. The year was 1971 and, during a break from law school, Michael was home on a visit.

“Moish was begging me to go to this event being run by Chabad in LA, where we lived at the time. The event, frankly, sounded awful — it was some mathematician speaking about G-d, and this 11-year-old wonder-chazzan performance. I had no interest in going, but Moish told me he already bought me tickets. He insisted, ‘This is the last of the Mohicans! You have to come see these Orthodox people while they still exist!’ ”

Michael went and the event was exactly what he expected — “not really inspiring, tacky, and cheesy.” At that point, he had already dabbled in Jewish life while at Yale — he attended Friday night services at a suburban Reform temple, which didn’t speak to him much, and went to two Shlomo Carlebach concerts, which did.

“So during the intermission, a man with a black jacket and a bushy red beard calls out to me, ‘Hey, you! You look like a serious guy. Are you concerned with what’s going on in Israel?’ ”

Of course he was. This was during the period of the War of Attrition, and he had cousins in the army.

The man continued, “Want to do something to promote peace in Israel?”

Michael nodded.

“Want to put on tefillin?”

That threw Michael for a loop, and he demurred. “I’ve never put on tefillin in my life!”

Michael laughs as he relates, “Those are exactly the words to fire up a Chabadnik! He got all excited, and my uncle Moish, standing next to me, encouraged me to do it, and so I did. And that’s when the strangest thing happened. There I was, putting on tefillin in the lobby at this crazy performance, and suddenly, I just felt something — zap! It’s still a mystery to me, but I was very shaken up.”

The next morning, his uncle handed him a bag.

“What’s that?” asked Michael.

“Your tefillin,” Uncle Moish responded.

“But I don’t have tefillin!”

“You do now. These are mine, and I haven’t used them in 30 years. You take them.”

Ever since then, Michael has made wearing tefillin his daily practice. That marked the beginning of his journey to greater observance. He began by lighting candles and attending communal Shabbos meals. Two years later, he stopped driving on Shabbos — and that, he jokes, was “the beginning of the end.” Following his uncle’s death, Michael committed to say Kaddish for him and began attending a minyan.

At the same time, Michael’s other family members were heading on their own paths to greater religious commitment. Together with his friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Michael helped start the Pacific Jewish Center, a shul and day-school complex in Venice, California that is still going strong today. Michael’s father became part of the process of establishing the shul, and in doing so began keeping Shabbos. At the same time, Michael’s youngest brother, Harry, 13 years younger than him, began moving toward observance as well, starting to keep Shabbos when he was still in high school. Harry and Dr. Medved would come spend Shabbos at Michael’s house. (By this point, Michael’s parents had divorced.)

The shul Michael started ended up bringing another Medved to Orthodoxy as well. Jonathan, the second brother, relates that he was always a proudly identified Jew, but his first strong connection came through Israel.

“I was a student at Berkeley, and involved in all the social movements going on at that time,” Jonathan relates. “I wanted to go abroad, and asked my parents if they would send me to Spain. My parents said they’d only pay to send me to Israel. I said, Israel? But off to Israel I went.”

This was the summer of 1973, just before the Yom Kippur War, and he describes the atmosphere in the country as “brilliant, optimistic, idyllic.” He fell in love.

He came back to Berkeley at his parents’ insistence, just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. That was his first experience being an Israel activist, as he found himself getting into shouting matches with Arabs on campus. This was the beginning of eight years of Zionist activity, which culminated in his working for the Jewish Agency, going around to college campuses to promote Israel.

“They said it meant I would have to leave my college studies. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ ” He enjoyed the job so much that he agreed to a second run, a few years later. By the time he’d finished, he knew that after spending three exhilarating years on the road, he needed to head to Israel.

“I wanted to go into hi-tech, and when I saw guys like Bill Gates, I said, who needs a degree, anyway?” says Jonathan, who today is one of Israel’s leading hi-tech venture capitalists.

He moved to Israel in 1980, where he met his wife, Jane. Soon after they were married, he got involved in a start-up together with his father, and reluctantly moved back to the US for a few years.

“When I moved back to L.A., I found that Michael, Harry, and Dad were all active in this synagogue on the beach. At first, I didn’t want anything to do with it. After all, we were Zionists, not religious.”

They intentionally moved far away, but still got to know the members of the shul’s community. When Jane subsequently went through a difficult pregnancy, it was those community members who came to help.

“When my son was born, I knew I had to choose where to raise him, and we decided to move closer to the shul.”

Still not interested in becoming Orthodox, he asked his brother Michael, “Would it be okay if we continue driving around on Shabbat, even when we move closer?”

Michael discouraged him about the driving, but Jonathan continues, “I knew enough about Judaism to know that when you have a question, you ask a rabbi. So I asked Rabbi Lapin, and he said, ‘Of course! Come!’ We did, and one month later, I’d stopped driving on Shabbos.”

Michael, Jonathan, and Harry all describe these years as a beautiful time when the brothers and their father lived within a few blocks of each other.

“It was broken up for the right reasons,” says Michael. “My father made aliyah, and then Jonathan and Jane returned to Israel.”

By the time Jonathan moved back to Israel, he and his sons were wearing yarmulkes, and they joined a religious community. Jonathan says he’s never looked back.

“People sometimes ask me, ‘How did you do it?’ But I tell them I never gave up anything to become religious; I only gained.”

Today, Michael lives in Mercer Island, Washington, with his wife, Diane, where he is part of a warm, tight-knit community. Harry lives with his wife, Michele, in Southern California, where he belongs to an Orthodox shul and works as the communications director at Fandango. Between the two of them, they have five children and one grandchild. Ben, the third brother, is a marriage and family therapist in Silicon Valley, California, who currently plays an active role in his congregation in Silicon Valley. He’s also a supporter of Israel and other Jewish causes.

Their father, who passed away in 2009, spent the last 19 years of his life in Israel, where he loved learning and in particular enjoyed being a baal korei. “He leined his entire parshah for his second bar mitzvah, when he turned 83,” says Michael. “I used to joke that my father completely ruined my credentials as a baal teshuvah!”

What brought about this change?

“I think a strong motive for my father was putting the family back together,” says Michael. “Not just the Medved family, but the whole Jewish family. And the best way to do that is around the Shabbos and Yom Tov table.”

 

The Glaser Brothers

Sam: Musician and performer

Aaron: Former kiruv rabbi, businessman

Yom Tov: Aish HaTorah rabbi, seminar leader

Joey: Attorney in private practice

“We grew up in a very wealthy part of L.A. called Brentwood,” Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, the third of the four Glaser brothers, says, beginning their story. “On our left side lived a member of the rock band called The Doors. Famous Hollywood writers lived behind us. And our property was three times the size of theirs.”

Despite what he calls his “all-expenses-paid trip in gashmiyus,” he discovered early on that money doesn’t lead to happiness. “When I was 11, I realized that I wasn’t getting anything from my Conservative Hebrew School. And I wanted some answers.”

While their parents provided them with more in the way of Jewish experience than the typical Conservative family, the only Jewish authority Yom Tov knew to turn to with all of his questions was his local Conservative rabbi. Not satisfied with the responses he got, he sought answers elsewhere.

“I was born in the wrong neighborhood for this type of search,” he says. “It was not a very soul-searching community.”

Being from California, Yom Tov’s spiritual quest consisted of hippie-type experiences and surfing expeditions around the world.

“I was the antithesis of a scholar; my Dad had to bribe me to go to university by buying me a Toyota 4x4 pickup truck. And every vacation, I went out on surf trips.”

Meanwhile, his older brother Sam, whom he describes as his best friend, was having a different kind of experience.

“I’d graduated from the University of Boulder and was trying to make it in the music business,” Sam relates. “I’d just opened my first recording studio when an application arrived for Aish HaTorah’s Jerusalem Fellowships.”

Having had positive experiences in the past in Israel, when he’d traveled there for his bar mizvah and, later, for a summer program, he decided to take advantage of the opportunity for a free trip.

“Each class was better than the next: Rabbi David Aaron’s Philosophy of Prayer, Rabbi Noach’s 48 Ways of Wisdom, Rabbi Pliskin’s class on happiness. And then there was Discovery.”

All along, he’d been approaching the classes like an anthropology course — connecting from a distance. But Discovery changed that. “For a kid raised in liberal, left-wing California, I was suddenly able to connect empirically to Judaism. The codes, especially, just blew me away.”

He stayed about four months, going strong, until after Pesach. That’s when Sefiras Ha’Omer hit.

“My friends told me that during the next month and a half, no one in the Jewish world would be listening to music. I thought, this can’t be true! Convinced they must be mistaken, I ran to the Rosh Yeshivah, and he confirmed it. I couldn’t handle that, and so I bailed.”

Though everyone at Aish tried to convince him not to leave, Sam went back home. “I had a new recording studio; I missed my sports car. But, unfortunately, I found that it’s really hard to hold on to the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael back in L.A.” 

Nevertheless, the impressions of his time in Aish HaTorah never fully left him. “Every time I played a gig on Shabbos, I felt I was doing something wrong. Eventually, as time went on, I started calling in sick Friday nights.” It wasn’t easy, as Friday night is the key night in the music industry. Yet this was the start of his eventual path to Orthodoxy.

“I was doing baby steps,” he says about those years. Meanwhile, Sam looked at his brother Yom Tov, a “rebellious, deadhead, dreadlocked hippy,” and just knew that he would connect deeply with the Aish HaTorah experience.

“Though I didn’t expect him to connect quite as intensely as he did,” Sam laughs. Quietly, he filled out an application for Jerusalem Fellowships for his brother.

The timing was ripe.

“During my last year of university, my father’s business suddenly went bankrupt,” Yom Tov relates. “The international surfing trip that he’d always promised me as a graduation present suddenly went up in smoke. But I was determined to get out of the US one way or another. So when Sam got me signed up for Jerusalem Fellowships, I decided to go.”

“I had to bribe him,” Sam amends. “I told him to try Jerusalem for a bit, and then I’d send him his surfboard so he could travel on to Europe.”

Right from the start, Yom Tov was impressed by the rabbis on the program.

“I had 12 years’ backlog of questions, and suddenly, these rabbis had answers. And you could tell that these answers were just scratching the outer periphery of their knowledge. My questions were having babies; I just couldn’t stop asking. I went to the Discovery Program, and on the 9th day, I walked out of class, headed straight to the phone, and called my parents to tell them not to send my surf board. ‘This is it,’ I said. ‘I’m staying.’ They freaked out, but I was staying. My second call was to my brother Sam. ‘What were you thinking?’ I asked him. ‘How could you leave this place?’”

Yom Tov cut his long hair, put on a white shirt and black pants, and started the journey. It was a journey that would eventually take him to Chassidus. “One Succos night, I was dancing at a Simchas Beis Hashoeivah in Toldos Aharon when a friend of mine told me to meet him in Karlin. He meant Karlin-Stolin, but I ended up taking a wrong turn and got to Pinsk-Karlin. Those are the real, crunchy peanut butter Yerushalmis. I walked in and never left.”

Meanwhile, immediately upon getting his phone call, Yom Tov’s parents flew out to Israel to get him out of the yeshivah. His mother took one look at him and said, “Somebody finally got him to cut his hair!”

They’d booked a ten-day trip; Yom Tov took advantage of their stay to introduce them to the Aish rabbis and bring them to a Discovery seminar. By the end, they told him, “You stay right here!”

Still in financial straits, his parents flew back to L.A., where actor Dustin Hoffman, deciding he needed to expand his living quarters, asked to rent the Glasers’ house. With the rental income of $15,000 a month, the Glasers decided to spend six months learning in Israel. Upon their return to L.A., they sold their house to Hoffman and moved to the neighborhood of Pacific Palisades where they started to keep Shabbos, and where they became founding members of Chabad there.

While Yom Tov was getting his taste of Yiddishkeit in the Old City, Sam met the woman who would eventually become his wife and moved to the Orthodox neighborhood of Pico Robertson.

“The Pico Robertson neighborhood is a crazy shtetl,” Sam says. “It has 50 Orthodox synagogues, and there’s all this feeling of growth, love, and happy L.A. vibes. I fell in love with the community and decided I wanted to go all the way in my Yiddishkeit.”

Eventually, he decided to move into Jewish music, and in 1992 put out his first Jewish music album, Hineni, which became a hit. Since then, the popular musician has put out 24 albums and travels around the world performing, averaging 50 cities a year. He sees his mission as doing outreach through music, and his tour includes a wide range of venues, where he both performs and teaches.

But while Yom Tov was busy teaching in Aish HaTorah (he started teaching soon after he arrived, and, 26 years later, is still doing so) and Sam was building his life and musical career, there were still two other brothers, Aaron and Joey.

“My brother Aaron was running a real estate firm in L.A.,” Yom Tov relates. “He was the type who was into his business and muscle cars and Armani suits. The Aish people were always getting after me, ‘Why aren’t you ‘mekareving’ your brother?’ And I’d say, ‘He doesn’t have a spiritual bone in his body.’ Aaron was also angry at me, saying that I’d created this spiritual division in the family.”

At one point, Aaron came to Israel, and Yom Tov managed to convince him to attend a Discovery Seminar, which impressed him and inspired him to start keeping Shabbos. His next visit was for Yom Tov’s wedding.

“He would hang around my house, bothering my new wife, poor lady, with all his questions. He would argue all day long.”

After Aaron’s month in Israel, Yom Tov dropped him off at the airport to go home. A week later, he got a call from his mother. “Where’s Aaron? We haven’t heard from him in a week! Did he come home?”

Yom Tov advised them to go to Aaron’s apartment in the middle of the night. They knocked on Aaron’s door at two in the morning and he answered it wearing a yarmulke. “After all his fights with us over the years, he’d been embarrassed to appear in front of them with a kippah!”

Aaron eventually became a Breslover chassid, and a kiruv rabbi on college campuses. After many years, today he’s returned to the business world. Joel, their youngest brother, who runs his own law practice, is the only family member living the lifestyle they were raised in. In recent years, he’s moved closer to his parents and brothers in L.A., and now sends his children to a Chabad preschool.

To what do the brothers attribute their family’s return?

Sam relates a story. “Yom Tov had just gotten back from his first year in yeshivah, and we were on a mountain biking trip together. It was getting close to Shabbos, and we had some problem with our car, so we ended up staying in a hotel in some one-horse town called Banning for Shabbos.”

Later, when he told his uncle where they’d stayed, his uncle said, “Banning! Your grandfather founded that town! He opened a clothing factory there!”

Unfortunately, at that time of his life, their grandfather was shedding his Jewish observance, and he chose to run the factory on Shabbos. And now, decades later, two of his descendants were keeping Shabbos in that very town.

“Sometimes you wonder where that initial fortitude to take on observance comes from,” says Sam. “I really believe that it’s in the zechus of our relatives in the upper world, who are pulling for us, cheering, ‘Go, go, go!’ ”

 

The  Rosenblum Brothers

Jonathan: columnist, author, speaker

Jeremy: Partner in a major Philadelphia law firm

Michael: Kollel yungerman

Maxwell: CFO of a start-up

Matthew: Rebbi, Machon Yaakov

One December holiday season, Mrs. Miriam Rosenblum of Highland Park, Illinois took five-year-old Jonathan to visit Santa Claus. Jonathan climbed onto Santa’s lap, and Santa asked the same question he asked all of the children: “What kind of boy have you been this year?”

Jonathan replied, “I am a Jewish boy!”

Years later, angry at his mother, four-year-old Max Rosenblum once threatened, “I’m not going to marry a Jewish girl!” That threat reflects the Jewish preoccupations of the Rosenblum home.

“We were raised with a very strong Jewish identity. Shabbos candles, kiddush, and a formal Shabbos dinner with attendance mandatory, made clear that there are things one does because one is Jewish. But we were not halachically observant,” says Jonathan Rosenblum, the eldest of the five Rosenblum brothers.

Observance tended more toward assertions of Jewish pride than fulfillment of Divine commandments — e.g., fasting on Yom Kippur from age nine, but still watching the World Series on TV in the afternoon. Once, Jonathan showed up at synagogue on Yom Kippur attired in tennis shoes. His more knowledgeable younger brother Matthew pointed out, “The law isn’t to wear tennis shoes. It’s not to wear leather, and your shoes are 100-percent leather. Drive home and get something else.”

That strong Jewish identity clearly left its impact, because today, four of the five brothers are chareidi and living in Israel. “Any of my three observant brothers — Jonathan, Michael, or Max — can arguably lay claim to becoming the first Orthodox Rosenblum,” says Matthew. But it was undoubtedly Max, the fourth brother, who started earliest.

He went on a Chicago-federation sponsored summer trip to Israel when he was 15. Most of the participants were Modern Orthodox, and one, in particular, Miriam Mayefsky, who was three years older, had a profound impact on Max. She convinced him to fast for the first time on Tishah B’Av, and after they returned, she introduced him to her circle of friends in West Rogers Park. By the time he graduated high school, he was ready for a year on a religious kibbutz in Israel and talking about becoming an Orthodox rabbi.

Meanwhile, the third Rosenblum brother, Michael, traveled to Israel in the summer of 1975 and ended up in Aish HaTorah. While his nine-month stay did not immediately lead him to full religious observance, he became enamored with Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s classes on shemiras halashon. “He came home, and suddenly everything we said was lashon hara!” Jonathan remembers.

 

After graduating law school in 1976, Jonathan spent most of the following year in Israel. Reading Faith After the Holocaust on the flight home to commence practice, he decided to maintain a kosher apartment.

Though he practiced law for two years in a Chicago, he had already applied to the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) within a few months of starting. He discovered within two blocks of his apartment the shul of Rabbi Yosef Deitcher a”h, who invited him for Shabbos every week, and served as mesader kiddushin at his wedding to Judith.

Jonathan and Judith came to Israel shortly after their wedding for a preparatory program for JTS, which Jonathan left after one week. Before leaving Chicago, a friend had warned Judith, “Whatever you do, don’t go to Ohr Somayach.” But somehow, Judith remembered only the name, not the admonition. And so they went searching for Ohr Somayach.

Given the stakes, Jonathan first sent Judith to test the waters at Ohr Somayach’s girls’ school, while he remained outside playing basketball. One of her teachers, Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, invited the newlyweds for Shabbos, and arranged for Jonathan to “accidentally” meet Rabbi Nachman Bulman, who engaged him in a discussion of Conservative theology. “That was the moment I dreaded,” Jonathan remembers, “since I myself had never been able to make sense of that theology.”

Toward the end of the summer, Judith told Jonathan, “If Judaism is going to be the center of our lives, we need to spend more time around people for whom it really is the center of their lives.” Ohr Somayach provided them with an apartment, and they stayed. And stayed. “Technically, we’re still on our honeymoon 38 years later,” jokes Jonathan.

Meanwhile, Michael decided to leave his graduate-school program to come learn in yeshivah. Max entered Yale College, after a year in Israel, wearing a kippah and eating at the university’s kosher kitchen. Early in his freshman year, he met his wife Brandy, and they were married as undergraduates, after spending a year studying in Israel.

Jeremy, the second brother, describes what it was like watching his brothers’ journeys to Orthodoxy. “When your first brother becomes religious, there’s a little bit of a shock. While Max was already Shomer Shabbat and keeping kashrut, when Jonathan and Michael became religious, they went 100-percent chareidi, so it was a much more definitive change. At times I asked myself, how is this different from a cult? But people who join cults don’t retain their same thinking process and personalities, which wasn’t the case with my brothers. They are all recognizably the same personalities, with the same sense of humor or lack thereof.”

And then there was Matthew, the youngest. “I hated my brothers becoming Orthodox,” he says. “In 1981 my brother Max came home and made our kitchen kosher. I hated that. I asked my father why he was agreeing to this. He told me that ‘a Jew should have a kosher kitchen.’ I pointed out that he did not keep kosher. He said ‘a Jew should have a kosher kitchen.’ I pointed out that he did not believe in G-d. He said ‘a Jew should have a kosher kitchen.’ In general, some of my brothers were not what you call ‘laid-back’ in their kiruv methods. One even threatened me with damnation at one point.”

Jeremy, too, recalls the initial “proselytizing” period. “There was definitely an effort made to get me to see things their way,” he says. “But they never crossed the border into offensive, and after a few years they calmed down.” (Jonathan admits to winning the prize for stupidest thing ever done by a fresh baal teshuvah for giving a 45-minute quasi-harangue at Jeremy’s wedding.)

Jeremy continues: “I know they’d like me to become Orthodox as well, because they feel it’s the right way to live, but I’ve never felt any personal rejection by any of my brothers. And from my end, there was never any question about preserving the relationship with them, whatever it took.”

After Matthew graduated Yale, he came to Israel for a year to study at the Hebrew University. After his living situation did not turn out well, he moved in with Jonathan’s family. One Thursday night, Jonathan asked him to attend a shiur. “I sat through it,” Matthew recalls. “When Jonathan asked, I told him that it was incredibly boring.”

“That night, after a terrific shouting match in the apartment, Jonathan and I ended up walking around Har Nof, which was still largely under construction, until the early morning. He browbeat me, saying I couldn’t claim to be intellectually honest if I went back without trying yeshivah. None of this was from the kiruv manuals. But I found it so frightening that at one point, I said, ‘Okay, so maybe you’re right, but why can’t I just be Modern Orthodox?’ I went to sleep emotionally drained.”

The following Sunday morning, Matthew awakened to find Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, of Machon Shlomo, in Jonathan’s living room waiting to speak to him. “Talk about Hashgachah pratis,” Matthew says. “Rabbi Gershenfeld said he’d heard a rumor from a Yale classmate of mine that I might be interested in coming to learn at Machon Shlomo.”

Matthew agreed to go, and, in his words, he “became a fanatic within a month.” “At Yale I got a great liberal education training me to expect a depth and coherence in any philosophy or culture. I knew my brothers were not insane and if anyone did have stupid religion, it wouldn’t be the Jews.”

He’s been in Israel ever since, first learning full-time and more recently teaching in Machon Yaakov. Michael also lives in Israel, where he is still learning full-time.

How did the Rosenblums’ parents react to their sons becoming frum?

“Apart from worrying that despite our fancy degrees we’d all be paupers, they were fully supportive,” says Jonathan. “Dad a”h always took the position: ‘I’ve raised good kids; I have to trust their choices.’ Plus, they had nothing to answer when we would tell them, ‘You have only yourselves to blame. You always told us being Jewish was the most important thing, and we took you seriously.’ ”

Jeremy adds, “For my parents, there was no question that their priority was to maintain their relationship with their sons, making whatever accommodations necessary to do that.

But it was the nachas from the next generation that sealed the deal for the Rosenblum parents. After joining their four religious sons and their families in Israel, they became central figures in their grandchildren’s lives — driving them to lessons, providing that extra bit of something children in large families often need. “At family simchahs, Dad would always say with immense satisfaction, ‘They [his grandchildren] are so close, you cannot tell them apart.’ ”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 678)

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