“Behind every successful child is an adult who believes in him,” a popular adage goes. Behind every baal teshuvah is a devoted role model, who made it his or her business to guide a newly observant Jew along the Torah path.
As a teen and as a baalas teshuvah, I was privileged to meet not one, but two such educators, who welcomed me into the world of Torah and saw me through.
It all started in ninth grade, when my classmate Lena walked over to my desk and handed me a yellow memo note with a phone number. “I got a school for you. It’s not far, in New Jersey.”
Having immigrated to the US from Russia just a few months earlier, my parents sent me to a small private school in Washington Heights. But I desperately wanted a Jewish education and so had asked Lena to look up Jewish schools in the phone book.
What makes a Jewish teen fresh off the boat seek Judaism? During the year prior to our move, as the Iron Curtain fell, a group of American philanthropists brought to Russia 5,000 sets of siddurim and Chumashim translated into Russian. The idea was so fresh that they didn’t bother creating something new. Instead they republished books from 100 years ago, written in an old form of Russian that nobody speaks any more.
Nonetheless, getting one of these sets got me hooked on Torah. Reading the Chumash and learning the halachos interspersed in the siddur, led to the decision to start observing the mitzvos. Although my parents didn’t observe Shabbos and kashrus, I heard about these concepts from my mother. So shortly after we arrived to the US, I started observing whatever I knew, while pillaging the local public library for more and more books on Judaism.
Each drop of knowledge brought another mitzvah or halachah I could observe. Soon, shorts and miniskirts made way for tznius clothes. My parents were not exactly pleased, but there was little they could do. So as time passed, they made peace with my decision.
Learning from books only goes so far, though. I knew I needed a solid Jewish education and interactions with other frum Jews. And so one cold winter morning, I got on the bus and made the ride over to New Jersey to The Frisch School. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the principal was so stunned, when I walked into his office and asked him to enroll me. What’s so strange about a 14-year-old showing up alone, completely out of the blue, to sign up for a new school?