A Slice Of Life: Our Change

By: CHARLES PERKEL

I was born on the first crest of the post WWII baby boom. My parents were aspiring actors who had been in the military during the war. They were the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and they shared a leftist and secular view of the world that left little or no room for religion.

I spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood demonstrating for world peace, civil rights, and workers who were treated unfairly. I was arrested in one of the first "sit-ins" in the north, in a protest against racial discrimination.

If there was a cause dear to the left I was involved in it; I wished to end all the inequities in society and establish a "classless" society.

I got a series of blue collar jobs and joined the Communist Party. Through the party I met and married my gentile wife, Bobbi. I quit the Communist party when I realized that we spent most of our time undermining the labor unions we were supposed to be helping. I also became tired of defending a corrupt, oppressive and anti-Semitic Soviet Union and calling thugs "revolutionaries."

I became the chairman of a local union, and chairman of the Labor Caucus for the California Democratic Party. I also found myself increasingly concerned with being a Jew and joined reform synagogues. Bobbi, who had rebelled against her Catholic upbringing, did not object, but she did not convert either.

After ten years as a labor official I was exhausted by political infighting and a spiritual emptiness which I did not understand. I went to work for the international Union which transferred me to Cleveland. But as a social democrat I found I was too "conservative" for the political culture of my union. Pretty soon I also found myself out of a job and seriously ill with colitis.

After losing my job and my colon, I returned to college, finally graduating with a master's degree in social work. Bobbi also returned to college and earned a master's degree in education. We had both regretted not finishing college; now we had finished, yet we still felt incomplete. We had educations, new careers, a home and two children whom we loved, but something was still missing.

After belonging to reform synagogues for 15 years I realized that I had great difficulty believing in G-d, even though I desperately wanted to believe. G-d must have heard the prayer I didn't hear myself, because He sent guidance my way even though I did not know how or where to ask for it.

Several months earlier my son, Ben, announced that he wanted to go to the Orthodox after school program ("YABI") near our home. Bobbi and I agreed, though we thought it strange that he wanted to do something so "old fashioned."

One day we received a phone call asking us to meet with the director, Rabbi Avraham Bensoussan. We agreed to meet with considerable apprehension. To our relief, we found in Rabbi Bensoussan a warm and caring man who was concerned about our son and sensitive to our feelings. Rabbi Bensoussan explained that although our son was showing a great attraction to Judaism, he was not Jewish, since his mother was not Jewish. Taking great pains to consider Bobbi's feelings, the rabbi explained that if Ben wanted to continue his Jewish education he would need to begin the process of conversion. Based on the position of the reform movement we thought our children were Jewish. We now learned that according to Jewish law they were not; we had been misled.

A conversation with our son revealed that he truly desired to convert and we agreed to support him. Ben began wearing tzitzit. When I mentioned it to family members, I learned that my father had done the same until his grandmother had died. But, I still could not conceive of faith as something accessible to the worldly, middle-aged man I had become. I found the idea of returning to observant Judaism very attractive. Nonetheless, I asked myself, could I believe in a faith that was the polar opposite of the secular and materialist philosophy on which I had been raised? Could I accept as fact that a Divine being whom I could not comprehend was the actual arbiter of human destiny? I was not sure I could believe all this, although I wanted to very much. I was afraid to mention these questions to my wife, since she had refused to even consider conversion during the many years we had belonged to reform synagogues. What would she possibly think about the religious questions her secular, iconoclastic, and very unorthodox husband was asking himself?

During this time, Bobbi was undergoing her own spiritual search. I found out later that she, too, had been afraid to mention this to a spouse she saw as opposed to "superstitious religiosity."

One day, as part of my job, I was transporting an abandoned infant to a foster home in Grafton, Ohio. Suddenly my car inexplicably slipped onto a gravel shoulder. When I attempted to steer the car back onto the highway it flipped over and careened across four lanes of traffic, spinning upside down and crashing into the embankment on the other side of the highway. I emerged from my totally destroyed car with no injuries. This was also true of my small passenger, even though she had hung upside down during the crash and had fallen out of her car seat upon impact!

The greatest miracle of all was that when I stepped out of that wrecked automobile I knew for a fact that there is a G-d who is in charge of the universe. My spiritual crisis, my lack of faith, my difficulty believing, all seemed as incomprehensible as G-d's existence had just moments earlier.

I shared this thought with my wife, assuming she would think I was crazy. Instead, she shared with me her own similar though less dramatic spiritual experiences.

In the course of the next few months, my wife studied and accepted each of the 613 mitzvot. My son continued to learn. Rabbi Bensoussan assisted my wife as she learned and as she made our home kosher. Then my wife and son, now Sara and Avraham, went before a Rabbinical court and each converted to authentic Judaism.

At that moment our whole family began a voyage of discovery which I believe will never end. Our daughter, Maggie, who initially felt betrayed by her family's turn toward "religious fanaticism" discovered her own Jewish soul. She too eventually came before a Rabbinical Court to embrace authentic Judaism. She hopes to attend the Chabad Seminary for young women in Tzfat.

I do not want to leave the impression that our lives are now stress and problem free. On the contrary, we struggle daily to learn and to apply all that we are learning.

I often face the fact that though I am 49 years old it is a struggle for me to pray in Hebrew. I have just begun to learn basic Chasidic philosophy, and I am often daunted by the prospect of converting the massive amount of spiritual impurity in my past into sparks of holiness.

Nonetheless, I am deeply grateful that G-d has allowed my family the opportunity of preventing the extinction that the Holocaust almost accomplished. If we carefully make use of this opportunity, my children and their children and their grand children can gather the sparks that otherwise would have disappeared.

This was written in 1996 for L'Chaim Weekly, a publication of the Lubavitch Youth Organization.

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