Goodbye, Columbus - Shalom, Israel
Columbus, Ohio – Kiryat Sefer, Israel
Ohio State University, Bachelor of Education
At the age of 25, Joel (who now goes as Moshe) had been passionate about many causes. Whether as a human rights activist, a recreational unit leader, or an athlete who excelled at basketball, he put his heart and soul into everything that he did — everything, that is, except for his religion.
“Growing up as a ‘traditional’ Jew in Columbus, Ohio, I never showed much interest in Judaism. I spent my time playing sports and participating in minority rights demonstrations.”
Seeing Moshe today, it is hard to believe that he had no idea what it meant to even observe the most basic commandments. “I didn't even know that Shabbat had any rules, nor did I care.”
Today, Moshe lives in an Orthodox community with his wife Sarah and their five children. Moshe spends his days engrossed in intensive Talmudic study, while at nights he draws from his past experiences to educate and guide estranged Jews.
“I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams that one day I'd be religious.”
Now he is as passionate about his religion as any cause he as ever taken up. As Shimon, his long time study partner, tells us, “I've never seen Moshe come to kollel looking lethargic. He always looks excited and enthusiastic to start studying. Everything he does, whether study, prayer, or mitzvah performance, is with a burning passion.”
Moshe was born in Colombus, Ohio in 1967. His father's family had fled Poland to Siberia at the start of World War Two to escape the Nazi invasion. Moshe’s family observed a few Jewish traditions, but didn't really know what it meant to be an observant Jew. “My religious upbringing consisted of little more than going to the synagogue Friday nights, my father reciting Kiddush, and observing some level of kashrut in the house.”
What was your attitude towards religion?
“It didn't interest me. As a kid, I had attended afternoon Hebrew School, but I was just a troublemaker. Even at an older age, my Rosh Hashanas were spent in the Social Hall of the Synagogue rather than in the Sanctuary.”
When did that change?
“While working as an elementary school teacher I was very embarrassed about being Jewish. With Rosh Hashana approaching, I shamefully asked the principal if I could take off one day for the upcoming holiday. Surprisingly, her response was, 'I know it's a two-day holiday. Why don't you take both days off?'. A non-Jew telling me I should be more Jewish really struck something in me.”
Was Rosh Hashana that year different than previous years?
“Definitely. For the first time, I got a hold of a book that explains the essence of the day. After reading it two or three times I felt a much deeper connection to the day.”
What was the turning point in your life?
Having been an active member in a human rights group, I majored in multicultural education at Ohio State University. After graduation I took a job as an elementary school teacher in a low-scale area. There, not only did I teach my students, but I also became very involved in their personal lives. I tried to help them as much as I could. My main purpose was not so much to educate them about the subject matter, as it was to educate them about life. Although this was very fulfilling, after several years I felt as if I hadn't really found myself. I requested a leave of absence for a year in order to do some introspection. “
So you immediately enrolled in a yeshiva?
“No. That never even crossed my mind. I was debating whether to go to Vegas or join a secular kibbutz in Israel.”
Then what happened?
“While I was trying to figure out my next step, I needed a source of income. I found a job working for a company in the closeout industry. My boss, who had recently become observant, would bring various Orthodox Rabbis to give classes to the employees. After some time had elapsed, I sought the advice of one of the Rabbis about where I might be able to find myself.”
He sent you to yeshiva?
“No. He saw I wasn't open to the idea. Instead, he sent me to a program in which half of the day is spent studying Torah and the other half is spent volunteering.”
There did you find yourself?
“Not quite. After six months of this program I had become thirstier for Judaism. Then, when I took up my friend's invitation to spend a Shabbat at the home of his Orthodox brother, I had no idea what a profound impact that one experience would have on my life. My friend's brother urged me to immediately leave the program where I was and enroll at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.
You listened to him?
“Yes. He was very convincing.”
What happened at Ohr Somayach?
“I found myself.”
What was the process?
“First I was extremely impressed by the great insight the Rabbis had into life's issues. Then I started to really get into Talmudic study. During the three years I spent at Ohr Somayach before getting married, I gradually underwent a complete transformation until I became fully integrated into a religious lifestyle.”
When I asked Moshe about what motivates him, he humbly shrugged his shoulders and said, “I'm just trying to make up for lost time.”