“ARE YOU JEWISH?”
It was a simple question that could elicit a different response from different people.
It also depended upon who was asking it, where, and when. Asked by a Nazi during the Holocaust,
and an affirmative meant certain death.
Asked by a gaunt-looking rabbi at the Kosel, and it could lead to a whole new spiritual life.
His name was Jonathan.
But it could have just as easily been David, or Jerry, or Denise, or Rachel, etc.
The rabbi had asked it to thousands of people who had visited the Kosel HaMa’aravi over the last decade.
He also had received a myriad of different responses, not all of them polite.
It was a valid question.
So many secular Jews could easily be mistaken for a gentile, and vice-versa.
The rabbi who asked it wasn’t just making conversation.
He had a mission in mind.
He wanted to help unaffiliated Jews have a true God Experience, and for that he had to know if they were Jewish.
Jonathan was not sure what to answer. He had no problem admitting he was Jewish.
He did have a problem with a stranger approaching him out of nowhere and asking him the question.
How much more so if the stranger is an Orthodox rabbi.
He couldn’t lie, though.
There was also something about the rabbi that disarmed him, and making it harder to lie if he could.
“Yeah,” he said nonchalantly. “Why do you want to know?”
“You want to meet a wise man?” he asked, as if doing so was the one thing a secular Jew traveling through
Israel wanted to do while there.
In his mind he said, “Are you serious?” but he answered,
“No thank you.”
He was about to walk away, but the rabbi didn’t give up.
“Where are you from?”
And that is how it all started.
Rarely had he ever given private information to a stranger, let alone to a rabbi he did not know,
and yet that is what he did.
One thing led to another, and 20 minutes later he found himself being led to that wise man the rabbi first spoke about.
At the very least, he would have something interesting to talk about once he got back to the States.
He eventually went back to the States, but not when he had first planned.
It turned out that the wise man had been wise after all. Wise enough, in fact,
to convince him after only 20 minutes to try out the yeshivah, something he never thought he’d ever do.
He was a college student and eager to graduate.
He did. It took a couple years more and a different program that accepted yeshivah credits, but he got his degree.
Two more years after that he also received smichah, rabbinic ordination, and was teaching others what he had first
learned when he had very skeptically sat down for the first time within the walls of the yeshivah.
At the time he met the rabbi at the Kosel, he considered himself a borderline atheist.
He knew what the Bible was, but had never heard the word “Torah” before. He had believed that religion was the
“opium of the masses,” and was the cause of many wars throughout history.
At that point in his life, being Jewish was just another kind of nationality, one you could drop at will.
He was particularly amazed at how something so important and relevant to his personal fulfillment could
remain so hidden from him and others like him.
He shudders when he considers how close he came to missing the boat on his national heritage, and how
miraculously fortunate he was to stumble into it.
When later asked what made him decide to stay in yeshivah and go the full distance, he answered:
- “I saw how other people just as smart as me, or even much smarter, were convinced that God existed and was involved in everyday life.
- I saw their inner calmness and was amazed at their emotional maturity.
- I lived among people who were decent and caring in ways I did not see back home, especially in my age group . . .
- I saw all this and so much more, and decided I wanted the same thing.
- Clearly they were having some kind of God experience, and I wanted one too.
- It has been proven to be much better than I had ever imagined.”