The most vivid thing I remember about growing up Jewish was walking with my father for 26 blocks to shul on the High Holidays. Most of the congregants would park their cars two blocks away from the synagogue and walk the rest of the way. It was strange that my dad felt the need to walk. Maybe he knew that those walks would light an ember inside me, because as I got as I got older and drifted away from Judaism, the remembrances of those walks kept me from moving completely away.
I always felt drawn to people who were more observant than me and I believed very strongly, but felt that becoming more observant was too high a mountain to scale, especially all at once. And if you couldn’t do it all, you were a hypocrite to do just some of it. I was a kind of “social” Jew, wrapping myself up in Jewish causes and organizations, a blanket of protection from the guilt.
Lois and I moved to a bigger house after our second child was born. The house met all my requirements: big backyard, cable TV in each bedroom, close to many public golf courses, and a reasonable walking distance to the nearest shul. I had no intention of doing anything more than sending my kids to religious school, and of course, walking to synagogue three days a year.
Just eight months after a first High Holiday walk to my new Shul, Lois’s mom, of blessed memory, succumbed to a long illness. Though we were not active or observant, the rabbi and the “regulars” immediately embraced us with warmth.
During shiva, the Rabbi visited or called every day and the daily minyan came to our home each weekday evening. This was a new experience for me; when I was growing up, the minyan only came to the big donor’s or “regular’s” homes or the homes. My new Shul they didn’t care about my level of observance, or how much I gave; they only cared to provide comfort to someone in the community.
After shiva, my wife went to minyan every day. I joined her when I could, which usually didn’t include Shabbat, my golf day. The more I went, the more those old feelings began to seep out that locked box stored in the back of my mind, that desire to do more.
Around the same time, I signed up for a home study program. Each day we read one chapter of the Tanach and discussed it via an e-mail list. The more I read, the more I wanted to read, and within a few months I was on every Jewish study e-mail list that I could find. I began to attend Shabbat services, participating in Torah discussions between afternoon and evening services. Those old feeling of wanting to become more observant became strong again, but this time it was different. My rabbi encouraged the congregation to become more observant but said it was okay to do it gradually.
Judaism isn’t all or nothing; any step toward Torah is positive. I began to do little things like lighting candles Friday night. We went as a family Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Almost a year into my journey, I took the most difficult step of all, giving up my 7:25 Saturday morning tee off. I found a tee time on Sundays, but my golf got a lot worse, which just goes to prove the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Over the next two years, more mitzvoth began to sneak into my routine. I would wake up wanting to do more: I stopped eating meat from treif animals, and mixing dairy with meat. I went shul for all the festivals, and bought a new set of tefilin to wear at the daily minyan. Eventually my freezer at home was stocked with kosher meat even though my house wasn’t at all kosher.
I have learned much about the spirit of practicing Judaism. Jewish rituals are not purely the solemn rites as I had always thought they were. They are a chance for joy, to relish your time with family, community and HaShem.
I once read that in the creation the world, sparks of holiness were spread across the earth. Every time that a Jew performs one of the 613 mitzvot, one of those sparks is purified and sent back to heaven. Each time I added a mitzvah, I felt a little closer to the Creator, and that bit of closeness made me want more. The guilt that I used to feel for not being observant has been replaced with the joy that I was on the right path.
I wouldn’t have started on the road toward observance if my father had driven to shul on the High Holidays, it was clinging to that one mitzvah that helped me pivot in the right direction.
I still walk to Shul on the High Holidays. It’s not 26 blocks; just two big hills and a valley. My father sleeps at our house because he still doesn’t like to drive on the holidays. And the most joyous part of it all is I get to walk to Shul with him again, and my kids join us for the walk. Hopefully when they look back at their walks, they will be as important for them as they were for my dad and me.
Jeff Dunetz is the Editor/Publisher of the political blog “The Lid” (www.jeffdunetz.com). Jeff lives in Long Island.