By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
The abnormal normalcy has returned. Intersession has concluded, and once again the parking lots are full and it takes 45 minutes to drive down Broadway from Cedarhurst to Lawrence. There are those of us who stayed behind and enjoyed the open space while many, if not most, opted for the warm Florida sun or the Colorado ski slopes. Those who went to Israel enjoyed the best of both worlds as the spirit there makes any excursion a pleasure.
A group of 15 girls decided to do something a bit different. There was sun where they went and there was snow. But their activities did not center around either one of those. These young ladies, my 17-year-old daughter included, decided to spend their well-deserved vacation in Minsk, Belarus, home to a Jewish population that can be counted on a few hands.
My daughter and her friends spent an incredibly inspiring 10 days bringing a little Judaism to a group of approximately 40 girls in a boarding school in Minsk. While a lot of us were feasting at fine restaurants, these noble ladies subsisted on sardines, cucumbers, and beef jerky. Undoubtedly, it was life-changing for the young girls in Minsk—and for my daughter and her friends as well. The pictures and videos of the time spent there are inspiring and serve as a constant reminder that not everyone lives like we do and not everyone has the opportunities that we have before us. The seeds that these 15 girls planted will surely give birth to trees filled with leaves and then fruit.
Spending their intersession giving of themselves was perhaps one of the greatest usages of time to date in their young lives. They now appreciate that if we choose to spend our time giving to others, our time becomes that much more meaningful and valuable.
It brings to mind how I once spent a most meaningful 60 minutes some 25 years ago.
It was before I began practicing law, and at the time I was a pulpit rabbi at a synagogue in New Jersey. I was sitting in the shul one Friday afternoon preparing my remarks for the following day when the door opened and a college-age man walked in. I had never seen him before and I never saw him again after that brief one-hour encounter.
He introduced himself as Michael, a philosophy major at one of the local universities. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked him if I could help him in some way. Michael removed a folded black yarmulke from his pocket and placed it on my desk. He remarked that he was here to formally renounce his Judaism.
I knew he was conflicted about what he was doing because if he did not want to be challenged, he would not have sought me out. One does not need a rabbi to turn one’s back on his heritage; no formal action is required.
Something must have triggered this behavior at this time and I sensed, as it does in many cases, that it involved a girlfriend. I asked him if he had a girlfriend and if she was Jewish. He answered yes to the first question and no to the second.
He expected me to horse-collar him and tie him to the chair. Instead, employing some psychology, I thanked him for coming and took the yarmulke and placed it on the right-hand side of the table. He looked stunned but turned around and headed for the door.
As he turned the knob to exit, he suddenly pivoted towards me and said, “If you want to talk, I only have one hour and then I have to go.”
I am sure he expected me to say, “Oh no, you must stay for as long it takes.” But I did not. I shocked him by saying, “Great, I can imagine how valuable every moment is for you.”
“Can you do me one favor before we begin talking?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, “but it counts as part of the hour.”
“Absolutely,” I remarked. “Every moment counts.”
I told him that I collect rocks and leaves and asked if he could do me a favor and go outside to the parking lot and find me a nice rock and a green leaf. He looked at me like I was nuts but complied. Michael returned with a rock and a green leaf which I placed on the table next to his yarmulke.
I asked Michael if he had parents and grandparents and if he was close to them. He told me that he has a decent relationship with his parents but that all of his grandparents had passed. He shared with me that he was especially close with his grandmother who had passed away just two months before. I asked if any of them—his parents or grandparents—were practicing Jews, and he informed me that his parents were not but that the grandmother who had recently passed away was very religious.
I asked him if that grandmother knew of his non-Jewish girlfriend and he said no. He continued, “All the while she was alive, I could not bring myself to marry my non-Jewish girlfriend, but now that she has passed away perhaps it was a sign from G-d that it was OK. She was, after all, the best grandmother one could ever have.”
I said to him, “Michael, it’s definitely a sign. But if you didn’t think that perhaps it might be a ‘stop sign,’ you would not be standing here today talking with me.”
“I did not choose to be born a Jew,” he said. “Where is my free will? Some other power made me a Jew and because of that I am restricted?”
The clock was ticking towards the half-hour.
I picked up the leaf and said, “Michael, many leaves struggle with that question. They spend countless hours, days, and months grappling with the question of ‘Why am I a leaf and not a rock?’ Other leaves go one step further and hide among the rocks, and even pretend that they are rocks. But they are not. No matter how hard they try to convince themselves and others that they are rocks, they are leaves.
“Others know, as you stated yourself, that they are very busy. Their time is valuable, every moment counts, and no moment can be wasted on a fool’s errands. You said it yourself, Michael; you only have an hour. You can be one of those who ponders why you are who you are, or you can decide to pretend to be someone you are not, a leaf living among the rocks. Or like your grandmother, who was the best grandmother a grandmother could ever be, you can devote your valuable time, Michael, to becoming the best leaf out there. Perhaps one day your question will be answered, ‘Why was Michael created a Jew?’ But in the interim, learn from what you told me about your grandmother. Use your limited time here in the most valuable way, the most productive way. And maybe, just maybe, if you figure out how to live that certain way, the question of ‘Why?’ might be answered as well.”
He stood up and walked to the door of the shul. Our 60 minutes were up. But before leaving, he turned around, walked to the table, picked up his yarmulke, the rock, and the leaf, and put them in his pocket. v
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.