One of the significant beliefs that permeate the religious/secular dispute is that each side believes that it and it alone represents truth. It and it alone carries the Jewish People on its shoulders. I’m here to give testimony, you judge.

I was still fresh from Vietnam, in the midst of putting myself back together at Brandeis. I noticed something that was now clearly different. Before Israel, I was on my own personal journey. I may have been Jewish, but it was incidental to my identity. Israel changed that. It awakened that “pintile Yid,” that Jewish soul, my Neshamah. Vietnam gave me something else, steel in the backbone, an ever burning fire and a passion that drove me. Brandeis gave me an opportunity to use that fire on behalf of my own people.

It happened through an appeal by a young Jew smuggled out of Russia. This was in 1969 and the Iron Curtain was, for the most part, an impenetrable barrier. He spoke before a small group of students and at one point he reached out his arms to us and said, “You must help me. You’re my brothers. I can’t say anything publicly because my mother is still there and they’ll hurt her. Please help!”

It affected me very deeply. The next day I got involved and helped organize the first major march for Soviet Jewry in Boston. I immersed myself in the movement and eventually upon return to Cincinnati became head of the Soviet Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

I remember being on the phone with one of the refuseniks, those Jews who stood up to the Russians and demanded exit visas. Her name was Victoria Poltinakova. She had been exiled to Siberia for her activism and caught tuberculosis. We were calling to give support and maintain contact. I spoke to her through a translator. We did our best to keep the conversation apolitical but a wrong word must have slipped out and all of a sudden I was speaking to emptiness. I called out in desperation, “Victoria, Victoria,” as if I could protect her as long as we were talking, but the fragile link was broken.

Later on I played a minor role in the Jackson Vanik legislation that denied most favored nation treaty status to the Soviet Union unless they would free the Jews. It was touch and go as it was debated in the House Ways and Means Committee. My job was to secure one of three Republican votes necessary to pass it out of committee. My Congressman was Don Clancy, a Republican from Cincinnati. His support blew with the wind and the morning of the vote he had breakfast with President Nixon who turned him against the vote. I called Don’s largest supporter, a Jew who was only marginally involved. I told him he could be part of history by helping free the Jews of the Soviet Union. He made the call, turned Don around and I watched outside the committee room as the network TV stations reported on the historic vote that opened the doors for Soviet Jewry to leave Russia.

I was also involved in our local Jewish Federation, especially during the Yom Kippur war. It was clear to me that we Jews who were active and involved, none of whom that I knew were religious, were the backbone of support for Israel and the Jewish People. It never would have dawned on me and been patently offensive to hear that we were anything but the representatives of the Jewish People. 

Then I put on my Kippah and all of a sudden I was “the religious fanatic.” It had an instant and chilling effect on my acquaintances. In addition, I lost two management contracts in my nursing home business. Who would have thought that this little piece of cloth would have such an effect?

I had clearly “crossed over to the other side.” It’s true that as a “born again Jew” or, as we call it, a Baal Tshuva, one who has returned, that my religious beliefs crept into my conversations. Who knows, maybe I was a little intense, maybe a lot. In any event it was upsetting because I was still “me” but all of a sudden there was this huge gulf between me and my former community.

What was different was that I had changed sides in a dispute going on for as long as there have been Jews. It had to do with Who/who is in charge.

Before making my fateful decision to put on a kippah it was clear to me that making decisions, following my own compass, being the master of my destiny was not working. It was also clear that there was a wisdom in the Torah that spoke to my Neshumah; yet I had a major obstacle to overcome. I struggled with the idea of turning over control of my life to What, to Whom? Part of me was fighting with all I had to retain control. The very thought of living within boundaries that constricted my behavior in every major area was frightening.

I asked myself, ‘who does that?’ Only a religious fanatic or someone in a cult. Besides, I don’t know what I believe in. The idea that G-d gave us the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in fire and lightning, that He spoke to the millions of Jews assembled at the foot of the mountain, the whole idea of miracles, was to me sketchy stuff that seemed like ancient tales and fairy dust, yet…

After the young Russian Jew had spoken to us at Brandeis I had the opportunity to speak to him privately. I asked him how it was that, if the Jews of Russia knew nothing about Judaism, about their own heritage, that he became an activist. He said that the only thing he knew about being Jewish was that it was stamped “Yevrey” in his passport and that this was the worst curse one could imagine. He said the government used to rant about this evil empire of the Jews, this great world evil. “I thought to myself,” he said, “where is this great evil, where is this power, we’re a nothing. We have no power?!” “Then I went into  a Shul, a place I had never been to before and I started learning. The more I learned the more I saw where the power came from.”

I thought about what he said. Where was this power emanating from? Why did I fall in love with Israel? Echoes of the words of the Hassid in the train station came back to me, “You Americans, your mothers teach you Greek and Latin. What do you know of your own heritage?” Unlike my Russian friend, I didn’t run to a Shul since like most of my generation I had escaped at thirteen, and mumbling words that I didn’t understand didn’t appeal to me. Besides, as a child of Western culture I looked for meaning from philosophers, writers, etc.

I discovered many writers and thinkers in Brandeis and they expanded my world view, but it didn’t reach where I needed to go, to that place where I was at peace with Vietnam, made sense of my love for Israel and what it meant to be a Jew, and, most importantly, gave me guidelines on how to live a better life. While I didn’t yet have a personal relationship with HaShem, it was something I yearned for, or what was the point of my prayers in Vietnam, my promise to be my brother’s keeper if I survived? If life was nothing more than the random collision of atoms, then to Whom was I praying? If there was nothing more than a grave waiting at the end of days and life was predestined, then what difference could a person make in this world? What difference that I survived while my friends died, since it had no meaning beyond random chance? What was the purpose of my life?

So, with a bible in my hand I started my search. I walked the valley of Elah in Israel. I saw where the Israelites encamped and where the Philistines lived. I heard echoes of Goliath, shouting at the Israelites to send a champion. I went to the stream and picked up five smooth stones as did my ancestor David. It felt real, not “ancient tales or fairy dust.” The words of the Bible described what I was seeing. Yet where was this G-d of David? How to find this belief so strong he went with a rock and a sling against a giant and a warrior?

I went to Mt. Sinai and slept in a monk’s cell in the monastery of Santa Katerina, at the foot of the mountain. It was the middle of winter, no heat, freezing cold, so I slept with my clothes on. At four in the morning the huge bells next door rang for matins, and, literally, bounced me out of my cot. I ran up the mountain and reached the top just as the sun peaked over the horizon. We were above the clouds. The scene was ethereal, spiritual, and while I didn’t feel G-d’s Presence, there were echoes of holiness.

Then the moment came, I abandoned “reason,” took that leap and, lo and behold, nothing was as I had feared. The Tzitzis I now wore weren’t a straitjacket. No One was controlling my mind. Whatever decisions I made were because I wanted to, and when I made them I felt good. Those boundaries I was afraid of, turned out to be the very core of the morality I had believed in all along. OK, the Ten Suggestions became the Ten Commandments. Not only that, but they were written in stone. In other words, Absolute! When I began serious study, I discovered that the basis of Western morality was the Torah. What I had thought were Christian concepts or emanations from the Age of Enlightenment turned out to be straight from the Torah.

I was shocked when I learned the extent of my ignorance of my own religion, its beauties, its truths and the power it had in keeping Jews Jewish despite intense persecution over thousands of years. I wondered where I had lost this treasure.

What I can say from observations over the last 36 years is that just as I had grown up without a belief in G-d and knew little about my own People, their history and was turned off by my own religion, so all too many in our general Jewish community have lost their link with our heritage, our traditions, and that mission that we received on Mount Sinai. The power of the G-d of the Jews, of our Torah, of our traditions to connect us in an unbroken chain to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaacov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, to our extraordinary history and accomplishments, ends when it slips from our grasp. “Etz Hayim he, l’maazikim bo, it is a tree of life for those who hold onto it.” For those that hold onto it, yes, for those who let it go, no.

The question we face as a Jewish People is how to find that “power” that inspired every generation, to find the “Tree of Life” so we can maintain our connection and carry on the legacy and work of our forefathers and mothers that in Mark Twain’s words make us the “Eternal people.”

As to the original question of what divides the Jewish People, of who has the “truth.” Does it matter? We’re in a time of existential danger, a time of mounting anti-Semitism and a time when Iran is on the threshold of the bomb. We can’t afford the disunity, the mounting assimilation and the loss of so many precious Jews.

So, like the young Russian many years ago, I reach out my arms to my brothers and sisters, to the committed Jews of every shade of being Jewish, and ask for all of us to make the difficult choices to ignore the extremes and push towards the center. To build bridges, avoid Loshon HaRah (evil speech) and recognize we are one family, one People, and the hope for our fragile world.

And perhaps, listen to the beating of your heart, your Neshamah yearning to touch That which is beyond us, and know that “Lo b’shomayim he, it isn’t in heaven,” but as close as our desire to reach out, and say a prayer.