“Choose life,” the Torah tells us in Parashas Nitzavim. And indeed, what seems like such a fairly easy choice—life over death—is in fact, a very, very difficult one.
We are constantly bombarded by life-death choices. Do we take a few minutes to speak to our elderly, lonely neighbor sitting on the porch or do we hastily wave as we rush by? Do we speak calmly and supportively to our spouse even after a grueling day at work or do we allow our annoyance and frustration to prevail? Do we snap at our children when they seek our time and attention, or do we take a minute to listen to their stories, their challenges, their fears?
Are these really life-death choices?
Yes, they are. As author Rabbi Yehoshua Berman writes: The mitzvah “you shall choose life” enjoins us to function as a chooser—to take the reins of life firmly in hand and be in control of ourselves. It empowers us to live in a conscious manner wherein deliberate decisions between good and evil, right and wrong, better or worse, good or even better, characterize how we approach life; and not just go through life following the automatic-pilot path of least resistance, ease and pleasure seeking (http://www.aish.com/tp/i/reflections/325017951.html).
Our cover story “Jews by Choice” is—appropriately—about choices. Rosh Hashanah is all about choices. It’s about past choices and future choices; it’s about who we were, who we are and who we hope to be.
In this issue we read about the choices made by a few extraordinary individuals to leave their religion of birth and embark upon the rigorous path of conversion to Judaism. The men and women who, through their own diligence, determination and persistence, end up joining Klal Yisrael are fascinating individuals with fascinating stories to tell. We are privileged to be able to present but a glimpse into their lives.
But while the choices made by those who are born Jewish don’t seem quite as dramatic, they are no less life-altering. Every Jew—convert or not—makes choices with eternal consequences multiple times each and every day.
My own mother, Rae Schreck, a”h, made a life-transforming decision when she married my father. A decision that affected her children, grandchildren and all future generations. A decision for which I am eternally grateful.
My maternal grandparents arrived in the United States in 1900, and while my grandmother lit Shabbos candles and tried to maintain some traditions from the alte heim, her home was not a religious one. In those days, there weren’t many yeshivos; the flourishing infrastructure of Orthodox life that we take for granted today did not exist back then. The Orthodox community was struggling, overshadowed by the more powerful Conservative and Reform movements. My mother learned how to read aleph-beis and that was the extent of her Jewish education. But hashgachah brought my parents together; they met and wanted to marry. My father, however, had been brought up in a very religious home, and was a 1928 graduate of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.
In marriage, my mother made her choice. She chose to share a frum lifestyle with my dad. Today her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all live Torah-true lives.
My mother embraced Yiddishkeit wholeheartedly. She instilled in all of us what Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik referred to as “Torat Imecha,” the powerful experiential relationship to Torah and Yahadus that only a mother can convey [see “Our Mothers,” page 42]. She was a highly spiritual person and, despite her irreligious background, lived a life guided by the light of the Torah. During her final illness, when we accompanied my mother who was already well into her eighties to the hospital, she whispered to me: “Jerry, I’m not leaving the hospital. If Hashem wants to take me, I am ready. I have two grandsons who have semichah. I have raised beautiful children and grandchildren who go in the way of Hashem.” She was fulfilled knowing that she raised future generations who would go in the right path.
In this issue, we included a section entitled “Gifts I Got from My Mother,” where writers reflect on lifelong gifts they received from their mothers. What gift did my mother leave me? The gift of emunah. She made a foundational choice when she married my father that reverberates until this very day.
Each of us makes choices—every day, every hour—many of which have eternal ramifications.
Best wishes for a kesivah v’chasimah tovah.
Gerald M. Schreck is chairman of the Jewish Action Committee and vice chairman of the OU Board of Governors.