Making My Way Homeward The Pain and the Grandeur

I was the typical product of a Reform upbringing. A bit of Hebrew school, which I hated. Never went to services at the Temple unless I was forced or bribed. My family’s Judaism meant giving money to Israel. Once a year we had a family seder, where we drank some wine and took out some matza to eat with the soup. I knew nothing about dietary laws or shabbos or Jewish holidays except for Yom Kippur. My most vivid memory of the High Holidays is hearing my parents gripe about the price of the tickets.
My father’s connection to Judaism was just as shallow. His parents were born in Hungary before the First World War, and emigrated after the war. They hid their Jewishness when they came to America. My father was raised as a Catholic till the age of 12.

He found out he was Jewish very unexpectedly. One day my father’s mother caught him with a gang of friends, chasing and beating up Jewish kids for sport. Admonishing him to stop, she was appalled at her son’s response- “Ahh, come on, who cares about a bunch of dirty Jews?”

She called him aside, voice shaking:
“I have something to tell you about Jews, because I can’t bear to see what you’re doing. You’re a Jew yourself, Tommy. So am I. So is your father. Don’t you ever again in your life harm another Jew, you hear me?” A stinging slap punctured her words.

My father was shocked to the core. His mother then told him how she had suffered as a Jew while growing up in a small town in South Carolina, victimized by non-jews. How terrified she had been in school as a girl of ten, when the teacher called her up to the front of the room. How the boys would stick their feet out in the aisle to trip her. They’d slap and pinch her, crooning dirty words under their breath. “Jew-girl,” “dirty-kike,” “sheenie,” they’d hiss as she stumbled past.

After her marriage, my mother had resolved with her husband to raise their children as non-Jews to protect them from the trauma of anti-Semitism. But when she saw she was raising a little Jew-hater right under her own roof, she knew she had made a terrible mistake.

Growing up in Long Island, my father would have liked to find out more about Judaism, but there was no place to learn, no one to learn it from. So he did the best he could do. As a young married man, he helped found the Reform Temple, and became one of its mainstays. The temple was basically a social hall. Judaism meant little more to the people there than their name on a bench in a pew.


I grew up with my brother and sister in this religion-less environment. I had a gala bar mitzva, an empty ceremony I went along with for my parents’ sake. In college I married an Irish-Catholic girl. I felt no qualms about marrying out of faith. At our wedding, a Reform rabbi and a priest were both asked to officiate.

The priest asked Jennifer, “Do you believe J. is the son of G-d?” She answered, “Quite honestly, no.” The priest then said, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to find someone else to marry you. I can’t perform the ceremony if neither of you are believers.”

The Reform rabbi, on the other hand, had no problem performing the ceremony.

Shortly after our marriage, Jennifer and I began to consider starting a family. We decided we wanted to raise our kids as Jews, so Jennifer began to look into conversion.

At Cornell University where we both were at the time, my wife started to learn Hebrew. The Reform Judaism material she studied essentially taught that you must be a moral person, keep the Ten Commandments- in effect, how to be a Jewish Christian. The only way I could see that this kind of “Judaism” differed from Christianity was that it rejected Christian concepts of original sin and the devil.

Jennifer went through the conversion process with a Conservative Beit Din. She had to say certain prayers in Hebrew and state her belief in one G-d. She converted while pregnant, after begin assured by the Beit Din that her conversion would be recognized by all Jewish affiliations.

We eventually settled in Nassau by her county, right near the Sound. I joined a Temple in the neighborhood, and served as the president and financial secretary.

Friday night services were always called for 8.15, no matter what time sunset. The rabbi’s sermons dealt with current events woven in with some kind of practical lesson like “The Death of Princess Diana And The Dangers of Drunk Driving.” Occasionally he might mention the portion of the Torah, always like a visitor looking at it from the outside, with no bearing on one’s life.

Certain things turned me off completely. Ice cream was given out after services Saturday morning. On occasion, if no one managed to buy it on Friday, the Rabbi would send one of the members out to buy it Saturday morning, before services ended. Weddings and bar mitzvas in the shul were celebrated with kosher-style food, classic Jewish food that looked and sounded kosher, but wasn’t and didn’t profess to be.

For the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, the cantor drove in from the Bronx. He had his services taped live with special soundtrack equipment. Even for one unschooled in Judaism, the hypocrisy was nauseating. There was no G-d in the religion.


My life took a turning point when I was in my forties. At that point we had two children, girls, 15 and 13. My sister who had converted to Christianity after her marriage, became a born-again fundamentalist. She set her sights on trying to pressure my mother to convert.

My mother refused, but my sister wouldn’t give up. She and an older daughter would call my mother and write her letters full of missionary content, citing biblical verses to prove the legitimacy of Christianity.

My sister went so far as to push JC at the bedside of an uncle of mine who was terminally ill. She literally begged him, almost on her hands and knees, to accept JC, to feel the rapture of divine grace. My uncle in his last moments of life could barely talk. Though he never practiced anything and knew nothing about Judaism, he summoned the strength to rasp out a few words. ” I was born a Jew, that’s how I want to die! Leave me alone.”

The family was being torn apart by my sister’s fervent evangelism. Some of the family wanted to ostracize her for what she had done at my uncle’s deathbed, others were falling into the missionary trap. Perhaps my grandmother’s discovery, late in life, that a Jew can’t - and shouldn’t - forsake his people, was responsible for my intense opposition to my sister. That slap on the face my father’s mother gave him must have reverberated through time to reach even me, who had married out of faith. I wanted to discredit my sister’s arguments but I was too ignorant.

Providentially, someone directed me to Rabbi Singer, an Orthodox rabbi who is also an expert on Bible and missionaries. I listened to his tapes, then corresponded with him. He knew the whole missionary routine and how to answer their claims. Singer’s arguments were unassailable. He coached me on exactly how to answer my sister’s challenges, how to tear apart her “proofs.”

Though my rebuttals didn’t shake my sister’s faith, to my relief they accomplished the main objective. Embarrassed by her faulty knowledge, my sister halted her evangelizing work on my mother and my aunts.

From Singer’s tape series I began to learn about Judaism and what G-d actually wants of a person. It took the pressure to convert to Christianity to make me think seriously about my own religion for the first time in my life.

I had always felt a twinge of envy coming across a Jew who seemed to know what Judaism was about. At a funeral, for example, I’d see someone who knew the prayers and rituals, who knew how to tear his garment, how to say the Kaddish without an English transliteration, how to take the shovel and help with the burial. I’d watch him, feeling jealous in my heart of his connection to his roots, his familiarity with something ancient and deep and beyond me.

Now suddenly, I was finding out bits and pieces about that mystery called Judaism and I wanted all of it.

I live in a wealthy Anglo-Saxon town where there is no trace of anything authentically Jewish. No Orthodox minyan, rabbis or teachers; no kosher restaurants or Orthodox schools.

I had no one to turn to for guidance, but I began to read all the material I could on Torah from the Orthodox perspective.

I learned how to lay tefillin. I wanted to learn the morning prayers. Davening on my own took hours, so I went to a bookstore on the Lower Est Side and bought a tape of the morning services. I’d listen to it with headphones as I prayed, till I finally picked up the words and the tunes enough to follow along in shul.

“I learned the Birkat Hamazon the same way. At the time, we were not yet keeping shabbat, so -weird as it sounds- we’d be sitting around the table after our shabbat meal, listening and singing along with a cassette recording of Zemirot Shabbat and Birkat Hamazon.


My family put up a fair amount of resistance to these innovations. My wife, especially, was fearful about what these changes would do to me - and to our relationship. We had some very emotional discussions about the level of observance I could take on without imposing on the rest of the family. I care very deeply for my family and didn’t want to hurt them, but a door had opened for me to a world I was very, very drawn to, and I needed to go forward.

For Jennifer and me, eating out in restaurants had been a favorite way to spend private, relaxing time together. Suddenly, that option no longer existed. There isn’t a kosher restaurant for sixty miles in any direction from our home. I was still ignorant of the laws of Kashrus, but one fact I was sure of: religious people didn’t eat at treife restaurants. Jennifer took this very hard; kashrus turned into even more of a point of contention than Shabbos.

Somehow, I persuaded my wife that we should try these mitzvos for at least a while. She even agreed to observe the family purity laws which I’d read about in a book. Sadly, I knew so very little and there was no one to guide us. As strange as it sounds, it never occurred to either of us that if the relationship between husband and wife was governed by halacha, the interaction between men and women in general would certainly be subject to regulation! Despite my PhD and my sophisticated mindset, I just never figured that out. We were like blind people, groping in the dark.

So there I’d be at a typical wedding with mixed dancing, and I’d be dancing with everyone but my wife!

Naturally Jennifer resented it, and I couldn’t blame her. I had to agree it was absurd. It was a real setback in our becoming religious because we blamed the absurdity on the laws of the Torah, not on our own ignorance.

About two years ago, I finally met Rabbi Singer in person at a lecture he gave in Touro College, organized by Rabbi Moshe Labrie who was deeply involved in outreach in Huntington, N.Y. Meeting these two people and, through them, connecting with Gateways, literally turned our lives around.

Rabbi Labrie is the head of Mesorah Foundation, which runs a series of classes for Jews like myself, a few counties over from Oyster Bay, where I live. I began attending his classes with my wife. After getting to know the people, some of whom had already become frum, we began accepting invitations for Shabbos. We’d spend Shabbos at the home of either Rabbi Labrie or a frum family whom we’d gotten to know from the classes, daven in the Young Israel, see how Shabbos is meant to be experienced. Jennifer, who was still skeptical, nevertheless welcomed these weekends as I did, and the girls were often happy to come along with us.


Rabbi Labrie urged us to attend a Gateways weekend seminar. We did, and from that moment, an entire world opened to us:
“There is a G-d who created the world and wrote the Torah and gave it to the Jewish people.”

These simple facts were proven and hammered home with such cogency, it was breathtaking. That Gateways seminar and successive ones we attended gave us not only the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit, but an entire weltanschauung. Through the lectures and the follow-up classes, the rabbis dispelled forever the stereotype of Jewish religious practice being a mix of superstition and bubbeh meisehs.

They established the divinity of the Torah so that even a hardened cynic couldn’t dispute it. We looked at other religions claiming to be authentic, but lacking the authority of mass revelation, where millions witnessed the event and passed it down through the generations. We understood for the first time why all other religions are founded on one man’s solitary claim of divine revelation. Simply because it’s impossible to smuggle a grand-scale fabrication, professing millions of witnesses, into the pages or world history.

Mattan Torah, had it never taken place as it claimed, could never have gotten off the ground, historically.

The Rabbis showed us the wisdom of Chazal in elucidating the halacha not only for their times but for all generations to come. We learned concepts that were novel to us - that every detail of the Torah is permanent and unchangeable, and how the Torah itself is adaptable to any century, any place on earth. The beauty of the presentations was that they were in no way dogmatic, but well-reasoned, deep, crystal-clear logic.

A Gateways seminar defies the mathematical law that “a whole is equal to the sum of its parts.” You walk away from the weekend of learning with far more than the information given over. Jennifer and I felt the way revolutionaries must feel - in possession of a drastically different outlook on life that had to overturn our whole way of living.

In the months following their experiences with Gateways, the Winters kashered their home with the help of Rabbi Labrie, and became fully shomer Shabbos. They transferred their two daughters and two sons from the nearby Solomon Shechter Conservative School to a Torah Umesorah school an hour and ten minutes from their home. The boys were young enough to make the adjustment easily, and the younger daughter, after an awkward beginning, found friends and began to shine. But Daniella, the 14-year old, rebelled against the change and returned to her former school. Larry and Jennifer began making plans to sell their home and move to a community where they would be in a religious environment. They were excited about the new direction their lives had taken, grateful that they were truly together again.
Then a bombshell struck. During a conversations with the Winters, Rabbi Labrie became aware of Mrs. Winter’s Catholic background and her conversion twenty three years earlier by a Conservative Beit Din. This was contrary to information he had received before. After further checking, he had no choice but to break the shocking news to the doctor and his wife. Jennifer Winter’s geirus (conversion) was not valid. Neither she nor her two daughters were Jewish.


This was the toughest hurdle of our marriage. Jennifer was in a terrible quandary. She wanted to convert, but my older daughter was bitter about having her Jewishness discredited and made a heated issue of it.

“I’m not Jewish to begin with,” she’d say to her mother. ” I don’t have to keep any of this. And neither do you. No one’s supposed to pressure me to convert either. Why can’t I just do what I want?”

She’d say things like, “If you convert, you might as well disown me. It’s the same thing.”

The atmosphere in our home changed. Hurt and anger hung heavy in the air. Eventually, my wife underwent a kosher geirus. Twenty five years after we had first been “married” by the rabbi and priest, we got married again with chupa and kiddushin. It was beautiful but bittersweet. My two daughters cried a lot. We all did.

We’re still a close-knit family, but it’s different than it was. My girls are very torn. They’re at a major crossroads now, at an age most young people don’t have to make critical decisions of this sort. I try not to put pressure on them, but of course they know we long to have them follow their mother’s footsteps and convert according to halacha. Which way they will ultimately go will determine the future of this family - and if, in fact, there will be any future at all, in the deeper sense.

Many American Jews today have reason to wonder if their grandchildren will be Jewish. When my wife and I became religious, we thought we were doing the one thing that would most guarantee the Jewishness of our descendants. Now we know there are no guarantees at all….We need G-d’s special intervention her perhaps more than we ever needed anything.

There’s sadness inside that the blessings of Torah and Yiddishkeit have come at the price of the perfect closeness we once had with our children. I have faith, though, that G-d will help us through this test, and one day grant Jennifer and me what even parents far removed from Torah still long for…Yiddishe nachas from our children.

by  Dr. Larry Winter
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