I am a Bal Tchuvah, a B.T. Sometimes I spell it Bal Chuvah, without the "T", because Tch is difficult for most English speakers to pronounce.
Bal Tchuvah means Master of the Answer, or alternately, one who is returning. In some Jewish circles, it is an honor to be considered a B.T. because they revere the sinner who returns to our ways more than one who never veers from the straight and narrow. The element of choice weighs mightily in their estimation because B.T.'s know sin first-hand, not by reading it in some book, and they are able to conquer it.
In 1993, at the age of 45, I was B.J.T.A., Born Jewish, Totally Assimilated. America was my holy land. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash was my slogan.
I was the great-grandson of an orthodox Rabbi and I had not been in shul for 25 years. I was married to a wonderful woman – a non-Jew. She offered to convert before we were married and I told her not to bother – it wasn't important to me. My son was not bar mitzvahed because that was also not important to me.
Perhaps the best illustration of the former state of my Judaism was that on one Yom Kippur, I drove to McDonald's on my lunch break at work and ate a Bacon Cheeseburger.
Then, one fateful summer day in 1993, a young Chabad Rabbi who was F.F.B., Frumme From Birth, walked into my family's real estate office. He asked if we could get him a good deal on a building so he could start an Orthodox shul. He had no money, but more faith in God than anyone I had ever met. From the first day we met he only called me by my Jewish name.
Fast forward ten years.
I am wearing a yarmulke all the time, even in the shower, when I sometimes forget. I have a full beard. I am a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. I assumed the position of President of the Chabad synagogue after my brother abdicated, and then abdicated back to my brother.
There are other personal miracles. My wife is now a convert. My children and grandchildren come to our Shabbos table every Friday night, voluntarily, and they are slowly, layat layat, returning along with me. I do not work from Friday night until Saturday night, and I look forward to Saturday farbregans at shul.
When I write, it is under my Jewish name, Zalman Velvel, to remind me who is looking down and judging.
I am also not Holier than Thou. I have a long way to go on my path – but I am returning, slowly and surely, layat layat.
What happened during those years we fast-forwarded?
I could try to sum it up in one paragraph, but it would be better if you read the stories that follow.
Many of the stories are rooted in my experiences as I helped that young Orthodox Rabbi build a congregation among assimilated Jews. Some are derived from living briefly in the Hasidic Holy Land of Crown Heights. Some come from living in a dangerous "settlement" in Israel, as a member of Yossi's hilarious family of Flintstones.
Most come from trying to live my life with my eyes, mind, and heart open.
After reading these stories, you might be tempted to ask a question, the same question that was posed by a Christian friend who had not seen me for a few years, and almost didn't recognize me under my beard and yarmulke.
"Are you happier being more Jewish?"
I said, "Yes," and that satisfied him.
When a famous Hasidic speaker asked me that same question at a foundation dinner, I did not expect to get off so easy from an "insider", so I added my father's words:
"But it's not easy to be a Jew."
And then I finished up with my own opinion.
"I don't believe a "happy" life is the goal of a Jew. A good life, and a full life, is the example we are shown by our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and by whose merit we Jews have sustained ourselves for thousands of years."
I dedicate these stories to my family, who by the grace of God, continue to love me as I change and return.
And to my father, Israel Yaakov ben David, who did not have the chance to write what was inside his soul.