“The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and foundation out of which all the rest of the people have drawn their beliefs and their religions.” – Leo Tolstoy
My journey to Judaism started many years ago in the former USSR and finally I know the answer to the question “Why is Judaism important to me?”
Studying Torah has become a blessing in my life. The beauty of our heritage, the inspiration of our matriarchs and patriarchs, learning about the 13 attributes of Hashem, all inspire me to be the best I can be. Torah has ignited the desire to grow, appreciate what I have, and brings me an inner joy that no one can take away.
One of the biggest blessings in my life is my son Meylakh who is my inspiration to become the best I can be. I hope that he is aware and can acknowledge the differences in my behavior – that I guard my tongue, control my anger, am more sensitive, and that I have more happiness and joy despite some problems. I hope that he will start to appreciate and understand my desire to study Torah, and to see how Judaism can change a person’s way of living. I hope he will be influenced by what he sees. I will do whatever I can to help him fall in love with Judaism, and understand this love for Torah that is in my blood and runs through my heart. I also hope to be blessed with the opportunity to help other people fall in love with Judaism.
Some young people live a Jewish life because of love of traditions. Others with a scientific mind like our son can fall in love with Judaism when they can see the benefits of studying Torah intellectually. One has to believe in oneself to become the best one can be, even on the bumpy road of life.
My family – our son Meylakh, my husband Marat, and myself, are the first generation of immigrants out of our family from the former USSR. We had a secure life there. My parents had a vacation house and a car, we had our apartment, and were well educated. My husband who has a PhD in math and physics had a very good, well-paying job. We were refuseniks for over 2 years because the USSR liked to keep smart people and my husband has an advanced degree.
We left everything behind and came to the United States in 1991 with our 14 month old son, $140.00, four bags of luggage, unable to speak English, and were not young at all.
What made us give up everything and to start life again from scratch?
As you can imagine, money was not the reason!
I was raised in a religious family and the highest priorities for my parents, god bless their memory, were a healthy lifestyle, the best education, and living a Jewish life. I am very blessed to have had the parents I did. They gave me strength, courage, and love to continue Judaism in our family. Because of them, we were not afraid to name our son Meylakh (who was born in the former USSR) in memory of Marat’s father.
When we needed to choose between college and Judaism, Judaism took a higher priority. Our parents encouraged us to celebrate Jewish holidays and to go to shul. This was dangerous because if a policeman caught a young college student in the Moscow shul, they could file a report and the student could be expelled from college.
We came to America because we wanted our son to be able to reach his potential and to be able to practice Judaism openly.
In America we continued our Jewish life because my husband and I love the traditions, and I was raised with those values.
I took Judaism for granted. When our son, our blessing, started to reject Judaism as a religion and wouldn’t accept my explanations as to why he needs to continue the beautiful Jewish traditions, I finally asked myself “Why is Judaism important to me?”
It took me several years to find the answer.
I was very blessed to meet an orthodox woman named Shana in 2008. We spoke, and she invited me with my family to celebrate Shabbat with her family. It is a beautiful family with children.
She talked to me about Torah study but I was not ready to understand. She offered me several books to read but I returned them several weeks later without reading them, finding good excuses.
She invited us again and again, and every time I brought home other books and then returned them without reading them.
Finally, one of the books caught my attention. It was the book by Rabbi Paysach Krohn “In the Spirit of the Maggid.” I enjoyed this book a lot, and I read more and more of his books. It was the beginning of my spiritual growth.
One year later I had met another Orthodox women Michele. She invited us to celebrate Shabbat with her beautiful family. She too offered me some books to read. I started to read and my soul become thirsty for knowledge of Judaism. Unfortunately, we didn’t have books like these in the former USSR, and I did not have the opportunity to learn the wisdom from my grandmother and mother when I was young.
The more I read, the more I wanted to read. I started to buy used books on Amazon and asked my friends to give me Amazon gift cards for my birthday.
Those two beautiful women Shana and Michele, with their families, opened up for me an amazing world of Judaism.
My journey began in 2008 when I began to read these books, and they changed my life forever. I would like to share with you the names of some of these books:
“Holy Woman” by Sara Yocheved Rigler and all the books by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. In 2011 my husband and I traveled to New York so that I could get a blessing, and she gave me all her books as a gift. I read over 10 books by Rabbi Twerski, and had an opportunity to talk with him on the phone for over an hour to tell him how much I learned from his books.
I fell in love with Rabbi Pliskin from Jerusalem, and my friend in Israel bought one of his books and had him sign it. She then mailed it to me. I started to study Torah from different websites with Rabbi Jacobson from MLC/Meaningful life, from the Breslov Research Institute, with Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Weinreb, and others.
In 2014 I started learning Torah with Rabbi Lewis, Congregation Etz Chaim where my son had a Bar Mitzvah. I enjoyed a lot, learned a lot and truly appreciate the Rabbi’s knowledge and always taking his time to answer my questions via email.
The same year I started learning “Tanya” with Rabbi Silverman at Chabad of Cobb. Those classes help me a lot with my spiritual growth.
My friend Shana has a friend, Rabbi Shlomo Bregman in New Jersey and I got his book “Short and Sweet.” He also began to send me emails on the weekly Torah portion from the Jewish executive learning network. I email him questions, and he responds right away.
Because of the influence of the former Chief Rabbi of England Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, I wrote “The Barshay Family Haggadah,” our story of exodus from Russia for our son.
Those books ignited in me the desire to study Torah. These books also give me the understanding of the importance of community prayer, and opened the beautiful world of psalms for me.
The book “The Gentle Weapon” by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov brings me joy and the desire to pray. It also gives me strength to make changes in my life.
Another book that had an enormous impact on me was Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It gave me a unique opportunity to understand that no one can take away my attitude to life and it is not the problem itself that can destroy a person’s life, but his attitude toward the problem. Rabbi Pliskins books provided me with tools to be in control of my emotions. Problems can break us and cause us a desire to escape by using alcohol, drugs, or the physical world around us in the form of materialism, greed, power or more.
The way to view problems is by understanding that they are an impetus to grow, a call from G-d for connection, and to get stronger and appreciate everything we have. Problems teach us not to take anything we have for granted, and teach us problem solving skills. We were born to have pain, physical and emotional, to suffer, and to have problems. Or they can be the impetus to get stronger, to grow, to teach us problem solving skills, to appreciate what we have, and remind us not to take anything for granted. That is the purpose of pain and suffering.
The same is true of anti-semitism. The KGB in the former USSR wanted Jews to assimilate and give up their desire to live a Jewish life. But there were always people including myself, who fought against their ideology to keep Judaism alive.
It is up to us to assimilate, to deny or to try to escape the reality, or anti-semitism will remind us, god forbid that history can repeat itself.
“To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of the generations.” – Rabbi Sacks
Galina Barshay is a professional life coach, AAPC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.