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A Jewish Look

Forty minutes, no more. That was the length of time that Mrs. Nechama Berenstein allotted her students to make their rounds of a New Jersey shopping mall.

As a member of the Chabad Chassidic movement, Mrs. Berenstein educates her students about the values of reaching out and caring for every Jew, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught. So, on special occasions in the Jewish year, Mrs. Berenstein would take her students to various locations in the New York-New Jersey area, to meet fellow Jews and offer them a chance to perform a mitzvah.

On this occasion, the time available to complete the "mission" was very short. Mrs. Berenstein was only able to arrange a quick trip for her students, as she had to return to Brooklyn to deliver a lecture.

 After deciding on a meeting point near the entrance of the mall, the students dispersed. Mrs. Berenstein herself made her way to the benches in the fast food court, where she hoped to encounter fellow Jews. She approached one bench, where several women and one young man were seated.

Mrs. Berenstein chose to address the women rather than the young man. In general, she was more comfortable speaking with women, and the young man did not have a very Jewish appearance. Both women turned out to be Jewish, and were happy to discuss with her the upcoming holiday as well as Judaism in general.

The time passed quickly; Mrs. Berenstein glanced at her watch and realized that they had been talking for 45 minutes. She was already five minutes late for the established meeting time with her students. She excused herself, cut the conversation short, and wished her conversation partners a happy holiday.

As she was making her way hurriedly back to the mall entrance, an inner voice whispered to her that she should go back and speak to the young man who had been seated next to the two women. What will it hurt, she reasoned.

"Excuse me, are you Jewish?" she asked him forthrightly.

The young man's response was startling. His face paled, and looking up at her wild-eyed, he burst out: "Why did you just ask me that?!" With that, the young man broke out in sobs.

Mrs. Berenstein stood there perplexed. "What happened?" she asked sympathetically. "Why are you crying?"

"You are not answering my question!" he said. "Why did you ask me if I am Jewish? What entered your mind to approach someone who looks like me, to ask whether I'm Jewish?"

Mrs. Berenstein tried to apologize, and explained that to her, it seemed possible that he might be Jewish. However, he wasn't buying it.

"Listen carefully," he said, and began to relate his life story:

I was born 23 years ago, to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. Before my parents were married, my mother made one condition: Although she was not religious, she intended to raise her children in the Jewish faith, and send them to Jewish schools. My father agreed; it didn't bother him, one way or the other.

And so it was. When I reached school age, I was enrolled in an Orthodox day school. Our home life was secular, but I wore a kippah and tzitzit, and tried to adhere to whatever my teachers in school taught me.

The gap between the life I led at home and what I was taught in school did not disturb me. One thing, however, bothered me: my non-Jewish appearance. Some of my classmates delighted in tormenting me about it, and would remind me constantly that I looked like a "goy." Even some teachers unwittingly planted in me the idea that I wasn't fully Jewish, since my father was a non-Jew. This bothered me a great deal.

At a certain point, my father told my mother, "Look, the boy is really suffering in school. This place is not for him." My mother agreed. She, too, sensed that I was not fitting in socially. My parents withdrew me from the Orthodox school and enrolled me in public school. Very soon, I shed all external trappings of Jewishness and became fully integrated in the public school.

However, deep inside me there remained an ember of Jewish faith. The messages I had absorbed during my early years had left a deep impression, and I couldn't quite shake it off. Many times I engaged in a dialogue with G-d. I blamed him for my leaving Judaism. "You created me this way, and put me through such torment in a Jewish setting. Because of you, I left the path." However, these dialogues did not satisfy me, and I felt an emptiness inside.

Just before, when you approached my bench and asked everyone else around me if they were Jewish, I felt vindicated. "See, she is not even approaching me. She is sure I am a non-Jew."

As you turned to leave, I had a strange idea: "G-d, I am prepared to make a deal," I cried out in my heart. "If this woman returns and asks me if I'm Jewish--I will return to Judaism." Just as I had made that promise, you turned around, approached me and asked me whether I was Jewish. Now tell me the truth--what possessed you to approach me?


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