In our previous column we profiled the challenges and exhilaration of the religious journey of a high-powered corporate executive - Yehoshua (Harry) Looks, who became observant while serving as a division president of a Fortune 500 corporation. While his work atop Edison Brothers Stores took him to exotic destinations across the globe, the roots of his and his wife Debbie’s religious journey were literally much closer to home.
Yehoshua was ambitious, focused and had a clear direction of where he wanted to go in life. And yet when his equally persistent six-year old son asked him pointed questions about their family’s religious observance, life for their family took a completely unexpected turn.
Debbie grew up in a strongly-affiliated Reform home while Yehoshua grew up in a less-affiliated Reconstructionist home. Debbie’s mother lit candles every Friday night and the family had Shabbat dinner every week and followed some laws of kashrut.
“Friday night was always important for me, but it was not until I was a teenager that I knew that Shabbat extended until Saturday,” Debbie said.
After their marriage and graduate school, Yehoshua and Debbie moved to St. Louis, MO, and then to Baltimore, MD as Yehoshua rose in the corporate ranks of Edison Brothers. They floated between different synagogues and chaverot (at one point in their journey they even had memberships in synagogues of four different levels of observance!)
In Baltimore, many of their friends from their Conservative chavera sent their children to a local Solomon Schechter school and the Looks family felt it was the right place for them as well. The school was affiliated with the Conservative movement and taught a background of basic mitzvot observance.
After moving back to St. Louis, they enrolled their oldest son Moshe in the first grade, again at Schechter. Moshe soon began noticing discrepancies between the religious practices he was learning in school and the family’s observance at home.
“As Moshe learned more, he started coming home with questions. One day he asked out of blue why don’t we keep kosher? I had never kept kosher growing up. My family belonged to [a] Reconstructionist congregation. I was aware of kashrut but it was a foreign concept,” Yeshoshua said. “I said ‘let me think about it,’ but it really was a way to put off the decision.
“The next day Moshe asked, ‘So?’ We decided then to do it.”
Moshe’s questions became the impetus for the family’s decision, and within a short time the kitchen was kashered. But it was only one of many times they did it – the family kashered their kitchen three or four times in total over the next few years as they became more observant.
The more he learned in school, the more questions Moshe brought home. Ironically for Yeshoshua the questions came at an opportune time in his life.
“As the questions got stronger for me, I was also approaching my midlife crisis. As opposed to buying a sports car, I got into religion.”
Around this time a new Conservative Rabbi came to town. Yeshoshua was drawn to him and the two men began learning Talmud and other sources together. From then on, Yeshoshua’s journey took off like a lightning bolt. He traded his daily 5:30 am racquetball game for a daf yomi shiur and began carting his Gemorrahs and canned food with him on his business trips to the Far East.
Back home the journey was slower for Debbie. Yehoshua jumped into many commitments earlier than her and he needed to learn patience, something hard for him, until Debbie and their children found their own path. The family still belonged to a Conservative synagogue but lived far from it. Once Yehoshua stopped driving on Shabbat, the distance became a challenge.
During one of Yehoshua’s many business trips, Debbie was at home with their children. They had not been to the Conservative synagogue in a while and Debbie missed the social aspects. That Shabbat, the Rabbi’s wife had invited Debbie and her children to come for Shabbat lunch. Debbie was still driving on Shabbat, so she buckled the children in the car and was about to pull out of the driveway. This time it was their six-year old daughter Elka’s turn to make a statement that would change the religious direction of the family.
“I looked in the back and Elka was in her seat crying, just crying, I looked at her and she said to me, ‘you wouldn’t even let me keep the mitzvah of Shabbat!’ I said, ‘sweetie this will be the last time’ and it was,” Debbie said. “You have to take this seriously. You can’t say one thing to your kids and then do something else.”
That was the last Shabbat the family attended the Conservative synagogue. They next joined an open and warm local Orthodox shul. When Moshe graduated from Solomon Schechter and the other parents enrolled their children in public school, the Looks family decided to send him to the Orthodox day school instead.
Next came a family trip to Israel, which clinched the family’s growth and commitment to becoming observant. Again though it was the inspiration of the children – after seeing and living a fully religious life during their stay in Israel, they pushed their family to even higher levels of commitments once back in America.
The Looks family is now geographically dispersed and two of the children are married – the parents are living in Israel and the siblings are in Israel, South Africa and the United States. They are still on paths of growth, but now are all pushing each other.
Michael Gros writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Jewish Press in October 2011