Posted in , on November 7, 2012

From Transylvania to Teaneck: One’s Teen’s Extraordinary Story

Sitting at his desk in Hebrew school, facing a chart explaining the differences between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations, teen David Storfer tentatively raised his hand. He was about to ask the most important question of his life, a question he had asked before many times. The rabbi called on him. “Hypothetically speaking,” David began, “if somebody was converted in Conservative Judaism, would they be accepted by all Jewish dominations?” He was, of course, speaking about himself, having said ‘all’ but really concerned with the view of Orthodox Judaism. The rabbi thought for a moment. His answer was different from what David had been told before, which was a flat-out no that had simply turned him off. “Maybe not,” the teacher ventured, “because it might not have been done in accordance with halakha.”

Born in Transylvania, Romania, David was adopted as a five-month-old baby by Conservative Jewish parents in Teaneck, New Jersey, ironically living only four blocks away from the Teaneck NCSY office. He underwent a Conservative conversion and attended Solomon Schechter, where he did not have the best of experiences with Judaism. He chose to attend a public school over a Jewish high school, although his parents made this conditional upon his attending Hebrew school on Sundays. There, he met Rabbi Ely Allen, an Orthodox Sephardi rabbi with whom he eventually studied for his halakhic conversion.

In public school, David felt conflicted. “I knew that I wanted to be Jewish and I was very sure that there was one God,” he explained, “but the way I’d seen Judaism in practice, it wasn’t for me. So I looked for my own version of Judaism.” He demonstrated his identification publically by choosing to wear a kippah in school on Jewish holidays, even though there was only one other person who did so. There was a club set up in school called the Israel Club run by a Jewish teacher who was updating students about Israel-related topics. David was interested and joined the club in order to “meet some other Jews.” NCSY got involved and transformed the club into a JSU club (Jewish Student Union). NCSY advisors came to the school and brought pizza and soda while presenting an interesting Jewish topic. David became president of the club in his sophomore year when the previous president graduated, organizing meetings and other events for the next three years.

“I wasn’t big on doing Shabbatons or anything really with NCSY,” David explained. “When I was a freshman, I believed that playing video games on Shabbos was permitted because I’d been told it was okay by some of my Conservative friends. So that’s what we would do- play video games every Shabbos.” But then he found out that some of his Hebrew school friends were planning to attend a program called Latte & Learning. “I went and absolutely loved it the first time. Free coffee, five to ten minutes of Torah and hanging out with cool Jewish people!” he recalled fondly. Meeting frum teenagers who were “cool and fun but still religious” was something that “completely changed my view on the Orthodox world.” David started attending NCSY Shabbatonim with the help of Rabbi Yaakov Glasser and Teaneck NCSY. He felt that he had found what he was looking for- “Judaism that made sense and made you a good person and that wasn’t based on money and keeping the holidays because that’s what your parents do.”

David started to express his newfound religiosity by wearing a kippah all the time in public school and wearing tzitzis on holidays and final exam days. “I also wore a gold Magen David Jewish chain I got for my brother’s engagement party,” he said. Since he was so obviously Jewish, the non-Jewish students and less religious Jewish kids started asking him questions about Judaism. “Sometimes I wouldn’t know the answers so I started looking them up, talking to rabbis and getting really into learning in order to bridge the gap.”

David’s adoptive parents welcomed his newfound commitment to Judaism with a mixture of support and resignation. Their two biological children, a boy and a girl, each older than David, had taken the same path not long before. David’s brother had become more religious through college and is currently a Chabad rabbi opening a new yeshiva in Miami, Florida. David’s sister also became religious, keeping the mitzvos with great mesiras nefesh. “She’s an accountant and her accounting firm paid for her to go to Notre Dame for two summers,” David confided. “She was the only Jew there and she got kosher food flown in every day in double plastic wrappings and was able to take off for Shabbos.” The difference was that David’s siblings had become more religious after they had moved out of the house, while David was doing so while still at home. It was difficult to explain why he couldn’t eat all the foods they cooked or preferred to be away for Shabbos, for instance.

David began his journey toward a halakhic conversion with the help of Rabbi Yaakov Glasser of NCSY, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck and his Hebrew Scholl rabbi, Rabbi Ely Allen. Rabbi Pruzansky set out a curriculum for him which he studied very diligently. “We would meet with him every month or two months to test his knowledge,” the Bnai Yeshurun leader explained. “The texts used vary but the areas of study included the laws of Shabbos, Kashrus, Tefillah, Yamim Tovim, Tzedaka, the other ethical obligations of the Jew, issues of Tznius, Tzitzis along with a working knowledge of the basic story of the Torah, thus  Parshas HaShavua. He needs to have familiarity with our story so that story can become his story as well. Jewish history is also taught. The texts are learned in a combination of English and Hebrew. We require geirim to have  a working knowledge of Hebrew. They should be able to read it because we don’t want them to convert and have to rely on the English siddur.”

Rabbi Glasser fondly remembers a time when David was in his shul, helping baalabatim kasher keilim and also studying for geirus. “He came over t me and said he was stuck on a difficult section of Daniel,” Rabbi Glasser mentioned, “I told him I myself hadn’t learned Daniel! But we worked through it. David was very motivated.”

“What impressed me about David,” Rabbi Pruzansky noted, “was that not only was he going through our program while in high school, but he was also working in one of the kosher restaurants in Bergen. He was really putting in a full day. He is self-made and it’s a tribute to his dedication.” Rabbi Glasser echoes the sentiment, saying, “We did not make David Storfer frum. David Storfer made David Storfer frum. At the end of the day, it’s gotta come from you.”

It was finally time for the special day, which happened a few short days before the holiday of Shavuos. David had a ceremonial drop of blood removed in a Hatafas Dam Bris. He immersed in the mikvah and answered the questions put to him. Then, water droplets beading on his hair, he beamed. He chose to take a name in addition to his own, ‘Daniel.’ “My biological parents had named me Daniel,” he explained, “while my adoptive parents named me David. Now that I was finally becoming complete as a person, I wanted to put both those names together.” Excited to attend his friend’s wedding in Crown Heights later that evening, nothing felt real to him until his older brother, now a Chabad rabbi, asked him for a blessing. “He told me that someone who converts has a pure new soul that hasn’t done any sins and it’s special to get a bracha from them,” David explained. “That’s what made it feel real to me.”

After completing his year of study and geirus, the question of where to study in Israel arose. A year ago, David had considered joining the Bar Ilan Israel Experience program. Now at a different place in his life, Rabbi Glasser recommended the Derech program at Ohr Somayach. “We put him in a cab to Queens and sent him to meet with the representative,” Rabbi Glasser said, “and they hit it off right away.” David started yeshiva August 17 and is having, in his words, “the best time of my life.” He happily recalls the Shabbos before he left America as a beautiful one where his parents “ordered from a Jewish catering place and we all had Shabbos together.” Now twenty, he recently made a siyum on the first Mesechta of Makkos and plans to either stay shana bet or attend Yeshiva University. “I for sure want to be an NCSY advisor when I do come back,” he says, just before excitedly telling me he has to go because Rabbi Glasser is visiting from the States and he wants to see him. “My whole story is thanks to NCSY,” he concludes. “I wouldn’t be here without them.”