How My Reform Grandmother Inspired Me To Become An Orthodox Jew
Mother’s Day is here, and I’m already preparing for an emotional rollercoaster. This year, the holiday arrives the day after one of my children’s bar mitzvahs, and it’ll be his first time wearing tefillin with a blessing. But it’ll also be our first Mother’s Day without my maternal grandmother, Frances, who died just before Passover at age 97.
The timing of Grandma’s passing was providential. Each year, she expressed disappointment that she wouldn’t get to spend Passover with all her children and grandchildren present. Due to the timing of her funeral, she finally got her wish. We were all together for a single day of the holiday.
Passover was probably Grandma’s favorite holiday – although she also loved the melodies of the High Holy Days – and it was always a big deal in her home. When I was little (and not so little), I helped her scrub down the kitchen and tape up the cabinets that contained chometz. Grandma left me with the lasting impression that preparing for Pesach was a pleasure and a privilege. And when we sat around the seder table together, it was all worth it.
Grandma taught me this lesson although she was a Reform Jew. She also taught my mother (and ultimately me) how to light Shabbos candles, that Hashem was always waiting for our prayers, and that being Jewish means daily engagement in Jewish organizations, practices, and books. If it weren’t for two committed, life-long Reform Jews – my grandmother and grandfather – I wouldn’t be an Orthodox Jew today.
Frum Jews do not live in isolation, even in self-selected “ghettos” like Boro Park, Geula, or Pico-Robertson here in L.A. Most of us have relatives, colleagues, neighbors, and friends who do not keep Torah and mitzvahs. And Jewish institutions often rest on the general community, not just the “frummest” among us. How many kosher grocery stores, mikvahs, and bikur cholim societies would there be without the participation of non-Orthodox Jews? Surely, many less.
The Reform world is no different: This one’s child moved to Israel and became Charedi; that one’s sister discovered frumkeit through the campus Chabad. Maybe the Reform rabbi is buddies with the guy who runs the local kosher deli.
My grandmother internalized this and steered clear of an “us vs them” mentality; even if she disagreed about specific issues, she accepted the Jews whom she disagreed with. Thus, she attended the celebrations of Orthodox family members, even if she had to sit behind a mechitzah, and they attended hers, even if they had to shlep in kosher food to an inconvenient location.
Grandma occasionally called herself “a bad Jew” because she couldn’t read Hebrew and didn’t follow all the rules of Shabbos. But she attended shul nearly every week, celebrated holidays, read the local Jewish paper, and ran the synagogue’s sisterhood (three times at three different shuls). These were genuine experiences of religiosity, even if they didn’t take place in within an Orthodox context. And they made an impression on all of us.
Upon her death, all her children recalled her Shabbos dinners, regular synagogue attendance, and engagement in the Jewish community with admiration. Grandma’s children and grandchildren have followed her example – joining (and even leading) Jewish organizations, adopting a lifestyle engaged with Torah and mitzvos, and strongly identifying as Jewish. Some of us are Orthodox, some of us are Conservative, and some of us are Reform. But more importantly, we are all family.
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