I decided to spend my junior year in college abroad in France for two reasons: to have a great time and to get away from Judaism. And I'm not sure which was the more motivating factor.
I was raised, for lack of a better term, as an "ultra-Reform" Jew. I grew up in the 1970's in a WASPy suburb of San Francisco called Walnut Creek and my parents affiliated with a Reform temple. This meant that I was subjected to "going to temple" at least twice a year and in a rare instance I was dragged there on a Saturday.
Judaism always interfered with my "real life."
To say that I did not grow up with a positive Jewish identity is an understatement. The East Bay of San Francisco in the 1970's was not exactly a bastion of Jewish life. To put it into context, in my public high school of 1400 kids, there were six Jews -- and my sister and I were two of them. Judaism was something that occasionally occurred, but when it did it always interfered with my "real life." My experiences left me cold, uninterested and with a general dislike of Judaism and all things Jewish.
So, when I boarded the plane bound for Paris at age 20, I was leaving behind no Jewish heritage that I knew anything about, no Jewish connection and no Jewish life. One of the chief benefits, as I saw it then, of actually going so far away was that I could ditch High Holy Day services, come back home at the end of the year, lie and say that I did go. And no one could ever prove me wrong. "What were they going to do?" I flippantly asked my friends at UCLA. "Call the synagogue in Bordeaux and ask if Ross was there?" I thought I had it made. But when I got to Bordeaux, where I would be living for the year, all of that changed. God had other plans for me.
One day I was exploring the city and passed an American Goods store. As I glanced at the window display, something unbelievable caught my eye. It was a California Golden Seals hockey puck yo-yo. I couldn't believe it! You see, the California Golden Seals were the Bay Area's professional hockey team for a brief time. My father and I used to go to Seals games together when I was a kid. They were great times that we shared together. At that moment, I decided that I had to have that yo-yo.
I went inside and was greeted by Sammi who turned out to be the owner of the store. He was a small man with dark hair, a dark complexion and one of the warmest smiles I had ever seen. We ended up talking for about two hours about everything: UCLA, California, how I liked France etc. I was impressed with how genuinely nice he was. And then, out of the blue, he said to me, "Well, you're Jewish of course, right?"
I was flabbergasted. Being six feet tall with blond hair and blue eyes, strangers had called me a lot of things in my life, but "Jewish" was never one of them! In fact, I often had a problem convincing people that I was Jewish!
"Uh, yes," I replied. "But how did you know?"
"I just knew," Sammi said, with that same warm smile. "Why don't you come for Shabbat dinner on Friday and meet the rest of my family?"
For some reason, I found myself accepting the offer, even though I was in full flight from Judaism.
The Friday night was beautiful -- warm, inviting and accepting. I kept waiting for something negative to happen to bolster my argument that Judaism had nothing to offer me. But nothing bad happened. I left feeling wonderful, connected to something that went beyond myself.
Sammi kept inviting me for Shabbat and then, for all of the holidays. I found myself accepting all of his invitations -- even looking forward to them. At Passover time, seven of my Jewish, American friends were upset that they had no Seder to go. Imagine -- Jews who actually wanted to go to a Seder, I marveled to myself at the time.
What was I doing going to Shabbats and Seders that I traveled 8,000 miles to specifically avoid?
I called Sammi to ask if maybe they could come too. Before I could finish my sentence he said, "Bring them. Bring them all." I reminded him that it was the day before Passover and this meant bringing seven extra people. "Bring them, Ross. And anyone else you know who doesn't have a Seder to go to." Although Passover meant nothing to me then, I was moved to tears by Sammi's kindness. Kindness for people he had never met before. Kindness that was borne from the sole fact that we were fellow Jews in need.
Now I was really confused! What was I doing going to Shabbats and Seders that I traveled 8,000 miles to specifically avoid? How could this be happening?
I determined that the two experiences I had to date with Judaism -- one very negative (my growing up) and one very warm and loving (with Sammi and his family) -- were like matter and anti-matter in Star Trek. They both could not exist in the same universe. I had to find out which one was the real Judaism. I had a feeling it was the warm, loving experience, but I had no evidence to back up that claim. So, I started searching for the truth about Judaism and where I belonged in my religion.
It took a journey of ten years, but I found out that my hunch was right: Judaism is a warm, embracing, relevant religion with a loving God. I began to slowly and fundamentally change my life. Now my wife, our two beautiful daughters and I live in a Jewish neighborhood and lead an observant Jewish life.
After college, Sammi and I lost touch. I never got a chance to fully thank him for all that he did for me. I don't know if he really knows the profound impact he had on my life -- how he changed my life by the way he lived his, how his kindness to a fellow Jew, albeit a non-religious Jew, was the impetus behind me reconsidering 20 years of rejection of Judaism. My search for God and Judaism began with him and that yo-yo in the window. A yo-yo that I still have and treasure to this day.