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Chapter Four

Chabad To The Rescue

    Soon after my visit to the Marcus's home I found out there was a Chabad House at the University of Miami about 10 minutes from where I lived. I decided to go and check it out, because I thought it might give me a chance to meet other Jews like myself who were also searching for answers and exploring their lives as Jews. Eventually I began to go there on a regular basis.

    The Rabbi there was Dovid Eliezrie. He was a real character, but the truth is that I wouldn't be married to my husband and be where I am today if it wasn't for Dovid Eliezrie. He put up with a lot of crazy students back then, including me. One day I walked in to the Chabad House wearing the funniest looking wig I could find, and I asked him what he thought of it for when I got married and had to cover my hair. I think he was actually quite amused. Perhaps at times I seemed a little crazier than some of the other kids, but there was a good reason for this. I was beginning to feel myself changing and being pulled towards something stronger than anything I had ever experienced and the humorous part of me was trying desperately to make the transition easier.

    Rabbi Eliezrie eventually convinced me to write the Rebbe and ask him to give me a Jewish name. Nearly every Jewish boy and girl is given a Jewish name shortly after birth (even in non-religious families), but my parents had never given me a Jewish name. So I sent the Rebbe some poetry I had written, and I told him that since I thought it was very important for every Jew to have a Jewish name, would he please give me one. What I didn't tell the Rebbe was that years before, a teacher in my Temple said I should use the name Leah, and I actually had used it for a while. All I knew about Leah at that time was that she was picked second, and since I didn't have a lot of self-worth back then, I didn't want a name that meant I was picked second. Of course, I now know what a great tzadekes Leah was and that anyone named for her should feel truly honored. Anyway, I thought it would be really rude of me to ask the Rebbe to give me any Jewish name except Leah, so I didn't mention any of this in my letter to the Rebbe.

    I still remember the moment when Rabbi Eliezrie told me what the Rebbe's secretary had said to him over the phone. The Rebbe had given me the name Alizah, which I thought was a beautiful name. The Rebbe also said that though it is very important for every Jew to have a Jewish name, "It is even more, more (the Rebbe emphasized the word "more" by repeating it) important to live a Jewish way of life every single day." I understood what the Rebbe meant. He obviously knew how inconsistent I was at the time in deciding to become orthodox. This time, G-d had truly sent me His greatest helper, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I decided to hang in there and try a little harder to stay on that path. And from that moment on, Rabbi Eliezrie always called me Alizah.

    Rabbi Eliezrie continued to make a genuine effort to reach out, not only to me, but to my family as well. He came to visit us at our home, and he invited us to his home for the Passover seders. He really made us feel like friends. He tried to reach out to every Jew he could. Once, he planned a whole weekend Shabbaton in Tallahassee, and I decided to go. Rides to the Shabbaton were scheduled to leave very late Thursday evening. My mother drove me to the Chabad House. I noticed a Jewish guy with what I now refer to as a 'Crown Heights Haircut' (his hair was so short it almost looked like he had shaved his head). I remember saying to my mother, "That guy looks like one of those Hari Krishnas." I wasn't so sure I wanted to go to the Shabbaton anymore. I thought about it for another minute, though, and decided -- why not, maybe it will even be fun. And you know, it turned out to be a fantastic experience.

    I shared a ride with Rabbi Eliezrie, an even crazier Rabbi named Kasriel Brusowankin and two other guys. One of them was the one with the 'Crown Heights Haircut.' He actually turned out to be pretty normal. Like most Lubavitchers, we arrived late, and things were really hopping. It was almost Shabbos, and I watched as Rabbi Eliezrie was hurriedly pouring tomato sauce all over pans of chicken. When he ran out of tomato sauce, he started squirting ketchup all over and shoving the pans into the oven.

    That evening, the speaker was a wonderful psychologist from Palo Alto, California named Dr. Judah Landes. He began by telling us that there were two things his mother was always asking him to do, lose weight and put on Tefillin. When his son was about to have his Bar Mitzvah, Dr. Landes thought that maybe it was time for him to start putting tefillin on as well. But every time he started to put them on, he would start crying like a baby. Although he didn't understand what was happening to him, it turned out to be the beginning of the journey that would bring him back to Torah. Dr. Landes explained how certain actions of a Jew lead to the awakening of the Pintele Yid which exists inside of every Jew. With Dr. Landes, his little spark was awakened simply through his action of trying to put on Tefillin. I enjoyed how he spoke from his heart, and what he said certainly sparked something inside of me.

    I felt comfortable enough to go up and talk to him after his speech. I told him that I thought I might want to live a Jewish way of life, but I had this really great Catholic boyfriend, so what should I do? Well, he looked me straight in the eye and said, "You have to break up with him. You'll do it now and you'll understand why later." Dr. Landes was right.

    The next morning, Rabbi Brusowankin taught a class for the women at the Shabbaton. I was really impressed with the way he spoke so highly of "the Jewish woman," and especially of his wife Tzippora. I remember thinking, "This guy is okay; he really appreciates his wife." Later, some of us were having a discussion with him about why orthodox Jews never exercise, and Rabbi Brusowankin said he got plenty of exercise lifting his kids up and down. Then someone pointed to Rabbi Brusowankin's stomach and said, "Then why do you have that?" Rabbi Brusowankin sat back, smiled, patted his stomach and proudly replied, "This . . . is a Cholent stomach." Lubavitch rabbis are always ready with a good answer for everything.

    I really did enjoy myself that weekend, and I learned a lot more about Jewish life as it should be than I ever expected. I learned from watching Rabbi Eliezrie that Jewish men were more than adequate in the kitchen when they needed to be. I learned from Dr. Landes, who told me plain and simply that Jews were not meant to be married to non-Jews, no matter how great the relationship seemed to be. And I learned from Rabbi Brusowankin that a Jewish man was incomplete without a Jewish woman, and also that it is the woman who sets the whole tone for her family. She is able to do this because she has an innate ability to understand life in a way that a man cannot grasp without her help. As I said earlier, that Shabbaton turned out to be a fantastic experience for me. I was beginning to think that maybe these Jews were not so crazy after all. Maybe it was all the other Jews in the world who were crazy because they had no real grasp of reality which for every Jew is the Torah. I was beginning to understand my life as a Jew in the way I was meant to understand it, and Mount Sinai was looking more and more attainable every minute.