(photo credit: courtesy)
Married mere days, David found himself seated at the head of a table with his new wife, in-laws and a host of strangers, including some rabbis with long beards.
He wasn't nervous around rabbis; his personal journey from California teenage martial-arts aficionado to 20-something Orthodox yeshiva student had been fueled by things he had learned over the years from just such rabbis, and by the inspiration he had gleaned from the lives he saw them living.
But this Sheva Brachot - the term for the festive meals traditionally served during the week after a Jewish marriage - was different from the ones that had preceded or would follow it. He was in a city he had never visited before, his parents weren't able to be present, and the only people he knew at the table were his new wife and in-laws.
The bride, seated to his right, had been looking for a young man with just David's combination of brights, calm, sincerity and religious commitment. Although Chana came from an observant Orthodox family and knew that it was not common for someone with her background to marry someone who had not grown up observant, she knew when she first met David that she had (if David agreed) found her husband. She in fact saw much of the sincerity and commitment that had so impressed her as directly related to the fact that David had had to make choices in his life that she had been spared.
She knew, too, that her parents - somewhat atypically for their circle - would not hesitate to consider an otherwise qualified baal teshuva as a potential marriage-partner for one of their children. David's dedication, reputation and character were what had mattered. To be sure, research into his Jewish genealogy, as in any such proposed match, would have to be done.
Sadly, the proliferation of intermarriage and substandard conversions over recent decades have served to call into question the Jewish status of non-Orthodox families, at least from the perspective of Halacha. Once upon a time, observant Jews could take for granted that a family, by simple virtue of its affiliation with a Jewish congregation, was halachically Jewish. But those days, tragically, are gone.
DAVID'S ANCESTRY, thankfully, was ascertained to contain no mixed marriages or conversions. His European forebears had in fact been religious Jews; and his parents, although they were not raised Orthodox, had grown deeply proud of David's and his siblings' adoption of Jewish observance.
David's new in-laws were enamored of both him and his parents, and overjoyed at their daughter's marriage. They hoped, moreover, that their example might perhaps, in a small way, inspire other traditional Orthodox Jews to entertain the possibility of such matches from outside their own community.
The importance of "family" - i.e. the "pedigree" of a current and well-established Orthodox background - is an understandable concern for many, to be sure; and there are other Halacha-related issues that also come into play in such cases. To some, such concerns may even be paramount, and that stance is their prerogative.
At the same time, though, it cannot be denied that there is something real and valuable that is gained, too, when an observant Orthodox Jew from an Orthodox family marries an equally observant Orthodox Jew from a different background - gained by the latter, by the former and by the Jewish people as a whole.
David's father-in-law was thinking precisely those thoughts at the Sheva Brachot, as a rabbi sitting to his left, one of the respected heads of the local post-graduate yeshiva, turned to the newlywed and asked him about his Jewish educational background. David responded with the name of a well-known Jerusalem yeshiva that caters to the newly observant.
The rabbi's eyes lit up and he smiled. "I studied there, too!" It took a minute for the response to register. "You?" David asked.
The rabbi happily confirmed the fact and related what a wonderful teacher he had been privileged to have there decades earlier. Wide-eyed, David replied that he had been taught by the same rabbi. And so the conversation continued.
OVERHEARING it all, David's father-in-law felt a deep sense of gratitude to Heaven for the unplanned encounter. That an alumnus of the very yeshiva David had attended had become a Torah scholar to whom scores of students looked up and learned Torah from was a poignant thing for the young man to see.
And then David's father-in-law's smile broadened, as he remembered that the rabbi speaking with David was married to the daughter of a major American yeshiva dean. Chana's parents could take pride in that illustrious precedent. They had hardly been the first "ultra-Orthodox" Jews to welcome a baal teshuva and his family into their own.
The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.