At the intersection of Hanukkah and Christmas, friendship transcends boundaries of faith
I have two friends who don’t know each other: one is an Orthodox Jew and the other a Christian pastor. Each of us listens carefully to one another, to gain greater knowledge of our friend and of the Creator.
I have two especially close friends. We don’t live near each other, we don’t speak on a regular basis, and on the surface, we don’t have a lot in common. What we do share is a deep, fundamental belief in the Creator, in His goodness, and in His providing meaning to all existence. The three of us are Baalei Tshuva, literally “masters of return” (though, who is really a master?). We have consciously changed direction in our lives, as we try to understand what G-d wants from us and for us, instead of what we want for ourselves.
My two friends are Shmuel Goodman, a Chabad businessman who lives in Chicago, IL and Robert Shepitka, Pastor, Light of the World Christian Church, in Latham, N.Y. Neither friend knows the other, but the belief-based friendships I have with each of them permit us to slip into effortless long distance meaningful conversation and - when we do meet - share profound experiences.
The three of us each grew up in secular environments, and at some point in our adulthood, changed direction toward a spiritual path.
Shmuel was successful in family retail and wholesale businesses. He battled cancer and defeated it. With his wife, Sharon, and children, they are still on a journey that started with Chabad-Lubavitch. We have shared so much over the years: from our business careers to the challenges of balancing an evolving religious life and searching for holiness in the world. When my family made Aliyah, Shmuel and I maintained our friendship despite the distance (partly thanks to Sharon, who facilitated Shmuel’s annual trips to Israel even at the height of the second Intifada). Shmuel now heads a successful investment advisory firm, along with his non-Jewish partner.
Robert was a single 24 year old who thought life was going rather well. He had a great job and spent most of his time doing things that brought him pleasure. He didn't even know he was about to reach a crossroad; a question that would change his life. One day, suddenly, it was as if he could hear an inner voice saying, "Where are you?" He responded with a change of mind and direction toward a greater purpose - a Divine purpose - that eclipsed everything that had come before. Today, Pastor Rob serves on a team that ministers to 200 families, celebrating love of G-d and others. He and I have become close through our support for Israel and his exploration of the Hebraic roots of Christianity.
My journey began at age 40, also in the midst of a successful retail career, a wonderful family, a secure, comfortable path in place, but with growing questions on life’s meaning, and no satisfactory answers. With the help of many people, including a conservative rabbi who introduced me to serious study of Jewish texts, I started searching.
Shmuel, Rob, and I all had early to mid-life crises. Each of us, to use Pastor Rob’s phrase, had a calling. All of us were successful at what we were doing, yet were willing to make radical changes to our lives, with an evolving understanding that there is a shared greater purpose toward which we need to redirect. And I do mean redirect. For a Baal Tshuva to view his or her previous life as a mistake is heretical. G-d, for whom we are now searching, is the same Being that had us born into non-religious families, experiencing life with His absence. And He doesn’t make mistakes. Our pasts enrich us. Our past serves as a unique gift to inform our present and future.
In reflecting on friendship, Pastor Rob writes, “A real friend cleaves closer than a brother. Friendship is not easily found because it comes at great cost. It requires open hearts, open minds, and a level of trust that transcends disagreements. A friend sees your weaknesses as an area “under Divine construction.” A friend listens intently… to every word you speak… and takes the time to process without pre-judging, so that he can come to a greater knowledge of his friend and of the Creator.”
Shmuel and I are now celebrating Hanukkah. Pastor Rob is celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (not Christmas, he teaches me). Next month, Shmuel will be in Jerusalem, my home. Pastor Rob will come in March. Yes, Jerusalem is that special place we embrace together. With each of them, I look forward to furthering our journeys, deepening our friendships, and transcending boundaries.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship.