In 1976 Barbara Ellen Rosen was working in Washington DC for the United States Government. Dedicated to her job as an external auditor of insurance companies, the 25-year-old from Providence, Rhode Island, displayed little enthusiasm, when two of her non-Jewish friends, Jimmy and Suzie, invited her to accompany them on a whirlwind visit to Eastern Europe. However, as the time drew nearer, she became caught up in their excitement and decided she would join them, after all. It was a decision which would change the course of her life forever.
After a short stay in Austria, the threesome made their way to Poland, where their destination was a small village somewhere in the hinterland. One of her friends had relatives over there, whom he had never met. Upon arrival, an emotional welcome ensued. There was no common language, but family bonding somehow found an expression in which to communicate. To celebrate the occasion, the matriarch grabbed a squawking chicken from the yard, slit its throat, and prepared a sumptuous meal. As Barbara was a vegetarian she passed on the chicken and ate potatoes and drank vodka. All went well until it was time for everybody to go to church.
Sunday had dawned.
A hesitant gesture creased Barbara’s features, and immediately the antenna-like perception of the matriarch realized something was amiss. Barbara picked up a stick and carved out a magen-david in the ground. Animatedly, the matriarch’s eyes widened and her head veered from left to right.
“Ssh”, she uttered, pressing her finger to her lips. Barbara’s felt her Jewish heritage standing out like a sore thumb. For her, it was most appropriate that her next stop was to be the concentration camp known as Auschwitz.
Strangely, it was her friends who chose where they would be going next, and Barbara had basically been swept along with them for the ride. Now, she realized that being Jewish meant she did not really have a choice.
The effect was staggering, and Barbara actually surprised herself by saying Kaddish at the site.
Coming from a strong Conservative background, going regularly to Temple on the Sabbath, and having attended a host of Jewish camps as camper and counselor, was probably the reason for her impromptu prayer for the departed, she surmised. Another disconcerting reaction she could not help, was staring at the local Poles, and accusingly saying to herself: “You knew, you knew”.
Barbara felt the time had come to separate from her friends. They took off for Hungary, and she politely declined the offer to accompany them.
Israel had not been on the agenda, but now the prospect of such a visit was beginning to take shape. However, Czechoslovakia was also on her itinerary. She visited the grave in Prague of the famed Sage and Rabbi, known universally as the Maharal. Immediately afterward, she booked her flight to Tel Aviv.
The Chazzan of her Conservative Temple back home had moved to the Holy Land, and the family had become orthodox by way of the Bnei Akiva movement. She had been their babysitter on many occasions in the past. She called them up and told them she was coming.
What ensued was an emotional visit including spending a Shabbat with the family. Many hours were filled with argument and discussion. For her second and last Shabbat before returning home, she felt the intensity with them was too much, and opted instead for a Youth Hostel in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.
There, she met a young medical student, and together they walked down to the Kotel for Friday night Services. Soon, they were separated, and quite some time elapsed before Barbara saw him again.
He was walking towards her, but was not alone. A tall man in a long, black cloak with a long, black beard was with him. The medical student was struggling to keep up with the long purposeful strides of the other man.
It turned out that he was a Rabbi. He introduced himself as Meir Shuster. In an unassuming manner he told Barbara that he had met her friend and they had begun talking. He asked her if she was interested in having a real Shabbos experience that evening by having a meal with a family living in the area.
“Why not?” came back the reply. For her, it would be just another traveling experience.
The Rabbi escorted the young couple to the home of a large family. If anything, by the end of the evening’s proceedings, Barbara was not particularly impressed. The host and family just assumed that she was the girlfriend, and seemed to concentrate on vibrant debates with her partner for the evening. She felt that she was being mostly ignored. But what struck her more than anything else was the manner in which the wife was constantly serving the food and taking care of the little kids without any of the men at the table lifting a finger. Finally, when she was paid some attention, she was compelled to speak her mind. In a mixture of New-England politeness and honest candor, Barbara stated in no uncertain terms that she was appalled at the horrid discrimination against women. It was offensive to her that the lady of the house was working so hard, whilst the men sat around and engaged in intellectual discussion. Her outburst was met with stunned silence and a look of bewilderment appeared on the faces of the hosts. However, this did not deter them from inviting the couple back for a second Shabbat meal the next morning. Inexplicably, she accepted. By then, the family had done their homework, and had answers to some of Barbara’s scathing observations. Barbara was somewhat appeased, but in no shape or form, could see herself adopting the Orthodox way of life.
A further meeting had been arranged to meet with Rabbi Shuster for Sunday morning. His intention was to take her to Neve Yerushalayim to hear some shiurim. However, when she told him of her consternation owing to the events of the previous Shabbat, he knew he had to act.
“Just wait a minute, while I make a phone-call” he muttered. Thereupon, he disappeared into a phone-booth. Moments later he returned with a change of plan.
“I am taking you to meet someone,” he said quietly.
That someone was no less than Rebbetzin Weinberg. Things then began to move quickly. Barbara was intellectually challenged by speaking with the experienced Rebbetzin. All the while, Rabbi Shuster waited patiently in an adjoining room. A meeting with a Neve student, a landscape architect from Los Angeles followed immediately. She had been in Israel for a year and had become committed to Yiddishkeit. Barbara’s mind was in a whirl. She wanted to know more, however, time had run out. Vacation was over.
“I have commitments for another year, but I promise that I will be back to study,” she told Rabbi Shuster. During that period, the Rabbi kept in touch by sending an occasional postcard.
Twelve months later she returned…and stayed.
As told by her husband, Joseph.