'Coming home': Judaism provides healing
As a child, Drew Alexander sang in his Episcopal church choir and skipped Sunday school, preferring to sit through lengthy services with his parents.
"The pageantry of the high church Episcopal thing appealed to me a lot," he explains.
It's hard to imagine how that Christian boy became the man Alexander is today: a practicing Hasidic Jew. While the road was long and winding, the journey, Alexander says, started with tragedy.
When he was 16, Alexander and his family his parents, a brother and three sisters were involved in a horrific car accident. His parents and brother died, and Alexander and his sisters were sent to live with a guardian.
"The people in the church were not very helpful," he recalls. "I was really wounded, and I was looking for a fight with God."
Soon after college, Alexander married and spent the next 12 years "following the normal, agnostic way of being in the world." But when his marriage began to fall apart, he says, the loss of his family weighed heavily.
"A lot of the grieving issues started to come up," he recalls. A therapist recommended he attend meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, even though his own parents had not been alcoholic.
"Substitute 'dysfunctional' for alcoholic," his therapist advised.
Step two of that 12-step program presented a problem for Alexander.
"You have to accept that there's a higher power," he explains. As he considered that step, "It occurred to me all of a sudden that to repair my relationship with my father it would help if I tried to repair my relationship with my heavenly father. They were both cut off at the same time."
He began seeking a compatible theology, but returning to church was uncomfortable.
"I started going to a Unity church, but my problem was that the more Jesus was involved, the less comfortable I was," he says, "and the less Jesus there was, the more pointless the whole thing seemed."
Around that time– 1993Alexander, a bluegrass musician, began dating Liz, the woman he would later marry. It was a long-distance relationship at first, and during one pivotal phone call, Liz explained to Alexander that she couldn't marry someone who wasn't Jewish.
Although at first he believed the relationship was doomed, he soon realized there was a solution. He could convert.
Alexander began studying with a rabbi, and in August 1994, he officially converted to Judaism in a ceremony that involved a ritual bath called a mikvah, as well as a bit din, a hearing before three Jewish judges, who are usually rabbis. He also had a symbolic circumcision in which a doctor drew a small amount of blood while a rabbi observed. (Alexander says he was circumcised as an infant in a non-religious ceremony.)
That same week, he took another step– he finalized his divorce and moved from Texas to be with Liz in New Haven, Connecticut.
Soon after, while teaching at a Hebrew high school, Alexander was introduced to Orthodox Judaism.
"I was very taken with the observance," he says. But in order to become an orthodox Jew, he needed to undergo a more rigorous conversion– and he needed to be willing to adhere to certain guidelines, including keeping kosher both inside and outside the house and praying formally three times each day. In addition, Liz, who was now his wife, would need to commit to immersing in the mikvah, which orthodox Jews require for cleansing following menstruation, and which must be supervised by a rabbi.
The first two Alexander committed to quickly, but the last one was out of his control. "I'm the one who's converting; why does she have to change?" he wondered.
By 1999, two years after they'd wed, Liz "took pity on me," Alexander says, and agreed to the mikvah. Once again, Alexander went through the conversion ceremony.
Today, Alexander is a Hasidic Jew, a subset of orthodoxy. He has adopted the traditional dress– including a black hat, untrimmed beard, and ritual fringe worn visibly around the waist.
On an average day, he spends as many as three hours in prayer and religious study. The Alexanders strictly observe the Jewish Sabbath, called shabbes. From sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, they do not drive, turn lights on or off, cook, or make phone calls, among other things. While to people addicted to the conveniences of modern life these sacrifices may seem too much to endure, Alexander says it is a time of joy and reflection with his family. Lunch is a lengthy affair, and on this day, Alexander says, he allows himself a nap. "It's the day of rest," he laughs.
Now a father of two– six-year-old Charlie and three-year-old Nancy– Alexander recognizes the challenges his children face belonging to one of only two Hasidic families in Charlottesville. (The other is the family of Chabad of Charlottesville Rabbi Shlomo Mayer.)
"You want to adhere to the law, enforce your customs. That's how you can maximize the chances your kid is going to follow in the path you're living," he says. "But at the same time, if it's all about, 'you can't do this; you can't do that,' it can be counterproductive, and you make them hate it."
As an example of how the family negotiates the secular world, he cites the time he spends watching skateboarding shows with Charlie, who's fascinated by the sport.
"We need to come up with a Hasidic way to be a skateboarder," says Alexander. "I need to see that he's very strong in his [Hasidic] practices. If he's flaky in his practices, skateboarding is going to pull him away. If he's strong, it won't pull him away from them. He'll use it as a vehicle for expressing them."
Alexander doesn't shy away from letting his expectations be known: he would like Charlie and Nancy to remain practicing Hasidim throughout their lives. It's not too much to expect, he says, but he has a big job to do now to make sure that happens.
Of his son, Alexander says, "I'm always asking myself, 'Am I giving him what he needs to accomplish what I'm asking him to do?'"
In the end, he says, he hopes Judaism will provide his children with the comfort it has given him.
Converting, he says, "was like going into the Birkenstock store and putting your foot into a brand new sandal and finding your footprint was already there. It was like coming home."
Raised Episcopal, Drew Alexander is now a Hasidic Jew.PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Keeping kosher inside and outside the home poses a challenge for Drew Alexander and his family. There isn't a single kosher restaurant in the Charlottesville area.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO