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Five Years Ago, I was an Atheist

Five years ago, Rucheli Berry (nee Manville) was a staunch atheist. Find out how she became a proud Jewish Frum, Lubavitch woman.

Rucheli Berry -

Speech given on Shabbat at the National Jewish Retreat in Weston, FL on August 4th, 2012

Five years ago, I was an atheist. And not just your normal, run-of-the-mill, “I’m too cool/modern/educated to believe in G‑d,” kind of atheist. If there is such a thing, I was a devout atheist. I preached atheism. Science and technology were bred into me and it didn’t take many years into my childhood for me to come to the firm conclusion that between physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry, science had a completely reasonable and logical explanation for absolutely everything.

Religion on the other hand, was confusing at best and was a manmade concoction of children’s stories at worst. Passover was spent with my mom’s family one weekend and Easter was spent with my dad’s family the next.

Winter in my house growing up was characterized by a pine tree topped with blue and white ornaments, aka “the Chanukah bush.” Needless to say, when I arrived at the University of Central Florida as a freshman going into aerospace engineering, learning more about Judaism was just about the last thing on my mind. Little did I know that a bearded man wearing a hat and what the rest of modern society commonly refers to as a “penguin suit” was about to show up at UCF and turn my perfect orderly universe completely upside-down.

When Rabbi Chaim Lipskier and his wife Rivkie started appearing on my campus my sophomore year, I avoided them like the plague. I became an expert at deleting the Facebook invitations to Shabbat dinner and ignoring the emails about the weekly BBQs. I even went so far as to walk five minutes out of my way to avoid the obnoxiously bright red table that they set up in front of the student center every Wednesday. I would do just about anything to avoid that oh-so-popular question: “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” Everything was going great until one day, as I was walking to a meeting for the up and coming future CEOs of Fortune 500 Tech companies (myself included, of course), tragedy struck.

I forgot it was Wednesday…

I realized my mistake about 30 seconds too late. I spotted the Rabbi and his bright red table, but there was no turning back now. I stuck my head down and started power-walking, hoping I could squeeze by unnoticed… but sure enough: “Hey! You! Are you Jewish?!”

Now, there are three answers that a Chabad Rabbi could get when he asks someone that question. Either yes, no, or my answer: “Why are you asking?”

What I failed to realize was that in Rabbi-speak, that the answer “why are you asking” is just about the same as saying, “Why yes, I AM Jewish! Please invite me to your house for dinner even though I’m a complete and total stranger!” And so I was quickly ushered over to that bright red table that I had tried so hard to avoid, where his wife immediately invited me to Friday night dinner (despite being a total stranger) and proceeded to load me up with flyers, Shabbat candles, and an assortment of home-baked cookies, brownies, and cakes. I thank her and quickly rushed off, stuffing the free food into my bag like the starving college student that I was, and immediately throwing away all of the flyers and candles in the next garbage can I came across. Every Rabbi’s nightmare.

Yet despite the open display of disinterest, something about that encounter had piqued my curiosity. A few weeks later, for a reason still to this very day completely unknown to me, I picked up my phone on a Friday afternoon and called Rabbi Lipskier to ask if I was still invited. Of course, I was. Then, despite the fact that it was 4:30pm on Erev Shabbat, which I later realized is the absolute worst time to call a Rabbi, he patiently listened as I divulged my laundry list of reasons that I had never shown up until this point: “I’m not religious. I haven’t even been to Temple in seven years. I don’t know Hebrew. I don’t know how to pray. I don’t know what to wear, and and and…” And he cut me off, mid-sentence, and told me to stop, wear whatever I was wearing, and be there in three hours. And so, three hours later, I showed up for my first ever Shabbat dinner wearing jeans, a tank-top, and flip-flops.

Four courses, three hours, two glasses of wine, and one amazing night later, I was totally hooked. That was five years ago…

Over the course of the next year, on top of juggling full-time engineering classes, a research position at my university, an internship at a Lockheed Martin missile factory, and more extracurriculars than I could keep track of, I also somehow managed to show up at the Chabad house for a free meal almost every night of the week. Which eventually led to signing up and going on a Birthright trip to Israel. Which almost immediately led to an unprecedented sense of Jewish identity. Which eventually inspired me to sign up for a Sinai Scholars class so that I could understand these crazy customs that I had started incorporating into my life, not religiously (G‑d forbid), but as a way of connecting culturally with other Jews around the world and throughout the ages. And I loved every minute of that class. For the first time in my life, Judaism was something intellectually stimulating; something that I (as a scholar and academic) could relate to on a deeply personal level and yes, even spiritual level. That was four years ago…

As time went on, I began learning more and more. Sometimes it was Tanya and Chassidus with my Rabbi, others it was the laws of keeping Kosher with my Rebbetzin. Occasionally it was an online lecture on sites like and I was obsessed. I wanted to learn as much as possible and I was soaking up Judaism like a sponge.

The only thing holding me back was the constant paradox that I felt incessantly torn between: religion versus science. But then I started hearing about a retreat, a Jewish get-away, a learning experience with a five-star hotel, five-star speakers, and of course, five-star food. I signed up not really knowing what I was getting myself into, but when I showed up at the Sinai Scholars portion of the National Jewish Retreat in Greenwich, CT that year, I was blown away. There were people there who were speaking my language. Scientists and physicists were on the list of presenters, and I sat wide-eyed as I realized for the first time that Torah and Technology are NOT mutually exclusive. That was three years ago…

During my senior year of college, I was living a “double-life.” I was an engineer on one hand, with senior design papers, certification exams, and an almost full-time position at a Mitsubishi Turbine Engine factory. On the other hand, I was now a fully observant Jew, keeping Shabbat instead of joining the college parties Friday night, keeping Kosher instead of going out to restaurants with friends, wearing a skirt around heavy machinery and welders at work, and wearing long sleeves when it was 100 degrees outside in this lovely Florida August. When graduation time came, much to my parents’ horror, I decided that after 18 years in the secular school system, it was time to catch my Jewish education up to par a bit. And so I turned down a full-time engineering position, and after another stop by the National Jewish Retreat in Reston, VA, I flew halfway across the world to spend a year at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. That was two years ago…

My year at Mayanot was the most incredible experience of my life. I was living the dream. I had finally met girls like me, people from all walks of life who had taken a semester or year out of their hectic lives to learn what living is really all about. That year I learned more than would have ever thought possible. .. Hebrew and history, Jewish law and Jewish family life, Torah and Talmud, Chassidus and holidays… But most of all, I learned about myself and my role as a Jewish woman in the modern world.

Whether it’s for a year or semester at a program like Mayanot in Israel, or three weeks at the Tiferes Yeshiva in Morristown NJ, or one week at a Bais Chana or Yeshivacation study program, I can’t encourage everyone enough to take a least one small portion of your life and learn Torah as if it was your full-time job. After all, we are full-time Jews, and it’s an experience you will always remember and never regret. But after a year in Israel and several hectic weeks figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, it was time to come home. I found a happy medium between my paradoxical extremes and ended up moving to the heart of Jewish life in America, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, while beginning my Master’s degree in Systems Engineering at Columbia University. So I packed my bags, moved to New York, and began bridging the gap between Torah and science just a little bit more. That was one year ago…

I started off my first semester of grad school with my third visit to the National Jewish Retreat back in Greenwich, CT as a staff member this time, before diving into an intense class called Deterministic Modeling. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but sometime between lectures, High holidays, networking mixers, farbrengens, exams, and working part-time at, I got a call from Rabbi Yitzchok Dubov, the Director of the amazing Sinai Scholars program that had become such an enormous part of my life. I unsuspectingly went over to his house, where he proceeded to ask me yet another life-changing question. This time it wasn’t, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” This time it was, “Hey, do you remember Daniel Berry?”

The “Daniel Berry” he was speaking of was a fellow Sinai Scholars alum, a musician from Princeton University that I had met at this very retreat, my first one back in Greenwich, exactly three years ago. We had run into each other over and over again in Israel, where we were both in the respective men and women’s Mayanot learning programs. So my answer was, “Of course I remember Daniel Berry.”

Before long, that Daniel Berry was standing next to me under the chuppah in front of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office in Brooklyn, becoming my husband in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. That was six months ago…

Since then, the opposites in my life have collided and the paradoxes have disappeared. I’m still doing my degree part-time at Columbia while finally working in the full-time engineering position my parents always wanted me to have. My husband and I live in Morristown, NJ where he is a full time student at the Rabbinical College of America.

Now I understand that being a fully observant Chassidic Jewish female married to a future rabbi, while at the same time working as a systems engineer in a high-tech industry, while at the same time going for my masters in engineering at an Ivy League school may all sound a little crazy, but I think it’s proof that what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (the Chief Rabbi of the UK) said at the November international convention of Chabad Rabbis last year is absolutely true: No one ever misses out on anything by choosing Judaism.

And so, with a story like that, when Rabbi Dubov asked my husband and I if we could use our vacation days from school and work to come back as staff at the retreat we first met at… what else could we possibly say besides, “Yes, absolutely”? So here we are, all of us together, and this is right now…

This is your moment, your chance to open your mind, your heart, and your soul to the fact that Judaism is real. That wherever we are in life, whatever we find ourselves doing, first and foremost, we are Jews. Whether we work as engineers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, tradeswomen, or fulltime students, that is just what we DO. Who we ARE is part of something much, much bigger. Something infinite. And by connecting to our Jewish souls, to that part of G‑d that is within each one of us, we’re tapping into that infinite power… And then, and only then, we can really do anything.

Five years ago I was an atheist, today I’m a proud Jew. Imagine what we can all be tomorrow.

Is there an Answer To Suffering
Rabbi Meir Tabib, recently visited an old folk's home to cheer up the patients. When one of them, an older man, heard that Rab Meir was from Chabad he got excited and told him a story.

The old fellow stressed that he was a staunch Zionist, was not religious - but once something happened to him with Chabad that almost made him consider changing his mind.

Some fifty years ago he had been a high figure in 'Mapai', a far left
Zionist party that was powerful in the earlier years of the State of Israel.
One of his jobs was directing the large Mapai Library in Tel Aviv and for that reason he would frequently travel around the world, especially the U.S.A in search of books, funds and supporters.

Occasionally his travels took him to the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn, the headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe where he would be the guest of one of the Rebbe's personal secretaries Rabbi Binyamin Klein (who was also given the job of hosting important Israeli guests). 

One year this visit coincided with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur and, being an intellectual and a bit of an adventurer, he gladly put on a prayer shawl took a Machzor (High holiday prayer book) and joined the hundreds of Jews in the Synagogue.

He was quite familiar with (and was full of criticism of) the regular weekly prayer book, the siddur, but he had never really studied this Machzor book.

So while the others were praying and weeping to the Master of the Universe he was examining and analyzing each idea in his new book.

It was all very similar to the same old ideas of the Siddur: in fact he
found it a bit amusing that people in the twentieth century still appealed to 'the invisible one' for assistance, but then suddenly, when he got to the section about the Ten Martyrs he stopped.

"What ...?!" He exclaimed aloud, "This is simply insane!!"

The Machzor tells in some detail of how Rabbi Akiva and nine other holy Rabbis were publicly tortured to death, each in a different way, for absolutely no reason by the Romans on Yom Kippur.

But the part that shook our guest was when he read how the heavenly angels complained bitterly, "Is this the reward for learning the Torah?" and G‑d answered "Be quiet, one more word and I'll return the world to water and confusion" 

"What!" He exclaimed "Is it forbidden to ask questions!? Is G‑d such a cruel tyrant that He would destroy the entire world just because someone complains?! What sort of medieval religious suppression is this?!"

The men around him were so engrossed in prayer they really couldn't pay attention to him.  So he waited till the prayer ended and began to ask - but no one had a reply. 

He even went to Rabbi Klein, his host, who also couldn't calm him down, but Rabbi Klein pointed out an old Chassid that was sitting not far from them and escorted him over there.

The old Chassid shook his hand told him to sit down and heard the question.

"Ahhh! Good question!! Excellent question!!" He said. "But for every good question is a good answer. I'll give you a parable:

The old Chassid began to speak and the old Zionist listened avidly. 

"Once there was a great king who had a Jewish tailor. He loved this tailor very much and gave him a house on the castle grounds. He made all the royal garments and the King would often talk to him and take his advice about other things as well.

"But the local Bishop couldn't take it.

"He hated this Jew with a passion and longed for the moment he could eliminate him without angering the King.

"The Bishop was very clever. He bided his time and even pretended to be an admirer of the tailor until finally one day his patience paid off! He got an idea; a foolproof scheme to be rid of the cursed Jew forever.

"The Bishop bought a large piece of the finest white satin and personally presented it to the king.

"'Your majesty,' he bowed deeply and said.  'This holy cloth is a gift from the church sanctified by heaven. Its holiness is incomprehensible and it is our gift to you.

'I'm sure it will make the perfect garment for your majesty.

"'I'm sure that your majesty will give the job of making this garment to his personal tailor, for there is no better tailor in the kingdom, perhaps in the world, than he. But I must add a warning.' The Bishop's eyes narrowed as he spoke,

"'If even a thread of this holy cloth is missing then the guilty party must die.  So is the law of the Scripture!' He said, raising his hand ominously.

"The King took the cloth and admired it. It was certainly the most splendid material he had ever seen. And as was to be expected he gave it to his faithful, Jewish tailor without even bothering to warn him. It was unnecessary. He trusted him completely and such a warning might make him nervous and disturb his work.

"Sure enough, two weeks later the garment was finished and presented to the king. It was even more exquisite than he had imagined. Smooth as the sea, brilliant as the sun, it was so expertly sewn and fashioned that not a stitch could be seen anywhere and was the ultimate in comfort and elegance.

"The king tried it on and was so overjoyed he rewarded the Jew royally. 

"But that evening there was a knock on the king's door and entered the Bishop, accompanied by ten more priests of high rank, heads hung low with solemn and shocking news.

"They made the king take a holy oath that he would believe all that they were about to say and then, after he swore, they solemnly announced that there was conclusive proof, indeed the Bishop had seen himself, that the tailor had appropriated several small patches from the garment for ritual use. 

"The tailor must die!!

"The King now had no choice; he was bound by his holy oath.  He moaned and paced back and forth but he was trapped, to defy the church was unthinkable.

"With a heavy heart he called the tailor had him bound in chains and gave him the sad news; he was to be murdered for theft of holy cloth.
"The tailor tried to protest but to no avail, his fate was sealed.

"'If so, if I am about to die' the tailor begged, 'then may I have one last wish, your majesty?".

"'Yes', answered the king, 'you may.'

"Good.  I want you to return me the garment I just made and give me a pair of scissors."

"'I'm warning you!" The king said, "If you destroy the garment, then instead of a quick, painless death, I will order the executioner to torture you. Please do not make me do this. It is difficult enough for me to see you killed. But believe me....I have no choice; I am bound by the holy law. Are you sure this is what you want?'

"'Yes,' The tailor answered. 'I am sure your majesty.'

"The king gave him the garment and scissors and the tailor proceeded to sit down at a table and delicately and slowly undo the entire garment thread by thread. He laid the pieces side by side and little by little, hours later, the entire cloth had been restored to its original shape. It was obvious that not so much as one thread was missing.

"'You see my Majesty' the tailor bowed deeply and said, 'The Bishop supposed that it was impossible that something not be lost in the cutting, but he was wrong. G‑d helped me and I used every bit of cloth. See for yourself, not one bit is missing!

"Needless to say the Bishop was deposed and the Jew was duly rewarded."

"That," said the old Chassid 'Is the end of the parable and the answer to your question.

"G‑d wasn't telling the angels not to ask questions. Rather He was telling them that when He created the world He did it with a plan and NOTHING is missing from that plan.

"But in order to understand everything that happens after that, it would be necessary 'undo everything'. to undo the entire creation! And to go back to the 'water' and 'confusion' of the beginning of the world (See Genesis 1:2) and for an angel that would be impossible (but Rabbi Akiva and his companions had no questions!!)
Charity Wars

There was a chassid who, whenever he was approached with the request for a donation for charity, would stick his hand into his pocket and take out a few coins. Then, with a hastily mumbled "just a minute...," he would again dig into his pocket and come up with another few coins.

Someone who noticed his custom once asked him: "Why do you always give in two installments? Could you not take out the full sum you want to give at once?"

"Every act of charity is a victory over our selfish nature," replied the chassid. "I just can't resist the opportunity to score two victories for the price of one..."

The Girl with the Gold Watch
By Chana Weisberg


Toronto, 2004

I glance hurriedly at my wristwatch on this busy Friday afternoon and I'm reminded of a story about a watch from another land and generation.

My young daughter notices my far-off expression. I begin to describe to her a different time when my own mother, Rebbetzin Batsheva Sudak-Schochet — her grandmother — was a youngster, not much older than she.

"In that foreign land, observing Shabbat was not as simple as it is today, a matter of just adding an extra potato to the simmering pot of cholent," I explain while pealing potatoes. "For Savta, keeping Shabbat was a perilous practice — one that could cost preciously."

I begin to tell her of a time when the moments ticking on a wristwatch might have marked the very gift of life...

Samarkand, 1943

The sounds of footsteps did not bode well for the young Sudak family, gathered around their Shabbat table. Adjacent to their home stood their underground soap factory. The factory was illegal in the Soviet Union and its discovery could mean instant imprisonment, being sent to the front, or languishing in frigid Siberia for years.

But, as dangerous as it was, the factory also spelled the Sudak's salvation, providing their sustenance while allowing them to avoid working on Shabbat. In those days of the Communist Party's all-out war on religion, observing Shabbat was not only an unheard of luxury that no employment would tolerate — it was a literal death sentence.

Rabbi Pinchas Sudak had taken all possible precautions to ensure that the factory's entrance was well hidden from any prying or meddling eyes, covered over by large planks of wood. But the approaching footsteps sounded like they knew where they were headed.

Someone had informed the authorities.

To the harsh sounds of wood being ripped apart, Pinchas and Batya made quick deliberations.

"Pinchas, run away." Batya ordered. "If they arrest you, you will surely be sent to the front. I will remain with the children, vehemently denying that the factory belongs to me. Hopefully, the penalty will not be as grave for me and they will have compassion for a lone mother with young children.

"Go now. Run, Pinchas!"

Pinchas gazed one last time at his beloved wife, before hastily leaping off the high wall surrounding their home. With a prayer in his heart that he would again be reunited with his family, Pinchas fled, racing to avoid detection and capture, his heart beating wildly.

Batya was promptly led off to prison, leaving her oldest child, eleven-year old Batsheva, to tend to her own fear and the fear of her two younger siblings, Nachman and Bracha.

But there wasn't the luxury of tears or fright. It was time for action.

Batsheva received a message via a family friend to immediately try to meet with her mother's interrogator, a cold-hearted female prosecutor who would determine the outcome of this case and who held the keys to her mother's freedom.

"Tell her that your mother does not own the factory. Your father is in the army fighting valiantly for Mother Russia. The man who ran away was your mother's Polish friend/lover who was helping the family make ends meet. He got the family into this illegal mess, while your mother is innocent," Batsheva was instructed.

With the heavy Communist indoctrination in the school system, officials tended to believe young children who, often enough, would succumb to the brainwashing they underwent and convict their own parents for "crimes" committed against the State.

Though only a youth, tall and mature Batsheva understood her grave responsibility and its sweeping implications. With immense faith and a heartfelt prayer on her lips, she squared her slight, young shoulders and confidently went to meet the prosecutor.

Batsheva convincingly told her tale and tearfully concluded, "Please, I miss her so much. I want my mother back!"

The prosecutor was touched by this attractive and personable young girl. "I'll see what I can do," she replied coolly.

The following day, Batsheva received a new message from her anxious father. "Go upstairs, into your mother's room, and open her drawer. You'll find an expensive gold watch. This time, go to the prosecutor's home. Tell her you want to present her with this gift. Don't ask for anything in return, just explain to her that you want to see your mother."

Batsheva did as instructed . For the next few days, she kept a vigilant watch in front of the prison. She was able to see her mother sitting outside on the cold ground, in a fenced-in area of the prison. She brought a coat for her to keep warm and daily delivered kosher food for her to eat.

Though it was comforting to see her mother, it was painful to see her behind bars in such woeful conditions. Those were difficult days for such a young girl, filled with intense anxiety about the future fate of her parents and family.

After two weeks, to Batsheva's surprised elation, her mother walked out of the prison door, a free woman. The prosecutor had closed the case, recording that the owner of the illegal factory was a Polish man who had fled upon its detection.

Pinchas remained in hiding. The plan was that Batya and her children would leave Samarkand shortly and the family would be reunited in far-off Tashkent.

Several weeks before their departure, on a Friday afternoon, as she was walking from her mother's house, Batsheva happened to meet up with the prosecutor. The woman, who had taken a liking to Batsheva, amicably told her that she had "another case on this street."

Having grown up in the Soviet Union, Batsheva understood the veiled meaning of her words. "A case" could only bode dangerously for her people. Immediately she informed her uncle. He ran ahead to the home of Rabbi Binyamin Gorodetsky, who lived on that street, and warned him of the imminent danger. R' Binyamin exited through his back door and raced to inform his brother, R' Simchah, of the peril.

R' Binyamin escaped, and eventually left Russia to settle in Paris. Unfortunately, his brother didn't heed the warning and was imprisoned for ten long years.

Two weeks later, on a Friday morning before the Sudaks' departure from Samarkand, Batsheva was walking from her grandmother's home and once again met the prosecutor.

"I'll be making an arrest," she matter-of-factly informed Batsheva.

Batsheva ran to the home of her uncle, R' Yisroel Leibov, but he dismissed her warning, thinking that a young girl couldn't possibly be privy to such information.

Late that night, Batsheva's aunt was arrested and her passport confiscated.

Early the next morning, a pale and tense R' Yisroel entered the Sudak home, asking Batsheva to bring some jewelry to the prosecutor. To the relief of the family, Batsheva was, once again, able to secure her aunt's release.

In the darkness of night, at the close of Shabbat, the Sudaks left Samarkand to make the long journey for Tashkent. Over three hundred kilometers away, they hoped that the long arm of the Soviet secret police wouldn't follow them.

But that is a whole other story. Not one to be told on a busy Friday afternoon....

Conscious of the approaching Shabbat, I pause to glance down at my wrist. A young girl... a gold watch... the holy day of rest... And the indomitable spirit and invincible faith of our people.