Men With Hats And Jackets Changed My Life

The following essay by a Noahide woman was first published on

23 Menachem Av 5773 (June 30, ’13)

Every time a baby is born you hear close friends and family members of the new parents say, “Oh what a beautiful miracle!” or some other such saying in which the new born child is being called a miracle. I’ve always hated that. While for that family, the birth of a baby is not something that happens every day, or week or month, or even every year…. thousands of babies are born every single day. And yes, they are wonderful blessings and should be cherished; but I’ve always cringed when someone referred to birth as a miracle. Birth is mundane, it happens every single day, it has happened to each and every one of us.

We’ve all experienced birth, many of us will experience other births, we know how it works, we know a lot about it… I never called anything that was well-known and mundane a miracle. However, I was wrong. Very wrong in fact. There is nothing more miraculous then the mundane. I am living proof of this and every day I am reminded of it.

In June of 2002 I was a 14 year old American teenager. My family was chr’stian, church every Sunday morning and a prayer group every Sunday evening. I was home schooled from kindergarten, never exposed to the Jewish culture, or any others.

As religious as my parents tried to be, things still happened and they were filing for a divorce. In late June the courts in Allegheny County held a group session for kids whose parents were separating. I was at the top of the age group, right before the cut off age. I was required to go. It was a hot, sunny day in Pittsburgh. This event was expected to take a few hours. I had much more important things to do on a Saturday afternoon then to spend my free time in this weird event with a bunch of kids that I don’t know, talking to people that I don’t know about things I didn’t want to talk about. I was 14, I didn’t want to talk to adults about my feelings. Much less, I didn’t want to ride from my home all the way to Squirrel Hill for this, that was at least another half an hour out of my day.

Turns out, this was one of the most important days of  my life. The event itself was pretty unmemorable; however, on the ride home I witnessed the strangest sight. Here, in Pittsburgh, on this hot summer day… were two strange guys walking down Murray Avenue in long black pants, funny looking black hats with wide rims, and… can you believe this… COATS! In June, two men were wearing coats! Who could believe? Not me. I was shocked. My thought was “What are those bozos celebrating?”

Turns out, they were celebrating their Sabbath, which they call “Shabbos”, or “Shabbat”. I never saw a Jew before – if I did, I didn’t know it. So, when I pointed those funny men out to my mom in the car, she said she thought they were Jews.

Being a kid of the 90’s, I went home, got on AOL and went into a chat room called “Jew” looking for these weird people in coats. Eventually I got in touch with someone that knew of these weird coat-wearing Jewish people. He was Rabbi Mentz of Chabad of Bel Air. Even more interestingly, he was one of those weird Jewish people that wore a coat in the summer heat.

We became casual friends, for never meeting face to face. I would ask him every question imaginable. “What’s a Jewish church called again?”  “Whats the little hat under the big hat called?” I even asked if his son, who was my age, was cute. He never got angry or upset, never showed frustration. My desire to learn grew, as did I.

Eventually I went off to college. By this time I knew what a kippah was, I knew what Shabbat was. I was feeling pretty confident in my knowledge. I also knew that Torah teaches that you don’t have to be a Jew in order to serve G-d. But I did not know about the seven laws of Noach. So I sought fulfillment elsewhere.

In 2008 I went back to the religion my parents raised me as and was a practicing Catholic. I was also suffering from depression. That spring semester was very difficult for me. I didn’t care about anything, I didn’t have energy, I was scared. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Eventually I started to have thoughts of doing something very bad; thank G-d I knew to seek help.

My university had a staff of various counselors, one of which was a psychiatrist and he documented my depression through the university as an illness. It got worse; I stopped going to class. Because I didn’t go to class, I didn’t get good grades. You can’t do well if you’re not there to do the work, who knew? Close to the end of the semester I had no choice but to withdrawal from all of my classes, save one. Due to that, I lost all financial aid for the following fall semester. With G-d’s help I got better over the summer and was ready to make amends and get back on track in the fall.

Fall came, I decided to tweak my degree. A nice fresh start. During that semester a guest speaker came to the Catholic group meeting one night. He was promoting a class for the spring 2009 semester…. an Israeli history and politics class that would spend two weeks in Israel. By this time my love of Judaism had really grown and I wanted to go very much. I was the first student to sign up for the course. All sorts of scholarships were given to anyone that signed up, to cover the very high expense of the trip. In the end, the entire trip would cost each student $2,500 dollars. This covered air fare, all transportation around Israel, all lodging, all meals and a tour guide and bus. Very good deal, but that is a lot of money to a full time student.

But, being the active Catholic that I was, I thought I could easily get the money if I asked the Catholic churches around Pittsburgh for help. I wrote a letter to every catholic church in the area, including the one that I had a sort of membership to. I also made a Facebook group asking for donations. In the end it got me three dollars, donated by a student at my university. Only one church responded to my plea for donations, and it was not a kind response. The down payment ($2,000 minimum) for the trip was due the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It was now one week before Thanksgiving and all I had was three dollars.

That weekend I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get the money. I was sad. That Monday came, classes were out, students were going home for the holiday and I got an email from the school saying that they reinstated my financial aid…. even though I already covered tuition in full from loans. So I checked out my account with the schools payment system and they returned part of the student loan, and applied my financial aid to my account. For some unexplainable reason, they didn’t return an even amount of money from the loan. So I needed to pay $2,500 for the Israel trip, I needed a passport and I needed luggage for such a trip.

The day before I had to pay for the trip, a $2,730 deposit was made into my bank account from the surplus of the financial aid/student loan issue. Just enough to cover what I needed! I ran to the financial aid office to make sure everything was in order, then I ran to the study abroad office to set up the payment and ran back to the financial aid office to pay for the trip. I was going to Israel!

We went to Israel in May of that year, it was a wonderful trip. We started in Jerusalem and being a tourist, I took a picture of everything. Everything that looked old, everything that looked new, everything in Hebrew, everything in English. My poor camera.

There were seven students, one professor and two tour operators in Jerusalem for our group. We were in the Old City when suddenly my camera turned off. Brand new batteries, I never touched the power button… no logical explanation as to why it would turn off.

So I’m trying to turn my camera back on, I’m not seeing what’s around me… I’m just following the group and looking at the camera. We get to the bottom of some stairs when the camera turns back on… and I look up to see the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the very first time. I remember seeing pictures of the Kotel before and saying, “that’s it?!” I knew it was important, but based on peoples thoughts and words about the Kotel, I imagined this massive giant wall. And physically, it’s not massive. Spiritually it is. Words really cannot describe how one feels when they first lay their eyes on that wall. It really is a very powerful place. Nothing I say would give the feeling justice, even though I always try.

That experience, along with others in Israel, began to shake me up.

When I returned to Pittsburgh I began to question chr’stianity. I had a lot of questions and I went to the Catholic leaders of my church for answers. For the most part, I got none.

Soon I was told to stop asking these questions. Bit by bit my belief in those things faded. I still lived among observant chr’stians, I went to school with them, I went to religious events… but something wasn’t right. Soon I started to not follow their prayers, and during prayer services I would make my own. The campus minister suggested that I, along with a friend, go to an event in Shady Side called the Catholic Underground. It was a prayer service and social event aimed at younger Catholics.

It just so happened to be on the evening that started Rosh Hashanah. During the prayer service I, again, wasn’t following along with what the group was, and instead I was asking for truth. I wanted and needed to know, basically, who is G-d… and the moment I asked for truth, the group prayer stated, “…though he was godlike, he was not G-d….” – and that was it. I sat down, looked around the church and wondered how no one else heard that when everyone said it.

When the service was over the sun had just set, Rosh Hashanah had just begun. I never stepped foot back into a church since. I knew I wasn’t Catholic anymore, I knew I wasn’t born a Jew… so what was I?

The following week I sent an email to Chabad of Pittsburgh; after all, it’s always been Chabad that sparked my ponderings, and I was told that there is such a thing as gentiles that follow Torah – they’re called Noahides, and it just so happens that there is a website called Asknoah and it’s based in Pittsburgh.

I emailed this Asknoah website, and in late 2009 I started to follow the seven laws of Noach. I kept learning about the laws and about Judaism, and over the next four years I was given many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I started to attend events in Squirrel Hill, and on July 1st 2013 I moved to Squirrel Hill. And now I live in the Jewish community and I go to services… and I see many of those funny hats and black coats. Only now, I don’t think those people are weird. In fact, I highly respect them. I’ve come to admire the coat, as hot as it may be, because it changed my life.

Everything I’ve written here, as miraculous as some of it may seem, it all only happened because two Jewish men walked home from “shul” (a synagogue) on Shabbos. That’s it. There is nothing more to it. I learned about Judaism because two men walked home from shul on Shabbos. I got to go to Israel because two men walked home from shul on Shabbos. I became an observant Noahide because two men walked home from shul on Shabbos. And every single good thing I do for this world, I do because two men walked home from shul on Shabbos. How much more mundane can you get?

They just walked; I am sure those two have walked that same path thousands of times, maybe millions. They didn’t wake up and say, “We’re going to put on a hot coat and walk around Squirrel Hill so that seven years later a Gentile will follow the seven laws.” They simply did what they do every single week. They went to Shul, they put on their hat and had their coat, they went home or maybe to a friend’s house and had a nice meal.

They “Benched” (their recitation of Grace After a Meal)… played with friends or children. They went on with their lives without every trying to affect mine. They didn’t know me, they still don’t know me. There is no way to ever find out who they are. They could have been visiting and not even live here. I can’t find them to thank them. They will never know how BIG of a mitzvah they did, by walking home from shul on Shabbos.

I am who I am today, I am an observant Noahide and a student of the Seven Laws… because of that black hat and that black coat. The amount of respect and admiration I have for those two things is very strong, and now when I go past someone wearing them, I don’t think they’re weird. They might think I’m weird because I have a huge smile on my face, but I respect them so much and they don’t even know how much it means to put it on.

So yes, the mundane can be miraculous… in fact, I think it always is; we just don’t often get to see the ripple played out as I did here.