Years ago, my wife and I made the conscious decision to settle in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY for the sake of our growing family and our newfound commitment to religious observance. Looking at us now, as we blend effortlessly into the area’s vibrant Chabad Lubavitch community, one would never guess where or how we were raised.
Growing up, home was an upper-middle class neighborhood in Bucks County, PA. The son of a Plant Biophysicist and a Child Psychologist, I was reminded regularly that a strong educational background was paramount. Still, my early years were imbued with a healthy dose of Jewish identity, centered mainly on “basics” like major Jewish holidays, Zionism and Shabbat customs.
Attending a public school, a wholly secular environment, forced me to connect with my Jewish background in other ways. Teachers and students constantly singled me out as the “Jewish kid,” and I was forced to explain and defend Judaism. Rather, than viewing it as a burden, I embraced my Jewish identity and promised myself that I would learn more when the opportunity presented itself.
After a life-altering post-college Israel experience, I decided to pursue a career in Jewish Communal Service. Throughout extended stints with Israel Bonds and AIPAC, I began to explore the deep and powerful waters of the Torah. Though I was not initially interested in becoming more observant, I was intrigued by the practical applications of Jewish law and Jewish ethics. I resisted a truly religious life until an outreach program retreat in 2004 changed everything.
At the age of 35, I began carrying the yoke of the Torah for the very first time, and my commitment to Mitzvah observance and religious Jewish life continues to grow with every passing day.
At present, I am still actively involved in a slow, and at times difficult, self-innovation process, fusing my secular smarts with my new commitment to religious life to, hopefully, arrive at the best possible version of myself.
As the Executive Director of Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), one of Israel’s most unique and prestigious academic institutions of higher learning and a bastion of scientific innovation, I am doing what I can to help others self-innovate as well.
With separate colleges for men and women and a built-in yeshiva program, JCT caters to a largely religious student body. JCT students, many of whom are ultra-orthodox, are provided with a robust secular education with a concentration in fields ranging from high-tech to engineering and business to nursing in an environment that allows them to gain the skills they need to earn a living without compromising their faith, ethics or values.
Though our journeys of self-innovation began at opposite ends of the spectrum, I consider all JCT graduates my kindred spirits. Just as my background and education serves as a strong foundation that allows me to remain in the secular world professionally while offering my family the kind of spiritual existence that I have defined as the “new ideal,” the JCT graduates can maintain their established Torah observant lifestyles while using their new skills to provide their families with the requisite safety, security and sustenance.
Venturing outside my comfort zone was uncomfortable and unnerving, but I am so happy that I challenged myself in this way. Because, ultimately, this fusion of spirituality and secular education didn’t just enhance my life, but it strengthened my family and advanced the Jewish nation as a whole.
When I stroll through the streets of Crown Heights with my family, I feel confident that my wife and I made a smart choice for our children. We live in a community where they can experience the grandeur of religious life yet still benefit from the comfort and security provided by a secular education. They seem to have it all.
But I still hope and pray that my little ones experience their own period of self-innovation later in life. As I know now, it’s all about the journey.
Ari Pfeffer is the Executive Director of the Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology