By BJH staff
RAJE Maryland Director, Rabbi Gavriel Horan, met Joe Bernstein in UMBC back in 2017. Joe attended an introductory Torah class on campus at the behest of a friend. Rabbi Horan recalls that he was impressed by Joe’s intelligence, good manners, and curly “Jew-fro.” At a subsequent meeting with Rabbi “G,” Joe explained that although he had attended Baltimore’s Kreiger Shechter Jewish Day School most of his life, he had little interest in continuing his Jewish education or engagement on campus. The meeting ended amicably with Joe agreeing to consider coming back to the weekly classes on campus. He never did…
For the next several years, Joe avoided Rabbi Horan’s every attempt to make conversation either with a polite excuse, or by walking the other way. After a Birthright trip to Israel, Joe mentioned in passing that he didn’t find it particularly inspiring and had no interest in going back. Although Rabbi Horan attempted to reach out to Joe every few months, it was never successful. That’s why he was surprised when Joe suddenly texted him out of nowhere in the Fall of 2018 asking for a meeting. “That was one of the first times in my 10 year kiruv career that a student I hardly knew actually requested to meet with me,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
At the meeting, Joe dropped a bombshell: “Rabbi, I’ve found God,” he said.
“This wasn’t the first time a student told me that he found God,” Rabbi Horan recalled. “There were only two explanations – either a hallucinogenic drug experience or Christianity. It was the latter.” Joe confessed to having become affiliated with a Christian club on campus and found it very inspirational. “After all my years in Jewish schools, I never learned that God loves me,” he said. “For the first time in my life I became exposed to spirituality and it filled a void within that I didn’t even know was there.” Despite his attraction to Christianity he had some reservations about the whole Messiah thing and his mother suggested he meet with the Rabbi on campus.
“Before you can decide what you think about Christian spirituality, you first have to learn a little bit about Jewish spirituality,” Rabbi Horan said. Joe agreed to meet with Rabbi Horan a few times a week and they began learning about the basics of Jewish philosophy and mysticism, eventually discussion the core problems with Christianity. After a few sessions Joe had been convinced that he had a lot to learn. “Not only was Judaism a lot more intellectually compelling than Christianity,” he recalled, “but everything I liked about Christianity – and more – was actually originally found in Judaism.”
After a few weeks of learning Joe decided he was done with Christianity and signed up for Rabbi Horan’s trip to Poland with an extension to Israel to learn in Aish for a few weeks. He loved the experience in yeshiva and upon returning to the U.S. began to slowly start taking on mitzvah observance. During COVID, Joe used to walk to Rabbi Horan’s house every single Shabbos afternoon and learn, ask questions, or just schmooze for hours at a time. After graduation Joe landed a great job as a programmer at a big company. After a year on the job, however, he decided that although he was making a very good salary, it was time to quit to go to yeshiva in Machon Shlomo in Israel.
During that time Joe began participating in Etz Chaim’s online J-Care Fellowship where he met a nice girl named Arielle Messafi, also originally from Baltimore. Although his plan was to attend yeshiva in Israel in Elul, he asked Rabbi Horan if he thought it was a good idea to consider dating Arielle. Rabbi Horan replied that it didn’t make much sense since she wasn’t headed to seminary and it would only distract him in yeshiva. “What if she’s the right one?” Joe asked. “If she’s the right one, she will wait for you,” Rabbi Horan replied.
Joe grew immensely in yeshiva and signed up for a second year. Half way through the second year, he found out that Arielle had decided to go to seminary in Israel. They ended up dating and soon got engaged. Joe celebrating his ufruf in Rabbi Eichenstein’s shul and the two were married over the summer in Ateres Elka. They decided to spend shana rishona in Israel and were accepted into a special couple’s scholarship program. This year, Joe will be learning in Shappels and Arielle will be learning in Midreshet Rachel.
“If not for all the amazing people along the way, I would likely have ended up another statistic,” Joe recalled. “Imagine what might have happened if Rabbi Horan hadn’t been so persistent in reaching out to me!”
Help support Rabbi Horan and RAJE in touching many more Jews just like Joe in the upcoming year. Stay tuned for details about the upcoming Be CouRAJEous campaign, 9/29/22!