By Sara Kanig
How it started.
I guess looking back I could say I’ve always wanted more. Whether I truly realized it years ago is another story entirely, but the point is, I’ve known for many years that life had a lot more for me to discover. And wow was I definitely not wrong. The following pages are a snippet of my story of how I became the person I am today.
November 6th, 2018 I did what most of my then friends called crazy. I packed 3 suitcases and flew myself across the United States from small town Massachusetts to big city Los Angeles, California. My dream life, the dreamiest climate full of sunshine, potential and palm trees. At this same time, my father not even 2 weeks prior had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. This cancer ultimately took his life a short 9 months later, but neither he nor I knew that back then. I left behind a decently secure job, most of my friends, all of my family and a boyfriend I had been dating for 3 years. Most significantly I left behind winter, the dreary New England blues, I traded them in for sunshine 300 days a year and easy access to the ocean. This move was ambitious, but it was what I wanted and it really turned out very good for me.
For a little bit of background, I grew up in a small town called Northampton, Massachusetts with a younger brother and sister, and two secular Jewish parents who loved us all dearly and deeply. We had no family nearby, the closest relative was about 2.5 hours drive, and the rest farther than that. Our community was mostly non-Jewish, although I did have some secular Jewish friends that I met over the years. The Northampton area offers a quiet town to raise a family in what’s called the happy valley. People are very libral, passionate about social justice issues and equally passionate about not surrounding themselves with too many other people who don’t fit one of those descriptions. I did have a nice childhood, but once I got to college age, and especially post college graduation, me as a young person with higher aspirations knew western Massachusetts did not have enough to offer me. I decided after years of struggle with winter, seasonal depression, summer allergies and more, that I’d move to Los Angeles.
My family when I was young would celebrate shabbat on Friday nights, it was a special dinner, we’d have challah bread, light candles and we got to drink juice at dinner! There were some times where we even did the havdalah ceremony on saturday nights when shabbat ended, but in between we didn’t practice. We lived in a non-Jewish town. We did not go to shul on Saturdays or even if we did we’d have to drive there, we certainly didn’t keep shabbat to any sort of full extent. Saturday was the weekend just like it was for everyone else in our town. This was normal. There was pretty much no Jewish life outside of the traditions in our home.
Fast forward 10 months after I moved to LA, on August 5th, 2019 my father passed away. I did get to fly home and see him for 2 days in the hospital before he departed, but I can’t speak gloriously about that experience. It was hard to see my father who loved and cared for me for 25 years looking like a bloated skeleton, in a bed, unable to eat or talk. I didn’t even know how to pray for him, how to do anything other than send my energy to him and talk to him about what beauty I had found in Los Angeles. Ultimately I know he passed on loving me and my family, and knowing he’d look out for me and that I’d be ok. What I didn’t realize or even dare to imagine was that his passing was the beginning of a series of blessings so great they would completely transform me and everything I know and value. I don’t think my father knew this either, but I know that he knows it now.
I had been learning and studying about “energy” for some time by this point, through yoga, hypnotherapy, meditation, breathing exercises etc. These are things I started discovering back in high school. I knew my father wasn’t happy to have his life cut short at age 66, because 2 days after his passing, he shut the power off at our home. What I understood is that we are spirits who inhabit physical bodies, for the time we get on this earth. When we die, our body gives out but our souls remain, and they are energy, just like everything is, so sending a storm to throw the power out in the house is for me a clear sign my father was upset at himself for leaving us. What’s comforting to me now, is wherever I experience a power outage, I think of my dad and how he’s there helping me.
I think after some time my father found peace and a new purpose for which his soul now works. I know for me, it took about 6 months for me to experience the next remarkable part of the story, but I’m sure he was working hard during those first few months as well. One of our family friends says he came to her in her dream. That happened to me once or twice as well.
To say I took losing my father in stride would be an understatement. I tried for a few weeks to continue with my work. Six weeks before his death I had started my own financial practice through one of the top mutual life insurance companies in the US. Basically my job was to prospect for clients to sell life insurance and retirement plans. Understandably this became incredibly challenging to do while deeply grieving the loss of a parent. I managed to work for about another month with moderate progress while still in shock, and then the Jewish new year and holidays came around and I metaphorically fell off a cliff and could not keep going. I began to have panic attacks, uncontrollable bouts of crying and hysteria, a complete inability to function as a professional, to work or earn money. I fell deep into grief and depression, unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
So while I was pretty much unable to do most things, what I did have enough intuition to realize is that I needed support and help. I sought out support groups, grief therapy, lots of yoga, and whatever I could experiment with that brought me any relief. I explored a variety of different energy healings, but didn’t think to look to Judaism for answers, because I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know anyone from my own roots and heritage to provide me any instruction or guidance as to how to grieve in a Jewish way. I was very lost.
Time went on, things got a little better after the new year. I had applied in November for state medical mental health leave of absence from work. This was to end in February and I had to figure out how to face my reality and harness the good and move forward. The route I took was networking. I’m not entirely sure why I decided this was my path to success, but it definitely was and has rewarded me many times over.
Where the Blessings Really Began
On January 16th, 2020 I attended a local Los Angeles business networking event. This event became a catalyst for a lot of wonderful relationships to flourish down the line. The most important thing I learned at this event was how to harness the power of Linkedin (a digital professional social network) to connect and build relationships with a lot of people quickly and easily. I started over the following weeks, to connect with other professionals all around the country. I had calls most days with new people I connected with to meet. The drive for this activity was to find myself clients, but it ended up building me an entire life and community instead. Most importantly I enjoyed it and it really got me out of my shell.
On February 13th, one of the people on my calendar to speak with was a gentleman from Monsey, NY. Through our call, I learned that this guy had considered doing the exact job I was currently in, making him just about my worst prospect. I also learned he is Jewish, and that he had been to Los Angeles the year prior because his then 13 year old daughter had had cancer and their family came on a Make A Wish trip to California. We related on a variety of things, I shared that my father had passed 6 months prior – his mom had also passed away young. Our conversation continued beyond that first phone call.
He was persistent in following up and checking on me. Through our subsequent conversations I was still grieving heavily. He urged me to go to Pico (the Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles), and get a book of tehillim. He told me (in the merit and to honor the soul of my father) to read one chapter each morning along with lighting a candle and giving a few pennies to tzedakah (except on Shabbat). It took me some few weeks to get started, but once I did, I kept it up until I completed the entire book of tehillim. I was in a very different place by the time I finished about 10 months later. I didn’t realize much right away, what I’ve learned now is that repetition is the key to learning, and this man had gotten me to do a repeated action every single day that would help me with my grief process. Because my family hadn’t observed a proper shiva, there was a lot of unprocessed pain and emotions. This practice was incredibly healing and began my steps into a more spiritual and religiously observant life. It also unknowingly gave incredible merits to my father and connected me to him in a new way.
Fast forward, October 4th 2020 (I’m 7 months into my tehillim) my family held the unveiling (ceremonial installation of headstone at the gravesite) for my father. It was a beautiful ceremony and a very touching time, bringing a little bit of closure. This also happened to be the beginning of Succos (5781). My Jewish acquaintance from LinkedIn and I had stayed somewhat in touch. He had asked me to let him know when I’d be on the east coast. He wanted to meet me and introduce me to his family (wife and 4 kids), so I let him know when I was traveling. I remember him being very excited, and we began to chat about how and when to meet. As this was the height of covid – the idea that I would go to New York to meet some people I’d met over the internet was insanely radical to my mother. Really most of it made no sense logically, but there were spiritual wills and forces at play. Somehow when his wife invited me to come to their home for the long weekend (second days of Yom Tov), I found myself saying yes. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, I had never gone to stay at someone’s home I barely knew for an entire weekend by myself. But something present within me and the connection to my father told me that such a person and such an invitation would not have come into my life if it were not meant for me.
I took the Amtrak from Massachusetts to Penn Station in Manhattan on Friday morning – Hoshana Rabbah – and they picked me up in the city. Little did I know what to expect for a 2 day holiday in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I had actually never even heard of the holiday of Simchas Torah.
What I discovered was truly remarkable. When shabbat came in a few hours later, the entire neighborhood got quiet. No more cars on the road, no music playing, no work, nothing really much except prayer and the sweet smells of dinner. All the electronics were turned off, lights put on a timer, everything stood still for the next 49 hours. It was immensely beautiful. What did we do for all that time? Well meals were all ceremonial as it was shabbat and sukkot so every time we ate it lasted about 2 hours, then there were the mid afternoon naps or reading time, and in the evenings it was prayer. As a woman, I was not obligated to attend many services, but they were extremely kind in guiding me as to what I should prioritize participating in. On Shemini Atzeres – the 8th day of Sukkot – we say Yizkor, which is a prayer for the souls of the departed loved ones. As I was primarily there because my dad had passed, this was obviously an important part. I felt extremely well taken care of knowing I had a guide, someone helping me and instructing me. Their now 14yr old daughter even helped me in the women’s section of the shul find the right pages to read. Such a kind and gracious soul to help me even at such a young age.
One of the most profound things I learned was about what happens to our souls on Shabbat. I had never learned the reason why we as Jews are commanded to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy or what that even meant. What I was enlightened to is that on shabbat, as Jews our soul is with G-d. For this reason we cannot be performing any tasks and activities that constitute physical world creation, such as lighting fires, driving, cooking, working, using technology etc. Our souls are elevated with G-d and it is a time for us to deeply relax and connect with the power we all have inhabiting us that we mostly ignore and forget about when we are busy being creative humans. It’s like we go up to this higher dimension and are honored for doing so. They also taught me about some intricacies of certain Jewish stories, and a lot about why we do things in certain ways. After 14 months of emotional turmoil and confusion following my father’s death, I got to rest. Needless to say, that weekend changed my life in a very powerful way.
On Monday morning, I was to take a flight back to Los Angeles. In the car to the airport I remember being asked what my takeaways from the weekend were. At 6am on a Monday I honestly didn’t have any. Upon departing I was told to take what I could from the experience, and to know “that the Jewish people need you”. I didn’t know what that meant at the moment, but now I understand it on a very deep level. We are all one tribe connected with G-d and acknowledging this connection is the greatest gift one can give their soul. Additionally every Jew has a piece of Torah and something that we are put here to give to the world. Connecting and building a relationship with G-d is the only way we can hope to discover what that piece and purpose is. There is a saying that says, when the student is ready the teacher appears. I realistically had many opportunities where I could have sought out Jewish learning in my past, but until I came across someone who took it upon himself to give me a little nudge I never looked, or even thought to seek it out. This is how I knew I wasn’t ready before, but now I am.
When I got home the next day the experience of resting and the infusion of spirituality I had been given had time to settle and root itself within me. I felt high on life, absolutely incredible. I sat down and wrote out my feelings in an email. I thanked him and his wife for not just inviting me, but for following up and encouraging me to come, for helping me prepare and feel comfortable in their home, and for teaching me some incredible lessons. I wrote about my main takeaways of how my soul is elevated on shabbat and how breathing in the fragrant spices at havdalah is to fill us with the sweetness as our souls descend back into the creative world. I also wrote that now with these beautiful truths, that “I would be completely foolish and silly to not observe Shabbat now that I know and understand this”.
There’s more in the email, but that’s the beginning. Basically it finally all made sense. I could feel the higher power within my body and my spirit was so happy. I was ready to sign up for it all! The next day he called me in shock at my response. We got to work and contacted local LA resources to make it possible for me to keep Shabbat as a total beginner. It went quickly, I ended up at a kiruv rabbi’s house that next Friday night, for my second Shabbat. I have been keeping Shabbat since then. Two feet first, but only as fast as one who goes from secular to Shomer Shabbat in literally 1 week can manage. What’s cool is that my anniversary of observing Shabbat is on Simchas Torah, Parshas Bereishis, where it all begins. I am now approaching 2 years of observance.
From there to Seminary
For the next three months, (Oct, Nov, Dec 2020) every Friday afternoon I would drive over to the Jewish neighborhood in LA and stay with some family somewhere for shabbat . I got to meet a lot of wonderful people, my phone contact list filled up with Rabbis, my network and community began to change and I made many new friends. I began to learn about more customs and Jewish laws, how to keep proper shabbat, say blessings, prayers, and how to dress stylishly in skirts and dresses. I loved it, it added such a beautiful structure to my weeks, and left me glowing with spiritual pleasure every Saturday night. I didn’t take on any other mitzvot right away, just shabbat. I would dress in skirts only on shabbat, eat kosher only on shabbat etc. What I did right away was break up with my non-Jewish boyfriend. I also began learning once a week with a lady on Zoom, and she taught me the morning brachot and gave some light to my areas of curiosity. Modeh Ani was the second thing I took on, probably in month 2. I was growing tremendously just by learning from the people who I visited on shabbat, and from a once in a while conversation with my Monsey family about my progress. They would add in insights and info in beautiful and powerful ways. One of my favorite things still to this day is learning the power in the Jewish calendar and the essence of each month, day, holiday and even time of day. This started in that first week.
I also began to have weekly meetings with my Rabbi – we’d learn a little bit of Mesillas Yesharim and discuss my always developing questions. After 3 months of these weekly meetings and traveling every week for Shabbat it was time to move. With help, I relocated to the Jewish neighborhood, and moved into the Los Angeles Sem with a roommate (aka Jewish Routes, aka OLAMI West). This was a big step, it meant I had to start keeping kosher, laws of yichud at home and attend 4 Torah classes weekly. Truly the only challenging part was learning how to keep and eat only kosher. This did not come easily to me, as I already was limited in my dietary choices due to having a celiac diagnosis. Struggling with a mitzvah now became something real and tangible to me.
I lived in and participated in this program for the next 14 months. I loved learning and kept growing. Initially the move coincided with a growth in my business. By Purim time I was so busy with new clients and new cases I had to hire an assistant. This flow of abundance lasted through about May that year. Afterwards it stagnated for a few months and then began to dry up. A lot of progress happened in my life over those months. Most critically I began to drift away from secular ideas of fun and further into insulating myself around spiritually strong and inspired people. This trend was mirrored in my sales performance. I became slowly unmotivated by the incentives the company gave and the entire vision and mission. By mid summer I realized I had a serious issue inhibiting my growth spiritually and professionally and I needed a new environment to work in. The yetzer hara which I’d so naturally conquered up until this point had finally found a footing. I began the search for a financial services office run by religious Jews in my neighborhood with whom I could fit in and partner with. I assumed upon finding this that my growth in business and my sustainable parnassa would resume and grow. I was in for a bit of a turnaround.
A few months into my participation in LA Sem, my rabbi broached the subject of me going to Israel to learn. He recommended it strongly as my learning was obviously limited in the part time setting and I had a lot of foundation I needed to build. At the time in my mind it wasn’t a relevant conversation, the borders were closed, my business was booming, and my Torah learning in LA was providing me with sufficient spiritual nourishment. Essentially I was quite satisfied with where I was and how I was progressing and felt no need to rush off to Israel and interrupt the flow. I let it go, figured when the right time came I would know and basically forgot about the idea.
By Rosh Hashana time, I had begun to experience a bit of stagnation spiritually, I had grown so much and felt at my new level the program wasn’t quite enough for what I needed, so I began to look around for something more. This search didn’t lead to any substantial results. I was also at this time looking for a new workplace. In October I got introduced to a community member who owns and operates a boutique wealth management firm in Beverly Hills. I was offered exactly what I was looking for, an opportunity to move my business to a more religiously observant place. I was thrilled to have such a nice office, 5 minutes from home, working with a guy who learns in kollel before coming into work. This situation was exactly what I had prayed for, except that I still was working only on commission. I had to drop all of my clients and move over the ones who wanted to follow me and start up with new clients. I did this with full faith that G-d would help me, as I was taking steps that increased my ability to maintain and live a life of Torah values professionally. Instead of yielding any fruit, I went one month, to the next living off my dwindling savings and expecting my efforts to yield a paycheck at some point. After a certain point I applied for unemployment benefits (allotted to commission sales people with breaks in income). This helped but was far less than my cost of living. On the surface I was living the dream. I had a new car, a cushy business in a private office in the nicest city in the country, surrounded by millionaires and billionaires, growing spiritually and mentored by special and upstanding professional people. In reality, I was getting further into debt by the day, and more and more pained by my stuck places and situation. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. I was terribly ashamed and embarrassed, totally unsure what I was doing wrong.
Things finally got to the point where I was not able to pay my rent for the coming month. I scheduled a meeting with my rabbi and sem program director and laid out my cards on the table. He was able to show me the big picture of what had happened. We then realized I had yet to take time and learn in Israel. It was clear immediately that this was where G-d was leading me. The Master of the Universe wanted me to go, but I ignored him for months. Instead he got me to release all my clients, and he slowly turned off my parnassa, and got me into a corner with nowhere to go but up. Baruch Hashem for learning scholarships, because this is what got me a plane ticket and admission to Shearim, college of Jewish studies for women. I flew to Israel about 4 weeks later, a week or so before Pesach, with barely a penny, but a heart and mind full of faith and freedom. I donated more than half of my clothing, gave my car to a friend to rent from me while away, released my apartment, most of my belongings, and all other ideas of progress in life. It was time to sit down, slow down and immerse myself in G-d’s wisdom. The plan was to stay for 3 months of learning, and then see where I was and re-evaluate. I’ve now been here learning full time for nearly 7 months.
My time in Israel has been tremendously rewarding, valuable and has allowed me to grow to a very high level spiritually. I’ve taken on more mitzvot, grown and deepened my observance in many ways. I discovered right away the immensely strong power of prayer in Israel, I think this is the area I have grown the most. I’ve seen some of my prayers answered in mere minutes, some the same day or the next, and of course others longer, but this kedusha is real and I’ve definitely learned to really appreciate and work with it. Israel has also challenged me in serious ways. I am definitely a more humble person now, I am more educated, I appreciate different things in life, and have refined my character in small but noticeable ways. I have made friends for life, and set a very solid foundation Jewishly for what is to come. It’s now my time to soar. To take this wisdom and bring it to my family, to my world and integrate it into the vastness that is my potential. I have a mission to fulfill, and it’s really quite exciting!
I knew it was my time to depart seminary when I felt I had learned so much I was ready to implode (in a good way). I have so much to give, especially to my family. It’s also time for me to return to a newly defined professional life and pay back the debts of gratitude for all that Hashem has given me. I’m looking forward to grounding myself in a new Jewish community, continuing my learning with chavrusas and independently, being of service to G-d, to my fellow Jews. I’ve set my foundation spiritually, now it’s time to set my foundation financially, emotionally and as a servant of G-d in this world. I’ll be temporarily departing Israel to fulfill my next chapter the day after Simchas Torah. A completion of a full 2 years of observance. I know I will continue to only grow and flourish with G-ds help and by living from the inside.
I hope you enjoyed reading my story. There are countless lessons and other details that were left out due to keeping this short. With G-ds help I can write them all up at some future date. In the meantime, may Hashem bless us all with a fulfilling, growth filled and joyous and super sweet year and may we all merit to see the temple rebuilt soon in our days. Shana Tova.