Journey to Judaism
A ride on the E train isn’t exactly the kind of experience that you expect would transform a Mormon girl from Idaho into a chassidic Rebbetzin. But that’s exactly what happened some 20 years ago to Chavah Kolakowski, when four little words uttered by a total stranger triggered a chain of events of seemingly unrelated events that forever changed her life.
Growing up in Idaho Falls, Idaho in the heart of potato country as Melissa Hayes, Kolakowski’s days were filled with wholesome church-related activities, as were those of just about everyone she knew in her hometown. Community members connected with each other on Monday nights through “Family Home Evenings” that included prayer, Bible studies, food and fun, while Tuesdays were dedicated to youth groups and Sundays were church days. Idaho Falls residents were very involved in community service, and Kolakowski’s childhood and teen years were filled with outdoor activities set against the backdrop of the intermountain west’s natural beauty.
Kolakowski was significantly younger than her two older sisters – Ellen and Jennie – who were 22 and 16 years her senior, respectively, and given the age difference, she basked in the joy of growing up with not one, but three loving moms. Discovering her musical talents at an early age, Kolakowski joined the Idaho Falls Opera Theater at 13 and was involved with concerts and shows in both school and church. But while she enjoyed her Mormon church’s youth groups, spending time with her friends and doing community service, the actual religious component of the church never really appealed to Kolakowski who readily described herself as “not the churchiest kid in the world.” Still, she signed up for “release time” in ninth grade, a program that had students going to off-campus for one hour each day for to get additional religious education.
“There were five different buildings right across the street from my high school where they gave religious education,” Kolakowski told The Jewish Echo. “They were learning the Old Testament that year and we had an amazing teacher telling us stories of the Tanach. It wasn’t a deep dive, but I loved it.”
Kolakowski connected to her religious studies that year in a big way, and she aced the course, much to her parents’ delight. She signed up for release time again as a sophomore, but the curriculum that year no longer included Tanach and Kolakowski quickly lost interest in the subject matter. Within two weeks, while she was still within the window of time where she could make changes to her schedule, Kolakowski asked her father for permission to drop the course and take band instead. He readily acquiesced, telling her that he knew that she was a spiritual person who wanted a relationship with her Creator and that he had already sensed that Mormonism wasn’t working for her.
“He told me to go find a religion that appealed to me,’” recalled Kolakowski. “All my life I had been hearing that the Mormon church was the only right way, so for him to say that was very strange. Still, we were very close and I did what he said.”
Given the lack of religious diversity in southeast Idaho, Kolakowski didn’t have many options to consider, but she began exploring the possibilities. Each religion she looked into had certain components that were appealing, while others seemed illogical or frivolous. By the time Kolakowski turned 18, she had some idea of what she was looking for religiously, but she had yet to come across anything that met her standards.
Kolakowski headed east after her high school graduation, enrolling in Westminster Choir College, a small school in Princeton, New Jersey for gifted musicians. With its reputation for preparing students for serious careers in music, Kolakowski felt that her life was heading in a positive direction and she filled her free time working in a baby clothing store, a job that she enjoyed immensely. By the time she graduated college, Kolakowski was already singing professionally and she knew that she would need an agent and a lawyer to advance in her field. With her job providing her with an income while she tried to get ahead musically, Kolakowski felt that she was taking positive steps towards her professional career.
But then came the day that the soundtrack of Kolakowski’s life went horribly off key. She was 25 years old at the time and her bosses sold their store, laying off all their employees as they transitioned to an in-home embroidery business.
“I was devasted,” recalled Kolakowski. “I had two weeks to get the business aspect of my career together and it was a slow, arduous and grueling process that I hated.”
Hoping to gain some much-needed advice, Kolakowski decided to speak to some of her friends who were already professionals. She hopped an E train in lower Manhattan and took one of the few remaining seats, with a Chassidic couple taking the only two spots left. The wife, in her green suit and fluffy green headband sat down next to Kolakowski, while the husband took the seat across from her, his long beard, payos and levush on full display.
“It registered with me that they were there, but I was really wrapped up in my thoughts,” said Kolakowski. “I started crying as I wondered what I was going to do now that my job was gone, with tears of self-pity rolling down my face.”
Seeing her distress, Kolakowski’s seatmate asked her why she was crying. The words came rushing out as Kolakowski explained that she had lost her job and had no backup plan. The woman responded with a brachah, telling Kolakowski that she would get a better paying job, and that one day she would realize how everything was working out for the best.
“She gave this brachah with a real force of bitachon that I could sense,” said Kolakowski. “I was pretty blown away by her and we shmoozed for about five minutes.”
The chassidishe couple got off the subway at Penn Station to catch a New Jersey Transit train to Spring Valley, where they planned on attending their nephew’s bar mitzvah. Kolakowski instinctively knew that her life would never be the same again.
“That brachah did something to me,” said Kolakowski. “I was blown away that she knew everything was going to be okay so strongly that she made me know it too. I don’t know how she knew that, but her husband had payos and a beard and a black hat, and I knew that meant he was an Orthodox Jew.”
Kolakowski couldn’t help but wonder if that certainty that things would work out well was rooted in religion, and she decided to research Orthodox Judaism. Heading to her local library, she found a book about a Jewish secular woman who lived with a Lubavitcher family for a year, experiencing all of the Yomim Tovim and a wedding.
“I was blown away by what I learned,” recalled Kolakowski. “The more I learned, the more I realized that Judaism had everything I wanted and everything I thought spirituality should be.”
As the days went by, Kolakowski fell into a rhythm, trying to get her career settled and looking for a job during the day, while spending her nights delving further into Judaism. The fact that Jews had been living the same life for thousands of years intrigued her, but as much as Yiddishkeit fascinated her, she was well aware of the simple fact that she wasn’t actually Jewish.
Soon enough, Kolakowski had another aha moment. Hospitalized with a serious kidney infection, Kolakowski found herself with an overly chatty roommate, whose love of television made it difficult for her to get the rest she needed. One day, as she was trying to nap, Kolakowski heard a television announcer say that the Jewish holiday of Sukkos was starting that night. Intrigued, she sat up, and her roommate informed her that she had Jewish friends who built small huts that they used for parties on Sukkos. The two started talking about famous Jewish people and Kolakowski was surprised to learn that African-American singer, actor and dancer Sammy Davis Jr. was Jewish.
“I told her that that couldn’t be true but she told me that he had converted,” said Kolakowski. “I was like ‘You can convert??’ and she told me that people do it all the time.”
Knowing that it was possible to become Jewish was the answer to Kolakowski’s prayers, and she assumed that like Mormon conversions, becoming Jewish would be quick and easy. Kolakowski lived at the time just within the boundaries of the Elizabeth eruv, and she made an appointment to speak with Rabbi Elazar Teitz. Understanding that she was meeting a respected clergyman, she made sure to dress nicely for the occasion. Attired in an attractive mini skirt, she explained told Rabbi Teitz about her encounter with the lady on the E train and that she wanted to convert.
“He stroked his beard and told me he had never heard anything like that and that he believed that I was serious about converting but that he was retiring,” said Kolakowski.
Rabbi Teitz sent Kolakowski home with several books on Judaism and the phone numbers of several Rabbanim, in addition to giving her a five minute speech on what it means to dress like a Jew before she left. Kolakowski packed up her pants and tank tops and took them to Goodwill, ready to start the next chapter of her life, but finding a rabbi to work with her turned out to be a herculean task.
“They all told me no, no, no,” said Kolakowski. “One told me I could only convert in Israel. Another told me that I had to live in his basement for five years, and while I know people who did that, it wasn’t for me.”
With a full year having passed since she first spoke to Rabbi Teitz, Kolakowski grew increasingly frustrated. Desperate to find someone who would work with her, she placed a free classified ad in a local newspaper saying, “I want to convert. Please help.”
The ad worked. Kolakowski got an email from a yeshivah bachur who told her that she needed to go away for Shabbosos, see different communities, and build relationships with families who could vouch for her sincerity and refer her to a rabbi. Kolakowski asked the bachur to set her up with a family, who explained that he couldn’t, because while he had responded to her newspaper plea, talking to girls just wasn’t something he did.
“I told him I really needed his help,” shared Kolakowski. “He asked his Rosh Yeshivah what to do and he told him to set me up for Shabbos and that would be it.”
True to his word, the yeshivah bachur arranged for Kolakowski to spend Shabbos with the Landaus, a chassidishe family who lived in Williamsburg. It wasn’t just Shabbos that resonated with Kolakowski, it was the Landaus’ whole way of life and Kolakowski knew that she had finally found what she had been seeking for years. The Landaus introduced her to their friends, neighbors and cousins, and Kolakowski spent time in New Square, Boro Park, and similar neighborhoods, forging friendships everywhere she went, ultimately leading to the next milestone moment in her journey to Judaism.
“This woman called me and told me she needed a favor,” recalled Kolakowski. “There was a Rebbetzin here from Israel with her daughter and she needed a ride to Great Neck.”
Even though it was Friday and Shabbos was early that week, Kolakowski was more than happy to help out. The trip to Great Neck was enjoyable and Kolakowski hit it off so well with the Rebbetzin that by the time they reached their destination, she was invited inside to meet the rabbi as well. Kolakowski had no idea that the person she was about to speak to was the Biale Rebbe of Bnei Brak.
“I came inside and the gabai asked me my name and I had to explain that I wasn’t Jewish,” said Kolakowski. “The Rebbetzin was shocked but insisted that I still had to meet her husband.”
At first, the Biale Rebbe attempted to discourage Kolakowski’s conversion efforts, but she made it clear that wasn’t giving up on her quest to become Jewish.
“I told him that he was telling me no, but that was fine, because by tomorrow I would find another Orthodox rabbi who would say yes, and if I couldn’t, I would keep on going even if it took me forever,” said Kolakowski.
Impressed by her resolve, the Biale Rebbe gave Kolakowski the phone number the rabbi of the Young Israel of Queens Valley, Rabbi Peretz Steinberg. Kolakowski called Rabbi Steinberg who told her that the Biale Rebbe understood that she was serious about her conversion and that he supported her efforts. An in-person meeting with Rabbi Steinberg and two other local Rabbanim from Kew Gardens Hills – Rabbi Shlomo Dov Shapiro and Rabbi Shmuel Marcus – had Kolakowski armed with a learning schedule and she began studying for her conversion with Rebbetzin Shternie Block who lived near her Elizabeth home in nearby Westfield, New Jersey. The two learned general Halachah as well as law of Shabbos, kashrus and brachos, focusing additional efforts on davening and delving into the Rambam’s Ani Maamins. Kolakowski also spent Shabbos most weeks at the Blocks, picking up many more nuances of Yiddishkeit during her time there.
When Rebbetzin Block felt that Kolakowski had enough knowledge under her belt to live life as a Torah Jew, she reached out to Rabbi Steinberg and his beis din again, setting up an official day for the conversion – the fourth day of Teves in 2005. Kolakowski was given a short quiz on basic Judaism and Halachah and was pronounced ready to become a member of the tribe. Right before she went to the mikvah Rabbi Steinberg smiled at Kolakowski and said to her “you know, you can’t go back now, little girl!” Kolakowski laughed and told him that she was more than ready, taking on the name Chavah which had been suggested to her by the Biale Rebbe when they met many months before.
“He asked me what I was going to name myself and I told him I had no idea,” recalled Kolakowski. “He told me ‘You are Chavah – eim kol chai – mother of all living creatures.’ I like it so I stuck with it. It suits me.”
But Kolakowski’s journey wasn’t quite complete. Less than two weeks after her conversion, Rabbi Steinberg called Kolakowski to talk shidduchim.
“I was like ‘But I’m a brand new baby Jew – I’m not ready yet,’” recalled Kolakowski. “But Rabbi Steinberg told me that the Biale Rebbe had someone in mind for me.”
That person turned out to be the Biale Rebbe’s former hoiz bochur, who was also the same young man who had responded to Kolakowski’s newspaper ad and had set her up with the Landaus. 40 days after she became Jewish, Kolakowski was a kallah, marrying Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski a short time later. The new couple settled in Richmond, Virginia, and Rabbi Kolakowski headed up the local Young Israel and also served as a prison chaplain at the federal penitentiary located 23 miles to the south in Petersburg.
Bubbly and outgoing, Kolakowski thrilled at the idea of sharing her knowledge of Judaism with others. Her Facebook page contains links to classes she has given on RadioTorah.com on year-round and Pesach kashrus for beginners, and she has a half hour video tour on YouTube highlighting kosher food products in Whole Foods, recorded in Glen Allen, Virginia, miles away from the nearest kosher supermarket.
The confluence of the Young Israel closing down and the federal government temporarily suspending pay to chaplains such as Rabbi Kolakowski had the couple heading north to begin the next chapter of their lives together. Rabbi Shmuel Fishbane, chief rabbi of Bethel New York who had been close with Rabbi Kolakowski for years, invited him to become his assistant at Congregation Beth Sinai in White Lake. The Kolakowskis have been living in White Lake for the past twelve years and both husband and wife serve as chaplains, he at the State Correctional Institution for Men in Waymart, Pennsylvania, and she at Rockland Psychiatric Center and Blaisdell Addiction Treatment Center, both located in Orangeburg, New York, and at the State Correctional Institution for Women in Muncy, Pennsylvania. The Kolakowskis are also the proud parents of seven children ranging in age from 16 to three – Faigy, Raizy, Surah Sosha, Shlomo Yoel, Avrumi, Moshe Aryeh, and Dina.
All in all, Chavah Kolakowski found that the process of her conversion went smoothly, incorporating Jewish practice into her life at a slow but steady pace. The availability of kosher food, or lack thereof, was an adjustment for and she was surprised to see how little the general public knew or understood regarding Jews and Judaism.
“My friends and family and employers were very accommodating and understanding,” said Kolakowski, who noted that doctors, dentists and other offices were more problematic.
One particular story that stands out in Kolakowski’s mind took place about two weeks after her conversion, when she found herself sitting outside a Taco Bell at midnight intensely craving its familiar fare.
“I had been keeping kosher up until that point but I didn’t go in,” recalled Kolakowski. “Instead, I called Rabbi Steinberg – thank heavens he doesn’t sleep – and he guided me through that moment. But other than those little challenges that all people face, always, since that day I have never doubted that I did the right thing and I never gave up on the Torah or even felt remotely tempted to go back to my ‘old ways.’”
Kolakowski has never seen the woman she met on the train ever again, and doesn’t know anything about her – not her name, where she lives, or anything else. But if she ever bumped into her again, Kolakowski knows what she would say.
“I would really just tell her thank you,” said Kolakowski. “No part of the wonderful, happy life I have now would have been possible without her kind words and amazing brachah.”