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Yonason and Devorah Adler

2 May 2024

Yonason Adler

I met Devorah in graduate school, and after dating for a few months, I asked her to marry me. She said yes – but her mother objected. I was a real hippie type, with shoulder-length hair, and she was not comfortable with that. But I didn’t give up, I cut my hair, and after three years, in 1969, we got married, settling in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Washington D.C.

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By then Devorah and I were also in the process of becoming more observant, but even though my mother-in-law had agreed to the marriage, she still wasn’t completely happy with the idea of her daughter being religious. Because my mother-in-law did a lot of entertaining, hosting gatherings for family and friends, our refusal to eat food in her home that was not kosher to orthodox standards was a problem.

Initially, we tried making some changes that would enable us to eat there. She would buy meat from a kosher butcher, but then she would make some mistake so there were still kashrut problems with the food. We offered to get place settings that matched her fancy china and that we would cook for ourselves the same foods that that she was serving, but she didn’t like that idea. She kept pushing us to eat her food, we kept refusing, and the tension in our relationship kept getting worse.

During those years, my wife and I were very close with a Chabad emissary named Rabbi Itche Springer. After speaking with him about the trouble with my in-laws, he suggested we make an appointment to meet the Rebbe.

We came to 770 on a Sunday night. There, we sat on a bench with a list of questions for what seemed like forever. At about two o’clock in the morning, we went into the Rebbe’s room.

We had already been briefed on how to act during an audience with the Rebbe: Not to shake his hand, to stand rather than sit, and so on. But when we walked in, my wife was feeling very faint so the Rebbe took one look at her and said. “Sit down!”

We found ourselves very focused on the Rebbe; he seemed to fill the entire room. He picked up the piece of paper I had brought, and glanced at it incredibly briefly, rolling through it the way a winding paper goes through a typewriter. Then, he put it face down on the desk, and proceeded to answer all of our questions in order.

When he came to the question about my mother-in-law, he said, “You need to stop eating at your in-laws: not a banana, not an apple, nothing. But you also have to go more often than you are going now.”

My in-laws lived about three miles from our apartment, so we were already going quite often. In the summer, we would walk over every Shabbat afternoon. But he was telling us that we had to go even more. We had to show my in-laws that we didn’t want to break away from the family, even if we wouldn’t be eating with them.

“Things will get worse for three weeks,” he continued, “and then it will all get better.”

Okay, if you say so, I thought.

So we started visiting my in-laws more frequently but we stopped eating their food. At first, it bothered them immensely. They yelled at us, accusing us of breaking up the family.

But then, after three weeks, my mother-in-law said, “Just come. Bring your own food, bring plastic plates, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what you eat, as long as you’re here.”

And after that, everything was fine.

The Rebbe understood that if we had continued to eat some of their food, we would continue to be challenged: If you’re eating this, why not that? By not eating anything, my mother-in-law ended up looking at the bigger picture and accepting our different standards.

In fact, by insisting that we visit my wife’s parents more frequently, in the end, the Rebbe made my relationship with my mother-in-law much better.

Devorah Adler

In that same audience, the Rebbe also began picking our brains, asking us a lot of questions about the Jewish community of Washington, D.C. and Silver Spring. He was gathering data.

The Rebbe was then quiet for what seemed like a very long time, before speaking up again.

“In Washington,” he remarked, “there are no bubbies.”

Huh? I thought. There aren’t any grandmothers?

He meant that Washington was a transient community because people would come from all over to work for the government. “People have bubbies,” he elaborated, “but they aren’t living in the same place. And that’s a problem because there isn’t anyone to teach the young people about Taharat Hamishpacha.”

The Rebbe was referring to the laws of Family Purity, governing the relationship between Jewish husbands and wives. It is a sensitive subject, so it can be difficult to find teachers to pass these traditions on to the next generation.

Then he looked straight at us: “You will teach Taharat Hamishpacha.”

I was completely flabbergasted. If we weren’t right in front of him, I would have assumed he was talking to someone else. Having only been observant for a year and a half, I felt terribly unqualified. I knew the laws and was following them, but teaching is entirely different. Yet, to my surprise, he had confidence in us that we could do this.

We were by no means chasidim at that point – this was our first time meeting the Rebbe. Yet somehow, he was very convincing, and when we came back home, my husband and I spread the word about what we intended to start doing.

Pretty soon, a whole lot of rabbis and rebbetzins came out of the woodwork, connecting us with people who wanted to learn about Family Purity. We started teaching one-on-one classes to couples preparing to get married; my husband with the grooms and me with the brides, in which they were welcome to ask any embarrassing questions.

In the coming decades, we met a lot of wonderful people who were very mystified about these laws, but soon, they became enthusiastic about them, and they saw their marriages develop as a result. Besides for being a pillar of Jewish observance, Family Purity is a lifesaver for marriages. It teaches couples to relate to each other, to actually communicate, to channel love into listening in ways that deepen their relationship.

And, for people who feel alienated and don’t have any roots – which, as the Rebbe had pointed out, was often the case in Washington – it offered a paradigm shift. Normative religious Judaism in general, and Family Purity in particular, helps a person grab onto something that isn’t superficial. It says, slow down, build relationships, hold on to holiness.

We would have never volunteered to do any of it, however, until the Rebbe told us: “You can do this!”

Yonason and Devorah Adler are retired system analysts for the Social Security Administration currently residing in Baltimore. They were both interviewed in February, 2024.