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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Upland man returns to Jewish roots

>Gary Goltz's life had fallen into the pits of hell. "When the rabbi called me, I said, `I've tried everything else. Why not try God?' "

That was a year ago, when someone close to Goltz was addicted to drugs and living on the streets. Reconnecting with his Jewish roots proved a miracle.

Thursday, for the first time since he was bar mitzvahed, the 52-year-old Upland resident celebrated Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is marked deep prayer, abstinence from work and a fast that began at sundown Wednesday. Goltz attended Chabad of the Inland Empire services held at the Marriott Hotel in Ontario. He repented for his sins, reflected on life's disappointments and mourned the death of several close friends. At the rabbi's request, Goltz held high the Torah for the 150 Jews in attendance to see.

Goltz felt the pride of his grandparents, who are deceased, when he prayed for those who have passed on.

"I was there for over five hours, and you know what? It didn't bother me," he said.

In fact, Goltz glowed as he spoke of it, saying he felt like a child experiencing new adventures - even though he had celebrated Yom Kippur as a child.

Goltz grew up in a Russian Jewish household Pittsburgh. At 13, he was bar mitzvahed and became a Jewish man. But he soon found his family's religious and cultural traditions stale.

"I grew up with a lot of hypocrisy in Judaism," Goltz said. "But I came over here and these guys are the real thing."

What he calls "the real thing" is Chabad of the Inland Empire. Chabad is led Rabbi Sholom Harlig, who was connected to Goltz by their mutual barber. The rabbi, who is 41, has taken the older man as his pupil. The two - the Chasidic Harlig and the secular Goltz - study the Torah together about once a month.

"He's really coming back home," Harlig said. "What I am teaching him is nothing new. He learned it as a kid and just stepped away for a few years."

Though Goltz has made a point of attending chabad about once a month, Thursday was the first Jewish holiday service he had attended in almost four decades. He was sick when the High Holidays began Oct. 3 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. He did not want to admit if he successfully fasted for Yom Kippur.

Goltz, a healthcare industry consultant and Judo instructor, does not want his religious revival to be confused with being "born again."

Unlike many religions, being Jewish does not just pertain to practicing Judaism. Nor is it just about having Jewish blood.

"In the Jewish world, we are a community of a peoplehood, which includes land, culture, law, language and divine commandments," said Rabbi Douglas Kohn of Congregation Emanu El, a Reform temple in San Bernardino. "When someone is absent from the Jewish life, they are not just absent from the religious parts but are absent from being home."

Kohn, who has not met Goltz, said it is not uncommon for nonpracticing Jews to return to the fold during crisis. "The real test is whether people will remain after the crisis period," Kohn said.

Goltz said he believes this is no fad.

"I feel very strongly - I don't know what you want to call it: God, divine intervention, karma, mitzvah - that I was in deep despair and something happened. I'm not going to be one of these people who says, `Oh, it was just coincidence' and ignores it," Goltz said. "The water parted there for me."

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