GLENDALE – “Don’t worry. I won’t come back Orthodox.”
That’s what Glendale’s Dick and Debbie Alpert heard from their daughter, Mara, as she was about to spend a year in Israel.
But Mara underestimated the pull that far-away country can have on Jews. “I left a party girl and came back Orthodox,” she said.
A 10-day Taglit-Birthright Israel trip during her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin – Madison began fueling Alpert’s love of Israel. On the same trip was St. Louis resident Matt Kleiman, also a UW-Madison freshman. But they were on separate buses and it was three years later that they first met.
Both came from Conservative families. For Kleiman, the path to becoming a more observant Jew began after something clicked on the Birthright trip while having tefillin placed on him at the Western Wall. When he got back to Madison, he ordered tefillin from a local rabbi.
“I began the process or learning and doing more and more,” Kleiman said. “I had always been connected to Judaism through an historical prospective, but learning more from rabbis at Chabad and the Jewish Experience of Madison gave me a sound base for what Jews do and why they do it.”
While Kleiman “was doing a lot more” with his Judaism toward the end of his sophomore year,
Alpert took the first semester of her junior year at UW off to volunteer at a school in Israel for children with autism. “The kids came from different branches of Hasidim, and I became immersed in the culture because I was teaching it every day,” Alpert said. “The first time I saw Torah-driven people, I thought it was pretty extreme. I couldn’t believe they were the same religion as I was.”
She spent second semester studying at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I began meeting people my age who grew up like me, but now were living a Torah-observant life,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for anything, but I guess there was always something deep down – yiddishkeyt in my soul.
“When I saw how much meaning this life brought to them, it hit me. I began playing copycat. I knew I would have to take the big step, to make serious changes in my lifestyle if I wanted to feel fulfilled.”
She returned to Madison as a senior and wanted to become a leader at Hillel, as Kleiman already had become. A friendship developed, and both knew they wanted to go back to Israel. They went together after graduation and became engaged in Jerusalem in January 2011. But both had made arrangements for graduate school; Matt began law school at Loyola of Chicago, while Mara went to Brandeis University near Boston. Once she finished her master’s degree, she moved to Chicago, then married Kleiman in Milwaukee.
Now both 29, they live in Glendale and attend Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah. Mara is teaching Hebrew and Jewish studies at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, while Matt was “miserable” in the law profession and recently became a registered representative for Israel Bonds.
“It allows me to bring my Zionism into my professional life,” he said.
Both want to be key players in forming a better relationship between various movements within the Milwaukee Jewish community.
And they plan to keep studying. “You never reach a point in your journey for learning when you’re done,” Matt said.
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At a glance
Who: Matt and Mara Kleiman
What: They became more observant, coming from Conservative families.
Ages: Both are 29.
Occupations: Mara is teaching Hebrew and Jewish studies at Milwaukee Jewish Day School. Matt is an Israel Bonds salesperson.
Synagogue: Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah
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This month, the Chronicle tells several stories of local people who have become more observant: Alex Goldman, the Gelfmans and the Kleimans.