MILWAUKEE – Alex Goldman grew up secular, planning to make a living hopping a small plane among Caribbean islands after college, before he got redirected by a spiritual awakening to Judaism.
Since then, he’s moved to Milwaukee from New Jersey to be part of the observant Twerski community that’s built up around Congregation Beth Jehudah, 3100 N. 52nd St., Milwaukee.
Goldman says truth – emet – is what inspired him toward observance. “I do know that there is a G-d, one G-d and he gave the Torah at Mount Sinai and we are descendants from that,” he said.
Goldman was born in Florida to a Jewish nonreligious family. To him, a haredi Jew was essentially indistinguishable from the Amish. “I’d never met one in my life,” he said.
His father and grandfather were Navy pilots.
He was raised with a sense of Jewish pride and attended public high school in Miami.
“I was usually one of three Jewish kids on the football team,” he recalled. “Sports kept me out of trouble growing up.”
His father taught him to not accept any harassment about being a Jew. But they never lit a Shabbat candle. At Passover Seder his father would say, “Next year in Las Vegas!”
Goldman now recalls that “the first time I went to a ‘real seder’ in Yerushalayim I started to laugh when they said ‘next year in Yerushalayim.’”
After high school he grew his hair long and his parents made him go to college. “College was fun but I wasn’t focused,” he recalled. (Today, he has a master’s degree in counseling and is a clinical substance abuse counselor.)
When he used to surf near Route A1A in south Florida, he would look up and watch the final approach of jets to and from Patrick Air Force Base. He could feel the vibration.
Soon, Goldman told his father the he, too, wanted to be a pilot. As he tells it, he was 19 when he got into an airplane and didn’t get out until he was 23. He obtained his commercial and instructors license. This was when he was dreaming of shuttling passengers among the islands after college. His dream was to “live in a hammock.”
But that’s not what happened.
Attending Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in the 1990s, he was pursuing a general liberal arts degree. He wanted to get out of school quickly, so he started taking Jewish studies classes, thinking he could “get an easy C.”
But he discovered that he was fascinated by the information and wanted to learn more.
A professor at Florida Atlantic University, Henry Abramson – a b’aal teshuva or one who comes to observance later in life – sparked his interest in Judaism as religion. Two weeks before Goldman was set to graduate, he stopped in his office to schmooze and say goodbye.
The professor offered to help him get a scholarship to study in Jerusalem.
“Yeah I’m moving to the Caribbean,” Goldman recalls responding. “I’m going to fly airplanes between the islands.”
But the professor prevailed and Goldman went to Israel.
Along the way, Goldman wondered: “What makes me Jewish? What makes me different? Why does the world hate us?”
“I’m Jewish for a reason,” he concluded. “I kind of believe that nothing happens by chance.”
Goldman came back from Israel and never started flying among the islands, as he dreamed, but he did fly a Beechcraft King Air turbo prop for Federated Department Stores. He got fired from piloting jobs twice because he refused to fly on Shabbat or Passover, he said.
“Do I stop keeping Shabbos?” he wondered.
“I ended up speaking with a few pilots who explained they either became observant after having seniority or who were less observant than they would have really liked to be.”
Not knowing what else to do, Goldman went back to Israel from about ages 24 to 30. He started at Yeshivah Aish HaTorah and then went to Bircas HaTorah, both Yeshivas for b’aal teshuvas. He was recruited to help start a high school for kids at risk.
He treated Jewish kids from America who had gotten into drugs and other problems.
“I discovered I’m good at this. I can help kids. I can help people who are struggling,” he said. “I became a drug and alcohol counselor in Israel.”
Later, he met his wife through a shadkhan from Queens via the website SawYouAtSinai.com and the pair moved to Milwaukee to be near the Twesrki community.
Now a million miles away from hopping islands in an airplane and sleeping in a hammock, Goldman, his wife and their four children are living a far more observant life than many Wisconsin Jews. And he loves it.
“Truth is what really inspired me,” he said. “Judaism has a tradition where G-d revealed himself to 3 million people.”
“To me it was truth, really. There’s a reason I’m Jewish.”
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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.