‘We knew we were done with Saturday’

It’s Friday afternoon, and Amy Gelfman is in the kitchen of her East Side duplex, cutting up vegetables. Challah dough is rising in a bowl on the kitchen table. Two of her six sons pop in and out of the room to grab a snack or ask a question.

Watching Gelfman handle food prep, parenting and a constantly-ringing cell phone while talking to a reporter, it would be easy to wonder when she ever gets any rest. But the answer is a simple one.

“Shabbos is such a gift,” Gelfman says. During the week, she works as a music specialist at Ovation Jewish Home and Ovation Sarah Chudnow between shuttling her younger sons back and forth from school and other activities.

She and her husband Jonathan, a marketing manager, have been shomer Shabbos (observant of the commandments associated with Shabbat) since 2008. But thinking about and working out how best to live in a way that encompasses Jewish values and ritual practice predates that milestone by decades.

Gelfman grew up in Peoria, Illinois; Jonathan was mostly raised in Minneapolis but spent some of his youth in Munster, Indiana.

“The Jewish population was small, so I was one of a handful of Jewish kids,” Gelfman said. “The Temple was my second home and being Jewish was really my identity. I didn’t know how you became more observant.”

Jonathan grew up in a similar situation, she said, with a similar outlook. Both were raised in the Reform movement and shared a strong sense of identity; they also shared a strong sense of belonging to the community at large.

“We’ve taken steps forward and steps back,” she said. “When we got married, we decided to keep a kosher kitchen, but ate out.”

They also moved to Israel with an eye toward making aliyah. They spent three months on a secular kibbutz before moving back to the U.S., realizing they wanted to raise their children closer to family.

After Avi was born 20 years ago, they made a traditional Friday night dinner. Gelfman’s family had adopted the tradition during her childhood at the behest of a local woman who had escaped Nazi occupation.

“She decided to adopt us and said we should start having Shabbos dinners in our home,” Gelfman said. “Manja had studied with Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm and met Helen Keller. She traveled solo through the Alps in her 20s. I think her fiancé died in an avalanche. She was very influential in my growth as a Jew, because she brought us Shabbos.”

It was not long after their fifth child was born that the Gelfmans made the decision to become shomer Shabbos.

“My husband was at home and I went to a casino with my mother and sister,” Gelfman said. The trio had gone out to lunch, and then to the casino, where Gelfman sat and crocheted.

When she got home, she saw her neighbors, who were shomer Shabbos.

“They knew we were on the fence with trying to figure things out,” she said, “and I kind of mumbled ‘I was at the casino.’ Then I walked in the door. My husband looked disheveled.” He had stayed with the kids while she was out on Saturday.

“We looked at each other and we knew we were done with ‘Saturday.’”

The adjustment took some time. They eased their older boys into it by giving them an hour of electronics. But because the family had been attending services at Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah in Glendale and spending time with other observant families, the transition was not as jarring as it might otherwise have been.

“Soon it was a routine, and it brought such joy to my husband because it released him from that burden of needing to ‘do, do, do,’” she said. “It also gave us a focal point for our home and a structure, so instead of losing a day to be productive, we became more productive during the week.”

That’s not to say it’s always easy.

“I struggle with the outwardness of it, and sometimes I struggle with the minutiae, but I think it’s something I’ll always struggle with.”

Gelfman said she’s exactly where she needs to be when it comes to her level of observance.

“Sometimes people say to me now ‘You’ve made such a change!’” she said. “They think it happened overnight, not that it’s been this lifelong journey. I’m not really any different.”

While she keeps more mitzvot, Gelfman doesn’t confine or define herself by denominational labels. She attributes that, in part, to the confusion of an Israeli she met in a swimming pool while on her first trip to Israel. She was 16.

“I was coming from a world where people were Reform, Conservative or Orthodox,” she said, “and I asked this Israeli ‘What are you?’ ”

More than 30 years later, his answer still sticks with her.

“I’m a Jew,” he said.

This month, the Chronicle tells several stories of local people who have become more observant: Alex Goldman, the Gelfmans and the Kleimans.