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From Mountain Mama to Yiddishe Mama

December 8, 2013 | by Penina Neiman

The true story of an Appalachian family of 12 who converted to Judaism.

Sheryl Youngs was born into a devout family of Sabbath-observing Christians, adherents of the Church of God 7th Day. Her father, Brother Victor Youngs, was the pastor of their church, a charismatic leader who conducted many baptismal ceremonies over the years. He had but one little congregant who stubbornly refused to be baptized; his daughter Sheryl.

At the age of 16 she finally succumbed to familial pressure and allowed herself to be baptized. When asked to sign the baptismal certificate that stated a lifelong pledge to serve as a “flowering vine of their Savior,” she refused. She did not want to sell herself out to a religion that she was less than 100% sure was the truth.

A questioning teen

Sheryl was a questioning teen, intuitively searching for knowledge of her Creator.

“When I was 14, I attended a youth camp with a group from our church. One night, everyone sat around a campfire, singing and praying. Somehow, the very beauty of the service did not satisfy me; if anything, it only intensified the relentless yearning within me. I wanted something more.

Chapter 2: The Youngs Family: Left to right,k back row: me, my mother and my fatherChapter 2: The Youngs Family: Left to right,k back row: me, my mother and my father

“I walked up a wooded hill and peered up at the heavens spread out above the towering pine trees. The flickering stars felt so close; I felt deeply connected to God. Deep within, a new thought welled up. God, Creator of the magnificent heavens above me, was surely great enough to hear my prayers. I said to myself, ‘If the God of the universe is so powerful as to make these heavens, then I know that He can listen to my prayer. I need no mediator! From now on, I am only going to pray to God Himself!’”1

Sheryl was a voracious reader, passionately devouring book after book in her quest for knowledge of God and her purpose in the world. It was the following words of Tolstoy that got her thinking, “’These are the great questions of life that everyone has to answer; is there a God? Is there life after death? Is there reward and punishment? What’s the purpose of life?’ These questions fueled my desire for more knowledge. The more I read, the more I realized that there was much more to know. I began to keep a list of books that I was determined to track down and read. My father once joked that I reminded him of an alcoholic pining for a drink, and there was truth to his words. I read like a man possessed, devouring book after book in my search for answers.”

Although she had many questions, Sheryl was afraid to express her concerns. She began to search for answers within the context of different branches of Christianity, but in every church she encountered new practices and beliefs that went against her perception of God.

Her genteel anti-Semitism and mistrust of Jews kept her from taking a serious look at Judaism.

Upon entering college she resolved to study all the religions of the world. The society she’d come from had given her a genteel anti-Semitism and a mistrust of Jews, which kept her from taking a serious look at Judaism. She resolved instead to study the Koran, but was unable to understand it.

Bible College

She decided to continue her education at the Midwest Bible College in Missouri, which proved to be a turning point in her life. It was at Bible College that Sheryl met John Massey, a Bible scholar and the man she would marry.

“As a teenager, I had struggled with doubts and fears about religion, but the… reaction that Christianity exerted upon questioners who thought out of the box kept me from ever verbalizing my troubling thoughts. For years I turned them over and over in my mind as I continued my lonely search for answers. Ironically, it was at missionary college that I came upon the first few holes in my belief system. There, I learned that the New Testament had evolved out of a collection of letters that mere men decided to write – men who had not even claimed to have received prophecy.

“And it was in missionary college, at the age of 19, that I finally found someone I could talk to… One summer night, [my friend and teacher] Jewell and I stood together under the oak trees in front of her home. We were talking about the Bible, and Jewell told me that she was troubled by our religion’s practice of extracting just a few commandments from the Old Testament while ignoring all the rest. Her words struck a chord. I had grappled with this question for years. This was the first time I had ever heard anyone verbalize it.”

It was also Jewell who first suggested that Sheryl date John Massey. Before long the two were engaged and had decided to establish their home in Georgia near John’s parents.

Moving to Appalachia

It was there that Sheryl received the shock of her life. Although she had realized that her in-laws lived a simpler life than what she had been accustomed to back in Southern California, she hadn’t realized the full extent of the difference until after her wedding.

Chapter 4: The boys with their father at the sawmillChapter 4: The boys with their father at the sawmill

She had envisioned living in a pleasant farmhouse with a white picket fence. Instead, home was a little room at the back of her in-laws’ house deep in the Appalachian Mountains. This was the 1970’s, and Sheryl now had to get used to a home with no indoor plumbing, a place where a soothing hot shower was an impossible luxury and outhouses were the norm.

Back in school John presented the perfect picture of a modern man. He cut a smart image in his suit and drove a nice car. Sheryl had every reason to believe that he was used to the same middle class standards that she was. Having grown up in the ’60’s, Sheryl had a bit of an anti-materialistic mentality, and was not all that alarmed by the thought of “roughing it.” Yet the beginning of her married life was challenged by the great cultural differences she now confronted at every turn. The new slow-paced life style she was introduced to as they began their family amongst the mountain folk was light years away from anything Sheryl had ever imagined.

Chapter 9: A family in transitionChapter 9: A family in transition

Sheryl had been trained since childhood not to complain, and had learned that it was best not to feel at all. Her parents believed that children were inherently evil and were firm believers in corporal punishment. Her father’s disciplinary measures would likely be considered quite harsh by today’s standard. She had also been taught that it was her duty to submit to the will of her husband. So although she was bewildered by her new circumstances, she never thought to challenge her husband.

Sheryl worked hard to fit in and accept her new life. In time she learned how to haul water up from the well, build a fire, make Granny’s butter milk biscuits, and butcher the freshly killed deer that her sons brought home for dinner.

A homeschooling pioneer

Walker County, Georgia, where John and Sheryl raised their family, was known for its impoverished and unsuccessful public school system. Sheryl never met anyone in those parts with a college education; the vast majority of adults had never even finished grade school and 40% of the county was illiterate. Sheryl was determined to homeschool her children, a decision she had made in response to her own exposure to the loose moral values in the U.S. public school system. Despite the fact that homeschooling was illegal in Georgia and the truant officers and social service workers even threatened to take their children away, Sheryl held on to her vision. She had always been idealistic, and once she became a mother she channeled her passion into educating her children.

Chapter 8: Samuel and our horse, BuckshotChapter 8: Samuel and our horse, Buckshot

“My lessons included a lot more than the standard curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic… I also made sure to incorporate many life lessons into our classroom discussions. In this way I was able to instill in my children the attitudes and values that their father and I had cultivated over the years. I also read to them from the Old Testament… My personal favorite was dubbed ‘successful men,’ which I developed into a tool to get my sons to think beyond society’s desire for instant gratification. I wanted them to have a chance at a brighter future, to grow to become men of vision who would build a life for themselves beyond the squalor that mired our society of hillbillies.“

Except for a few brief years when they lived near an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, or near her widowed mother in Joplin, Missouri, Sheryl spent most of next 23 years living in the Appalachian Mountains. Materially the family encountered nothing but unremitting poverty, and Sheryl struggled mightily to keep her family warm and fed. But for all their deprivation, the Massey’s were blessed with a beautiful family consisting of ten healthy and well adjusted children.

Breaking away from the Church

Spiritually they had taken their own unique journey. Early on in their marriage John’s in-depth bible study led him to reject Christianity, a realization that left a very devout Sheryl devastated. Although she had been beset by doubts for nearly her entire life, her parents had managed to instill in her the belief that accepting their savior would guarantee eternal salvation. She was too frightened to even contemplate giving up Christianity. It was a risk she wouldn’t dream of taking. For seven years the couple was at odds over their personal views of religion. Sheryl tried everything to bring her husband back to their roots. Finally, after all those years, she was worn down. There was nothing left to try. Broken hearted, she prayed to God to bring her husband back to their roots, and as an afterthought added, “And if he is correct, help me to see the truth.”

The next time she opened a bible she felt as if a light had turned on and her lifelong struggle with her questions on Christianity all came to the fore. Sheryl began to see the validity behind John’s beliefs and decided to go along with her husband.

One of the hardest parts of belonging to this religion was the suffocating feeling that there was nothing else to learn.

“I had fought with myself for decades as I tried to make sense of the contradictions between my religion and my own relationship with the Creator. One of the hardest parts of belonging to this religion was the suffocating feeling that there was nothing else to learn. As a thinking individual, I had formed my own impressions of the world. I looked up to the heavens and saw an endless sky spread out above me. The dark expanse of the evening sky, studded with multitudes of stars, shining pinpricks of light coalescing into giant galaxies, all bore proof of the vastness of the universe and beyond. In contrast to the mind-boggling endlessness of the world, I found the complexity inherent in the DNA of the microscopic cells in even my littlest toe to be just as great proof of an Intelligence so endless and so infinite that I was awed.

“After witnessing firsthand the greatness of the physical world, I had been left wondering how the spiritual world could possibly be so simplistic and narrow. If the physical world is infused with a sense of infinity, why would the spiritual world be so limited, comprising just a few beliefs and practices? Shouldn’t religion be at least as intricate as the physical world?”

John and Sheryl believed in One God Who had created the world and had given mankind the Old Testament. They continued to rest on the Sabbath. They no longer went to church, alienating their community and their family. They were on their own.

They might have stayed on that mountain, observing their own idea of religion until this day, if Sheryl hadn’t come to realize that her growing children needed some sort of community if they were to find fitting mates and establish families of their own.

Searching for God’s People

It was John who first suggested they look into Judaism, since he recognized that Jews also rested on the Sabbath and studied the Old Testament. Their first foray into Judaism brought them to a Conservative Congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Sheryl was impressed by the rabbi, a polished Harvard graduate, and was deeply inspired by the Kiddush ceremony. They attended services there for some time, before becoming disenchanted with some of the congregant’s manner of dress and deciding to move on.

Their next step was a Reform temple in Rome, Georgia but nothing about the temple or the service spoke to the Masseys. Then John met Rabbi Michael Katz, an Orthodox rabbi in Chattanooga. The Massey boys remember their father’s ecstatic declaration upon meeting Rabbi Katz. “For the first time in my life, I met a man who could answer my questions!” In keeping with the Torah’s directive to turn away prospective converts Rabbi Katz suggested that they attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation. However the loose moral standards accepted in that congregation discouraged the Masssey’s from taking an interest in that congregation.

For the next year they put their search on hold and spent their time on the mountain following their own religious beliefs. Then John went back to Rabbi Katz and tried again. This time the rabbi tried to discourage him by telling him that services were conducted in Hebrew, a language he wouldn’t be able to understand. John would not be deterred, and so Rabbi Katz invited him and his oldest sons down to the synagogue. In time the Massey family was invited for Shabbos.

Sheryl and her children were taken by the beauty of the Jewish Shabbos. As Sabbath observers the concept was familiar, but she felt it was empty compared to what the Jews had. She loved the way Rabbi Katz interacted with her children, and was thrilled that Rebbetzin Toby Katz was able to answer some of the questions that troubled her. It was Sheryl who first decided that she would like to convert. After some time John began to look into the Noahide movement2.

Chapter 10: Dovid, right after conversionChapter 10: Dovid, right after conversion

The Massey boys were growing up, and the oldest son, Joey, decided to move ahead in his spiritual quest without waiting for his parent’s decision on the matter. He bought himself a pickup truck and began driving out to Atlanta on a daily basis to learn Torah. Joey accepted the Torah as the ultimate truth and realized that all that was required of him was the observance of the Seven Noahide Laws. Joey loved hunting, the woods, the mountain folk, and the entire culture he was raised in. The city felt cold and foreign in comparison. He struggled with the choice that confronted him; to convert and become a Jew or remain a faithful Son of Noah? His greatest fear was that his family would not follow him to Judaism, yet Joey decided to become a Jew. He felt that through Judaism and observing its 613 mitzvot he would forge a close relationship to God. Joey moved to Atlanta and converted, his brother Nate came soon after, as did the rest of the family.

Their four oldest sons converted to Judaism and flew off to Jerusalem to learn in a yeshivah.

In the space of just a few years Sheryl and John’s four oldest sons converted to Judaism and flew off to Jerusalem to learn in a yeshivah. The fifth one followed on their heels. At that same time the Masseys faith was tested once again. After giving birth to ten healthy children, Sheryl bore her 11th child, a little girl whose medical condition was incompatible with life, and who died at the age of one month.

The family was devastated, and Sheryl was overcome with grief. In the wake of this crisis the Massey’s marriage fell apart and John and Sheryl divorced.

Finding peace in the Land of Israel

Two years later Sheryl converted along with her younger children and took the name Tzirel Rus. She moved the rest of her family to Israel were the family was finally reunited. (Their father would follow them and convert a few years later.) It was there that she finally found peace after years of searching and suffering.

“I stood at the world’s holiest site, the Western Wall, the remnant of the glorious Temple that once graced the earth. …I had been praying all my life, turning my heart to the Creator of the heavens and stars and begging Him to help me on my life’s journey. I promised to serve Him, but didn’t know how. Empty and alone, I was ignorant of the truth, clawing at the earth as I slowly, laboriously climbed the rugged terrain of the expedition that had been my life.

“…Now my soul raced to find my place among all the women who seemed to roil with prayer and connection to God. I restrained myself and walked towards the plaza, filled with an intense thanksgiving that I was at last able to connect with my God amidst a crowd of other yearning souls.”

It was in Israel that Tzirel Rus’s dream at last came true, as she sat at her Shabbos table surrounded by her ten Jewish children, serenaded by the melodious singing of her children and their friends. She rented an apartment in a small developing town in the Judean Hills. Her innovative and pioneering spirit urged her to roll up her sleeves and get to work in building up the local English speaking community. She arranged Torah classes and brought in speakers, and before long became a well known and much loved member of her community.

An excerpt from a letter written to her Jewish friends back in the U.S. expresses these sentiments.

“I feel that all of my life’s experiences have been to bring me to this moment. God had always put me in situations where I had no one to follow, compelling me to blaze my own path. Here in this growing town, I feel a sense of destiny. With God’s help I will get to pioneer and blaze new trails, only this time I am building on holy soil amidst a holy nation. This time everything will be forever.”

After seven years of single motherhood, Tzirel Rus married the man of her dreams. A Hassidic Jew, Avrum had grown up in New York, and like her had known the pain of a failed marriage, as well as a lifelong incapacitating illness.

Grandma Grimm was born March 25, 1828, was married at 15 and had 238 descendants  at her death at the age of 92.  She faithfully lit her candles on Friday night.Grandma Grimm was born March 25, 1828, was married at 15 and had 238 descendants at her death at the age of 92. She faithfully lit her candles on Friday night.

“Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Avrum had grown up in Crown Heights, and had gone to cheder with the Boyaner Rebbe. And me? Southern California and the Appalachian Mountains are a long way from Crown Heights…

“With all that, Avrum and I found much in common. There is something about painful life experiences – no matter what their source – that draws together fellow survivors. Our past histories, in which we had both engaged in backbreaking labor, removing metaphorical stones and battling the parched and hardened earth, had resulted in dark, loamy soil from which our shared future would sprout. The vagaries of our lives forced both of us to rise above our physical limitations and develop a more spiritual perspective on life. This strength became the cornerstone of our relationship, the basis for the deep understanding that developed between us. We became true partners in every way. More, we were each other’s biggest fans.”

With her marriage to Avrum, Tzirel Rus finally moved beyond her difficult childhood and merited to build a warm and peaceful home where her children and grandchildren feel so loved and welcome.

Tzirel Rus’s unusual journey and charismatic personality have made her a magnet for many searching Jews. Her message to them? “I have looked into the four corners of the world, searching for the recipe of life, and after all my efforts I can honestly tell you that I found it by the Jews.”

You can read the story of the father, mother, and their ten children who all converted to Judaism in the newly-published book, The Mountain Family, by Tzirel Rus Berger and Penina Neiman (Mesorah Publications). Click here to order.

1. All quotes taken from Sheryl’s memoir, “The Mountain Family” Mesorah Publications.

2. After the great flood God commanded Noah and his sons to observe seven commandments. These include the prohibitions of idolatry, theft, immorality, murder, blasphemy, and the taking of a limb from a live animal. The seventh commandment is to set up courts of judgment. According to the Torah these are the commandments that a non-Jew is required to observe in order to live a righteous life.

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