Personal Stories

My Ultra-Orthodox Friend: The Beginning of a Wonderful Relationship by Orna Oshri in Yediot Acharonot newspaper (free translation) 1) I open with a confession: I am an atheist, an avowed atheist, devoutly irreligious, a dedicated ‘chiloni’ [secular], an enthusiastic denier and skeptic. My first philosophical memory takes me back to the age of five or six one ordinary summer’s day as I sat on a tree branch. I looked up to the heavens and thought about the stories adults told about that great but hidden G-d in the sky. At that moment I came to the conclusion that this childish notion no longer applied to a person of my advanced age. 2) Decades passed without any significant or passing interaction with ‘dossim’ [religious people]. They lived in their distant world, of which I had little knowledge, while I matured within my irreligious world: a world filled with scientific quests, adventure, art, music, movies and the beach. Here and there, maybe due to some kind of pleasure gained from cultural ties, I found myself lighting Shabbat candles. At age 16 I would light them simply because they shone a pleasant light in my room, and at 14 I recall trying to fast the entire day on Yom Kippur, just to prove that I could. As I reached my late twenties, I left for Tel Aviv where I enjoyed a sinful existence with great (almost religious) fervour and devotion (kasher lemehadrin). 3) It’s not that a million questions didn’t arise throughout the years about our religion, about religion in general, those who believe, about mitzvot, joint national responsibility and of course, the ever irritating place of the woman in Judaism. Above all these questions hovered one that was most important in my view: How is that even now, in the 21st century, the vast majority of humanity devotes itself to a collective fantasy, so strange and unproven? There are many answers to these questions, most within the realm of psychology, but none are sufficiently satisfying for me. 4) I met my ‘dossi’ (ultra orthodox) friend sometime last winter during a journalistic tour of Bnei Brak. Between a visit to a Chareidi girls school and a peek into the maternity hospital, I found myself accepting a lift in Rikki’s car. A Charedi woman in her thirties and pregnant for the 7th time, I argued with her against the idea that her husband and his friends were saving the country with their Torah learning (instead of serving in the army). Towards the end of the day I asked her if she believes in Heaven and Hell, and she answered affirmatively with absolute certainty. "With that our relationship ends," I told her with a smile. She shook my hand and told me that it was just beginning.   5) At the end of the tour, after a sumptuous meat meal and parve desert, Rikki suggested we join her ‘Chavrutah’ program, a project that brings religious and irreligious Israelis together (mainly women) in a weekly telephone conversation. This caught my imagination, possibly because I felt that a great divide stood between us - a disagreement that could be both engaging and could fuel a good few long conversations, and also because I recognized that she had a "good head" [was easy to talk to]. I took up the offer, and announced that I would join on condition that she herself would be my chavrutah, giving her ample space to take a run for it. Rikki did not faint, stating that I would be a good challenge for her. (It took me some time to really understand just what she meant by that, but I’ll come to that soon.) 6) We began our chavrutah late each Monday evening just after she put the last of her children to bed and began to fold piles of laundry (it turned out that our conversation would make the job easier) . Our phone conversations soon lengthened from an hour to an hour and a half and into two hours or more as I fired questions at her from a non-religious point of view, and of course giving my side as well (I’m not built for one-sided contact). Sometimes, when she had no ready answer, she would pass the phone over to her husband until he and I would be sharing Jewish jokes like two yentas. Two months on, we met up with the entire family in their Bnei Brak home, and of course, being well brought up, I immediately returned the invitation. I had never hosted so many ‘dossim’ in my home at once, or anywhere for that matter, but with the help of plenty of plastic plates, we discovered that it was more than do-able. 7) It isn’t easy to briefly sum up everything that has happened over the last year or so, but there is no doubt that Rikki and I conquered significant positions in each other's hearts and minds. I call her ‘honored Rebbitzen’ while she has playfully nicknamed me ‘the woman.' Over and above the daily conversations and periodic visits, we have been there for one another during days of mourning, convalescence after illness, joyous times after birth, family events and holidays. It goes without saying that I am almost fluent at saying the Grace after Meals and plenty of other mitzvot and customs, those of course that Rikki and the children feel I should do and that I feel comfortable with. 8) So why did this mean that I was ‘a challenge’ for her? It meant that it would be interesting and difficult for her to make me religious. After all, no matter what, to paraphrase the words of Meir Ariel, ‘at the end of each scentence uttered by a religious Jew sits a chareidi who wants to bring you closer to the light’. In the beginning, that really is their intention, but I’ve learned to forgive them. They don’t do this out of any bad will, rather out of love. 9) I close with a confession: I am an atheist who is crazy about "dossim."
Rabbi Yaakov Rozenberg has been learning regularly by phone with Chaim Oren from Moshav Olesh. Chaim is the kind of fellow that really wants to learn and understand and he takes everything he learns very seriously. Before Chanukah Rav Yaakov sent Chaim the blessing over the Chanukah candles together with his own blessing that it would bring light to his home and to his life. In appreciation for their learning sessions together Chaim told Yaakov that he wanted to give him some pieces of Judaica. After their conversation, Chaim told Yaakov that he already had the artifacts on his table and he was trying to arrange to send them to him by mail. Reb Yaakov told him not to mail them, he would come himself and pick them up. When Reb Yaakov arrived, Chaim was already waiting outside for him. He beckoned them to join him in the kitchen and there on the table was the Megillah and the books. He apologized for hosting them in the kitchen explaining that the Plasma screen in the main room didn’t seem appropriate for such honored guests. It turned out he had a Megillat Esther and some holy books which he’d inherited from his father. “I want these things to be used by Jews like you who will appreciate them use them and continue the Jewish chain’. And so his personal story came out. He was born in Romania and came to Israel at the age of four after horrific experiences in the camps with his parents. He has no memories of that time other than waking in the night to the terrifying sounds of his mother and sister screaming in their tiny hiding place. His aunt had somehow smuggled a Sefer Torah into the camps and guarded it with her life,  bringing it to Israel with her where she had donated it to a shul in Kvar Saba. Years later when she attempted to trace it, she had no luck in finding it. It turned out that Chaim’s father was an observant Jew who finished learning the entire Shas a number of times while his mother was not. His father used a Shas that has been in his family now for 150 years and Chaim still has it. He hopes that one day his sons will inherit it and appreciate it. As he turned 15 his father insisted that he attend a yeshiva but he only stayed there a short while feeling it was not for him. Yeshivat Beit Yosef Yitzhak was then situated next to the border. He left and joined the army where he lost all vestiges of his religious upbringing, working as a plane technician as a full time soldier where he remained until the age of 40. At 40 he retired from army service and took up farming which he did for the rest of his life until his official retirement. After that, he began to strengthen his ties to Judaism once again, one day shocking his wife with the statement that from now on he would no longer travel on Shabbat. To this day, she is still not prepared to accept this reality. What’s more, he took upon himself to lay tefillin each day. When, one day, he had a phone call from Reb Yaakov offering to learn with him by phone once a week, his joy had no bounds. With tears pouring down his face, Chaim pointed upwards saying ‘one must preserve the Jewish people in their original form to be Jews just like you’. Before they knew it, they were all drawn into a phylisophical discussion. Chaim told them that he had been ‘poisoned’ by foreign philosophy and was not prepared to share those ideas. He was determined that he learn from them and not them from him.     He made a point of giving his guests the utmost honor, thirsty for their words of wisdom. It was obvious that this visit meant the world to him. As the evening drew to a close they were forced to begin to say their farewells they were all filled with the feeling that ‘Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker’. It was a joint feeling that a Jew is never lost to his people. Chaim lovingly wrapped up two Megilla scrolls, offering both to Chaim to take home and chose whichever one he preferred, together with the books, with the promise that they would all get good use. Before they left, he also gave them ‘crembo’ treat for the children. Their farewell was an admixture of hugs and warmth in typical Eastern fashion after taking photographs. Chaim doesn’t only talk and reminisce. He is a man of action. At 1 in the morning, as they took their leave, their car alarm began to emit a loud siren that threatened to wake up the entire moshav. Chaim ran into the house to bring tools and fix the problem. “He would not let us travel home until he was sure we could drive safely”. So many qualities in one person, a real good-hearted Jew.   Wikipedia - Moshav Olesh   Photos: Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg visits his ChavrutahChaim Oren at Moshav Olesh       
Ariel Wilner says...   I'd like to share a moving story told to me by one of the participants in my weekly shiur each Wednesday at 12pm in our Center. She is coming closer to things Jewish although her husband is not involved so far. I mentioned the new synagogue Ayelet Hashachar is building here in Modiin and she asked me when it will be ready. "You know" she said "every Friday night for the last four weeks, I walk there together with my 13-year old daughter Michal, to see how things are coming along there. We can't wait to be able to pray there together with you all."   They live on Yitzchak Rabin Street - over a half an hour's walk from the shul! Unbeleiveable and amazing to see how much people are waiting.   May we be zocheh to see it in it's full glory.
December 5th, 2012 "Last Shabbat I took my family with five other guys to Kibbutz Mayan Baruch to complete a Minyan. My Friend Avrumi has been living there for the past few months with his family and all the adjustments of a new place. They moved to Mayan Baruch to be with other people looking to find a path to Hashem and need some guidance and support. I am proud of Avrumi and his achievements, the members of the Kibbutz are considering to have a synagogue built and a vote will take place in a couple of weeks. In the min-time we pray in the main office of the Kibbutz - Amazing! Friday night was wonderful, after a short search we are able to find the tenth man for a Minyan. When the Minyan started you could see that everyone enjoyed it tremendously. At the end of Tefillah we looked around and noticed we are now 11. Shabbat morning was a bit hard, we were welcomed by two regulars and had to go door to door knocking to find the rest for the Minyan, to our surprise we had two new people join the Minyan. When I got an Aliyah I felt like a Bar Mitzvah boy full of excitement, who knows how many times this Kibbutz had an Aliyah done on its land? After a Shabbat meal we went for a walk and visited the best Tattoo artist in Israel, it so happens he lives in Mayan Baruch. His house was like a museum with statues all over, we felt like Avraham in his father’s statue store. To our surprise he told us that his dream is to buy a tattoo removal machine so he can help individuals making “Teshuvah” so they can leave their past behind them. Time and time again I am amazed of the ways people find their way to Hashem and the Torah. All together I came to support and found myself supported and strengthened by others. You can touch a life while making a real difference and all the while it touches you just the same” December 9th, 2012 “We had a great event, it was so exciting to watch all the babies receive a blessing from Rabbi Yisrael. The new moms came with their little toddlers and babies and they walked into the synagogue for a blessing. We learned that according to the Jewish tradition after a baby is born the father gets an Aliyah on Shabbat and a blessing is recited for the health of the mother and newborn...”The one who blessed our fathers, Avraham, Yitchak and Yaacov, Moshe and Aharon, David and Shlomo, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, He will bless the woman that gave birth and her newborn for Mazal Tov, and her/his name will be called in Israel...” We wish to bless Rabbi Yisrael for all his Mitzvah work in Ramat Tzvi”