Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ein Kemo Shuvu

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Last week, I was in the presence of the Shechinah. It’s true. I haven’t lost my mind. I really was. It happened in Acco, way up in the north of Eretz Yisroel in a very mixed Arab-Jewish city.

What was I doing in Acco and how do I know that I was in the presence of the Shechinah there?

I really didn’t want to go. I really wanted to stay home last week. I wasn’t in the mood of flying away, and I had so much to do. But Shuvu was having a mission to Eretz Yisroel, they really wanted me to join, and I just couldn’t bring myself to say no. Somehow, last Tuesday, they finagled me a ticket, and Wednesday afternoon I was on the plane for a ten-hour flight to Eretz Yisroel.

At the time, I was thinking to myself, “This is nuts. What am I going for? How did I let this happen to me? When am I ever going to finally learn how to say no to everyone’s ideas? I have been reading stories about Shuvu for 18 years and have seen their schools before; what was there to gain by undertaking such a long trip?”

Boruch Hashem, the paper keeps me quite busy and there are other things going on in my life as well to keep me occupied. I really wasn’t interested in flying to the other end of the world to get on a bus and listen to some Russian Jewish Israeli children talk about the Aleph Bais.

But it was too late. I was on my way.

Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l, towards the end of his life, was speaking at the annual Shuvu parlor meeting in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gedaliah Weinberger. He was recounting that Rav Michoel Gutterman, the Israeli director of Shuvu, had presented to him a shailah. Parents from the Israeli city of Acco had heard about Shuvu and approached Rav Gutterman, asking him to open a school there for their children. However, Shuvu was having a hard enough time keeping up with their existing schools and didn’t see how they could undertake opening and maintaining yet another one.

Rav Pam refused to be deterred. Though he was weakened by disease, he banged on the shtender and said, “One-hundred-and-fifty parents want a Torah school for their children! How can we say no? There is no cheshbon in the world that would allow us to say no to these parents.” And then he uttered the prophetic words, “There will be a Shuvu school in Acco, and the Shechinah will be in that school.”

Avrohom Biderman and the people of Shuvu made sure that their rebbi’s words would be realized. Last week, a bus of American visitors pulled up to witness the miracle of 500 children in the school that no one thought would ever really open or stay opened. They came to see the miracle and they experienced the Shechinah.

They saw the Shechinah on the faces of elementary school children as they stood up to tell their personal stories.

“My family never kept Pesach before, but I was able to convince my father, and when the bread in the house was gone, he went out looking for matzoh,” said one child.

Pint-sized children spoke about how they cleaned their homes for Pesach and saw to it that the holiday would be observed. Children from irreligious homes spoke of netilas yodayim and kashrus. They told how they convinced their parents to become observant. We’re talking about little children, yet they are so committed to Yahadus and their age is no barrier in their ability to turn around an entire family.

Hands of the offspring of people who barely knew they were Jewish were raised to answer questions posed by the teacher on the parsha. Sweet, precious children, boys and girls in separate classrooms, sat attentively as if they were in any elementary yeshiva school we know. And the Shechina was shining from their little faces, just like Rav Pam said it would.

To see those children with your own eyes and not just read about them is worth the trip from anywhere, anytime. To observe these children learning Torah is not something that can easily be conveyed. Reading about it can never match the emotional charge you experience upon seeing them.

It was overwhelming to see hundreds of children pouring out of school at dismissal time and knowing that, if not for Shuvu, these children would all have been cut off permanently from Yiddishkeit and the communists would have won the battle against Jewish continuity.

These children will grow up and be able to tell their children about that fateful day that, for some reason, their parents sent them to Shuvu, never dreaming that they would turn into full-fledged shomrei Torah umitzvos.

So many of us hail from the same lands that these Shuvu children come from; so many of us trace our origins back to Eastern Europe and Russia. Our parents and grandparents had the good fortune of escaping those lands ahead of the ravages that decimated our people. Those not as fortunate were stuck behind. Hitler took their bodies and Stalin robbed their souls. Through no fault of their own, the parents and grandparents of these children were locked behind an iron curtain and shorn of their glorious heritage.

But they can be brought back. Those years of cruelty and subjugation can be undone. Their children can be given the same opportunities as ours, if only given a chance.

Shuvu gives them that chance.

When you read in the Yated about these children, they are just numbers, but when you see them and recognize that those numbers represent living, breathing, adorable, cute, intelligent, young people, you are overcome with emotion.

When a 17-year-old boy stands up to speak at a melava malka, you almost expect a Russian-accented speech betraying his roots. But when he looks and sounds just like any other yeshiva bochur of that age, you realize that Shuvu is not just a dream. You recognize that it can be done. Russian kids, who know from nothing, can be mechunach and developed into Bnei and Bnos Torah.

And this boy, who learns in a regular yeshiva gedolah, is not the exception. He is not just a solitary kid who Shuvu trots out for American visitors.

Rav Havlin, the rabbi of the hotel where we were staying, approached me after Maariv on Motzoei Shabbos. He said to me, “Atah miShuvu? Are you part of the Shuvu group that is staying in this hotel? Ani chayav lehagid lecha, I have to tell you, ein kemo Shuvu.” He said that he just had to let me know what Shuvu is and what it accomplishes. He went on to say that he is a rebbi in the Shuvu boys high-school-level yeshiva in Yerushalayim. “I’ve been there for six years,” he told me. “I was a rebbi in other places before that, but they don’t compare to Shuvu.”

He was so appreciative that he found an American who understood Hebrew that he kept on talking.

“I don’t need the money. I have a job here in the hotel, and my wife works. Shuvu is anyway many months behind in salary. I do it for the satisfaction. There is nothing like it. I am a rebbi in the 12th grade, and of the 15 talmidim who are graduating this year, five are going on to a regular yeshiva gedolah, five to Machon Lev, and five will be going to the army, where they will be part of a religious contingent and will remain shomrei Torah.

Mah ani yachol lehagid lecha? Ein kemo Shuvu!”

I didn’t ask him, but I am sure that he experiences being with the Shechinah every day, when he sees the mesiras nefesh of his talmidim to grow in Torah and yiras Shomayim.

We joined a previously planned melava malka, which had nothing to do with our trip. It was part of a Shabbaton for Shuvu parents from Ashkelon. It is held regularly in Har Nof, assisted by the girls of Nachlas Bais Yaakov.

The Shechinah was in the room as one parent after another spontaneously rose to tell their story and how they are leading frum lives thanks to Shuvu. They look like regular FFBs, but when they spoke, they took our breath away. With such simple elegance they told their stories.

One particular woman got up and said, “We came from Russia to Ashkelon and were looking for a school for our daughter. We saw an ad for Shuvu on television and heard ads for them on the radio. It sounded like a good school, so we went to check it out and were very impressed with the scholastic level. We didn’t know much about Yahadut.

“Look at me now. Our daughter would come home from school and teach us. She taught us about brachot, about netilat yadayim, about kashrut. She taught us about meat and dairy. She taught us all kinds of things we never even heard of before. And then she taught us about Shabbat.

“Shabbat was the hardest. I was so scared of it. I work a whole week and it was my free day - my day off - when I could do what I want. I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do on that day. But my husband was intrigued by the idea and he dragged me along. Today, we are shomrei Shabbat, and we keep kashrut, and, lately, also taharat hamishpacha. All thanks to Shuvu.”

The basic message was the same as each parent spoke. But instead of it sounding repetitive and trite, the speeches had a cumulative effect on us. As each one delivered a short impromptu message, their words began sinking deeper and deeper into the hearts of those in attendance. By the time they were done, we were left speechless and overwhelmed.

We came to be mechazeik, to strengthen them on Motzoei Shabbos Chazak, but we ourselves were mechuzak.

It wasn’t easy to get away, and I didn’t really want to go, but it was well worth it.

Everyone who wants to witness the realization of the posuk at the end of Malachi which states, “Vehaishiv leiv bonim al avos veleiv bonim al avosam,” should go see for themselves the children and parents of Shuvu. The only way to explain how children effect such tremendous change on their families is by reviewing that posuk and recognizing that the children are empowered by Eliyahu Hanovi to have that impact upon their parents. And the only way to really believe that it is taking place is by witnessing it for yourself.

Every week, we see the ads for Shuvu. Many wonder what really goes on there, how many children are really enrolled in the schools, and what impact they really have.

If you don’t see it with your own eyes and experience it with your own heart and soul, it really is difficult to comprehend the Shuvu revolution that Rav Pam dreamed of. It is hard to imagine the realization of the pesukim which foretell of the historic return. It is hard to imagine the Shechinah in Acco.

But you can go see it for yourself. You’ll be a changed person, as the Shechinah impacts you.

When you walk the streets of Eretz Yisroel, it breaks your heart to see that there are so many kids out there waiting for Shuvu to reach them. There are so many people who will never know the bracha of a Torah way of life simply because there isn’t enough money to open additional schools and spread the Shechinah further around. With pennies, their souls can be saved for eternity.

If we don’t reach out to them others will. Just this week, Israel’s Minister of Education spoke to a group of Israeli Reform Jews she is empowering. She told them, “There is a thirst for knowledge, especially among our youth, and I expect you to quench that thirst.” She went on to say what we already know: “That’s the way to make a lasting change. I recommend that you devote your energies to education, not to legal battles.”

If we don’t reach these kids, others will. If we don’t intercede and stretch out our hands to them, others will. If we don’t get them off the streets and bring them to Torah, nobody else will. The work of Stalin and Khrushchev and the other communist reshaim will be completed, right under our noses.

It’s not too late, however.

The next time you see an ad for Shuvu, think of these little children in Acco, think of the people in Ashkelon, and think of the 15,000 children in the Shuvu system. Think of their parents and siblings. Think of what could be and what is, and think about what you can do to help bring about the realization of the prophecy, “Umalah ha’aretz de’ah es Hashem,” and the announcement heralding the arrival of Moshiach tzidkeinu, may it be very soon.


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