Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Tishrei 5764 - September 29, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Arachim Stories

by Arachim Staff

Arachim is a source of information, inspiration and guidance for people who want to know about Judaism. At Arachim Seminars, budding curiosity blossoms into an unquenchable thirst for deeper understanding. The small glowing ember is fanned and the heart fills with warmth, until the Jewish soul flames forth with love for its Creator.

Each tale is different; Jews from all walks of life return to Judaism, each on his or her own unique path. Over the years, we have collected many such true stories: about athletes, movie stars, doctors, karate experts, university professors and others. In each case, the spark that caused their return is described, and the Hand of Heaven is clearly revealed.

Arachim is famous for its seminars but really Arachim's programs are many and diversified, not only in Israel, but also around the world.

Its central activity is the seminar. Most are general, for all interested Jews. Arachim also organizes special interest Seminars, aimed at those who have a developed interest in, for example, health or the environment.

For four enjoyable days, in comfortable hotel settings away from the distractions of everyday life, participants in our Seminar retreats are free to think over the fascinating material that we present to them. They also experience a real Shabbos, with singing and divrei Torah. Not only are their intellects stimulated, their hearts are touched as well. Our concerned professional staff meets people around the clock, speaking on a personal basis with anyone who wants to converse, to ask questions, or to pour out his heart. Especially during Shabbos, life's spiritual dimension becomes wonderfully real, sometimes for the first time in the secular Jew's life.

Seminars are held on four continents in six languages. Through its Seminars, Arachim has lit sparks that are now full-fledged fires, shedding the light of Torah where once there was darkness.

Over sixty percent of the people who attend our Seminars undertake mitzvah observance. We have continuous, intensive follow-up programs for Seminar "graduates." An individual or a family who embraces Torah, faces a difficult test when the Seminar ends and they return to their familiar environment. They now appear in public with head coverings and tzitzis. They now keep Shabbos. How will they face critical or unsympathetic reactions of relatives, friends and co- workers?

For a family to return to Torah Judaism successfully, it is essential to provide for the security and happiness of the children. Our follow-up staff helps place youngsters in appropriate religious schools and then monitors their adjustment. Special Arachim tutors help the children catch up. Our Youth Division sponsors group activities such as field trips and holiday gatherings. No effort is spared to make the children feel as comfortable with their new lifestyle as do their parents.

Follow-up efforts continue for a least a year. While less dramatic than the Seminar, this aspect of our work is no less essential, and requires an even greater budget. Each Arachim success story is the result of far more effort and much more thought than can be described and documented even in a book, let alone in a mere magazine.

We pray for continued help from Above in our efforts to strengthen Torah and the Jewish nation. When Moshiach comes -- may it be speedily in our days -- may Am Yisroel greet him as one, united under the banner of Torah.


Like a Flash of Lightning

They were once quite alike, but all that changed when Ofer Lukov's father became religious. Ofer was not the least bit interested in religion, or in much else, for that matter. He stayed in Israel only because he had nowhere else to go. He was highly intelligent, but bored with everything.

The senior Lukov was open-minded and tolerant, and Ofer knew that his father would not pressure him to start keeping mitzvos. Exceptionally discerning and understanding, Yoram was ready to express and defend his views, but not to force them on people. He enjoyed explaining the conclusions he had reached in life, and never shied away from debates. He propounded his points masterfully, but remained tolerant of those who differed with him.

Yoram, a painter, has his studio on Allenby St. in the heart of Tel Aviv. Gracing one of the walls is an oil painting of Polish cheder boys before the Holocaust. A large group of talmidim is pictured sitting squeezed together on one side of an old wooden table. They are peering at an open sefer, their fingers resting on the line that their rebbe is having them read. Yoram's brush masterfully captures the kedushoh and pathos of a world gone by, a world that Yoram unfortunately did not know as a child.

Lukov was born on a socialist kibbutz and was raised with anti-religious values. The kibbutz founders wanted to forget their past and build a modern state where Jews would be free not only of gentiles but also of Judaism. Their Pesach seder was not a family affair with discussion of the exodus from Egypt. Rather, the entire kibbutz celebrated the seder night, together, in the community-dining hall, with emancipation from the shackles of Judaism as their theme. Kibbutz members danced with stalks of grain, almost as if they were lulavim, to celebrate the fact that Jews now owned land and could farm it in freedom. One of the founders spoke of the Zionist dream, declaring that the wandering of our nation was over; now we would be a state like any other state on our own homeland. Instead of the four cups, they drank one single Lechaim.

Yoram recalls his kibbutz education. His "religious" training comprised a broad and deep study of the writings of Karl Marx. Hard work was the ethic and history classes were devoted primarily to the Communist Revolution. As for Jewish history, it began with Herzl, Weizmann and the Palmach.

The kibbutz needed an art teacher; the walls of the dining hall and other buildings had to display paintings of a young, muscular Jewish farmer standing tall and straight, with a shovel in his hand. This glorified "new Jew" would always be staring up into the sky, with a wavy curl of hair on his forehead exactly where his tefillin should have been.

Yoram had artistic talent, so the kibbutz sent him to the Betzalel Art School in Jerusalem for training. After a year of study there, the kibbutz summoned him back home to teach art. So far as they were concerned, he had all the skills needed for the standard portraits that the kibbutz had in mind. Yoram argued that he wanted to continue at Betzalel, but the kibbutz refused his request. He therefore quit the kibbutz, and continued at art school for another three years.

While at Betzalel, Yoram earned a name for himself. At the first solo exhibition of his paintings, every last one was sold. At a second solo exhibition the same thing happened. Art dealers flocked to him. He was invited to exhibit his newest works at an exclusive gallery in London, and more invitations flooded in. Yoram left and returned to Israel, set up his studio on Allenby Street, and joined the Tel Aviv artist colony.

Yoram's studio became a meeting place. He hosted singers, actors, writers, film producers and other artists and engaged in long, freewheeling conversations on every subject imaginable. Yoram particularly enjoyed the witty, penetrating insights of a certain stage comedian who cut beneath life's surface and told things as they really were.

One day, Yoram felt as if an earthquake had struck: his friend, the gifted comedian, walked in wearing a kipah!

It was soon apparent that he was not just playing another joke; he left the stage and went to a yeshiva in Jerusalem. His friends in Tel Aviv were dumbfounded.

Yoram wondered what there could be in a yeshiva that would attract a clever, gifted person like his friend. He decided to investigate and went to Jerusalem, found the yeshiva, and stepped inside. He stood there, stunned by a sea of white shirts and the thundering voice of earnest Torah learning. There were lively debates going on between learning partners and small groups from one side of the study hall to the other. Many of the combatants were on their feet, gesturing with their hands and shouting at one another.

His friend the comedian was not there at the time, but Yoram suddenly heard his name being called. He turned around and saw a former classmate from Betzalel, an extremely talented painter like himself. In disbelief, Yoram blurted out, "You're here too? Didn't you tell me you wanted to become a modern-day Rembrandt? You always dreamed of mastering his techniques -- and you worked day after day trying to capture light and shadows like he did. Have you put that all aside?"

Yoram was shaken by the earnest tone of the reply. "Never mind Rembrandt! A mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light! One word of Torah is worth more than all of Rembrandt's shadows!"

Yoram just stared at him in silence. "Solve just one difficult Rambam," his friend continued, "and you'll see it's like a flash of lightning!"

Yoram didn't understand these words, but neither did he forget them. He decided to read up on the Rambam, to try to catch a glimpse of the lightning that had apparently blinded his friend.

He entered a reputable bookstore and asked for a book about the Rambam. The salesman brought him a professor's ramblings about philosophical sources for the Rambam's ideas. Yoram took the book home. He had never read anything so boring, and to this day he cannot understand how the author didn't fall asleep while writing the book. The professor mentioned, though, that the Rambam had written something called Moreh Nevuchim, so Yoram went off to purchase a copy. This time he went to a store that sold sifrei kodesh.

When Yoram -- obviously a secular Jew -- told the store owner he wanted a copy of Moreh Nevuchim, the fellow asked why he was interested particularly in this work of the Rambam. Yoram told him the whole story, which prompted the store owner to recommend that he take home something "supplementary" by the Rambam, namely Hilchos Dei'os of the Mishnah Torah. Yoram heeded his advice and has been grateful ever since.

In Moreh Nevuchim he found a wealth of new concepts, as well as lines of thought that were deep and rich. To Yoram, though, the "lightning" that his friend from Betzalel spoke of seemed to be in Hilchos Dei'os. Never before had Yoram encountered such concise, brilliant writing, where every word is carefully chosen and expresses the desired thought so precisely. All that, besides the laws themselves: Such a noble value system! Such a helpful framework of goals and responsibilities! Such intelligent philosophy, such enlightening guidance for all of life!

Yoram began to quote from it to his friends, inviting them to analyze every word, to take the philosophy down to its essence and then compare it to the way of life espoused by the artists' colony. He succeeded in causing much embarrassment, and saw deep expressions of guilt on the face of practically every artist whom he introduced to Hilchos Dei'os.

Not long afterwards he found himself a dati learning partner and started attending shiurei Torah. He joined a baalei teshuva yeshiva and made connections with the baalei teshuva community in Tel Aviv.

An Arachim Seminar sealed the matter for him. Off he went to R. Avraham Auerbach, who had become his rav, to ask whether he should continue his career in art.

R. Auerbach told him, "Some see art as an ultimate goal. They make it into a G-d. We are not idol worshipers and for us there is only One Ultimate Ideal. You should consider art as your way of making a living. Some painters paint houses. Their brushes cover walls. You have to look at yourself the same way, but you paint on canvass."

Yoram's studio, however, became more than just a paint shop. One wall was covered with bookshelves graced by sifrei kodesh. The studio continued to be a popular meeting place for Tel Aviv artists, but many of the discussions had a new flavor, and the focus on truth was much more pointed. The topics that were raised were varied, spanning a whole range of interests and perspectives. At least once a day, the talk came around to a deep, engaging analysis of a fundamental and basic principle for ethical living, as propounded in Hilchos Dei'os.

Yoram was hurt that his son Ofer was so apathetic to his new way of life. While he expressed patience and tolerance, he also subtly communicated his distress. Finally, the day that Ofer came to the studio with news that the army had deferred his enlistment, Yoram surprised him with an offer that was impossible to turn down. "I have three rooms here," Yoram said. "I'm using only two of them. You take the third!"

From then on, day after day, Ofer found himself listening to the engaging, vital debates in his father's studio. Often, famous personalities from the entertainment industry would be on hand. Sharp intellects and sensitive souls grappled with pressing and basic issues. Ofer realized that new vistas were beginning to open before his eyes, and he recognized the motive behind his father's invitation.

Not that he was thinking of doing teshuva! The whole idea was light years away. On the other hand, his father had been crafty, realizing that every time one piece of Torah went into his head, one piece of foolishness would go out.

Ofer began to sense the great contrast between the rich atmosphere in his father's studio and the hollowness on the streets of Tel Aviv. Change is threatening, though; Ofer felt as if a trap door was closing on him. He decided to run. Some of his friends had an apartment in the nearby town of Yahud, so he moved in with them.

It wasn't long before he realized that the emptiness of the streets and cafes of Tel Aviv pervaded the apartment in Yahud as well. He began to miss the spiritual inspiration of his father's studio. Suddenly, out of the blue, an avreich in Yahud stopped him and asked, "Maybe you and your apartment mates will come to hear a shiur?"

Ofer and his friends had nothing better to do, so they went. The shiur was in the local shul. Afterwards they all stayed for the tefilloh. One shiur led to another, until one of the organizers brought along a prospectus about the upcoming Arachim Seminar for single men.

Everyone from the apartment attended: Ofer, Guy, Moshe, Yaniv, Notti, Yaron and Shlomi. Today all of them are shomrei mitzvos, avreichim and talmidei chachomim whose lives are dedicated to Torah!

After the Seminar, they opened a baalei teshuva yeshiva in Yahud, where many Seminar graduates learn Torah every day with others like them, Jews who once had never heard of the Talmud or the Rambam. The voice of Torah is now louder in Yahud. The enthusiasm gained at the Seminars is preserved and cultivated. It is not yet a sea of white shirts, but the numbers will certainly grow, for as Yoram is fond of saying, "If one piece of Torah goes in, one piece of foolishness goes out."

Rebuilding Savta's House

Savta was asking Ofer and Henya to move up their wedding date. Lying on her hospital bed, she found it hard to speak, but persisted even so. This was too important to give in to weakness.

"But Savta, everything's been arranged already. The hall, the band, the photographer . . . "

"Move it up as much as you can . . . just a day or two, so it won't be too late."

Ofer gave in. And Henya? She was as devoted to Savta as a natural-born granddaughter would have been. In the end, the couple managed to move their wedding up by two days and, before the chuppah, instead of having their picture taken against the usual romantic sunset they asked the photographer to come to the hospital. The picture would be of them receiving Savta's blessing.

Savta was thrilled to see Ofer and Henya in their wedding attire. In her excitement she tried to sit up, and the scarf fell off her head. "Her hair was so white!" Ofer says. "Suddenly I realized that this was the first time I had ever seen her hair!" Savta gave them her warm blessing, and two days later -- on the day they would have been married had they not changed their plans -- the young couple was walking behind Savta's funeral bier. With them walked dozens of Savta's offspring: children, grandchildren, and great- grandchildren.

And not one of them was religious.

"That's really baffling, when you think about it," says Ofer. "Because when we talked about `Savta's house,' we were talking about an all-encompassing world. It was such a religious household! Positively drenched in tradition. The spirit of Samarkand, where my grandfather had led the Bucharian kehillah, hovered everywhere and Savta was always telling us about the two hundred kohanim in her family. The children grew up along with stories of people who sacrificed all they had to keep the mitzvot, stories about family members who risked their lives to come and live in Eretz Hakodesh."

And now Savta's little two-room house in Tel Aviv was full of relatives, suddenly wearing brightly-colored Bucharian kippot and chanting the memorial prayers to the old melodies they still knew. Such an enchanting scene -- until it dissolved and they all went home, as if they'd been putting on a show. "Not one of them was actually religious in his personal life," Ofer says softly.

Kiddush On Tears

"There was just one mitzvah, Friday night kiddush, that I was still keeping," he says. It's hard to imagine how important this single act was for his family, for his children. Just one kiddush can keep all those neshomos connected with tradition. True, after dinner they watched television, and the next morning they went on trips to the beach or to relatives' homes. But kiddush was always there, every week, and it kept them from being totally lost, until even this last frail tie was severed.

Hard times came. Ofer's business partnership collapsed, leaving him deeply in debt, and the only "solution" he could find was to take work as a porter on the Shabbos shift at the airport. His job was to unload freight from delivery planes. It never occurred to Ofer that one doesn't overcome his troubles by trampling on the source of all blessings, the Shabbos.

Ofer would arrive at the airport Friday evening just when religious Jews were welcoming the Sabbath queen. He would put on a coverall and work like a horse until after midnight. His next shift began at seven in the morning; meanwhile he was free to eat something and catch a little sleep. During this break, Ofer would unwrap his sandwich and pour himself a cup of soft drink. He didn't know he should make kiddush on the bread. Instead he would raise his cup in a shaking hand and keep his last remaining mitzvah the only way he knew.

He would recite kiddush, alone, without his family, in the huge, chilly warehouse dotted with bare light bulbs. Tears flowed down into the cup as he said the words. Tears of regret, frustration, and of loss. Inevitably, as he looked around him, he would think of Shabbat in Savta's house.

What had happened? Where had it all gone? When did money start to outweigh all those precious things that Savta had known about, that her house had been full of? Somewhere he'd gone wrong and now, here he was, with nothing but a plastic cup of soda instead of Savta's wonderful Shabbat. The tears flowed more freely. Here, perhaps, was the beginning of the change in Ofer's life. It might have been the merit of his tears, or the prayer he whispered: "Master of the World, get me out of this place!"

One night he suffered an attack of appendicitis and was rushed to the emergency room and immediate surgery.

Yomim Noraim

Whatever else it did, the operation got Ofer off the treadmill. At last he had time to think. It was Elul then, the month of introspection, and that was just what he found himself doing. Suddenly his scale of values began to change; he even began to pray regularly again for the first time in years.

One day he noticed that in Shemoneh Esrei the blessing Refo'einu, "Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed" comes before the blessing for livelihood. Money began to step down to its rightful place in his inner world. Ofer began to think what kind of a life he had made for himself. Thoughts of how short man's years are haunted him. Images of the past, of Sabba and Savta, floated through his roiling thoughts, made more vivid by the pain.

Ofer's troubles weren't over. The site of his operation became infected and on Rosh Hashanah he was rushed into surgery again. He spent the Ten Days of Repentance racked with pain. The doctors hemmed and hawed, and decided on a third operation -- this time on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur in Israel finds almost everyone in shul, most people for the whole day. This had always been Ofer's custom, too. At the start of the holy day, on the evening before his surgery, he fought back his pain and went looking for the hospital's "shul room." It turned out to be a narrow room furnished with a few benches, packed full of people; in fact they were already overflowing well out into the corridors. And they were still coming from all directions -- some pulling their intravenous stands along with them, some being pushed along in their beds, some whose last request was to be brought to shul for Kol Nidrei. "Try to get closer!" they cried out to their helpers. "I can't hear a thing!" "I've never missed Kol Nidrei!"

"It was amazing," says Ofer. "As for me, I could hear the davening, but I couldn't follow it. The nusach was foreign to me. I turned to an elderly man who was standing beside me, a bearded Jew dressed in hospital pajamas. He was listening with his eyes shut and tears streaming down his face. When the chazan was finished, I asked this old man: `What are they saying? What is so moving? I can't understand the Aramaic.'

"He turned and looked at me with red eyes, took my hand in his old fingers, and said to me, 'Young man, your life is still ahead of you. Listen well: When all the Jews come to shul on Yom Kippur night and look back on the past year, on the life they've lived, they say, "L-rd of the Universe, all the vows that I've made, all the oaths that I've sworn, let them all be null and void!"

" `Do you understand, young man? People spend their lives running after hollowness; they devote all their strength to chasing after nothing. They bring sacrifices to the G-d of luxury, they swear oaths to him. But when they come here to shul on Yom Kippur, they realize they've been devoting their lives to emptiness.' The old man leaned forward and whispered, `And especially here, in the hospital! Do you understand, young man?' "

As he relates his story, Ofer pauses and looks down at his hand, as if to see whether the marks of the old man's fingers are still there.

His Cousin

Ofer's cousin Yehudah was a non-religious Jew like the rest of the family, but his soul yearned for the spiritual. The wonders of creation fascinated him; the riddle of existence tantalized him. Like so many others, he thought he could find the answers in the mysticism of the Far East. He studied under this guru and that one and, still not sated in his hunger for more, he obtained membership in a library specializing in Eastern philosophy.

One day he found the library closed. To relieve his disappointment he took a detour on his way home, spotted a rundown secondhand book store, and decided to go in and look over the merchandise. Something musty and mystical caught his eye; he paid a few shekels and took it home.

Once he had opened it, he couldn't close it. It was a book of kabbalah. Most of it was incomprehensible to him, of course, but the little bits that he could grasp were enough to open his eyes to what he'd been missing. Here was the entire spiritual world mapped out -- but only for those who could follow the map. He had to find the masters who could teach him these secrets, and in a fever, he went looking for them. He was soon to discover what a long way he had ahead of him, but he did "make a rav for himself" and begin to learn the secrets of the Torah. When he did, all the mysticism of the Far East he had studied till now looked like the shadow of a ghost in comparison.

When Ofer came home from the hospital, still feeling the impression of the old man's handclasp, Yehudah phoned him. He wished him a good year of course, and a speedy recovery, and then got to the main point of his call: "I'm organizing a group at my house to learn a little Torah with a really special rabbi. The whole thing's dedicated to Savta's memory."

Ofer couldn't say no to that. He appeared as requested, heard the lectures, and was enthralled. He had never imagined the Torah had so much to offer. He ordered a pair of tefillin, began keeping Shabbos, and was very happy. But his wife was not so thrilled.

Henya was worried as she watched her husband being transformed before her eyes: getting up early in the morning, putting on tallis and tefillin, isolating himself with his holy books every evening, and worst of all, putting the family under "house arrest" every Shabbos. Not only was her upbringing far from all this, she was utterly opposed to it all. She decided to call the upstairs neighbors to her aid. The Greenbaums were an enlightened, sophisticated family. Aryeh, the husband, was a computer expert; he would surely be able to straighten Ofer out.

"We're invited to the Greenbaums for coffee Saturday night," she said to Ofer. He didn't feel he could refuse the invitation, even though he had an unpleasant hunch what was going to happen there.

His instinct proved to be right. It was three against one. "Listen, Ofer," Aryeh started in on him. "She married you as a secular Jew. You can't do this to her."

"What do you want from me?" Ofer countered. "When she married me, I wasn't going bald on top either. Things change over the years. People learn new things; they perceive new realities. You can't stop people from growing and changing." That's when the outcry began in full force, just as Ofer had dreaded.

"You call this growth? This isn't maturing; it's regression to childhood, complete with dreams and fairy tales! You're not gaining perceptions, you're closing your eyes!"

And, of course, Mrs. Greenbaum trotted out the old favorite: "You're going back to the Middle Ages!"

Ofer felt like a trapped animal, with the three of them hounding him.

"Are you sure of what you're saying?" he asked quietly.

"Absolutely!" shouted Aryeh, and the two women chimed in their agreement.

"Maybe you're right," said Ofer. Three pairs of eyes lit up. Aha, he thought; his gambit was working.

"I'll tell you what," he went on. "Arachim is giving a Seminar in two weeks' time. Let's all go, both families. You know that everybody can say what he wants at these Seminars. All right then. You can take on a few rabbis and argue with them to your heart's content. Show them they're wrong, tear down all their arguments, prove to them how backward they are, and I'll agree that I'm backward too. I'll turn right around and go back to the life I had before." With Henya and Mrs. Greenbaum both agreeing enthusiastically, Aryeh was forced to take up the challenge too.

It was a Purim Seminar at the Ganei Shulamit Hotel in Ashkelon. At the final symposium, Aryeh Greenbaum, sporting a yarmulke, was the first to get up on the podium. His wife, with her hair covered, came right after him. Then came Ofer and Henya, united in their new way of life.

Nowadays, the Greenbaums come down to Ofer's apartment, not for coffee, but to take part in the Torah lessons he's organized. Dedicated to the memory of Savta, of course.


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