Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Shevat 5766 - February 15, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Ari's Odyssey

by Rabbi Yechezkel Spanglet

Rabbi Spanglet, who has written for us on a number of occasions, has prepared this account of the path followed by one of his students.

It was breathtaking . . . the mystical aura and serenity of the Old City of Tzfas on leil Shabbos. It was Nisan 5765-2005. The sense of kedushoh was enhanced by the hundreds of Yidden scurrying to kabbolas Shabbos tefillos. I trekked proudly together with this holy assembly on the cobblestone pathway en route to meet my fellow bochurim. In a sudden change of itinerary, our yeshiva tour was directed to meet at a certain shtiebel, instead of our hotel. This unexpected change of events would prove to be yet another thread in the tapestry of Hashgochoh protis which characterized my entire life.


We settled into the overflowing shul. After minchah, my chavrusa tapped me on the shoulder. I looked around and my mouth dropped! Rabbi Sure, one of my spiritual mentors, was hovering over me with his typical smile and emanating warmth. He gave me a bear hug.

"But, Rabbi Sure," I exclaimed incredulously, "I was told that you would be spending Shabbos in Yerushalayim and returning to America shortly thereafter. Of the thousands of botei knessiyos in Eretz Yisroel, isn't it mind- boggling that we would meet tonight?"

Rabbi Sure replied with a twinkle in his eye, "You can never be sure."


After the seuda those words permeated my mind. "You can never be sure." Yes, you can never be sure what our Father in Heaven has in store with His Providential love in guiding a neshomoh in his odyssey of spiritual growth. My memory traveled back in time.

The years in the former Soviet Union, prior to my birth, were oppressive. My parents were raised unaffiliated with Yiddishkeit, under the threatening eyes of the KGB. My father was a hardworking man, but the swing of the Communist sickle cut his earnings to a meager income. My mother was an intelligent woman, yet her vivacious personality and inherent spiritual strength were yet to bloom. Her sole spiritual wish in growing up was that she aspired to marry a Jew. That she achieved.


On June 21, 1984, a boy was born to Gala and Tolyik Schulsky. My parents named me Vladik. I was an adorable, round-faced infant with a head of hair, chubby cheeks, and wide brown eyes. My "chubby" contour did not last long, for food was hard to find.

The Xmas tree standing ever-so-stately in our living room and the picture of Yeishu on the wall attested to our confused identity. I was not even told I was Jewish.

My classmates in the State public school ridiculed me. Whenever there was a question of blame or contention, my teachers blasted me with the full brunt of the responsibility. Only later did I realize that this was because I was Jewish.

When I was eight years old, we received exciting news. Our family in America had invited us to join them. My father was ecstatic to escape from this "prison" to the "land of opportunity." Filling out papers, applying for visas — the waiting seemed endless. We finally received our visas and left that old world behind . . . or so we thought.

At border control, a voice boomed "HALT." We were electrified. A burly, uniformed guard hurriedly approached us. I remember his machine gun glistening in the lights. He discovered my mother's gold necklace and yanked it from her neck. She had a look of sheer terror on her face. We all stood frozen, unaware of what would happen next.

Under armed guard, they mercilessly rummaged through our luggage. My blood was boiling. Uniformed agents, their faces saturated with hate, frisked us like criminals. The delay seemed endless. Finally, my body trembling, they allowed us to proceed.

We boarded the jumbo jet to freedom on June 20, 1992, and arrived at JFK International airport the next day . . . my eighth birthday.

Land of Real Opportunity

What a new world! Stimuli were striking me from all directions. Everything was enormous, including my grandmother, who pounced upon me like a rhinoceros and hugged me to the breaking point.

Boruch Hashem, my grandparents were already anchored in America. They arranged a two-bedroom apartment for us, and supplied us with some clothing. My parents, "on top" of the American fashions, bought my sister Rivkie a white fluffy dress, and I got a tuxedo.

Two months passed. My great-grandfather (who was nominally observant) recommended that my parents enroll me in a yeshiva. I was not sure what that was, but followed my family's wishes. I did not know one word of English (let alone Hebrew) and had no clue of how to make friends.

I began learning alef-beis and progressed quickly. However, two weeks do not allow a person too much leeway. I was summoned to the office. The secretary, voice choked up, leveled the bombshell. "You . . . you . . . your . . . your tuition requirement can not be fulfilled. Do not report to school tomorrow."

With my parent's ego slashed and pocketbooks threatened, there was only one alternative in their minds. For me, it meant being a neshomoh in chains for the next four years. The next Monday, I reported to PS 332.

I remember sobbing the first day. One significant event occurred during those years. The school sponsored a program providing an opportunity for students to display the wares of their various faiths. My teacher, landing a "brainstorm," announced "Vladik, you will be the perfect representative of Judaism." She would have been better off asking an electrical engineer to give an anatomy lesson.

The next day, I found myself mumbling something about the kippa and tzitzis my great-grandfather had provided me. Looking back, I view it as a Divine sign in the darkness, of the light to come.

By the time I reached age twelve (1996), my parents had reservations about enrolling me in the middle school, for health and safety considerations. They recommended I take an interview at a yeshiva called Ruach Academy. "No way," I stormed. "I will not attend a school where people bang their heads against the wall, claiming to be praying!"

My parents prevailed upon me. However, the admissions director took a long look at my long hair and wild disposition and inquired, "Has your son undergone a psychological evaluation?"

Then, as I sat there feeling broken, two men entered and rushed me into a side room. I began to panic.

The Rabbis' kind demeanor calmed me down. They tested me on my limited knowledge of Chumash, asked me some questions and . . . accepted me into the yeshiva! To this day, only Hashem and maybe some ancestor in Shomayim know how this miracle occurred. These rabbonim were the Landman brothers, the major movers of Ruach Academy and major players in my development.

It is Hardest at the Beginning

The first day of yeshiva, I felt humiliated to be occupying a seat in first grade, at age twelve. Relearning the alef- bais, however, had a therapeutic effect. Soon I advanced to my grade level secularly, and that set off a chain reaction in my Judaic-studies performance. However, davening was boring for me, and I also couldn't accept the notion that the rabbis in dark suits and hats were devout teachers and not propagandizing fanatics.

In January of that year (l997), I underwent major surgery on my legs. The week before I entered the hospital, one of my teachers, Miss Kastowitz, invited me to spend Shabbos with her family.

Warmth and hospitality permeated the Kastowitz home. At the conclusion of this unforgettable Shabbos, Miss Kastowitz presented me with a sefer Tehillim inscribed with a brochoh for a successful operation. "What? ... me? ... Why?" My eyes watered.

During my stay in the hospital, I was touched by the outpouring of visitors that graced my bedside. A poignant realization penetrated my consciousness: Religious people really care!

During my recuperation period at home, I began wearing a kippa and tzitzis. One day the doorbell rang. A few minutes later, my entire class passed by my bed, single file, armed with presents and get-well letters. Miss Kastowitz was at the lead. Many other rebbes, teachers and friends also came to be mevakeir choleh.

Back in yeshiva, I took off like a rocket. I developed a more positive feeling toward my rebbeim and davening. I even scaled a giant hurdle when I led — shakily yet successfully - - Shacharis services.

At the end of the year (June l998) the news hit like a sledgehammer. Ruach Academy for boys had to close its doors due to lack of funds.

I had come this far. Was it all lost?

My mother arranged an interview at a certain yeshiva that was acclaimed for its secular department. However, my marks were not up to par. The director of admissions recommended that I contact a yeshiva called "Ohr Avrohom." Hashgochoh would bring this man and me together again in the future.

My confidence shaken, I gathered up enough energy to call Yeshivas Ohr Avrohom. The secretary, Mrs. Tagley, arranged an interview with a Rabbi Milestone. Droplets of perspiration collected on my forehead as I edged toward the door displaying the words "Rosh Yeshiva." I spoke somewhat choppily at first. Rabbi Milestone's understanding demeanor calmed me down, and to my utter delight, he accepted me!

At Ohr Avrohom

Those years at Ohr Avrohom were unforgettable. I experienced many exquisite and inspirational Shabbatonim and met many warm baalei chessed and Yidden with simchas hachaim. I became energized to perform as many mitzvos as possible. Rabbi Milestone particularly influenced me, as a mentor and paradigm of mitzva observance.

Each of my rebbeim from eighth to twelfth grade was unique. Each imbued me with the knowledge and tools that were particularly appropriate for that stage of my development.

In June 2000, my eighth- and ninth-grade rebbe, Rabbi Rubinoff, left the yeshiva. Determined to maintain my relationship with him, I continued to attend his shiurim on Mondays and Thursdays.

After a while, he offered me a monthly "reward" if I continued to attend his shiurim. When he presented me with the $40, I returned it and exclaimed, "Please buy me a pushka."

My Rebbe gave me a gentle kiss on the forehead and proclaimed, "Ari, you're on the road to becoming a tzaddik. Keep going."

I spiraled upward with excitement.

When I was in tenth grade the Yeshiva arranged a memorable event. My class was invited to daven Shacharis in one of the largest mainstream yeshivas in Brooklyn, followed by breakfast, and then a forty-five-minute learning session.

I stood thunderstruck in the doorway of that magnificent beis medrash! Masses of bochurim, wearing black hats and jackets, were swaying back and forth devoutly enveloped in tefilloh. How could I ever have thought that frum Jews bang their heads against the wall while praying!

Someone introduced me to a yungerman named Shimon Stillkell. I was immediately taken by his wit and sincerity.

After that, another yungerman, Yonoson Peleh, taught me mishnayos via telephone every night. In the future he would help remove obstacles that might have blocked a year of study in Eretz Yisroel.

Keeping Shabbos

My sister Rivky, at the time, was a blossoming eighth-grade student at Ruach Academy for girls. In the middle of the year, she popped the question: "How do I keep Shabbos?"

I volunteered the advice that I had heard in yeshiva: "First refrain from performing melochoh."

She refrained. I did not. However, after several weeks, I was embarrassed and followed suit. The next Friday, Rivky confronted me with, "Let's have a seuda tonight."

Conflicting voices were struggling within me. One asserted, "Ari, this is the golden opportunity you've been working toward. Don't let it slip through your fingers."

But a second voice countered, "Vladik, you're going to lose your freedom!"

My yetzer tov triumphed.

Rivky received a magnanimous Shabbos kit from her school, consisting of two tea lights, a pint-size bottle of grape juice, a plastic Kiddush cup and a paper with the Kiddush printed upon it. Rabbi Milestone presented me with two small challos.

As sunset approached, Rivky and I went undercover. We staked out in her small, dark room. She lit the candles and I made Kiddush for the first time.

In contrast, my parents, grandparents and great grandparents were in the dining room preparing for New Year's Eve celebrations. There was an aura of excitement as my family sat together with bated breath, along with many thousands of others, in anticipation of the big ball dropping at Times Square. While they were experiencing the illumination of the greatest darkness, we ate our Shabbos meal in the light that pierced the darkness.

It was December 31, l999, the eve of Y2K (2000). A sense of uncertainty and fear permeated the outside world that computers would crash, commerce would be paralyzed, and the world would plunge into darkness.

In our world there were the flickering Shabbos candles, whose lights could never be extinguished, whose message would live eternally.

Rivky and I would continue observing Shabbos in that dark room for several weeks. We knew that, eventually, it would be necessary to change the format to make it a more positive experience for ourselves and hopefully for Mama.

However, something contradictory was standing in the living room. I gently but firmly explained to my mother, "Mama, that tree that you put up at the end of every year — what a hassle it is for Papa to pick it up and schlepp it to the house. Who needs the expense of buying it? And Mama, what a mess it makes!"

That last point hit the right chord. "Remove that nuisance from my orderly house," she ordered.

Now Rivky and I began playing games and showing that Shabbos can be an enjoyable experience. My mother was astonished that her kids were getting along. The following week, we made Kiddush and ate our "seuda" (the two rolls) in the dining room; we even prevailed upon our mother to keep the TV off.

A Bar Mitzvah

About two months after our first Shabbos, I approached Rabbi Milestone. "Rebbe, I stammered, I . . . never . . . uh . . . had a real bar mitzva . . ."

My Rosh Yeshiva reacted quickly. The next thing I knew, Mrs. Tagley presented me with a droshoh or, better put, a doctoral dissertation. I groaned to Rabbi Milestone, "Rebbe, I am a simple yeshiva bochur from Russia, not an Oxford scholar. You have to teach me these words, because I can't even pronounce them."

Rabbi Milestone read from the paper. "Um . . . vicissitudes, catapult, onyx, exhortation, metamorphosis . . . sounds good, he stated with a chuckle. You will be able to memorize your speech in no time." Gulp!

I reviewed the speech, sometimes tongue-tied, sometimes gagging. The shul that hosted the bar mitzva was quite far from our home, so Rabbi Milestone arranged accommodations at the Sures.

They were a special family, showering warmth and hospitality. My mother was happy because I was happy. My father was happy because the food was good and he knew that the word "bar" was related to drinks.

The next day as I approached the shul, my heart was beating rapidly. I was conjuring up images of all those professionals smirking while I flubbed my speech.

Inside, I met Rabbi Milestone. He was holding a stack of papers. "Here, he offered, I didn't have the heart to see you without a script in front of you."

I gave Rabbi Milestone a hug in the middle of the sanctuary. The bar mitzva was a marvelous experience.

From Pesach (2000) on, my mother began breaking out of her spiritual chains, and her effervescent personality began to blossom. Mrs. Landman arranged a chavrusa for her named Leba Klideman.

One day Mamma arrived home, her face aflame. She unleashed an impassioned S-h-e-m-a Y-i-s-r-a-e-l . . . Tears began to flow uncontrollably down her cheeks. They were joined with the sobbing tears of joy of her children. Choked words of "I want to grow," emerged from her lips as a living testimony of the posuk, Veheishiv lev avos al bonim, unfolded in front of our eyes.

From then on, Mama would regularly ask me about my progress in yeshiva. If I'd had a dismal day, she would give me a pinch on the cheek and offer encouragement. If it was a good day, she would share my excitement. Frequently, she would ask me to teach her what I learned.

A few weeks later, Momma contacted the famous Rabbi Lomder and his kashrus crew. In no time they arrived and scurried around her kitchen, armed with all kinds of cleaning and scouring paraphernalia. They accomplished their mission thoroughly. My mouth was gaping.

The Rabbi then presented Momma with a respectable sum of money to buy new pots and pans, and advice on where to shop frugally.

One of the rebbeim I met at camp that summer was the one who had refused me admittance to his yeshiva years earlier. After a few weeks of attending his shiurim, I reminded him of who I was. His face had a look of sheer disbelief. He placed his head within his hands and cried out, "One neshomoh . . . the importance of one neshomoh."

Then he said to me, full of remorse, "If I could turn the clock backward, I would grab you. Hashem has nevertheless protected you. Remain a ben Torah."

Now Mama joined forces with Rivky and I, playing the role of Avrohom Ovinu to bring Papa to our "side." We were successful in convincing him to perform a pidyon haben. That "broke the ice" for additional campaigns of mitzvah observance.

The following year (January, 2001), an earth-shattering plan was evolving in Mama's mind. One day she called Mrs. Landman. Mrs. Landman paused . . . what was that? A chuppah? "What a delightful idea," she exclaimed excitedly, "I'll arrange the whole affair. Zehava, Zehava, are you there?"

The receiver was left dangling as Mama danced joyfully around the house.

We wondered how Papa would react to the idea.

"That's a ludicrous idea," he stormed, resolving our doubts. "I refuse to go through this . . . this . . . what did you call this ceremony?"

"CHU-PAH," retorted my mother.

"Hupah you say, well I think this is ridiculous, Gala [Mama's Russian name]. We've been married almost twenty years."

"But not kedas Moshe veYisroel," she asserted.

"Are you calling me names?" queried Papa incredulously.

"No, No, Tolyik. I'm trying to explain that we are Jews, part of a holy nation, and I want us to partake in a holy mission."

"Gala, I'm afraid you're losing it."

"Tolyik, I will march down that aisle and you will be waiting for me!" Rivky and I never heard my mother speak with such conviction.

"Uh . . . er . . . um . . . if this is so important to you Gala, I'll do it. But there better be good food!"

Two months later, the "big day" finally arrived. An hour before my departure for the wedding hall, the phone rang. Concerned, I picked up the receiver. "Hello, Rabbi Sure, what is it? . . . What? Rav Aharon Schechter? The Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin? . . . Siddur Kiddushin? With all due respect, Rabbi Sure, this is no time for joking."

After hanging up, I zoomed off to the chasunah hall.

My mother had instructed me to invite only close friends and rebbeim; I entered the wedding hall and froze. Waves of people flowed in until the hall was inundated. The expected fifty participants evolved into five hundred. With Mrs. Landman at the helm, teachers of Ruach Academy were setting the tables and catering. I was dumbstruck!

Suddenly the commotion transformed into a hushed silence. Gasps escaped from all directions. A distinguished-looking talmid chochom trekked with measured steps toward the chuppah. I almost fainted. It was HaGaon HaRav Aharon Schechter!

The procession began. Mama appeared angelic in her elegant white gown, matched only by the radiance of her countenance. She marched down in rhythm with her mother and Mrs. Landman. Papa was waiting under the chuppah.

I could not contain my tears. One does not frequently attend the wedding of one's parents. I was awake, yet in a dream. Spontaneously, my lips uttered a fervent prayer of thanks to the Ribono shel Olom for guiding my mother in her ascent in Yiddishkeit.

My father triumphed with the harei at (with a little help from Rav Schechter). When he broke the glass, the crowd "broke loose" into ecstatic song and dance as they accompanied the "chosson" and "kallah" to the yichud room.

The waiting of the well-wishers as the time drew near transformed into an explosion of sound and excitement as Mr. and Mrs. Tzadok Schulsky were ushered in for the very first time. Hundreds joined the dance floor as the joyous fervor intensified.

The Rosh Yeshiva motioned my father to the middle, and thunderous claps and yelps of encouragement filled the air. Suddenly, I was yanked into the circle. I danced in a whirlwind of ecstasy, together with those individuals who had made such a difference in my life.

Mama was a wellspring of simchah, dancing like a kallah twenty years her junior. Her contagious energy drew others into the circle like a magnet.

That evening will forever remain etched in my memory.

The chasunah must have made a significant impression upon Papa also, for three months later, in February of 2002, he underwent a bris milah.

On June 21, 2002 (my eighteenth birthday), the entire Schulman family was enjoying Shabbos in their living room. That was two and a half years after our Shabbos candles illuminated the darkness for the first time. I bent over to Rivky and whispered that I felt Hashem's Hashgochoh would continue to guide us.

In January of 2003, representatives of yeshivas in Eretz Yisroel visited Ohr Avrohom to recruit for the following year. Initially, I was scared. Rabbi Milestone and Mrs. Tagley were my fan club, constantly assuring and encouraging. In spite of my mother's concern about my "future" and my father's reluctance due to terrorist attacks, scorpions, malaria and the like, I decided to take this major step.

In August of 2003, I found myself on a jumbo jet headed for Eretz Yisroel. During the course of the year, I had my ups and downs, but began to feel the joy of learning gemora and the inspiration of kedushas Eretz Yisroel.

I was interested in returning for a second year, but basically had written it off due to financial considerations and parental pressure.

Then my Father in Heaven showered His Hashgochoh once again. Through the assistance of my dear friend Yochonon Peleh, I returned to Eretz Yisroel for a second exhilarating year of learning. This time my game plan was to surge upward.

In the middle of the year, I was tested on my first blatt of gemora be'al peh. I was rubbing my hands nervously. When the Rebbe stated that I had been successful, I gave a shriek. There is no joy like the joy of learning Torah!

Ari . . . Ari . . . the sound was getting closer. I was jolted out of stupor. I looked at my watch. I had been immersed in this semi-trance for a hour. My mind evoked a series of thoughts: Ari, look at your journey from those early days in Russia until today. Should the odyssey end here?

I tilted my head backwards and unleashed an impassioned plea:"Ribono shel Olom, only You know the future . . . only You can make it happen. Will You open the floodgates of "mayim Chaim," so I can return to yeshiva once again?


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