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Bridging the gap between two communities: the Ma'aleh Amos-Tekoa kiruv kollel

Колель в Маале амос — Ткоа

The story of the Tekoa kollel which is run by Toldos Yeshurun.

TkoaA quick glance at Ma’aleh Amos and Tekoa, two communities in eastern Gush Etzion, brings to mind Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines, “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.”

It is almost symbolic that a right turn at the T-junction, a five-minute drive east of Efrat, takes travelers in the direction of Ma’aleh Amos, a chareidi yishuv, while a left turn takes them to Tekoa, a liberal, mixed community. The extent of their common ground is a joint evening bus line and membership in the Gush Etzion Regional Council.

Ma’aleh Amos is home to 40 families; Tekoa is home to over two hundred. Ma’aleh Amos’s families are chareidi (ultra-orthodox) and have an insular approach to life, at least at first glance. Tekoa is more diverse – religious and non-religious Jewish families and singles, who hail from all over the world. While Ma’aleh Amos takes pride in its exclusively chareidi status, Tekoa takes pride in its open-mindedness. The schools in Ma’aleh Amos are of the Bais Yaakov and cheder variety; while the co-ed school in Tekoa is open to religious and non-religious students alike.

Ma’aleh Amos offers a lot of opportunities for spiritual growth through its formal school institutions, informal abundant shiurim, and simple, quiet lifestyle that encourages community involvement. The fresh air and view must be experienced to be believed. Despite all this, Ma’aleh Amos is probably known better for what it lacks than for what it has. There is no makolet (grocery store), though there are options for ordering produce, dairy and general supermarket items and having them delivered to the yishuv. Daily transportation opportunities are limited – a few Egged buses and regional council school buses (when not packed with students), and hitchhiking with residents. Local job opportunities are also few and far between. A lucky few work from home or in communal positions on the yishuv. Others travel to their jobs in the center of Gush Etzion or in Jerusalem. A tiny industrial area contains a few carpentry workshops.

Tekoa, by comparison, is almost a metropolis, boasting not only carpentry workshops but also a school, a yeshiva, a makolet, youth and community centers, swimming pool, bakery, mushroom and dairy goat farms, wine press, mechanic, a few health fund clinics, and computer and real estate companies – and that is not even the complete list. There are buses every hour.

The two communities are a 15-minute drive from one another, but worlds apart. Indeed, Ma’aleh Amos is Ma’aleh Amos and Tekoa is Tekoa, and never the twain shall meet.

But in the past year or so, the twain has begun to meet, in the form of the Ma’aleh Amos-Tekoa kiruv kollel.

One of the kollel's chavrusosThe kollel owes its existence to the one other common factor between Ma’aleh Amos and Tekoa - Russian Jews. Russian ba’alei teshuva constitute over half of the population in Ma’aleh Amos. Tekoa’s sizeable Russian population includes many non-observant families.

A little over a year ago, a few Russian kollel students in Ma’aleh Amos separately approached their fellow resident, Yitzchok Moldavsky, a Russian ba’al teshuva who works half a day as an architect and learns half a day in the kollel in Ma’aleh Amos.

The consensus expressed among these students was that they seemed to be “stewing in their own juice”, learning only for themselves, with no opportunity to help other Jews. They felt ready to engage in some form of kiruv but lacked the opportunity in Ma’aleh Amos, where everyone was already mitzvah-observant on a stringent level.

Around the same time, when Yitzchok gave the Rav of Ma’aleh Amos, HaRav HaGaon Zev Charlop, a ride home, the Rav mentioned that he had recently spoken to someone about Tekoa’s kiruv possibilities. Yitzchok interpreted the close timing of these two events as a sign that the time had come to take action.

From Ma'aleh Amos to Tkoa: with the Talmud in one hand and an automatic rifle in the otherYitzchok rallied the students who had approached him as well as a few others, and the decision was made to try to reach out to Russian Jews in Tekoa. Why Tekoa? It is a nearby community, for starters, and some of the students who had approached him felt that Tekoa was fertile soil for kiruv. Additionally, a Russian family, the Klaimans, whose advancement in religious observance prompted them to move several years ago from Tekoa to Ma’aleh Amos, insisted that “the people in Tekoa are looking for more spirituality, but they don’t know in which direction to go. There are a lot of Russian Jews in Tekoa, and therefore a lot of potential there.”

The original intention of the kollel was to attract Russian Jews who did not observe anything. However, that focus changed somewhat with the entrance of the Donievskys, another Russian family in Tekoa who had also advanced rapidly in their level of observance and who had maintained their friendship with the Klaimans. The Donievskys had moved to Tekoa from El David, a neighboring settlement, and bought a home in Tekoa.

When the Donievskys bought their house, they already felt uncomfortable religiously in Tekoa. “We didn’t really have too many friends in Tekoa to invite to our chanukas habayis. But we knew some of the men in Ma’aleh Amos, and we wanted to expose those residents of Tekoa, whom we thought had the potential to become interested in learning Torah, to them. We decided to make a chanukas habayis in order to enable these two very different groups to meet in a non-threatening environment. There were refreshments and divrei Torah Yaakov Katzen, one of the most advanced members of the kollel in Ma’aleh Amos,” recalls Narina Donievsky.

This first meeting was one of the springboards for the organization of the kollel, which is under the auspices of Toldos Yeshurun, a network of evening kollelim primarily for Russian Jews who are not otherwise in a structured Torah learning environment. Toldos Yeshurun’s establishment was inspired by Rav Yitzchok Zilber, the “spiritual father” of the Russian baal teshuva movement.

Since the kollel’s inception about a year ago, a group of up to eight Russian Jews from Ma’aleh Amos head to Tekoa every Sunday night to learn gemara and/or halacha chavrusa style (one-on-one) with interested men for an hour to an hour and a half in the Ashkenazi shul. The students are mostly traditional to modern religious.

After the men’s learning program was in place for about a half a year, several other events led to the formation of classes for Tekoa’s Russian women. Ma’aleh Amos resident Yehudit Rosing, a Russian baalas teshuva, is Ma’aleh Amos’ secretary. She and her husband came to Ma’aleh Amos as a newly married couple expecting their first child in the early 1990’s, when the yishuv agreed to absorb a large group of Russian Jews during a period of mass immigration. The Rosings, along with most of the other Russian Jews who were absorbed during that time, knew almost nothing about Judaism. Rav Dovid Shteinhaus, a native of Gateshead who until that point had no desire other than to mind his own business and learn quietly on the yishuv, wound up becoming one of their primary teachers of Judaism and eventually the head of the Ma’aleh Amos kollel which was affiliated with the Shvut Ami Torah education network for Russian Jews. The Rosings and many other Russian families quickly worked their way up from no knowledge and observance to a full-fledged chareidi lifestyle. Her husband is a part-time kollel student and part-time sofer, and they now have six children, bli ayin hora.

What is the relevance of Yehudit’s personal background to the women’s learning program in Tekoa? She, like the male baalei teshuva who teach in the kollel, provide living proof of what one can accomplish in spiritual growth.

One day last year, Yehudit Rosing and Narina Donievsky, whose son had begun learning in the cheder in Ma’aleh Amos, were speaking to one another at the bus stop in Ma’aleh Amos. Narina mentioned that there was a need for shiurim for the women in Tekoa. Narina herself did not have a personal need for such shiurim, as she had already begun to attend shiurim in Ma’aleh Amos. Yet she felt that there were women in Tekoa who would be open to something with a different orientation than what was available in their community. Yehudit told Narina that she would be willing to come to Tekoa to give shiurim.

Yehudit asked Rav Charlop and the Rabbanit (Rebbetzen) what she should teach them. She began with musar from Rabbi Dessler’s Michtav Me’eliyahu, and halacha from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), as well as a book written by Rav Charlop on the parshiyos (weekly Torah portions) which combines halacha and hashkafa. The shiur was given in the Donievskys’ home. The women who showed up in the beginning were already basically observant, but lacked knowledge in halacha and hashkafa. Yehudit’s goal was to advance their knowledge. In fact, many of their husbands were learning in the men’s kollel on Sunday nights, and it was hoped that the women’s enjoyable learning experience would lead them to encourage their husbands to want to learn more. Five to ten women come to the weekly shiur, which occasionally features other teachers.

Once, the women wanted to know how all 613 mitzvos are derived from the Ten Commandments. Yehudit subsequently brought Rabbanit Charlop to give a shiur on the topic, on an advanced level that impressed the students.

“Most of these women are on a very high intellectual level. You can talk to them about esoteric things like the unity of Hashem, but how to prepare a salad on Shabbos, the practical things, are harder. I try not to have rosy illusions and dreams as to what changes these women will make in their lives,” Yehudit says.

At one point Yehudit felt it would be productive to introduce Rabbi Dovid Komsky into the women’s program. Rabbi Komsky, also a Russian, engages in several professions. He has a doctorate in mathematics, works in kiruv with Russian youth, and is also a practitioner of several types of alternative medicine. Rabbi Komsky began to present lectures to the women in Tekoa about various alternative breathing techniques that relieve health conditions and stress and promote spiritual development. A group of about ten women attend his program. Some are modern religious women who are currently strengthening their level of observance, while others are totally secular but are interested in Jewish topics. The beginning of his lectures always contained a form of spiritual content, such as the concept of accepting yisurim (pain or trials and tribulations) with love; or the fact that neshama and neshima (soul and breathing) are from the same Hebrew root word and therefore are inter-related concepts, and that people have a spiritual side as well as their physical body. The spiritual message of these lectures prompted several non-observant women to begin attending the weekly women’s shiur.

Rabbi Komsky’s involvement has had positive effects. In fact, one non-religious woman who was experiencing serious personal problems spoke to Rabbi Komsky, who suggested that she speak with Rav Dovid Shteinhaus. The pants-clad woman actually traveled to Ma’aleh Amos (a 15-minute drive to another planet) to speak with him. After their discussion, he gave her some books he felt would be helpful – Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Just) and Derech Hashem (Way of G-d), classic works of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato! I don’t know what is more amazing, that a non-religious woman trusted a lecturer’s referral to speak to a Rabbi who was a total stranger, or that she walked out with such high-level books!

Narina comments on the effects of the women’s shiur. “The most powerful effect is the personal example the teachers give. They arrive neat, pretty, well dressed. They are happy. They give of themselves with no vested interests and no ulterior motive. This is what is most impressive. For the ladies in Tekoa, it was like drinking water from a spring as opposed to sink water. It is impressive that a woman with six children and a job and plenty to do literally leaves the pots and pans in her kitchen and her crying baby to come to Tekoa to teach the women what the value is of that crying baby and those pots and pans.”

The kollel instructors have also made their positive impression on Tekoa’s men, Narina states. “Little things, like how they come in to the shul, how they are dressed with dignity, how they use every minute, their midos. All of these things they show by action and not even through the actual teaching, and they make a strong positive impression. They come very simply, with no airs, with a lot of depth and ability to contribute, and we see that their knowledge and ability to contribute is seemingly endless. The people in Tekoa [who attend the shiurim] see the people of Ma’aleh Amos as tranquil, happy with themselves. It is very appealing and attracting. It makes people want to be like them. The kollel is an expression of mesirus nefesh (sacrifice). These people who come to teach have what to do with their lives. But they come to Tekoa to give the residents light and a purpose in life. That is true Ahavas Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jew).”

Narina’s husband runs the makolet in Tekoa, and he, too, relays his observations about new developments that he is convinced are a result of the influence of the kollel. “A group of about six men who used to dress very casually during the week, in jeans and t-shirts, have started to dress in a more dignified manner, my husband tells me,” says Narina. “Now they walk around in white shirts, in jackets. Not exactly in chareidi dress but a very noticeable change from how they dressed before.”

Ironically, the Donievskys abandoned their newly bought house and moved to Ma’aleh Amos about half a year ago, in order to live in a totally chareidi environment. “Our lives over the past few years have had the twists and turns and the ironies of the story of Purim,” Narina marvels.

When asked what it’s like to leave behind a house and move to a simpler rental property, Narina answered, “The house in Tekoa is worth nothing in comparison to building our spiritual house here in Ma’aleh Amos.”

In the short time they have lived here, the family has made valuable contributions to life on the yishuv. Narina’s husband offers a home delivery service from his makolet and selects produce with a good hechsher in Beitar according to families’ individual orders, delivering them right to their door. Their elementary-school aged daughter initiated a twice weekly Tehillim (Psalm-reciting) group for pre-school girls in the Donievsky home.

Before leaving Tekoa, the Donievskys rented their house to Dovid and Regina Ephraimov, a Russian family who “followed” them from El David to Tekoa. One of the conditions of renting their house to the Ephraimovs was that the women’s shiur would continue to be hosted there.

Dovid Ephraimov moved to Eretz Yisrael from Bucharia as a child. Regina made aliya later. During her college years, she became more interested in Judaism and began to observe Jewish laws on a very basic level. In fact, she made her marriage to Dovid contingent on his agreeing to set up an observant household and keeping Shabbos. In the beginning, they kept Judaism based on their limited knowledge. As a math teacher in an elementary school in Efrat, she became friendly with her fellow teacher Rivka Klaiman, of Ma’aleh Amos. Eventually she met Rivka’s family and came to Ma’aleh Amos for a Shabbos.

When the woman’s learning program started in Tekoa, Regina traveled from nearby El David (also known as Nokdim) to attend. “I knew it was important, not just the knowledge but also strengthing my emuna (faith). It was important to know things for life, to educate our children and ourselves. I understood that we were missing this and didn’t receive it in our childhood,” she explains as her motive for attending the program.

Although many people have an anti-chareidi bias, or at the very least, preconceptions and misconceptions, Regina was not worried about attending a chareidi-taught program. “I used to think of chareidim as being from Meah Shearim. I didn’t think I could head in their direction spiritually. Then I met Rivka Klaiman. And later, when I met Rivka’s family and her married daughter and son-in-law, I understood that it is possible for people who once lived differently to become like that. In fact, my parents, who are secular, said after meeting Rivka’s son-in-law, ‘If you want to be chareidi, be like him. He has bridged and synthesized the two worlds.”

Regina acknowledges the difficulties on the path to becoming chareidi. “It’s impossible to become chareidi overnight. While making the transition, you have already given up the chiloniyut, the secular aspect of your life, but you haven’t gotten to chareidi yet. You are not yet on that level of observance. You lack the knowledge and the skills to acquire the knowledge. You are kind of left suspended, with nothing, not here and not there. It’s a hard stage.”

The learning program has had a strong influence on her, she acknowledges, but it’s not just the shiurim. “Our visits to Ma’aleh Amos enable us to see the lifestyle from within. It gives us the strongest influence in our daily lives.”

If there were such a thing as “Frequent Visitors Mileage Programs” in Ma’aleh Amos, the Ephraimovs would have already earned lots of points. They spent the past Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Simchas Torah and Purim here, as well as some Shabbosim. They attended our Simchas Bais HaShoeiva. In fact, at the time, when I did not know who they were, I thought that a new family had moved in!

Regina notes the effects of the program on her classmates in Tekoa. “There is a spiritual awakening. They read Jewish books. They say Tehillim. They daven a little. One lady has married children who are secular. She returned to Jewish observance. Her children do not understand her but she will not give up what she has begun to keep.”

Regina’s husband joined the men’s learning program after spending Shabbos and holidays in Ma’aleh Amos with the Klaimans. Rivka Klaiman had placed the Ephraimovs at different families for meals on Rosh Hashana in order to expand their circle of acquaintances here. One of those families was Israeli - the Abramoviches. As Dovid is more functional in Hebrew than in Russian, when the challenge arose in finding him a Hebrew-speaking chavrusa, Rivka Klaiman suggested Rabbi Abramovich. Few people are as busy as Rabbi Abramovich. He serves as the head of yishuv administration (the equivalent of a mayor), the principal of the cheder and the fourth grade Rebbe. He could have easily declined the request due to his pre-existing commitments, but Rabbi Abramovich said, “I knew that there was a Jew in Tekoa at the start of his path of teshuva, without a background in learning. I wanted to help him.”

Because they had met each other before learning together, there was no apprehension on either side, Dovid’s or Rabbi Abramovich’s, about the chareidi-dati relationship that was about to form. Dovid wanted to learn “because I’m ignorant. I’m an am ha’aretz (ignoramus),” he says without shame, but the “smile” in his voice is audible. “I never learned Torah in my life.”

The two are learning Gemara Brachos, halacha and hashkafa (Jewish thought) together. After their first learning session, when they closed their ­gemara and waited for the other learning pairs to finish, Dovid whipped out a siddur from his pocket and fired a barrage of questions at Rabbi Abramovich. He wanted to know everything at once, about tefilla, about netilas yodayim.

The learning program has had far-reaching effects on Dovid. “It has improved the relationship between my wife and me. Learning opens you up to more in life. It guides you in all kinds of things. I am stricter about tefilla. I never miss a tefilla. I understand more of what I am doing. It gives me more motivation to learn,” he says.

His view of chareidi Jews has also changed. “I used to think that chareidi Jews were extreme, extra strict in everything, but I slowly started to understand them. I used to wonder, ‘Why do you dress this way? Why do you educate this way?’ I started to look at them as people and not just as chareidim. The people in Ma’aleh Amos are not typical chareidim. Most of them are baalei teshuva and therefore can relate to someone who is undergoing the same process as they did.”

Yehudit Rosing quotes Rivka Klaiman’s impressions of the Ephraimovs’ quick spiritual progress. “They are advancing so fast that in a few years, we will have to run after them to try to keep up.”

Regina sees spiritual movement in Tekoa. “The yishuv is becoming more religious in recent years. The connection between Ma’aleh Amos and Tekoa is very important. We are all one nation. No one can predict when someone will do teshuva. Many people who become religious become chareidi. But until they get there, there are all the intermediate phases. For the Jews in Tekoa who are in these phases, these shiurim, this connection with people from Ma’aleh Amos, is important.”

Who knows, maybe one day the Ephraimovs will follow in the footsteps of the Klaimans and the Donievskys and settle in Ma’aleh Amos.

Ma’aleh Amos and Tekoa may be worlds apart, but they are worlds that are being bridged.

SIDEBAR

The 15-minute ride to and from Tekoa has occasionally been fraught with unwanted adventures. It is as though the Satan feels threatened by the kollel’s accomplishments and wants to do everything in his power to thwart them.

On one occasion, the kollel instructors and Yehudit Rosing drove in a car owned by Yitzchok Moldavsky, the kollel organizer. The driver, who had borrowed the car, failed to negotiate a sharp turn near the Arab village of Tekoa and the car wound up in an Arab yard, where it knocked down two olive trees. The Arab homeowner came running out in his nightclothes at the sight of the felled trees and the totally wrecked car. “Do you need help?” he asked. He was willing to help them if they would pay him. They declined his offer and managed to call for help on their own. The army, the medics, and a tow truck showed up promptly. Thankfully, the driver and passengers were all uninjured. Was that evening’s program canceled? Of course not. One of the women in the learning program drove out to the scene of the accident to pick them up and bring them to Tekoa. After the evening’s programs, she returned them to that point, from which Ma’aleh Amos’ security director picked them up.

“On the way there, before the accident, I had been thinking exalted thoughts. It was around the time of the Yamim Nora’im. I arrived in a highly emotional state. I delivered an incredible shiur that night,” Yehudit Rosing recalls, not wanting to brag, but simply reliving that night.

The next week, they borrowed someone else’s car. On the way back, just as they were passing by the Arab village of Tekoa, one of the tires started to make noises. They realized that the tire was punctured and it would soon become flat. They continued to drive, hoping to get to a safer area before being forced to stop. When they arrived at the T-junction, there was no possibility of continuing. They got out of the car and inspected the tire, which they discovered was totally destroyed. Changing a tire at the T-junction is not exactly an enviable experience. They summoned the army to guard them, but as events were going on in the Hebron area at the time, the army was unavailable to protect them. Left with no choice, the men changed the tire as numerous Arab vehicles drove past, fortunately without bothering them. Apparently, the kollel instructors knew more about teaching Torah than about changing tires. It was only after they arrived in Ma’aleh Amos and returned the car that its owner laughingly pointed out to them that they had put the tire on backwards!

When Yehudit returned to Tekoa after these two incidents, one of the women asked, “Did you give tzedaka this time for a safe trip?”

On yet another occasion, as Dovid Ephraimov drove back to Tekoa after learning Torah, Arabs threw a molotov cocktail at his car, damaging the car somewhat. He fled the car, more or less unharmed, and fortunately, the Arabs had fled the scene.

Hopefully the Satan has given up and realized by now that the Ma’aleh Amos-Tekoa kiruv kollel is invincible!

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