Seminary is a time for learning. Many of the lessons, however, cannot be gained from a book. All names have been changed for the sake of privacy.
Jerusalem, 1975 The girls in the third floor apartment were constantly bickering. They couldn’t agree on anything – no matter how petty. They argued over whose turn it was to take out the trash, who was supposed to sweep the common room floor, who had left the light on in the kitchen the night before, and even if Rabbi Newert’s class was better than that of the famous Rebbetzin Fried.
Some of the girls were from wealthy homes and had never washed a dish in their lives. In the palatial manors where they had grown up, the maid picked up their dirty laundry before they even had a chance to throw it in the hamper. Other girls had cleaned houses to pay for their ticket to Israel. Some of the girls were discovering that Jews don’t eat shrimp, while others only drank chalav Yisrael. All the girls, however, had a desire to learn about their heritage and to grow spiritually. And all were willing to live in very cramped quarters to spend that year in a Baal Teshuva seminary.
But despite the girls’ burning desire to build a strong relationship with the Almighty, they were unable (or perhaps, to be more accurate, unwilling) to forge bridges of harmony between themselves. As much as they tried, they couldn’t get along.
One of the girls, Ruchie Gross grew up in Upstate New York. A friend had dragged her to an NCSY Shabbaton. The experience moved her to tears. She felt as if am entire new world had opened up to her and she was determined to learn as much as she could about that world.
But now that Ruchie was learning about that world, she felt as if her high hopes had gone sour. She and her friends had come to Seminary to grow, to become better, more Torahdik individuals. Instead, the bickering never seemed to stop. How could they grow in “bein adam l’makom” in their relationship with the Almighty, if they were incapable of forging a relationship “bein adam l’chaveiro” with their fellow-Jew?
On the first night of Chanukah, the girls in the apartment got together in the common room to light the menorahs. Each girl placed her menorah on the big Formica covered table, filled little glass cups with shemen zayit zach, pure olive oil, recited the brachos and lit the menorah. Together, the girls sang the traditional Chanukah songs. There was a rare sense of achdus, brotherhood. A few of the girls surreptitiously wiped away a tear. They missed their families. All the girls dreamed of the day they would be privileged to watch their husband light the menorah in their own home.
But the close, mellow feeling did not last long. One of the girls switched on the lights, glanced at the huge kitchen clock hanging on the wall opposite the table and bellowed, “Chanukah party’s in another fifteen minutes! Let’s get the place organized so we can get outta here. Don’t forget, we have to set up for the whole Sem.”
“I straightened up yesterday, now it’s your turn,” said one girl.
“But I have to go the bakery to pick up the donuts,” her friend retorted.
“Yeah. Always another excuse. Rabbi Dessler says that if we never give, we’ll never love.”
“Look who’s talking…”
The conversation was turning ugly. “Girls, let’s just go already,” Ruchie had to yell to be heard.
The evening was a disaster. Ruchie didn’t even hear the Rav’s speech, or Rebbetzin Fried’s talk on finding that pristine drop pure olive oil hidden deep within our souls. “How can I ever find anything within myself if all we ever do is argue?” she wondered. “If this is what keeping mitzvos does to a person, it’s not for me.” Ruchie was ready to give up and return home to college, a profession and her parents’ reform temple. “But I’ll never marry a goy,” she promised herself.
Several hours later, the tired group of Seminary girls walked through the darkened streets of Jerusalem before climbing the narrow staircase to their apartment on the fourth floor. Although the school was only a five minute walk from their apartment, they were already arguing.
They smelled the smoke the moment they opened the front door. The girls rushed into the common room. Their menorahs had caught fire. The fire, thank God, was self-contained. Only a few things were destroyed – some clothing, a few notebooks, a few books.
The girls stood around the table staring at the mess. No one lifted a finger to begin cleaning it up. “If you would just learn how to take care of your things and not leave them everywhere,” one of the girls indignantly began.
“I was planning to put everything away, but you rushed me out the door,” retorted another.
The argument grew louder. Rochie looked around the room at her friends. Individually, she loved each of them- each was a jewel in her own right. They had all grown in so many ways over the last few months. Now she could read Hebrew fluently; her davening had improved; she was even able to bentch without singing the words at the top of her lungs and tapping on the table in the middle! But she couldn’t stand this constant bickering. Her mind was made up. She would return to the United States the day after Chanukah was over.
That’s when she noticed the charred remains of a book that had fallen onto a chair. It was completely ruined – except for one page.
Rochie carefully brushed away the ashes and examined the page. The other girls observed her curiously.
Rochie smiled. “You’re not going to believe this,” she said. The page was part of a book on the 613 mitzvot. The entire book had been consumed by the fire, except for the page explaining the mitzvah “V’ahavta l’reiacha Kamocha,” living peacefully with one’s neighbor.
The girls were stunned. They understood that this page had been saved for a reason.
The girls cleaned up the mess – together – and then spent the rest of the night ironing out their differences. For the first time, many of them realized that there is more to being religious than eating kosher and keeping Shabbos. It was a new beginning, and a lesson they would hold dear for the rest of their lives.
Debbie Shapiro is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family. She is presently writing the biography of the late Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.