Growing Pains

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28 Jun 2006

The journey towards a life of Torah and mitzvos is paved with challenges and unexpected inspirational moments; decisions and changes merging into the creation of a new reality – a Torah-true Jew. All names in the following story were changed.

Sonya stared at her husband. “Yes, I do want to go. But I’m frightened.”

Sonya and Leonard were seated in their tiny kitchen, sipping steamy hot cups of tea. It was already past midnight, but they were too tense to sleep.

“We have permission to travel abroad – all of us. We just won’t return.” Leonard was staring pointedly at his cup of tea. Weighing his words carefully, he continued, “I have a plan. Gregory asked me, as a personally favor, to pass two students. Their uncle is Professor Nikovi, chairman of the Department of Physics at Riga University.”

Leonard stirred the tea before continuing, “Gregory’s son is working towards his doctorate in physics – at Riga University. If I pass Professor Nikovi’s nephews, Professor Nikovi will make sure that Gregory’s son receives his doctorate. But Gregory will have to give me something in return. I won’t do it for free.”

“But if Gregory finds out that you are planning to travel to Israel…” Sonya continued.

“He won’t know. Gregory will never know, until it’s too late, and we’re gone. He’ll sign the form, and we’ll fill in the destination later. Once Gregory grants me permission to take a two week leave of absence, the professor’s nephews will pass the course and Gregory’s son will receive his doctorate.”

A few days later, Leonard returned home with the signed and stamped form. That night, he drove to the university and stealthily entered his office. He hoped that no one would wonder what the esteemed physics professor was doing in his office at three o’clock in the morning.

Leonard double checked the ribbon on his secretary’s typewriter. It was the same one she had used when she had filled in his personal details of the form. In the space following the word “Destination” he carefully typed “Israel.”

A few days later, Leonard received an official letter from the Ministry of Tourism, granting him and his family permission to take a two week vacation abroad. Destination: Israel.

The Pearls left most of their belongings – the heirloom silverware, the family pictures, Leonard’s grandfather’s siddur – in the Soviet Union. Ostensibly traveling as tourists, they arrived in Israel with four suitcases and two children. The Jewish Agency provided them with a box-size apartment in Ashkelon. Leonard found himself a job as a security guard. Life was difficult, but the Pearls felt that they had finally come home.

But as much as they integrated into Israeli society, Leonard and Sonya sensed that something was missing. Somehow they realized that in taking this major step they had only touched on the outer periphery of truth.

When Leonard first noticed the small announcement for a three day “introduction to Judaism” Seminar to be held in a Jerusalem hotel, he thought it would be an excellent opportunity to tour the Holy City. The cost was ridiculously low, and, he assumed, he would have plenty of time to leave the classes and see the sights.

Although Leonard and Sonya spent three days in Jerusalem, they never stepped foot out of the hotel. They were introduced to an entirely new world — an inner dimension that they never knew existed – and they were too enthralled to even consider leaving the classes. During their free time, they questioned, argued and discovered what they had been missing.

Sonya decided to express her newfound Jewish identity through lighting the Shabbos candles. Leonard started making kiddush on Friday night, before eating a festive meal and relaxing in front of the television. Several months later, the family set the television to a Shabbos clock, so they could watch their favorite shows and still observe the Shabbos. Step by step, the family steadfastly made their journey towards full mitzvah observance.

There were many “miracles” along the way. This one occurred several months after the Pearls had begun keeping Shabbos. Leonard had found a position teaching in a local high school – a major step up from his former job as a security guard in a pasta factory. Since writing is forbidden on Shabbos, he devoted Shabbos afternoons to mentally preparing Sunday’s lessons.

One Shabbos morning, Leonard returned home from shul and informed his family that during the halacha shiur that took place immediately after services, the Rav had mentioned that it is forbidden to prepare from Shabbos to a weekday. “If that’s the case,” he said, “then I won’t be able to prepare Sunday’s lessons this afternoon.”

That Shabbos afternoon, Leonard studied the Parshah, and spent time playing with his children and talking with his wife. He pushed away all thoughts of Sunday and the consequences of coming to class unprepared.

Sunday morning, Leonard left to work with a trembling heart. He was still very new on the job, and it was considered an amazing piece of luck that he had been able to find a position in his field. Many of his colleagues were sweeping the streets. Coming to work unprepared endangered his coveted position and his future professional advancement.

As Leonard climbed the steep marble stairs leading up to his classroom, he prayed that he would be able to convey the material and that the principal would not choose that morning to monitor his class. He made an extra effort to appear confident and knowledgeable. But the classroom was empty. He was the only one there.

Leonard waited ten minutes — fifteen minutes – twenty minutes, but not a single student arrived. Finally, he went down to the office to ask what was going on. Where were his students?

“Ah, Leonard,” the principal greeted him with a good-natured slap on the back. “I tried phoning you the entire day yesterday, but you must have been out all day. You never answered the phone. I wanted to tell you about the trip.”

“What trip?” Leonard asked, his confusion growing by the minute.

“The class trip,” the principal replied. “One of the other classes was supposed to go on a field trip today, but something came up and they had to cancel. Since we had already ordered all the buses and security guards, we sent your class instead. We contacted all the parents on Saturday morning. We tried to contact you, but, as I said before, you never answered the phone. Anyway, it’s too late to do anything now. The buses left almost two hours ago. Since you’re here, you can spend the day preparing lessons, and tomorrow, it’s back to normal.”

That evening, Leonard returned home armed with lesson plans for the following two weeks. Most important of all, he had discovered a lesson that he would remember for the rest of his life — the ultimate plan is made from Above.

A resident of Jerusalem, Debbie Shapiro is editor of This story is part of a soon to be published collection entitled “Bridging the Golden Gate.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.