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Sunday, June 4, 2023 - 15 Sivan 5783
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After 25 Years
by Ruti Youngman
I was born and raised in Israel, and I came to New York in 1979 after spending a summer as a Hebrew teacher at Camp Ramah in Nyack, N.Y. After the summer, I went to school to become a dental technician. Being all alone in N.Y., and not really knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to take a course in Jewish studies at the J.T.S. (Jewish Theology Seminary). The theme of the course was the Baal Shem Tov.

In order to finance my studies, I took a job, to visit an elderly lady and keep her company twice a week. She was not Shabbat observant but liked to talk about Judaism. One day, she told me that she very much wanted to light Shabbat candles, but was afraid to do so because of the fire hazard. (The lady was paralyzed and confined to bed.) I remembered that at home, I had a Chabad pamphlet about lighting Shabbat candles, which I had once been given on the street. There was a phone number to call for more information.

As soon as I got home, I found the paper and dialed the number. The phone was answered by a lady, Esther Sternberg, who spoke to me in a fluent Hebrew. She said that, of course, there is an electric candle that the old woman could light, and if I would give her my address she would send it to me. The conversation went on and she started to ask me about my life and what I was doing in New York. When I told her about my interest in studying Judaism, she mentioned that there is a Sunday program in Machon Chana. Within a week or so, the electric candle came in the mail.

The following Sunday, on Esther’s urging, I came to Crown Heights. I joined the Sunday program of Machon Chana and enjoyed it very much.

Those electric candles brought light to the old woman, and also lit the path for religious Jewish life for me. I remember the first time I was at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It was a special experience and there are no words to describe the emotions I felt.

I began coming regularly every Sunday to Crown Heights. After spending several Shabbatot there, I decided that my place was in Chabad. I found an apartment with nice girls, as well as a job. The job was in Worcester, Mass. Rabbi Herschel Fogelman was looking for a dorm mother for the high school girls who learned there, and he found me suitable for the job. The same day, I asked for a blessing from the Rebbe, received it, and went there right away.

In the middle of winter of that year, Rabbi Fogelman brought a young lady, 18 or 19 years old, to stay in the dormitory. She came from San Paulo, Brazil, and wanted to stay with us while studying nursing at the nearby university hospital. I was happy to find such a nice friend. Sandra and I spoke English and we used to speak mostly about her studies at the university. Then one day she told me that it was time for her to go back to Brazil. But before leaving, she wanted to see New York.

I felt sorry to lose her friendship. I suggested that she stay at my apartment in Crown Heights (I kept an apartment in Crown Heights for when I’d come in for Shabbat), and at the same time try some classes in Machon Chana, even for a short time. Sandra agreed, went to Crown Heights, stayed there for a couple of weeks and then went back to Brazil.

Eventually, I returned to Israel, got married, was blessed with a child and lost contact with Sandra. Until about two years ago, when Esther Sternberg called me (we had kept in contact all the years) and said that some lady from Brazil was looking for me. After a separation of 25 years, Sandra got in touch with me and we spoke by phone. She also sent me a nice letter with pictures of her family. Her oldest daughter (20-21) was getting married to a frum young man, and her other children were students in yeshivos. I emphasize this word because I was amazed at it. I could never dream that there would be such a transformation in Sandra’s life. I was amazed to hear her speak in a fluent, well-spoken Hebrew. In America we had only spoken English; she did not know one word of Hebrew and was far from Judaism.

Thinking about Sandra’s journey turned my thoughts towards me. I am sure that my friends in Israel, from my youth, think the same about me as I thought about her. As a matter of fact, my class from elementary school recently organized a reunion. Meeting people that I hadn’t seen for over 35 years was no small thing. I went to the reunion asking myself what their reaction would be to seeing me with my hair covered, a religious woman. To my astonishment, there were only positive reactions and admiring questions such as, “How did this happen and when?” I was also asked to give my opinion about various issues, as people wanted to hear the perspective of one who looks through religious, Torah eyes.

My answer to them at the reunion and today is the same. I wish that my entire class and all other Jewish people would become shomrei Shabbat and learn Torah. This would protect them and their families from all danger. And the main thing: it will bring Moshiach speedily, Amen, may it be Hashem’s will.


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