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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Helena Scholnik Shaah Tovah 2010

Helena Scholnick

The first time I met Helena was at tryouts for one of the Nashei Ramot's annual plays. I was chosen to play the part of the bumbling head of a group of wanna-be pirates; she was chosen to be the second-in-command – who was constantly looking for ways to get rid of me (in more ways than one). Due to personal reasons, after one or two rehearsals Helena had to quit.  It wasn't until several years later, when she played the part of a young Jewish boy's grandmother pretending to be the family's black maid and I played the part of a snobby English butler, that we got to know each other better.

Helena is one of the funniest people I have ever met. Some of her stories have become classics in my family – like the time someone brought – yes, believe it or not! – a live horse into the wedding hall. Or the time her mother, still very new to the country, accidentally got into an Arab sherut. When the driver made an unscheduled stop in an Arab village, her mother, petrified that she was being kidnapped by an Arab terrorist, pretended that her watch was a walkie-talkie, and began speaking into it, as if she was alerting the police to her predicament. But it wasn't until I had the opportunity to interview Helena, to peek into her inner world, that I discovered the gem…

Helena: I grew up in a frum home in Miami Beach, Florida when Miami was a spiritual wasteland. There were few shuls and even fewer schools. The religious community was really spread out and it would be years before a "Bais Yaakov" would be established.  My father was not a practicing rabbi; he was a talmid chacham with semicha who made his parnassa as a sofer ST"M as well as a Chazzan on the Yomim Tovim. Born in Poland, he came to America as a young child between the two World Wars.

My mother's family left Germany in 1938, when my mom was about thirteen years old. It was really a miracle that they left when they did. The Gestapo arrested my grandfather on false charges and later released him. That brush with the Nazi regime was enough to convince him that they had better leave before it was too late. By that point Jews were not allowed to take anything with them, so leaving Germany meant losing everything. My grandfather's friends tried to convince him to stay. "Max," they said, "you have such a wonderful life here. Things will blow over. Why leave?" But thank G-d he didn't listen to them.

In Germany, my grandfather was a well-to-do businessman. In America, he lived in stark poverty. In those days it was almost impossible to find a job where one could keep Shabbos. Friday, when he'd tell his boss that he wouldn't be coming in the next day, he'd find himself without a job and have to start looking again on Monday.  Money was so tight that there were times when all they had to eat for lunch were sardines – one sardine each! As a teenager, I was shocked that, after having escaped Hitler, my grandparents, mother and uncles went through such a difficult ordeal in the land of religious freedom.

After graduating high school, I attended college, worked in a bank for a couple of years and then went to Sara Schneirer's Teacher's Seminary in Brooklyn. Back in Florida, I met my husband, Yehuda, when he had just gotten his Master's Degree from the University of Miami. We were married in l972, and made our home in North Miami Beach, where we joined Rav Zev Leff's community.

But although my husband loved the North Miami Beach community, he dreamed of moving to Eretz Yisrael. He wanted the children to have a different type of chinuch - purer, less tainted by the surrounding non-Jewish culture. So in December 1981, with five young children ranging in age from six months to eight years, we packed our bags (and boxes and suitcases and everything else) and made aliya. Rabbi Leff, founder and Mara D'asra of Moshav Matityahu, followed us a couple of years later.

The trip from Miami to Israel was exhausting. I had made arrangements to have a bulkhead seat – I had even phoned the airline on more than one occasion to reconfirm – but we were given regular seats instead, which made traveling with an infant extremely difficult. The baby screamed almost the entire trip because the air pressure gave him an earache. Meals were a nightmare. Try opening and eating those aluminum wrapped meals while holding a screaming child.

Before making aliya we did a lot of research into all the things a new immigrant should know. A couple of days before we left, our Jewish Agency shaliach phoned to tell us that there would be another family making aliya on our plane, a non-religious couple who really knew nothing about what they were getting themselves into. He asked us to befriend them and share our knowledge. So I duly went over to her to explain whatever I could. She was very appreciative.

At the airport, a Jewish Agency van came to take the other family to the Absorption Center, and left us to wait, and wait, and wait some more. Eventually the van returned from its trip to Jerusalem to bring us to our new home.

We later discovered that this "lovely" couple whom we had so graciously assisted, were missionaries, sent to Israel by Jews for J! One of the people at the Absorption Center overheard the husband talking on the phone about proselytizing the Russians. It was a huge shock. We knew that they were not religious, but we never imagined such a thing! After that, everyone at the Absorption Center made a point of having nothing to do with them until eventually they left.

Before we came to Israel, my husband told me that if I didn't like it we could always go back to America. The morning after our arrival I was so miserable that I was ready to take the next plane back. But I knew I'd have to wait at least another day; it was erev Shabbos and somehow I would have to make Shabbos!

On the other hand, my husband immediately fell in love with Israel. It was enough for him to just gaze at the Jerusalem skyline in the distance. I was less idealistic, but then again, I was the one dealing with all those kids!

I would have never made it if it weren't for the wonderful, compassionate people at the Absorption Center. Sadly enough, none of the people we were close with remained in Israel.

A few examples of their chessed: When we arrived in the middle of the night, exhausted from our trip and frustrated that we had been left stranded in the airport, one of the neighbors was waiting outside to greet us and show us the apartment where we'd end up living for the next two years. She even made the beds for us, set up a crib for the baby and filled the refrigerator with food.

I had visited Israel before. But there's no comparison between coming as a tourist and actually living in a country. It was the little things, such as someone coming in to teach us how to light the stove, that made all the difference. If it wasn't for that wonderful neighbor we'd probably be eating cold food today. 

The morning after our "grand entrance" a neighbor knocked on our door and asked, "What's with Shabbos?" As he began listing the things we'd need – soup, chickens, fish, challahs, cakes, etc., etc., I grabbed a pen and paper and began jotting everything down. Suddenly he stopped, looked up at me and said, "Mrs. Scholnick, what in the world are you doing?"

"I'm making a list of all the things I needed to prepare for Shabbos." I thought that was obvious!

"But Mrs. Scholnick," he continued, "you can't cook all that. You just arrived!" He apologized for not inviting us; one of his children was sick. So instead he drove my husband into Yerushalayim and helped him buy readymade food.

We made aliya in the winter, and that winter was a very, very cold one! For heating, all we had was a primitive kerosene heater. In order not to get carbon monoxide poisoning we had to keep a window open, so I really wonder how much good it did. We also had a few electric blankets that we had brought with us from America. But if we moved around under it, it would overheat and be a fire hazard. So the only way to use it was to lie completely immobile, which was not exactly conducive to falling asleep.

Debbie: I don't think I was ever as cold as my first winter in Israel. I was used to overheated American homes. But in those days few Israeli apartments had central heating, and for those that did, the furnace was only on for a few short hours each day.  I would dress for bed as if I was setting out on an excursion to Antarctica – long underwear, wool hat, the works.  It took a good few years for my body to adjust to the under-heated Israeli homes, and now, when I visit America in the winter, I find myself automatically opening windows to let in the cool air.

Helena: We also didn't have our own washing machine – imagine, five kids and no washing machine! I'd shlepp the clothes, rain or shine (and it rained a lot that year) across the grass to the laundry room. Our apartment had a tiny kitchen with no oven. We were really roughing it.

Debbie: When I first came to Israel in 1971, the standard Israeli kitchen had a two burner gas stove and no oven. That was a real improvement on the primitive primus of the fifties. Since ovens were just becoming available most people baked in either a "Sir Pele" (known in English as a Wonder Pot, an angel cake pan with a lid and special adapter that was placed on top of the stove), or a box oven that was also placed on top of the stove. I baked delicious round challos and cakes in that funny contraption.

Helena: My husband has an MA in Operation Research, which applies mathematical technique and efficiency methods to improve business performance. In Miami, he had been really into it; he taught at the University of Miami, and was constantly writing papers and articles. After we moved to Israel, he found a position where he worked the second shift. That way he was able to spend the morning, when his mind was fresh, learning Torah. Then, in the afternoon, a company taxi would pick him up and bring him to the office, where he'd work until nine at night. Eventually he decided to leave his job to learn full time. It was a big decision for us. The company that he was working for was shocked that he would do such a thing. And of course for us it meant a drastic cut in our standard of living. But the benefits far outweighed the difficulties.

Just a funny side note: one morning I received a call from my husband's secretary. "Mrs. Scholnick," she began, "we're waiting for your husband to come to the yeshiva." Being a new Olah, I didn't realize that in the world of commerce "yeshiva" refers to a business meeting, and insisted that my husband was presently at the yeshiva! It took a good few minutes until we were able to straighten that one out.

I made a lot of funny mistakes before I was able to speak Hebrew properly. One time when I was out shopping with the children I wanted to buy them drinks at a small kiosk. I knew that "shtiya" means drink, so it seemed obvious that "shtuyot" (which means stupidity) would be the plural. So I asked for "Shtey shtuyot" (two portions of stupidity).

Debbie: I made one of my biggest Hebrew bloopers trying to get from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Since the next bus was scheduled to leave in half an hour (not like today, when the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv bus leaves every five minutes) I decided to try my luck with a sherut, a van service. I asked the burly Israeli at the information desk (you know the type, with the open buttons displaying a hairy chest and a sour expression on his face), "Slicha, eifo hasherutim?" "Excuse me, where are the sherutim? (which means bathrooms)." Without even looking up from the sports pages, he pointed to a set of stairs. I obediently followed his directions, but all I found at the bottom of the stairs were the public bathrooms (which was another scene. It cost about 25 agurot to enter. In return, the lady in charge would hand you a few sheets of fourth-rate toilet paper. What a job!). I returned to the information desk and told the man, "Hasherutim lo sham" "The sherutim are not there!" Without even looking up from the paper he mumbled, "Hem sham geveret" "They are there, geveret." But they weren't. Finally after repeating this conversation three or four times I blurted out in frustration, "But it's urgent! I need to travel to Tel Aviv!" In total disgust, the man looked up from his sports page, heaved himself out of his chair and accompanied me to the public bathroom. "You see, they are here," he said.

I quickly disappeared.

Helena: "We moved from the Absorption Center to a Sochnut-subsidized rental apartment in the then brand-new neighborhood of Ramot Beit. We were one of the first families to move into our building. The adjacent chareidi neighborhood of Ramot Gimmel was still in the planning stage and Ramot Polin was only a couple of years old. I was thrilled to be leaving the Absorption Center and moving into my own home!

But we were not happy there. Most of the neighbors were not religious and the neighborhood was not conducive for raising a Torah-true family. Two years later we decided to move.

My husband and I drove across the highway to Ramot Daled, which was still in the construction stage, to see if there were any available apartments. We parked in front of a newly-built apartment building. Still sitting in the car I looked down the street and then turned to my husband. "You know," I began, "This is a nice street and I really like this building. This is where I'd like to live."

But nothing was available. Eventually we found an apartment in Sanhedria Murchevet that we wanted to buy, but when my husband went to the real estate office to conclude the deal, the office was closed. So he did something so uncharacteristic of himself that it was obviously Hashem's doing; he entered a nearby pizza parlor. On the bulletin board was a small advertisement for an apartment for sale in Ramot. He jotted down the number and stuck the paper in his pocket.

Back home, he phoned about the apartment and was told that it was in the same building that -- less than a year ago -- I had told my husband that that was where I would like to make our home. It was like a shidduch; we intuitively knew that it was our "beshert" and bought it. Baruch Hashem we've been living here for twenty-two years. When we first moved in the trees in front of my building were tiny saplings. Today, they are tall and full of birds.

Debbie: We were one of the first families to move to Ramot Polin, when Ramot was really "remote," a small yishuv in the middle of nowhere! When people heard that I was actually planning to live there, they looked at me askance and asked, "Why are you going to such an out-of-the-way place? It's in the middle of nowhere."

Ramot was planned as a bastion of Jerusalem's secular community. Instead, thanks to an amazing incident of hashgacha pratis, it has become a stronghold of Torah and chessed.

It all began in the late '70s, when award-winning avant-garde architect Tzvi Hecker designed a housing development consisting, as he put it, of "a cluster of prefabricated, hexagonal units that were stacked in a manner that made for intriguing geometries."  The Housing Ministry began construction of Hecker's housing development, which appeared to be several gigantic upside down egg cartons and was later known as Ramat Polin, on a hilltop adjacent to the newly created Ramot enclave (which in those days consisted of only eight or nine enormous apartment buildings, each with as many as seven or eight entrances). The apartments were put on the market – but not a single one was sold. With their sloping walls and strangely-shaped rooms, people viewed them as unlivable.

The government was left with an enormous "white elephant": over three hundred apartments that no one would dare to live in! That's when the tzedaka organization, Kollel Polin, entered the picture. Acting as a go-between between the government and the Chareidi public, they sold the apartments to homeless Israelis and new immigrants at substantially less than market price. People were thrilled to have a roof over their heads, even if the walls leaked (and some rooms had five leaky walls). Well, the neighbors were nice and everyone assumed that with time everything would be straightened out (in more ways than one) – which it was.

At the time I purchased my apartment I was a single mother raising three small children, working part-time and barely managing to put food on the table. I didn't even hear about the project until one morning at work a coworker mentioned that Kollel Polin was selling apartments in the not yet populated neighborhood of Ramot at prices far, far below market value.

Just a few days before an askan had offered to cover the cost of a down payment, which made buying an apartment an option. So that afternoon I arranged a babysitter for the children and stood in line, together with dozens of others, to wait for the opportunity to register for an apartment. I heard the men (yes, I was the only woman there) talking among themselves about the number of times they'd come to the office and the different documents they were asked to bring. I was the only one there for the first time.

It took several hours before I finally found myself standing opposite a clerk. He asked, "Is this your first time here?" I responded that yes, it was; he pointed to the open door, and informed me that all the apartments were taken. Then I did something that is so uncharacteristic of me that I really can't figure out how I had the guts to do it. I quickly closed the door behind me, turned to the clerk and said, "This is my only chance to buy an apartment. I'm a single mother with three small children, and I can't afford anything else. There are rabbonim helping me, but they can only give me a limited amount of money."

The clerk looked up from his papers, said, "Excuse me," and disappeared into an inner office. A few minutes later he returned and asked, "Do you have a teudat zacha'ut?" (A teudat zacha'ut is a document stating that one has rights to receive government financial assistance in purchasing an apartment. Since this was a subsidized government project, only people with a teudat zacha'ut could apply.)

"Not yet," I answered.

"Come back when you have one," he said, assuming that would be the last he'd see of me.

For the next three days I literally raced from one office to the next (including registering for the IDF to obtain a letter that I was ineligible to serve until my youngest turned eighteen!) I returned to the government housing authority with all the proper documents and received a signed letter stating that I was qualified to receive my teudat zacha'ut.

I went straight from the government housing authority to Kollel Polin to show the clerk my precious letter. "Come back tomorrow, same time," he said, before turning away to speak with someone else.

Again I decided that it was now or never. "Excuse me," I began. "I just spent three days running from one office to the next to get the document you asked for. During those three days I was not able to work. If I don't work I don't get a salary, and I need that money to buy food for my family. If you're serious, I'll come back tomorrow. But if you're just giving me the runaround, I'd rather you be honest with me so that I don't waste any more of my precious time."

The clerk looked at me as if I had just alighted from a spaceship coming from Mars. He excused himself and disappeared into the backroom. A few moments later he asked me to follow him inside where a group of men were seated.

 One of them, the head of Kollel Polin, turned to me and said, "We have several apartments available. We'd like to speak with the rabbi that's helping you." (Kollel Polin is a tzedaka organization. They had obviously set aside a few apartments for extremely needy families.) 

I immediately phoned the rebbetzin. She sent their young son with a note to the yeshiva where the rabbi was in the midst of delivering a shiur. He read the note, excused himself, jumped in his car and came straight to the office to discuss the financial details with the heads of Kollel Polin. Thanks to his mesirus nefesh for chessed, I was zocheh to purchase my first apartment.

That first apartment was a true miracle. Baruch Hashem I later remarried and moved, together with my husband and our six young children, into a much larger apartment in the same neighborhood. We had over twenty-five wonderful years there, a real gift from Hashem.

Helena: My husband's parents made aliya in 1984. After my father-in-law passed away, my mother-in-law started phoning us at all sorts of crazy hours of the day and night. It wasn't long before we noticed other signs of Alzheimer's. Eventually the situation deteriorated to such an extent that we realized she could not stay home alone and brought her to live with us.

At first, my mother-in-law was able to get around by herself. Although she'd occasionally lose touch with reality and say something odd, we were still able to have meaningful conversations. But it was all downhill after she fell and was confined to her bed.

Today she's like a baby; she doesn't recognize us, moans a lot and can't even sit up by herself. A woman comes in to help for a few hours a day, but the rest of the time it's just us. We are very careful that she gets balanced meals and that her physical needs are taken care of. Recently we brought a renowned geriatric specialist in to exam her. He told us that it is rare for him to see an elderly person receive such excellent care.

Before my mother-in-law came to live with us, I used to volunteer once a week at a nursing home in Geula. But now I have the opportunity to do this extra chessed at home. Instead of being just another patient in a nursing home, cared for by total strangers, the entire family has the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah.

Debbie: It's frightening to watch a person with Alzheimer's completely lose his sense of self and his connection with the world around him. In the earliest stages of her disease, my mother was aware of what was happening to her and would desperately try to cover up her lack of short-term memory. Eventually she became a shell of her former self, an infant in an adult's body.

Whenever I'd go to visit her, I'd wheel her outside to the garden or to an abandoned hallway and begin singing. Although she couldn't speak and had no idea who I was, she was able to sing, even remembering the words to all the old songs. It was pure neshama.

I was once sitting with her in the dining room and overheard a poignant conversation taking place between a very well-kept elderly woman - with manicured nails, immaculate makeup and perfectly-dyed hair swept up into a bun – and a curled-up shell of a man with lifeless eyes. "Honey," she said, patting his hand and looking deep into his eyes for a spark of recognition, "this is Pat, your wife." He looked blankly at her. "Remember the first time we met. I was just sixteen, you were all of eighteen. I thought you were the handsomest boy in school, and all the girls were jealous of me…" She desperately searched for a spark of recognition, but he continued to stare blankly ahead. As the one-sided conversation continued, I slid out of my chair and wheeled my mother outside to the garden. I didn't want to be a spectator to such pain.

When my sister phoned to tell me that my mother had passed away, I felt a sense of closure rather than of sadness or loss. I had already lost my mother; she had been taken away from us in tiny increments.

Helena: I've always enjoyed acting and have had a part in most of the Neshei Ramot plays. Working together with such talented women was a unique experience, one that I will always remember.e very talented women of NeI really enjoyed working together with the other women. The achdus was incredible. When we first started producing these plays there was very little kosher entertainment available. Today the situation is very different. Our plays were real shoestring operations. We literally had to yell our parts because the loudspeaker system was not sufficient to pick up our voices. But the acting was phenomenal, and the audience felt that they were having a part of the fun up on stage.

I've recently taken up writing. I'm trying to find my own niche and am focusing on subjects that people usually don't write about. When I'm sitting opposite my computer, writing, the hours seem to fly. I get tremendous satisfaction from my writing. It's an expression of my creativity, a way of bringing of myself to others.

One of the big problems with today's world is that we are so connected to our telephones and computers that we don't have time or energy to really relate to other people. We need to be sensitive to others; to say hello and ask about the other person's welfare, and then care enough to listen to the answer, even if we're extremely busy and feel as if we're running one long marathon. Of course that takes time and effort, but it's well worth it. After all, isn't that what it's all about?

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