an interview with Rochel Trugman
I recently ran into Rochel at a memorial evening held for a common friend of ours, Meira Burkey a"h. We sat in a circle and reminisced about the wonderful things that Meira had done with her life, and how, in her quiet and direct way she impacted so many people. It was one of those magical evenings spent meandering down memory lane, looking back with foggy, gold rimmed glasses on a world that was – at least in our memories. As always, Rochel's comments were sharp and sensitive and mirrored her rugged individuality.
Debbie Shapiro: Could you tell us about your background?
"I grew up south side Chicago in a postwar baby-boom neighborhood. Our family attended a conservative synagogue. The rabbi, Rabbi Eliot Einhorn, was from the 'old country.' He spoke with a thick European accent and couldn't relate to us young Americans. His daughter went to public school with me. I thought that she was extremely brave for refusing to sing goyishe songs before their holiday. I had one friend who kept kosher. When I was fifteen, I visited her during Pesach and was flabbergasted when I went into the kitchen. Everything was turned around for the holiday! There was a record of Jewish music playing on their HiFi that I really liked. It turned out to be Reb Shlomo Carlebach, who would later have a very strong impact on my life.
"In the sixties a non-Jewish friend and I traveled to
to seek the truth. We visited all sorts of interesting places -- missions,
cults, ashrams – in our search for emes. One of the stops along the way was a
Jewish commune called the House of Love and Prayer in California . Had anyone told me that it was
really a synagogue, I would have never step foot in the place! I remember walking
into the door and being warmly welcomed by Miriam Succot (today her husband is
a rav in San Francisco ).
It was time to light the Shabbos candles. She invited me to light one and helped
me make the bracha. Standing there, surrounded by all the other women lighting
their candles, I felt as if I had finally come home. Jerusalem
"The House of Love and Prayer, Reb Shlomo Carlebach's synagogue in
, was an odd mishmash of
spiritual seekers and nuts. The people who were looking for emes found it. Most
of us continued to grow in our Yiddishkeit. Some didn't. San Francisco
"After spending almost every Shabbos at the House of Love and Prayer, I was determined to move to
remember marching into the Israel aliya office, telling them that I wanted to
make aliya to Eretz Yisrael, to the holy city of San
Francisco . They tried to convince me to travel
there as a temporary resident, to see if I like it before taking such a drastic
step, but I was determined to make aliya. ' Jerusalem is the only place for a Jew
to live,' I insisted. 'I want to ascend to the Israel Holy Land.'
in the beginning of 1970. All
my friends came to the airport with their guitars, drums and tambourines to see
me off. It was very emotional; lots of
singing, hugging, dancing and tears. I was living the dream. I was on my way to
the Promised Land; I was ascending to San Francisco ,
the holy city! I was so young and idealistic – and naive. Jerusalem
"When I came to
entire Hebrew vocabulary consisted of just three words: 'ken,' 'lo' and 'shalom.
In the taxi that took me from the airport to Israel , I kept asking the driver how much
longer it would take before we arrive in Yerushalayim! That's when I learned my
fourth Hebrew word: savlanut (patience)! Jerusalem
"I found myself a small apartment near the center of
and attended every available English language shiur -- but there weren't very many.
One day Rabbi Refson, Neveh's founder and dean, drove up to my building in his little
motorcycle and asked me if I would be interested in attending the women's
yeshiva that he was starting. I jumped at the opportunity." Jerusalem
Debbie Shapiro: The following year, 1971, I came to Israel to attend Neveh Yerushalayim Seminary, which was then beginning its second year. But first had to go for an interview with the dean, Rabbi Refson. We arranged to meet in an office above Kikar Shabbos. He walked into the office carrying his motorcycle helmet! I was flabbergasted and whispered to a friend who had come with me, "I will not go to a school run by Hell's Angels!" Then I politely explained to the rabbi that instead of going to seminary that year, I had decided to volunteer on a kibbutz (that was the only excuse I could think of at the spur of the moment)! In the end, I attended Bais Yaakov Yerushalayim, today known as BJJ. As for the motorcycle, I soon discovered that motorcycles were a much more common mode of transportation than cars, and certainly not a sign of belonging to a fringe element.
Rochel: "The entire Neveh Yerushalayim campus consisted of one small top floor apartment in Bayit Vegan. We learned and ate in the living room; the bedrooms were the 'dorm.' After studying there for one year, I realized that as much as I loved the school, I needed to learn something that would prepare me to enter the Israeli job market. So I transferred to another seminary that issued a State recognized teaching degree.
"The first year in the new seminary I barely scraped by. The classes were in Hebrew. Although by then I knew a lot more than four words, I was still far from being fluent. The second year I did much better. At the end of the year I graduated with an official diploma.
"Armed with an official teaching degree, I found myself a job teaching art in the Israeli public school system. The children were from poor homes and very, very rough. Imagine, forty two kids, absolutely no art supplies; yet I was expected to teach art! But baruch Hashem by the time I left the job three years later, I was doing great. During this time I met my husband, Avraham Arieh, and we were married.
"My husband and I dreamed of living in a rural religious community. Someone told us of an abandoned Nachal settlement that belonged to Poalei Agudath Yisrael [PAI]. They were looking for a garin, a seed group, to establish a moshav there. The moshav (which we later called Moshav Meor Modiin, because the Amshinover Rebbe, Rav Meir Kalish ztz"l, blessed us with hatzlacha and bracha) was located in the middle of nowhere, not far from the old Jordanian border. Six (!) different seed groups had tried to settle there before us – and had failed.
"We were a group of seven idealistic American couples – dreamy eyed and with almost no practical experience. We moved to our new home – a barren plot of land -- in the summer of 1976. Originally Moshav Meor Modiin was founded as a moshav shitufi, a cooperative moshav, which is similar to a kibbutz in that everyone owns everything, yet different in that families receive a monthly paycheck to use as they see fit (eventually we privatized). Most people assumed that we'd last just a few months. Thirty two years later, the Moshav is flourishing!
"Today Moshav Meor Modiin, bordering the newly built city of
and just minutes from Kiryat Sefer, is centrally located. But when we settled
there, it was extremely isolated. We were an hour and a half drive from Modiin . All around us
were mountains covered with lush forests. What is today the major
Jerusalem-Modiin highway was nothing more than a rarely used two lane country
lane. We did our weekly shopping in the Lod shuk, winding our way between the
vendors selling camels and sheep! Jerusalem
"We wanted to create a place where we could invite the whole world to taste the beauty of Torah. We wanted to dance and sing, and recreate the atmosphere of
's House of
Love and Prayer, only here, in Eretz Yisrael, it would be centered around
families and children, and everything would be according to halacha." San Francisco
Debbie Shapiro: While writing up this interview, I did some research on the moshav and wanted to share this tidbit, taken from Moshav Meor Modiin's official website, with my readers. "… The very next day he hitched a ride to Modi'in. When he reached Gimzo Junction he waited an hour for a ride, hut no cars passed, so he walked the last five miles."
"The families with children were given small, two room houses that were built like bunkers to withstand Jordanian bombs. We were housed in a tiny one bedroom (if you could call it that!) caravan. There were no gardens and only few trees, but if you were come today, you would never believe it -- the moshav is lush with greenery, most of which we planted ourselves! At night, we were entertained by the jackals howling in the surrounding woods. But after we convinced the Jewish Agency to purchase electric guitars for us, we made enough noise to frighten them off."
Debbie: The Jewish Agency purchased electric guitars for you? That's amazing!
"The Jewish Agency was a bit shocked at our request for electric guitars. Most moshavs requested things like tractors or help in building factories, not musical instruments! The Jewish Agency had purchased a plastic bag factory for the previous garin. But we were all American hippies cum baalei teshuva and into health food and ecology. We couldn't imagine devoting our lives to producing something as mundane as plastic bags, although tractors would have been helpful for growing our organic vegetables! Eventually the plastic bag factory was converted into a whole wheat flour mill, as part of our health food industry.
"It took some persuading on our part until the Jewish Agency was finally convinced that we were really going to use the guitars to support ourselves, and not just to have fun. Once we had the guitars, we opened a band, Modiin' L'Simcha and started playing for schools and weddings and performing at concerts. We succeeded in our goal of spreading simcha and Yiddishkeit, while supporting ourselves at the same time. In addition to playing music and producing granola, we also tilled the land. We planted avocado and apricot trees and grew wheat. We worked hard, but we were young and idealistic. I felt like a pioneer. I had changed from an idealistic hippy to an idealistic yet tough pioneer woman.
"In 1977, the Moshav started working with youth groups, hosting them for one day programs. Although we did not have the space or facilities to house and feed groups for overnight or Shabbat programs, in the winter we hosted programs in the community's shul and dining room.
In 1984 the Moshav opened the Meor Modiin's Medrasha L'Yahudut, which worked with all sorts of groups all year round. My husband was the Medrasha's director. Our programs were extremely successful, with over 5,500 participants annually. But in 1989, with the beginning of the 'Intifada', youth group tourism virtually came to a halt, and the Medrasha ceased to function.
"When the Medrasha closed down, my husband and I decided to go to the States for a few years to work in kiruv. Avraham Arieh got a position in
, opening a new NCSY
(National Council of Synagogue Youth, the OU's official youth group) region.
Originally we were planning to stay there for just three years, but when my
in-laws had health problems we realized that we couldn't leave and remained for
seven years. Denver,
"The intermarriage rate in
is seventy percent!
We battled that by creating an orthodox social network for Jewish teenagers,
hopefully inspiring them to become more committed Jews. We organized
Shabbatons, picnics, outings, roller skating parties, weekly Torah classes,
retreats, you name it! We also taught Torah classes in the public schools. Denver
"Baruch Hashem, we had a lot of success. Many of the kids in our group became completely shomer mitzvos. We had one girl who lived an hour and a half drive from
. Her parents wanted her to have Jewish
friends and drove her into Denver
for all our activities. She was very popular and became regional president.
Today she lives not far from Denver ,
and is part of Zichron Yaakov's flourishing yeshiva community. Haifa
"When we returned to
I went back to school -- Neveh Yerushalayim, my alma mater from twenty five
years ago! I enrolled in Neveh's counselor program and got my master's degree
in clinical sociology. As part of my course of study, we were supposed to
choose a mentor to guide us. I had read Rabbi Pliskin's books and heard him
teach at our college outreach programs here in Israel . Each time I was inspired
anew, so sought him out and asked him to be my mentor. When I graduated, he gave
me permission to do workshops based on his writings." Israel
Debbie Shapiro: How has learning counseling changed your life?
"It taught me to be a better listener, to be less judgmental and more compassionate of others.
"My husband and I were hired to start a college outreach program called VISA and now we run our own program called Ohr Chadash. I like to joke that we graduated from high school – working with the NCSY high school students – to college! Since we started our college outreach in 1995 we have worked with over 25,000 college students.
Our Shabbatons and classes include lots of soulful singing and moving story telling. After our students return 'home' we keep in touch with them through email. Approximately 5,000 people on our email list receive divrei Torah on a regular basis. In addition we have a website,
www.thetrugmans.com that provides audio classes on many topics including parshat hashavua. An overwhelming majority of the kids we touch end up becoming more religious. They also become part of our extended family.
"Every year our alumni in the
arrange for my husband and I to lecture and give Shabbatons there. This coming
Fall we're running programs in United States , Washington
Stanford, Connecticut , Boston and near Denver . We get
tremendous naches in seeing the strides that our students have made. Many have
become Torah observant. Chicago
"We currently run a home hospitality program. Most Shabbosim we have between twenty five to thirty guests. There's lots of singing and dancing, good food, and connecting. People know that our home is a great place to be for Shabbos! Sometimes I feel that we should sell printed T-shirts saying, 'I've spent Shabbos at the Trugmans.' Some of our guests love it so much that they come back hundreds of times."
Debbie Shapiro: How do you cope with all the physical work?
Rochel: Like Jewish women throughout the world, I start early. Wednesday is for shopping, Thursday for baking and Friday for cooking. A girl comes on Friday to do the cleaning.
"I cannot tell you how much I get from working with these kids. I feel that the neshomos we have touched are our extended family, and their children are my grandchildren! Sometimes, years later our students and guests just pop in unexpectedly – we're family, after all – to introduce us to their spouses and children. Each time I am moved anew.
"One time one of our former Denver NCSY kids showed up at our front door with his wife and three kids. He had just moved to Moshav Chashmonaim, a religious settlement near Kiryat Sefer. The last time we saw him he was eighteen years old and his father was dying in a hospice. We did our best to get him through that rough period.
"We've also made a lot of shidduchim. One young woman who came to us was about to get engaged to a non-Jew in
In desperation, her parents sent her to America , hoping that she'd find
someone Jewish here and forget about her non-Jewish boyfriend. She met a young
man at one of our programs -- and the rest is history! Today, she's married, religious,
and living in Eretz Yisrael." Israel
Debbie Shapiro: It sounds like you and your husband have really grown over the years, and are using your unique talents to impact people. How as the moshav changed during the last thirty two years?
Rochel: "It's much more beautiful! The children, and the trees, are grown. We're still a small rural community with only forty families. Most of our members are from the
with a sprinkling of Israelis. A lot of artists and musicians live here. United States
"Obviously in the last thirty two years we've matured. Religiously, our members are much more mainstream than they were then, and certainly more halachically observant. We're growing and changing, and hope to continue to grow and change."