Rachelle’s Story: When A Nation Unites
THIS PROFILE IS BROUGHT TO THE LAYERS PROJECT MAGAZINE THROUGH A PARTNERSHIP WITH MATAN, IN HONOR OF THEIR 30TH-YEAR ANNIVERSARY DINNER CHOL HAMOAID SUKKOT 2019, IN JERUSALEM.
(1/6) Who We Are
“For me, Torah came from my home during my upbringing. I have amazing parents and I feel privileged in many ways. They gave me the gift of making aliyah before I was born. They came in the mid-’50s, and my father was here for the first opening day of Bar Ilan University.
It is strange to think that my father was actually a refugee. Born in Vienna, he escaped to Switzerland and then France. He was on the Kindertransport and ended up in London during the Blitz. He came to New York while the Atlantic was still filled with Nazi submarines. What was amazing, was that living as refugees, my grandparents made sure that my father and his siblings continued to learn and continue their education wherever they were. He came to New York at 14 years old and spent the next ten years before his aliyah educating himself. At 24 he had earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry and semicha from Rav Soloveitchik. For him, Zionism was Jewish common sense. Jews had a sovereign state in Eretz Yisrael, and that is where we should be.
My mother was born in Czechoslovakia, and she came to America when she was five. My mother grew up in a Chassidic family, and her father was a Rebbe. She didn’t grow up with Zionisitic ideas, but when she married my father she said she was willing to give it a try. Being the icon of life and optimism that she is, she made it work.
So my parents made aliyah in 1955, many years before I was born. They gave me the gift of being born here, of raising me here and giving me the opportunity to raise my own children here. I meet people who make aliyah and I have tremendous respect for their choice to move here. It is very hard to deal with the bureaucracy, the changes, the Israeli mentality, the language adjustment. I tell them: as difficult as it is for you now, you are giving your children the greatest gift.
Israel is our homeland and our holy land. It is the place where a Jew feels the most whole. Whether you are living here or the Diaspora, if you feel connected to this place, what happens here is your business. You have a share in it. Of course, we felt it most when tragedy touched our lives, the whole of world Jewry reacted with fervor and unity that we had not seen in a generation.
In 2014, my son Naftali was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists and was missing along with Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaer, for eighteen days. Eighteen days later, we discovered that they had been murdered shortly after the kidnapping. This event led to a ripple effect that shook our nation. There was a human aspect to the event that touched people in a powerful way, and then there was a deep Jewish side to it, that brought people together. In times of tragedy human beings tend to come together. The fact that we all defined the abduction of three children as a Klal Yisrael emergency, I think is unique to our people. It reflects who we are as a people, and is not something to be taken for granted.
The things that we are capable of in times of emergency, reflect on something intrinsic to who we are. It shines a light onto our essence at our core.”
“It is surprising how much control you have over your thoughts in times of tragedy. There are so many dark places you can go in your mind:
Are they going insane?
Are they separated?
Are they together?
Are they in a pit?
Are they in pain?
You learn very quickly not to go there; the places that drink all your energy and where oxygen is sucked out from your lungs. Where you feel like you might lose your mind. It is like touching electricity, you don’t do it twice. Surprisingly, you have a lot of power over your thoughts.
Most days were very intensive and we were constantly busy. Still, I remember that every day that went by I was bothered by the thought that it would be the first time that he ever missed putting on his tefillin. Considering the circumstances, it was a ridiculous thought, but I remember it really bothered me.
During the shiva, a Rav from America came to visit us. His community sent him to be menachem avel, and on the plane, the stewardess was making small talk, and he told her that he was being sent to come see us. She was very moved by the fact that he was coming and mentioned it to a few other passengers. A discussion started and a person sitting next to him from a non-observant background announced that he wanted to lay tefillin for the first time since his bar mitzvah, in memory of our sons.
A Satmar Chasid who was sitting next to him said, ‘If you are going to do this mitzvah, give me your address and I will have tefillin delivered to your home.’ A set of tefillin is very expensive, and it was a very generous offer. When the Rav came to the shiva, the first thing he said to me was, ‘You know, in Hebrew, Naftali is the same letters as tefillin.’ It had never occurred to me that this was the case. In my grieving, my next thought was, ‘Wow, he never missed a day of tefillin!’ All considered, it was a strange thought, but there was some comfort to it. By then I had learned that my son had been murdered within three minutes. All the days we were praying for their safe return, they had already been killed.
There is an Aggadata in the Tractate Brachot, that says – in our tefillin it is written, ‘Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.’ Hashem is one. The Aggadata asks, ‘What does it say on Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s tefillin?’ because they offer us an image of God also donning tefillin. It answers, ‘Mi kiamcha Yisrael, Goy Achad Baaretz’- who is like you Israel, one nation in the land! The Aggadata proclaims: you (Am Yisrael) announce I am One in the world, I (Hashem) will unify all of you to one unit.
It all comes together. There was something intrinsic from within that brought our whole people together. It reminded us that underneath the piles of metaphoric mud, dust, and insult, that there is a true fraternity. We felt it in the most personal way. In our grieving, we were overwhelmed by that connection and unity.”
(3/6) “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
“It started Thursday night when we realized that Naftali was missing. Within a couple of days, my husband Avi was saying, ‘Look at what is going on in Israel and around the world right now- we must go out and thank everybody.’ So we did; we shared our gratitude for their prayers and efforts to find our sons.
There was an IDF negotiation team who was living alongside us during the time that our sons were missing. From their professional point of view, the immediate family should not speak directly to the media. Often the family of a hostage can be manipulated, not only by the media but also by the enemy. For us, it was very important that we go out and speak. It was about a tremendous debt of gratitude and being together with our people in a time of personal and national crisis.
I could speak for hours about the ways that people reached out to us and showed their care. They made us feel helped, kept, and surrounded by love and prayer. I have a healthy appreciation for cynicism. My son had a very cynical sense of humor. But I lost the ability to be cynical about the ‘hug’ that Am Yisrael is capable of giving when they choose.
‘Shuvu Achim’ was the name of the operation to find our sons. The official name in English was ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper.’ In the Torah, it is posed as a negative rhetorical question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ In naming this mission, Am Yisrael gave an answer. Yes! we are all responsible for each other.
After the resulting war in the Summer of 2014, Operation Protective Edge, we only began to pick up our heads from mourning. It became clear to us where we needed to dedicate our energies. So we became involved in projects that focused on unity, like The Jerusalem Unity Prize and Unity Day, a project that expanded to 40 countries around the world.
We often think about how to maintain that unbelievable sense of unity in our everyday lives. Life moves on, and moments of unity are there to inspire and show us what we are capable of.
One of my passions is my work at Matan as the Director of Hilkhata, the Advanced Institute of Halakhic Studies in Jerusalem. We spend a lot of time in the Beit Midrash, and one of the things you learn to appreciate when you are studying Gemara, is makhloket, disagreement or dispute.
There is a story about Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish. In its end, Rav Yochanan loses his chavruta. As the top scholar, who compiled the Talmud Yerushalmi, it was a tremendous personal and intellectual blow. He ‘totally lost it.’ His friends amongst the sages feel sorry for him, so they recruited the most brilliant student in the Yeshiva to become his new study partner. Whenever Rav Yochanan has an idea, his chavruta would bring a brilliant proof to show that he is right. Rav Yochanan says to him, ‘are you like Reish Lakish? When he was around, he would bring 24 different refutes to my argument to prove I am wrong.’
I imagine them arguing passionately and perhaps loudly to come to the right answer. That is how Torah grows. The story ends with the line, ‘You don’t think I know that I am right? Of course, I am right.’ It is not about mellow dispassionate disagreement. It is about lively intense conversations for the sake of discovering truths and the strong belief that arguing them through, and clarifying them, is a responsibility bestowed to us from the heavens.
Unity does not contradict makhloket. But we need to do so with respect and with decency. The incentive to engage in a conversation where we disagree is that we value our counterpart as a person, and we value what we may learn from the other, as we disagree. We might wish our opinions were closer, but in fact, we don’t really want the other to disappear, these are the people we need to keep building our people and our community together.
People are discouraged when they feel in everyday life, that the fabric of what binds us is disintegrating. That there is no longer enough in common to keep us together as a people. The underlying unifying factors can get buried. But our avodah, our work, is to practice basic levels of respect to one another, of fraternity and sisterhood. An acknowledgment that we need everyone to fill in the full colors of Am Yisrael, to its full vibrancy. In utopia, we are all different and have something unique to contribute.
Experiences like the summer of 2014 unearthed a reminder that at the core of our humanity and a deep sense of family identity keeps us the same. I was told by many people of moments in that summer where Jews of every denomination, affiliation, and designation stood together in rallies and prayer services to pray for our boys to come home. They say: the elders of our communities say they have not seen an event bring the community together like this in decades. maybe since the liberation of Jerusalem, over 50 years ago.
Having personally experienced this kind of unity and been the recipient of that kind of love, I can tell you:
What we share at our core is solid and real, and should give us the ability to surpass everything else.”
(4/6) “Be Flexible”
“People are very varied. We each have our own toolbox of choices when we come up against grief. There is no proper way to deal with it, as it is a very personalized experience. After experiencing my own grief over the last five years, I have gotten to know so many other families who had lost someone dear to them. No one dare be judgmental about someone else’s style or choices during grief.
I can only say what works for me. In Israel, when a tragedy happens and a person comes to a shiva house, oftentimes that person will put their hand on your shoulder and look you in the eye and say, ‘Tehiyu Chazakim’- you should be strong. Now when I go to a shiva house of a tragedy, I whisper, ‘Al Tehiyu Chazakim, Tehiyu Gmishim’- Don’t be strong, be flexible.
It means make room in your life for the sorrow and the pain. But also for the joy and the blessing and for the full spectrum of human experience.
A person may choose to take a bucket of black paint and spill it over their lives. I am not judgmental of anyone who makes this choice. I truly understand. But for me, I feel it would be a great ingratitude for the tons of blessing in my life. My mantra is, ‘I can feel pain, I don’t have to become my pain. I can feel sorrow, I don’t have to become my sorrow.’
In my inner landscape, there are so many more dreams and disappointments and successes and failures and talents and blessings. There is a full world inside me.
If you take a photograph and you focus your lens solely on the pain, that is what will fill up your frame. But if you use a wider lens, your pain will be still be in the image but you also get a wider range and larger picture. It will also include the blessings and the joys. You don’t leave grief behind, you take it with you. Sherri Mandell says: it’s not about overcoming it’s about becoming.”
(5/6) “Our Boys”
“Oftentimes when people sit shiva they have stories of stupid things that people chose to say to them. I don’t have those types of stories. When someone stops me in the street to tell me something about how they connect to the loss of Naftali, I feel they have the right to share that with me. We went through something together. They earned the right to feel this grief too.
People felt the loss of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali so personally. They said to us, ‘It is not only your child, he is our child too.’ People were highly identified with the whole journey. The fact that initially there was hope, gave people the space to open up. People don’t often open their hearts and souls to lost causes. It is too painful. Here, there was true hope that things could be OK. That is one of the reasons when we discovered that they had been murdered, the wave of grief that rippled through our nation was so intense.
We also are a very family-oriented culture. Our children are our worlds. They represent the present and the future and we invest everything we have into their wellbeing and success in life. It was easy to identify those boys as, ‘Our boys.’ They truly were.
When it comes to the issue of ‘Pidyon Shvuyim’ of redeeming captives, it is in our DNA since the time of Avraham and Lot, and all the way through Jewish history. When one of ours is captured, we will turn the world upside down to get them back.
Altogether, it created a powerful dynamic.
I met this woman in Toronto who told me a short and relatively undramatic story. She told me that when the bad news came, her husband called her and told it to her on the phone. She was home alone and felt sick over it, and she just ran outside looking for someone. Afterward, she reflected, ‘What was I doing running outside like that?’ She understood that in times like that you want to be with family. Any arbitrary pair of Jewish eyes on the street, no matter their denomination, was family.
She said that realization was a life-changing moment for her.
I just heard from Bat Galim that during that summer, that a friend of theirs would travel to the states wearing a cap on top of his kippah. On a specific flight, he spent a long time praying for the boys. When he got off the flight he opened his phone and got the terrible news that we had received confirmation that our boys had been killed. He couldn’t hold himself back and in the middle of the airport, he stood and cried bitterly. Out of nowhere, a stranger came over, another Jew in a cap, and hugged him. They wept together.
Hearing stories like this reminds me of how we all belong to each other. Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal are your sons, your brothers, your friends.”
(6/6) “A Beit Midrash Of Our Own”
“About a year after Naftali was killed we did an interview, and the journalist turned to my husband and asked, ‘Did you learn anything new about your wife during this ordeal?’ He replied, ‘Nah.’ I would have said the same thing about him. We are the same people that we were before.
Professionally, I am still passionate about the same things and now it has a greater scale and more exposure. It is the same work, just very intensive, with a wider reach. There is something very scary when your circle of influence extends beyond what you can conceptualize. If there is something amplifying what you say, you need to be a bit more careful to remember you are a simple person and continue to do your best.
I am a teacher of Torah because I love Torah. Halakha and learning was the basis of my home growing up. The boys learned Gemara at school and could use a classic Vilma Shas. When my sisters became Bat Mitzvah Rabbi Shteinzaltz started publishing his translated Talmud, so my father started buying a set for each of the girls, volume by volume. I think I had no idea how unusual it was at the time. By the time we were married, I had my own Shas.
When Matan opened the Talmudic Institution I was part of the first class. Typically what happens with these first classes, is that a need accumulates. When you acquire a certain level of Torah, you want more. A group of outstanding learners was dreaming that someone would offer them more. The Talmudic Institute at the time was opened at Matan to fill that need.
We just had our first graduating class of Hilkhata, The Institute for Advanced Halakhic studies at Matan. I am the Director of the program. These women had a very strong Torah background before they started Hilcheta. Most are graduates of other Matan programs. These are women who have been studying and teaching Torah intensely for ten to twenty-five years. We offer them a five-year course, three days a week. It is a Beit Midrash, and though the women came in with a very wide Torah and halacha knowledge, They graduated much more well rounded in their Halachic education. We learned Bassar vichalav, Personal status, Shabbat, Aveilut, Yom Tov and more. They have become an address for spiritual & halakhic issues, and true Nshot Torah. Promoting Torah observance in Midrashot, schools, and communities all over.
Baruch Hashem, the world of women’s Torah is growing and diversifying. Matan’s students are among those all over creating more Torah endeavors and opportunities for women.
The first graduating class I lead was made up of my peers. We created this program together. It was a product of collaborative leadership. They are amazing people who did not need much guidance. They went out into the work world and came back to learn more. This year we are starting our second class, and we are very excited about this new chapter.
Virginia Woolf says, ‘A woman needs a room of her own.’ To that same point, I believe a woman needs a Beit Midrash of her own, too. There you can find nourishment for love and passion for Torah. Where there is nourishment, we grow. When women are seeking, we need to create spaces for them to grow.
You get used to good things so easily. It is hard for me to imagine a world without this room of my own. I have had it for quite a few years. When someone walks into our Beit Midrash for the first time, I see what a discovery it is for them. So much could and is growing from here. It is full of the love of the Torah, and a place to unlock potential.
I remember the first time I walked into the building, I said to myself, ‘Someone thought that my Torah was worth this beautiful space?’ The investment in Torah for women, in a beautiful Beit Midrash for women, brings kavod and seriousness to the enterprise. The fact that we cater to adult education, provides for a mature and open learning experience. It is deeply satisfying work.
My family and my work fill my life with blessings. I will always carry the tragedy of losing my son, but I will not be defined by it.
I will continue to make space for growth, for Torah, and the whole gamut of the human experience.”
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Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.