Tova’s Story: Finding My Inner Strength
(1/6): Seeds For The Future
“It all started when I was living in New Jersey. I was a teacher and a camp director. On the outside, I portrayed a respectable, successful, and confident woman- but within I didn’t feel those things about myself. I felt like I had to put on a show. My insecurities made me feel like someone was going to ‘discover the truth about me.’ I had a bad case of imposter syndrome- I felt as if I didn’t belong as the head of a classroom or an entire camp. I had so much inner self-doubt.
One day an incredible idea entered my mind that I should be living in Israel. So my family and I decided to move. The minute I got off that plane, I felt different. I knew that being positive in all aspects of our aliyah would help my kids in their transition. The positivity rubbed off on me too. A seed of confidence was planted- it didn’t happen overnight. But my life was about to change drastically.
After about seven weeks of living in Jerusalem and getting my three kids all settled in school, not working yet, I was bored. I felt like I wanted to do something productive and worthy with my time. So I started volunteering at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, and I never in my wildest dreams would have thought that I would be placed in the baby nursery.
I had desperately wanted more children for a long time, but it wasn’t the right time. Now my job was to watch as brand new mothers came into the nursery with their beautiful babies. It was my job to take care of them and be a part of their simcha. When I would hold those babies, it would hurt me because of what I felt I was missing. I worked in the hospital for seven months and then decided to leave because it was becoming too painful. Every day it was a reminder of what I wanted.
I left with the excuse that I needed to take an ulpan course, but the truth is that I learned to speak Hebrew fluently while working in the hospital. I went to ulpan for one day and then left after the first two hours because I was pretty much fluent. I had no idea how this whole experience would prepare me for my future.”
2/6): “Finding Tova Again”
“Looking for more work, I was blogging as ‘Tova in Israel,’ had a weekly slot on a radio show on The Nachum Segal Network, and was making exciting videos for The Israel Video Network. In all my radio interviews and my videos, I was focusing on positivity in relation to living in Israel. At the time, on social media, there was a lot of complaining and negativity about aliyah and I wanted to portray the beautiful parts of the life that I was discovering here. I started giving tours of the shuk and my schedule was filling up with daily Shuk Experiences. I was building something for myself that I really felt proud of and I was discovering a wellspring of inner confidence.
At the same time, it was time for me to get divorced after 15 years of marriage. It was right before I turned 36, my double chai birthday.
It was a very fast process and I got my gett the day before my birthday. I got a heter to take off my wig and I was ready to find myself again. By taking the wig off, I was free to rediscover who I was all over again. My brother asked me, ‘Who are you? Find Tova again.’ He was right.
When I was home, I wouldn’t take care of myself the way one should. I wasn’t cooking for myself or prioritizing my needs. I didn’t put myself first and I was prioritizing everyone’s needs before mine. I was always last on my list.
That needed to change. And I was ready to work on it.”
(3/6): “God’s Plans”
“I didn’t date much before I got married at 20. So in this second stage, I felt like I needed to meet other people to learn more about different kinds of relationships. I didn’t feel like I needed to get married again. I didn’t need to, but I wanted to.
I met my future husband, Betzalel, five months after my divorce. I say, ‘When Hashem sends you a present, you don’t say no.’ After a few dates we were sitting together and I could not believe how perfect we were for each other. It was a choice that I was making, to be ready for a new relationship. I had to prepare myself to find happiness in a relationship with him. He has a very calm and sweet demeanor. But I discovered that that was who he was through and through, and it became apparent in his relationships with his soldiers.
As an IDF Rabbi, Betzalel connects with hundreds of soldiers who call him for advice and support. Sometimes we would be in the car together and I would hear his conversations. I knew he wasn’t putting on a show for me, because he had to be authentic with them- otherwise they would know that something wasn’t quite right. He spoke to them with respect and kindness. He also shared with me that he donated a kidney- and told me that it didn’t matter to him who would receive it – he just wanted to give the gift of life to another human being.
I knew he was the one for me.
Betzalel has six kids and our divorces finalized at about the same time. There was a plan for us and the life that we were meant to build together.”
(4/6): “Blessings of a Blended Family”
“In our first conversation, Betzalel told me that he had six children. I told him that I loved that and that as a mother, teacher, and camp director I have lots of experience with children! I was totally open and excited at the thought of us blending our combined nine children into our new marriage. He told me that at that moment his eyes were opened- who was this woman who was ready to take on all this responsibility?
We put in a lot of effort and patience to blend our families together. We combined American and Israeli cultures together in our home; with new rules and expectations. We focused on positivity and the good, for all the different ages of our kids. At first, we used a prize chart to encourage all the kids to help out in the house, but now we don’t need it anymore and have adjusted to a smooth rhythm. They don’t need the prizes anymore to be helpful or thoughtful around the house. After a full day of work, I come home and make dinner and next day school lunches for nine kids, when they are all home, and it can be exhausting. But the moments I get hugs, or a text, or a note of gratitude saying, ‘Thank you for everything you do for us!’ it is the best feeling.
It’s been a little over a year of being a family and we have come so far together. Now when the kids are kvetching or fighting with each other, we joke that it’s a great sign. They have very strong connections with each other. There is always a birthday party or event to celebrate, with so many children.
On Chanukah, we went on a trip together as a family and when we came home they all gave us a present with lots of little thank you notes of love. Those moments fill us with gratitude for our blended family.
Some Shabbatot there are eleven of us sitting around the Shabbat table. Some Shabbatot it is just my husband and me, when our kids spend the weekend with their other parents. It’s amazing that we get to enjoy being a huge family and also have time to work on our own relationship as a young couple.”
(5/6): “Knocks and Heartbeats”
“Soon after we got married I became pregnant. I had just turned 37 and I was so grateful to be expecting a baby. The day we found out was the happiest day. We had created something together; something that solidified our relationship. It was such an exciting way to start our marriage- to have a child together.
When I heard the heartbeat for the first time, Betzalel was supposed to be near Gaza. I went to my appointment alone. I had my phone ready to record the ultrasound for him and all of a sudden there was a knock on the door. He walked into the room- he drove all the way back from Gaza to hear the heartbeat of our baby.
When I went back for my later ultrasound in July, I told him that he didn’t have to come with me, everything was OK. But I was already 21 weeks and I hadn’t really felt the baby move yet. The doctor told me it was OK and it was still early. Betzalel told me he would come with me to the appointment.
As I was on the ultrasound table, the ultrasound technician matter-of-factly just said. “Ein dofek”- there is no heartbeat. I screamed so loud that I thought the windows might shatter. The doctor said, ‘Don’t worry about it- it happens to lots of women.’ I replied sharply, ‘I am the only woman in this room right now and it is happening to me. Don’t you ever say that to another woman ever again.’
I was meant to be guiding a shuk tour an hour later, and the first call I made was to my client to apologize that I couldn’t make it. I was hysterically crying and on the floor. I had to say, ‘I am so sorry I can’t come do your tour, there’s no heartbeat. There’s no heartbeat.’
Thank God Betzalel was there and able to support me emotionally and physically. They sent me to another clinic to get a prescription, to then go to the hospital. As we were driving I felt like my stomach was exploding. On the way to get the prescription we were driving through a residential neighborhood and I felt as if I was miscarrying in the car. I got out of the car and was sobbing, needing help. I started knocking on people’s doors and no one was answering- Betzalel had to support my aching, hunched over body, to the clinic. I got into the elevator and collapsed.”
(6/6): “Life is a Story”
“When the door opened, the entire clinic was filled with pregnant women. My screams brought all the nurses to the elevator to help me.
When I got to the hospital I saw the head of the nursery who was my boss and like a mother to me while I was volunteering in Shaarei Tzedek. I fell into her arms sobbing. I told her, ‘I had hoped that I would come back to this place to deliver a healthy baby.’
I am so grateful that she was present to be there for me.
The hospital staff told me that there were no beds and that I should come back tomorrow. I would not leave until everything was out of me. I went through labor and had a D&C.
I really wanted to see the baby after I delivered her. But the nurse advised against it- she said that the fetus wouldn’t have been fully formed or look like a baby. She said it would be too hard for me and it would be very traumatic. Every single day I resent that I didn’t see her. I wish I could have at least given her a hug.
Two days later I went to Kever Rochel. Even though the room was full I pushed my way to the front. I cried my eyes out- women were bringing me water and tissues. I was in my own world of pain. I just cried to Hashem- please hug my baby, because I didn’t get to.
That experience was in July and I have been grieving in my own way, and focusing on all the good Hashem has given me in my life.
I decided to share my story because of everything that I have been through, I had found this inner strength. Patience and perseverance to get through the challenging moments of life. I believe everything comes from Hashem- having emunah that Hashem is going to get me through these moments and that He has a bigger plan and a longer story- that is what gives me strength. Simultaneously, everyone is on their own path and we all have the freedom to make choices for ourselves. No one can dictate our paths for us- we have to be respectful of ourselves. When we don’t respect ourselves everything goes to the wayside and we forget who we are.
I choose to remember who I am and have respect for myself and the process. I look forward to the future to find out the rest of my story.”
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.