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Oct202015

THE WORLDWIDE SEARCH THAT LED BACK HOME

If you go to the Chabad yeshiva in Tzfas, you can find Roni Arad bent over a Shulchan Aruch and other s’farim as he prepares for smicha. He looks like a typical Chassid and it is hard to imagine his tumultuous past.

ENDLESS SEARCHING

The distance between what Roni knows today about Judaism and what he knew in his younger years is like the distance between heaven and earth. “My mother was born and raised on a religious kibbutz, Sdeh Eliyahu, but in our home there was no tradition. The little that I knew I picked up in school and it was almost always about there being an upcoming holiday. There was no explanation as to what the holiday was about and what you did when it occurred. I grew up in an atmosphere which did not like religious people and that’s an understatement. The negative view against rabbis was denigrating to the extreme.”

In his childhood, Roni played sports a lot and focused on soccer. Some predicted greatness for him but he says he did not get past the stage of advanced play and he abandoned that dream. In school he was a student of opposites, i.e. he was gifted and did well in math and other subjects, but he had a difficult time focusing and sitting still in one place. “I was one of the first in Israel to be diagnosed as having ADD, although since then things really improved for me.”

He was born in a wealthy home in Ramat Aviv but always related to simplicity. At a young age, before bar mitzva, he knew he was seeking something deeper in life than his friends were.

“I was unwilling to live a boring life. My soul sought more serious, dramatic stimulation. As a young man I rebelled against convention and was addicted to musical events. I flew to Portugal, Zambia, and other countries in order to participate in festivals of the musical genre I liked. When I finished one experience, instead of taking it easy, I planned the next experience. I felt that despite all the abundance I was privy to, I did not really have it good.”

The hunger for a better world, without jealousy and competition, took root within him back then and he was swept up in a search for a simpler, more natural, idealistic life.

“My friends and I believed in a Higher Power that runs things from above, it’s just that we did not refer to Him as the Creator of the Universe and Divine Providence, but as a ‘Universal Energy’ and other titles that we took from the spiritual-mystical books that we read. In our home we had many philosophical-spiritual books and my mother was involved in Reiki, guided imagery, and meditation.

“One powerful experience shook me up and led me to forgo serving in the army, and to wander off to an ‘ecological farm’ in the Arava region. It was when I was in the Neve Avivim Park in the area where I grew up. I looked around me at the trees, flowers and the ornamental fish that swam in the lake and I suddenly had the feeling that in nature there is incredible cohesiveness; one completes the next and there is no jealousy and competition among them; on the contrary. This led me to pack some things and escape from city life. I went to a nature farm away from civilization in the Arava where I spent a long time. Every day I would take care of the plants and talk to them. My clothing and behavior fit life in the desert. The couple who built the farm hosted me and in exchange, I took care of their baby. The farm was full of plants and greenery and my job was to water them. Life there was a delight.”

Roni was attending a spiritual festival in the south called Rambo when he suddenly remembered that it was his mother’s birthday. He left the crowds and went up a hill to get cell phone reception and called to wish his mother happy birthday. When they hung up, to the surprise of his friends, he impulsively left the festival and went home to be with his mother on her birthday.

“It later turned out that this was her last birthday. A short while later she fell sick and she died in a little over a month, leaving the entire family in shock.

“After the Shiva, I felt strongly that life is fleeting and it needed to be lived to the fullest. But I didn’t know how to do this. First, I returned to the Arava where I lived on a kibbutz, but after a while I felt drained and I flew to South America.”

Roni felt very deeply about searching for the meaning to his life, but at the time did not think Torah and mitzvos were where it could be found.

“I did not imagine that Judaism is a spiritual path. I thought of it as more of a way to preserve outdated tradition. Back then, I did not even have a love-hate relationship with Judaism since it simply did not interest me. My knowledge of Torah and mitzvos was so minimal that I did not know what Shma is or what kosher food is. I was an ignoramus.”

DISTURBING DREAM

Before flying to South America, Roni went to a bookstore on Sheinkin Street and bought, among other things, books on Breslov Chassidus.

“Even now, I have no logical explanation for my buying those books at that time. I saw them lying there and spontaneously took them. In one of the books was a compilation of chapters of T’hillim and for four hours on the flight I tried to read it and ‘broke my teeth.’ It was an unfamiliar text and I set it aside. I did not relate to it, but amazingly, that night I had a strange dream which I felt was connected to the T’hillim.

“I dreamed that I was vomiting up my entire past and experiencing some sort of inner cleansing. I woke up terrified in the middle of the night and could not fall back asleep. It was my first encounter with something Jewish but it did not push me towards practice. It seemed ridiculous to me that in order to connect to G-d, I had to put on t’fillin or keep any rules. I was sure that Jewish spirituality was the ultimate antiquated religion.”

Roni went through more stages in which he worked on a horse ranch and as a manager of an exclusive restaurant in northern Tel Aviv. He made good money and lived well. He had a nice home, a car, and whatever he wanted, but he was bored. “I was at a loss for ideas. I had everything so why did I feel this way?”

The feeling of emptiness sent him back to the Arava and this time, he went further south to an ecological yishuv called Izuz situated on the Egyptian border.

“I looked for a ranch with sheep because I wanted to be a shepherd. I wanted to be alone and I found the opportunity on this out of the way yishuv. I spent two years there and was appointed the manager of tourism at the yishuv. For a while I felt I had found what my soul loved, but then thoughts about life, our role in the world, life and death, started up again. Now I know these were thoughts of t’shuva.”

ONE THING LED TO ANOTHER

Hashem has many agents at His disposal and one of them was the father of a good friend who worked with him on the farm. He exposed Roni to the depth and beauty of Judaism.

“Every time I joined my friend to visit his parents, it was Shabbos. I noticed that as soon as Shabbos began, he stopped working and he became tranquil. It hit me that what I was really looking for, freedom and serenity, I wasn’t looking for in the right places. Freedom is not traveling on Shabbos. Freedom is not running after pleasures of this world. True freedom is being religious, a reality so out of the question for me at that time. It is by obeying the Creator’s rules that we acquire serenity in life.”

One time, after a long conversation, Roni received a siddur from that man and with his guidance, began saying Modeh Ani every morning. And before he went to sleep at night he read the Shma.

“I don’t know how I got there; it felt like an invisible hand was leading me. I did not rationally understand that Judaism is true; it was a heavenly connection. I have no idea what motivated me to relate to these texts. It was a deep, inner feeling, for I wasn’t raised this way.”

At this point, Roni remembered a childhood friend by the name of Ariel Ashkenazi who had become interested in Judaism as a result of which their friendship had ended. “One day I remembered him and decided to contact him.

“I remembered his parents’ phone number and was surprised to hear from his mother that he had become a Chabadnik, married, and moved to Tzfas. Since my friend’s father lived on a yishuv in the Galil near Tzfas, at the first opportunity I joined my friend on a visit to his parents. Then I stopped by to visit my childhood friend in Tzfas. I was taken aback to see him dressed like a religious person, with a hat and jacket. We spoke for hours.

“When I returned to Izuz, an interesting situation ensued in which many people on the yishuv sat together and we spoke about ideals in this modern era. They were all ardent Leftists but the conversation focused on the settlers being the new pioneers who replaced the kibbutznikim. There was depressing talk about the dismantling of the ideals of the kibbutzim. In the course of the conversation, a line came out of my mouth that until today, I still cannot explain how I said it. I said that if I wasn’t working there, I would be keeping Shabbos.”

They all looked askance and Roni wanted to bury himself. He could not understand where that thought had come from.

A few months later he decided to fly abroad again, this time to the Balkan countries and he decided to keep Shabbos. “I didn’t exactly know how to keep Shabbos. I knew you can’t use electricity and drive a car.”

A good friend who was also becoming interested in Judaism urged him to take t’fillin with him even though he did not know how to use them.

“One morning, I tried to put them on and felt like someone who bought a fishing rod and did not know how to wind the string right; all the straps confused me. A few days later, I put them back in the bag and did not try putting them on again. I now know that within all this ignorance, my neshama was crying out, but there was no one to give direction.”

THE REBBE WILL HELP

When he returned to Eretz Yisroel he decided to live in Yerushalayim. He rented an apartment in Nachalaot and his involvement in Judaism went up a notch. In this picturesque Yerushalmi neighborhood lived many religious young men who were also perpetual “outsiders.” Roni found a chevra with whom he had a common language. They were all at some stage of searching and interest in Judaism. They taught him basic mitzvos.

“One morning, I felt a strong feeling of being completely wrung out. I decided I must choose a path and I resolved to do t’shuva.”

He called his Lubavitcher friend Ariel in Tzfas. For several hours, Roni expressed all his complaints and fears about the path of Torah.

“There was one question that really bothered me. How could the great, awesome Creator of the universe be involved in trivial things like what we eat? Ariel, to his credit, let me express everything on my mind. When I was done, he nicely explained the perspective of Chassidus and told me the line that Hillel said to the man who wanted to convert, a line I will never forget: You won’t learn everything on one foot. Judaism is deeper than you imagine.”

The next step was three t’fillos a day and two months after that decision, he was chazan on his mother’s yahrtzait in the Chabad yeshiva, Tiferes Menachem, in Yerushalayim, led by R’ Sholom Ber Marzel.

“I began visiting the yeshiva every day but there was one moment that made me decide to remain and become a bachur like the others. It was when I attended a farbrengen of the mashpia of the yeshiva, R’ Shmuel Bitton. I did not know him from before, but at a certain point, after a few cups of l’chaim, he hugged me and said, ‘Roni, you should know that Chabad is the truth.’

“I felt he was saying this from a place of truth and it made a tremendous impact on me. I decided to become a bachur like all the other bachurim, but the klipos that I was surrounded by did not disappear. Some more months went by until I registered for yeshiva in Ramat Aviv and I began learning there.

“I arrived at yeshiva on Chai Elul and the yeshiva was buzzing with talk about going to the Rebbe. I spoke with the mashpia of the yeshiva in Yerushalayim, R’ Bitton, and he told me that if I really wanted to go, the Rebbe would help. He said this with utmost confidence.

“What happened within a day stunned me. That evening I attended R’ Goldberg’s farbrengen in Ramat Aviv. He spoke a lot about the necessity of going to the Rebbe. During the farbrengen, as everyone sang, he motioned to me the question – am I going to the Rebbe. When I motioned back that I did not have the money to buy a ticket, he motioned back that he was willing to try and get me half a ticket, if I got the other half. I was surprised but agreed. Things worked out in an amazing way.

“The hanhala of the yeshiva gave $100 to bachurim who went. My grandparents gave me another $100. My father, whom I had not seen in a long time, surprised me and gave me several hundred dollars. If that wasn’t enough, before I boarded the plane, I was asked to take s’farim with me in my suitcase and I was given a few hundred dollars for that. From donors in the yeshiva I received some more money so that within a day I had a ticket. I remembered what R’ Bitton had told me and knew that what he said, he said seriously, and it had happened!”

The change and the “final blow” occurred during Tishrei at 770.

“On Shabbos B’Reishis, some of us bachurim from yeshiva were hosted along with the rosh yeshiva, R’ Ginsburgh. I hardly knew him and at the end of the meal I told him about the doubts and inner struggles I was dealing with. He listened to me and then said, ‘You crossed the bridge but you keep on looking back. The time has come for you to burn the bridge. Ask the Rebbe to remove the timtum (lit. denseness, i.e. spiritual blockage) of the mind and heart that you have.’ He was tough and at first I was offended. I felt broken. But when I got up in the morning I was a new man. I decided I was leaving everything and becoming a Chassid and mekushar. The conversation with R’ Ginsburgh by the Rebbe was the ‘final blow’ that got me to erase my previous world, to delete all the thoughts and feelings whose source was ‘the other side’ and to change direction.”

BUILDING A
CHASSIDIC HOME

Roni remained in 770 for another three months and then went to the yeshiva in Tzfas where he married his wife Naomi.

“The story of our shidduch is a story of divine providence. I had a few suggestions from Yerushalayim and my mashpia said I should thoroughly check out the second suggestion. When that did not work out, I thought I would take a break. That day, I was in an optical store in Tzfas which is owned by a Lubavitcher. His wife, who was there, decided that I was just right for her friend.

“That same evening, I told my mashpia about the suggestion. It turned out that the optical store owner had come up with the same idea as the first suggestion that had come up for me already. The rest is history. After a few weeks we were chassan and kalla. We settled in Tzfas and immediately set out for Pushkar to help out at the Chabad house there.”

***

After half a year on shlichus in India, the Arads returned home and Roni entered kollel in the Chabad yeshiva in Tzfas to study for smicha.

He uses his highly unusual life story in order to be mekarev other wandering souls who visit Ascent.

“I sometimes speak with young men or even older ones and I find myself within their stories. I know what and how they think and what they are experiencing, and it’s easier for me to speak to them and show them the way.”

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