Kollel Milhamta Shel Torah of Queens A Spiritual Home for Torah and Tefillah

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By: Robert Rubenstein

My day began suddenly in the middle of the night, when the pain in my shoulders woke me from a restless slumber. I had no doubt that this day would be like the rest of them as of late: filled with the thumping, painful twinges of nerves and tendons. A month had already passed, and the doctors had offered no new diagnosis. The MRIs had revealed a torn rotator cuff on my left side and tendinosis on the other. I’d been hit by a double-barreled shotgun.

Throughout my life I’d always loved to swim, feeling my arms rotating like windmills in Brighton Beach. Yet I’d never thanked Gd for the privilege. Just the opposite. When my “wings” were clipped, I became an angry bird and bemoaned my fate. I came to work every day with a chip on my shoulder.

My 12th graders - Jack Halabieh, Steven Balanka, Solly Beda, Isaac Shamosh, and Simon Challouh - noticed the change. These boys had been my students since the 9th grade, and I’d watched them grow from being my “mission impossible” into wonderful young men. When Rami Grand rounded out the others last year, I had a bunch of superheroes in my class.

Forgotten were the times when my briefcase went missing, or the lights flickered during my English class. One time I’d turned around and my keys were gone - and the classroom was suddenly empty. Nonetheless, we persevered and got to know each other. Once a month we went out together for lunch. On the streets, in the restaurant, these boys behaved perfectly. I was proud to be their teacher.

At Yeshivat Shaare Torah BHS, there are two separate departments, the English and the Hebrew. The two branches weave together seamlessly. Still, even after five years at the school I didn’t interact with the rabbis very often. I’d occasionally hear the magical words of Rabbi Hillel Haber or the fiery passion of Rabbi Yosef Abboud being expressed when the boys interrupted their long, arduous day to go pray minha.

This is my sixth year at Shaare. I feel like an uncle who has watched the amazing growth and progress of his beloved nephews. My graduates keep in touch with me. They are like family.

What the boys experience here is hard for me to put into words. Bathed with a certain light and illumination, Shaare’s graduates are “armed” with the might of an amazing Torah education. It helps them to develop skills that will last their whole lives. Of that I am certain, for I have seen the force that guides them with my own eyes.

Every year, Simon, Jack, and Steven would ask me regularly if I wanted to put on tefillin. To me, that was too personal a question. My faith and level of observance were my own. But this week was different. I was visibly suffering in front of them and was clearly in pain.

“Mr. Rubenstein, would you like to put on tefillin today?” Simon asked quietly.  Jack brought his phylacteries over to my desk.

I thought about how hard that would be. The truth was that in my present condition I couldn’t even put the tefillin on by myself if I tried. I’d always thought that a Jew could wake up any day he wished and do teshuvah. I’d never even considered that the ability to put on tefillin wasn’t a given but a blessing. What would happen if I was permanently prevented from doing the mitzvah, G-d forbid??

No, I couldn’t accept that. Not while I still drew breath. The mitzvah of tefillin was mine, even though I’d discarded it for the past 20 years. “I don’t think I can,” I said softly.

The boys came closer. “It’s time,” said Steven Balanka.

No longer in charge, my students became my teachers. They would help me, teach me to remember what I’d always known as a Jew but had forgotten due to disuse. I was ready to acknowledge my obligation as a Jew.

Visions of my parents, my children, my grandson’s brit - marriage, simchot, tragedies -the entire span of life swelled up inside me. I lost it and couldn’t stop crying, but I followed the boys’ commands as they helped me roll up my sleeve and bring me back to where Gd was now taking me. I recited the words of the berachot, in fulfillment of Hashem’s commandments.

Just the other day I’d asked Rabbi Haber a question. Something was wrong with how I was dealing with my pain. I hadn’t realized then that the answer was just feet away, in the bet midrash. Connecting to Gd’s plan was the only way to get through this world.

Yes, it was time for me. And I thanked Gd for the opportunity to keep growing, learning about life and our true destiny.

Today, Stevie and Jack had my permission to leave class and go buy a pair of tefillin for me. With Gd’s help, I will try to put them on every day except Shabbat for the rest of my life.

Thank you, boys. Thank you, Rabbi Abboud.

Thank you, Hashem, for showing me that a Jewish soul “always thirsts for Thee.”

Adapted version of the article that appeared in the Ami Magazine.