From the minute sixteen-year-old Yuval Ovadia saw the movie Grease, he knew he was going to be a Hollywood movie star. In 1987, after three years of serving with the IDF, he arrived in New York to turn his dream into reality. Across the ocean, Esther, Yuval’s future wife, then Irena Raboshapko, strove towards her own fabulous dream of representing the Ukraine in the high jump Olympics. Some years later, they both exchanged these dreams for a very different one.
Dreaming of the Movies
Yuval enrolled in the Lee Strasburg Institute where he studied acting, singing and dancing, and, later, in New York University where he studied film making. In no time, he was making thousands of dollars a week by selling electronic video games in Harlem and the Bronx. “Every trip into these areas was dangerous,” he says. “Once a member of a Portuguese gang almost shot me when he mistook me as belonging to a rival gang.”
Within eight years, Yuval was living the high life on Park Avenue and rubbing shoulders at cocktail parties with people worth 60 million dollars. Yet, despite the glitz, Yuval held on to values his grandfather had instilled in him: “I began every day by putting on tefillin and ended every day saying Shema,” he says.
Eight years after Yuval arrived in America, he co-produced and starred in a feature film called Orphan of War. This paved the path to begin co-producing a $10 million film in which he would co-star with Wesley Snipes. “I was thirty-two years old and my dream was coming true,” he says.
Going Back Home
Yuval was rocketing towards fame but, at the same time, towards a crisis. Over the last year, dragged by a close friend, a former fashion designer, Yuval had been attending Torah lectures by Rav Yosef Yagen in Queens. He also attended the lectures of a good friend, Yossi Mizrachi, who had begun working in outreach. Today Rav Mizrachi heads an outreach program called Divine Information Kiruv Organization. “This wasn’t Israel, where you’re swamped with anti-religious feelings,” Yuval says. “Here it was possible to open up to another world.” A Shabbaton with Rav Yagen and Dr. Isaac Betech, a Mexican pediatrician active in Jewish outreach, was a pivotal point. Yuval couldn’t deny the scientific proofs and Torah prophesies that he saw had come true. “I wanted the life you see in the movies: a meaningful marriage, a family, a house with a yard. I knew that my life style wasn’t going to give it to me,” he says. “But how could I leave behind my dream?”
In August 1999, twelve years after he had arrived in New York, at the cusp of his career, Yuval got on a plane without telling a soul and came back home. “I was sure that I was going to replace the alluring materialism I’d left behind with the warmth of my family’s embrace,” he says. But he was wrong. “My family warned me that the only woman who would marry a religious fanatic would be a fat, ugly woman as miserable as me,” he says.
Their opposition made him stronger – Yuval rented a room and began studying at yeshiva Netivot Olam in Bnei Brak and at Shaarei Nissim in Ramat Gan.
As Yuval’s commitment to a Torah lifestyle grew, Rav Yosef Shimon Partush of Shaarei Nissim began to encourage him to use his knowledge of movies for holiness. In 2002, he shot his first movie – a three-hour Torah lecture of Yossi Mizrachi became the 70-minute film Divine Information. The non-profit production was made available on several websites in several languages. Over a million CD copies have since been distributed. “I wasn’t interested in money or fame, so I didn’t even put my name on it,” says Yuval. “This was my payback to Hollywood.”
The Right One
Yuval went on to produce more than ten film documentaries aimed at exposing secular audiences to Judaism and spirituality. Included among them are Gog and Magog (on the Israeli-Arab conflict), Flight to Eternity, The Jerusalem Code, and his personal saga
Divine Journey to Hollywood. Today, over 6 million copies have been distributed for free. Tens of millions of viewers have viewed them gratis through websites such as Hidabroot and Torah Net.
While his professional life had taken a new, successful direction, his search for a life partner was stymied. He had been going out for two years when a colleague who worked with his sister introduced him to Esther, a recent convert from the Ukraine, who was 16 years his junior. “Our first date took place on my birthday,” he says. “Half-way through the date, I called my mother to tell her my search was over – and that Esther wasn’t fat or ugly like my parents had predicted.”
From an early age, Esther, the only child in a practicing Christian family in Kiev, Ukraine, was groomed for success. “Both my parents were professional athletes and at eleven years old, my morning began with a four-kilometer run,” she says. “I was going to be an Olympic champion.”
While Esther’s career path was clear-cut, her family lineage wasn’t. Her orphaned mother had been adopted by a Jewish lady, who Esther grew up knowing as “Grandma.” Although Esther didn’t know it, her grandmother came from a very religious family. Sadly, in face of the communist ban on religion and her divorce, she slowly lost all her connection to Judaism.
When Esther was eleven years old, her grandmother started going to shul in Kiev. Here, she learned about a summer camp for Jewish girls and convinced Esther’s parents to let their daughter go. When Esther’s parents told her about the camp, they also had to tell her that her grandmother wasn’t really her grandmother and that she, the adopted grandmother, was Jewish. “I don’t know which part shocked me the most,” says Esther, who had no positive exposure to Judaism.
After a few hours at camp Machane Shuva Esther was ready to go home – the gap between her and the Orthodox counselors was simply too wide. However, after meeting like-minded girls, she decided to stick it out in her own way. “We upset everything, from switching on lights on Shabbos to bringing food to the girls who were fasting on Tisha B’Av,” she says. When Esther got home, she had a good laugh with her parents over all her experiences. But for the next five summers, she kept going back. “I was drawn like a magnet. The last few years, I’d even take long skirts with me to show the camp that I respected their dress code,” she says.
Esther progressed well on all fronts during these years. Her Olympic career was moving forward; she had started working as a fashion model and was preparing to attend university to study business. But when she was seventeen-and-a-half, everything changed. Her parents divorced and her mother, financially strained, told her to shelve her plans to attend university. She suggested that Esther take a year off and do something she enjoyed, like learn a new language. “I was shocked. Throughout my life, I had been pushed to achieve,” she says. “And now I was being told to take a rest!” To compound things, Esther was facing a crisis in both her sporting and modeling careers. “A serious leg injury had left me with the option of surgery or full rest for several months,” she says. “I decided to take a break and then work hard to strengthen my weakened muscles.” At the same time, she decided to leave behind the world of fashion world. “Models are all smiles on the outside,” she says, “But it’s not as beautiful as it seems.”
Then Esther’s camp counselor, who had no idea that Esther wasn’t Jewish and kept in sporadic contact with her, suggested that Esther come to Israel. “It was 1999 and every day we saw pictures of people being blown up,” she says. “But when I told my mother about this ridiculous idea, she encouraged me to go ahead.”
In an ironic twist of fate, Esther arrived in Israel the same week that Yuval returned home from the States. Immediately after enrolling in Midrasha Ofakim in southern Israel, which then had a track for Russian girls, Esther was ready to return to the Ukraine. But once again, her mother encouraged her to remain. Since Esther had plans, like visiting Tiberias and buying a wooden cross in Jerusalem for her friend, she stayed on.
“I attended the lectures, and slowly the words began to sink in. But I was scared. If this was right, then my religion was wrong,” she says. “So I convinced myself that this was a nice philosophy with nice theories on how to live a nice life.” But Esther had a fiery roommate who gave her a book that disputed the claims of Christianity and followed up to make sure she read it. “I was so frightened of her that I read the book,” admits Esther. In class, she debated with her teachers, but it was a knock out. “It was terribly painful,” she says. “I had to admit that everything I had lived for seventeen years was a huge lie. I’m an honest person. How would I live knowing that everything I was doing was wrong?”
Esther was confused and angry. She looked at her classmates and wondered, “Why were you lucky enough to be born Jewish and I wasn’t? Why does all this belong to you and not to me?” Speaking to the administrator and admitting she wasn’t Jewish was a painful step. “We both cried, but Rebbetzin Weissbin didn’t encourage me to follow through with my thoughts about conversion,” Esther says. In fact, the Beis Din in Ofakim decided that at the end of the year, she’d go back home for the summer break. Only if she returned to Israel would the Beis Din consider converting her.
Although she wasn’t obligated to keep any mitzvot, Esther held strong. “I didn’t eat the special meal that my mom had prepared for me. Instead, I koshered the kitchen,” she says. Esther was stuck in the Ukraine for seven long months. First she didn’t have the right documents; then her passport was lost. “I had a chance to see my life as it had been and to compare it with where I was heading,” she says. “Every act in Judaism has meaning – not only for the individual, but for the whole world,” she adds.
Finally back in Israel, she went straight to Rebbetzin Weissbin. A few months later, Esther was a kosher Jew. “Suddenly, things that had been so easy for me, like dressing modestly, became hard,” she says. “I found that I wanted to wear skirts that were a little shorter.” Luckily, Rebbetzin Weissbin explained the change. “With your new soul, you also got a yetzer hara,” she said. “You’ll have a daily battle, but keep fighting. You may fall, but keep getting up.”
The Edited Dream
“In America, I dreamed of living the life you see in the movies: a wife, family and house with a yard. In Israel, I began to live this life,” says Yuval, who today lives with Esther and their five children in Elad, central Israel. Powered by the desire to inspire others, world-wide travel has become a part of their lives. Both Yuval and Esther lecture in Hebrew and English about their personal journey, spirituality versus materialism, the impact of modern media and much more. “My mom was right to insist that I learn new languages,” says Esther with a smile.
Yuval’s films, which he has continued to produce, have made him a known face. “People came to kiss my hand and ask for a bracha,” he says, shifting self-consciously. “The videos give over a message to the public. They inspire people to change their lives.”
In 2010, encouraged by Rabbi David Abuchatzeira, the Baba Sali’s grandson, Yuval released Hamesima X, a feature film he co-directed and also starred in. The film, with an all-male cast, tells the story of an agent from another planet who is charged by the Higher Will with a mission. Hamesima X was an official selection at 12 International Film Festivals and won four awards. The blend of sci-fi conventions, tension, and Jewish spirituality prompted the director at the Beloit Film Festival in Wisconsin to contact Yuval directly and tell him the film had changed his way of looking at life. At the Tel Aviv premier, a viewer emerged from the cinema, met Yuval outside and said, “I never believed that I’d go to a Torah lecture.” And that is the highest caliber compliment that Yuval could want. By leaving his childhood dream behind, Yuval forged a new dream that meshed his talent of film making with his love for Torah. In the words of one reviewer, “I think you have taught an old film maker some lessons. To do what is in your heart not what the industry wants you to do or expects you to do.”