In 1970, Avraham was a college student looking to find himself. Somehow he ended up at Hillel, the Jewish students’ union. With his long hair and wire-rim glasses, he seemed like the radical type, and it was natural for him to help organize a demonstration for the release of Soviet Jews. The other students liked his idea of constructing a mock jail on campus, declaring a hunger strike, and proclaiming their solidarity with their brethren locked behind the Iron Curtain.
From that moment, Avraham became an active member of the campus Hillel. Amid writing letters to the refuseniks, he found himself learning more and more about his heritage which was denied to the Jews in Russia. Although he’d stopped putting on tefillin sometime in the middle of his high school years, he was inspired to begin doing so once again while at Hillel. He used a pair that had been donated to the student union until he eventually bought a pair of his own.
In 1970, Yitzhak was a five-year-old child in the Soviet Union. He knew he was Jewish. He knew he was different. He knew he ate matzah on Pesach but he didn’t know much more. It was when he was 19 that he joined the underground. This was not an underground planning a military takeover of the government. Rather, it was a quiet revolution in which groups of Jews learned Hebrew and Jewish history in secret. As time went on, they began learning Torah. It was not easy for any of them. According to Yitzhak, their lifeline was the books and letters that came from Jews in America and Western Europe. That connection gave them the strength to continue in their struggle to come to Israel.
In 1986, Avraham moved with his wife and five children to an absorption center outside Jerusalem. He came with boxes of belongings and sent a lift full of electrical appliances to his new home. After eight months at the center, he and his family relocated to Shilo, once the Biblical capital of Israel.
Three years later, in 1989, Yitzhak left the Soviet Union alone, with only a suitcase. He settled in Jerusalem. A year later his parents and sister followed, but he didn’t live with them. Rather his home was the yeshiva, where he learned Torah, Talmud, and how to be a sofer. He also earned a teaching certificate, met his wife, and began a family. In 1994, they too moved to Shilo. At first he couldn’t find a job as a teacher and worked for Avraham’s business. Eventually he began teaching and worked in hi-tech.
When Avraham reached his 66th birthday, he began thinking more and more about the influences of his past and remembered the tefillin he’d once borrowed from the Hillel center at university. Not only did he feel a debt of gratitude for the loan, he was extremely grateful to the place that had been the springboard for him to discover Torah-true Judaism. It was time to do something to repay that debt.
Avraham decided to order a pair of tefillin to donate to Hillel. Within a couple of months, the tefillin were ready. Avraham made plane reservations. He’d decided he would deliver the tefillin himself and at the same time visit relatives. Before leaving, Avraham inquired as to who had written the parchments inside the tefillin. The answer stunned him.
Unbeknownst to Avraham, Yitzhak had left teaching and hi-tech some 15 years earlier and returned to his first profession – writing Torah scrolls, mezuzahs, and tefillin. It was the former refusenik who’d inscribed the parchments. It was the demonstration for the refuseniks and the letters he wrote to them that had started Avraham on his own path of observance.
Avraham’s prayer is that the tefillin he gave to Hillel will influence another questioning soul. Perhaps in a few years’ time, a Jew will make his way to Shilo and tell Avraham and Yitzhak how he was inspired by a set of tefillin donated by a once-searching Jew and written by a former refusenik.