Each time the memories surface, fresh tears run down my cheeks. I don’t want to cry in front of the Rebbetzin, so I save it for the car, and when I’m lighting my Shabbos candles, in the very candlesticks given to me by the Rebbetzin. At 93 years of age, you can say a man has lived a full life and baruch Hashem that he didn’t suffer. You can say that it was his time.
But for me and I’m sure for others whose life he touched this loss hurts. I miss him, and wish I could speak to him one more time. Instead I will have to treasure the lessons he taught me.
My path to the Neustadts was simple: they found me. By the time I was born onto Russian soil, the Neustadts were already saving neshamas. They knew that Yiddishkeit in Russia was almost extinct and that living secular lives was as bad as being murdered. My life was void of any Yiddishkeit at all; I didn’t even know there was a God. My family had intermarried for two generations and there was little hope for me. Although my mother came from a long line of Jewish women, all the men in my life were non-Jews. Even when Communism crumbled, anti-Semitism did not. I remember drunken men in subways calling us dirty Jews and the burnt rag around the doorknob of our apartment. The smell of gasoline triggers me still.
When we immigrated to America, the fear was still there and my mother refused to put a mezuzah on our door. She also forbid me to practice religion, she said it was old fashioned and outdated, and she wanted me to grow up cultured and educated. I dutifully studied, went to concerts and museums, and practiced playing the piano.
And then I went to Camp Shorashim and met the Neustadts. I learned the laws and meaning of a religion that was forbidden for so long. I was 16 and left my old life behind – and my mother disowned me. So the Neustadts became my parents. One erev Shabbos, the Neustadts came to my home with the father of a former camper. They tried explaining to my mother that living a religious lifestyle is a good thing and that my mother would see a lot of nachas in the future. The father reported reaping many rewards watching his daughter get married and raise a beautiful Jewish family. My mother started crying while I went to get my clothing for Shabbos: I was going home with the Neustadts and I was going to keep Shabbos.
Rabbi Neustadt and his Rebbetzin only saw neshamas; a Jew was a Jew, a child of God, and thus a child of theirs. And so they insisted that the Bais Yaakovs accept their children, no matter if their last name was Neustadt or Dolinsky; no matter if they could read Hebrew or not; no matter what their family life looked like. Yichus was not something I was born with, but it is something that becoming frum gave me a right to. Just because I didn’t have the zechus of being born into a frum family, didn’t mean I was going to be treated differently than any other girl.
I went to a Bais Yaakov high school and a Bais Yaakov Seminary alongside all the girls who were frum from birth. I held my head high and dressed the part so well, at some point you could not tell that I was a baalas teshuva.
When I was of marriageable age, the same rules applied: Stacy was going to marry a boy just as frum as she was and it was to be celebrated in the same way as every other frum girl her age. I went out dozens of times from the Neustadt’s house. They grilled the poor guys until they were ready to run out of the house with or without me. When my husband and I got engaged, the wedding was orchestrated by the Rabbi and Rebbetzin. The Rebbetzin and I spent many hours running feverishly around Brooklyn preparing.
On the big day, the Neustadts arrived early and made sure the event started on time (they are Yekkies). The Rebbetzin broke the plate with my mother and walked me down to the chuppah where Rabbi Neustadt was waiting for us, eager to read the kesubah. He did so beautifully, in a strong voice with his unforgettable Israeli accent.
At that moment, I never thought that one day all I would have is a picture hanging on the wall or have to explain to my children that this special tzaddik was in Shamayim.
It’s fourteen years later and I’ve cracked and stumbled and often felt lost. But I also had three beautiful children and celebrated every Shabbos and Yom Tov with as much simcha as I could. Life is complicated and often it’s hard to see right from wrong. When a Bais Yaakov told me to send my beautiful daughter to public school because of a minor IEP issue, I wondered whether or not I should light the Shabbos candles that week. If the Rabbi and Rebbetzin had heard about this episode they would have fallen off their chairs. They who only saw children as neshamas and would be appalled to know how many Jewish children are in public schools because of the severe gaps in our yeshivas. They would be shocked to know that in place of love there is judgement and in place of brotherhood there is stellar education. And had my last name been Neustadt and I was the sister-in-law of the Bais Yaakov preschool director, I highly doubt that my daughter would be told to go to public school. But what the school fails to understand is that my daughter is indeed Rabbi Neustadt’s granddaughter. I walked the path and it wasn’t easy. I fought tooth and nail to stand where many were simply placed.
Upon Rabbi Neustadt’s petirah, my resolve to continue his legacy strengthened. His work will not be forgotten and through pain or joy I will light my Shabbos candles. He loved Hashem so much that he adopted His children. And as his child, I will make him proud. May his memory be a blessing.