Weekly Chasidic Story #675 (s5771-09)/24 Mar-Cheshvan 5771
An Ongoing Story of Courage and Sacrifice
The hero of this story is my friend, Nechemya Regan. He is 20 years old and he is about to get married!
Few children have ever been tested as Nechemya was. Imagine a religious-Jewish 11 year old suddenly thrown into a non-Jewish home, a non-Jewish public school, and surrounded with non-kosher food, foul language and liquor. This is what happened to Nechemya and his sister and brother in 2001.
Nechemya was 2 ½ years old when his family, candidates for conversion, first came to spend Shabbat with me, in Denver Colorado. Later, his mom, with custody of all five children, left Denver and I lost contact with them. I would only hear the rest of their story many years later when our friendship would resume in the Holy City of Tsfat.
It turns out that Nechemya converted to Judaism with his mother and siblings when he was six, and his mother remarried to a wonderful Jewish man soon after that. By 1999, the children were the center of a dramatic custody battle. Nechemya’s non-Jewish father, who had originally relinquished custody, suddenly filed to reverse the custody decision. He used lots of money and influence to take the children away from their mother.
The years of the custody battle are a story of suspense and intrigue of their own, to be told another time. As the date approached for the final appeal in court, Nechemya’s uncle went to New York for a blessing from the elderly Skuliner Rebbe. The Rebbe, famous for his middle of the night appointments for just one or two minutes each, listened intently for over thirty minutes. Then he gave a blessing saying, “The gentiles will not hurt the children.”
Confident that they would win, they went to court. What else could his blessing mean? But the non-Jewish father won custody of the three youngest of his children! The oldest two were allowed to choose the parent they wanted to live with. Strangely, the judge ruled that the non-Jewish father and step-mother had to provide his Jewish children kosher food and utensils, Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays.
By now, the children loved their Jewish stepfather and their growing family and Orthodox Jewish home in Chicago. The court order set the date and the hour of their police escort from their Jewish home. It fell on Purim! The family resolved to fulfill all the mitzvas of Purim with joy and to make it the best Purim ever – until the police banged on the door in the middle of their Purim festive meal. The children were physically dragged away, kicking and screaming, while the local community gathered outside, helpless, to show their support.
For three long years, Nechemya, his older sister and his younger brother lived in Byers, Colorado on their biological father’s ranch. They and their oldest brother, who was there of his own choice, were the only Jews in the entire school district, encompassing a large rural area. The three kids ate kosher and took kosher food to school, dressed as religious Jews, kept Shabbat and upheld the mitzvot.
The boys wore their kippas and tzitzit [fringes on a sleeveless undergarment] every day, even on gym days when their classmates would ask them about their tzitzit when the boys changed for sports. Rivka was the only girl in her school to wear a long skirt and sleeves.
Often, their phone was taken away, making it impossible for them to ask kashrut and other questions of Jewish law or to be in contact with the rest of their family. When they had access to a telephone, their contacts were very severely restricted by court order. There was not one human being in their whole town to support their Judaism.
Sometimes when they were making Kiddush on Friday nights in the dining room, the Broncos game was playing in the adjoining living room where their father and stepmother and their younger children were watching TV.
Their only joy came when they could be with their mother, stepfather and Jewish brothers and sisters for the Jewish holidays, and they weren’t even allowed to see them every holiday. Some holidays they spent on the ranch, celebrating alone. Like one Yom Kippur when their father took away their food for days afterwards because he thought they were lying when the kids told him that a Jew isn’t allowed to go to school or work on Yom Kippur.
They were surrounded by all the distractions common in a rural lifestyle that should have made it hard for them to remember that they were observant Jews –open access to internet, movies, TV, dirt bikes, motorized all-terrain vehicles and horses. These three kids never left Torah and mitzvahs.
The oldest child, a boy, chose his father’s lifestyle and was old enough for the court to give his father custody from the beginning. The next oldest, a daughter, was allowed to stay with her mother because she was a teenager. When she turned 18, she came to Israel. The second week she arrived, she became a kallah (was engaged).
By 2005, they were a Jewish family of ten children, four of them isolated away from Judaism, three of the four against their will. How would the family ever get permission for these three siblings to come to their sister’s wedding in Israel?
The mother offered the biological father and his second wife a free trip to Israel if they would bring the children for their sister’s wedding. They agreed! Suddenly, in our holy city of Tsfat, three new, very, very happy teens were surrounded by Jews, hearing Hebrew on the streets, and soaking up Judaism. The boys were praying in minyans in the many shuls, and looking pretty much like everyone else in town.
But there wasn’t any money to buy airline tickets also for their Jewish stepfather, whom they called Abba, and all their younger brothers and sisters. At the Shabbat Kallah celebration in Tsfat on the Saturday before the wedding, Rivka, now 16 (the court would have honored her request to live with her mother when she turned 15, but she said that she couldn’t walk out on her two brothers and leave them behind), gave her older sister, the kallah, a blessing: “I bless you to have as good a marriage as our Abba and Ema now have,” she said. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Her non-Jewish stepmother was there and heard, and she cried too. (Sometimes, when their father would refuse to buy the kids any kosher food, their step-mother would sneak some kosher groceries into the house for them.)
Separated now for three years except for some Jewish holidays, the two sisters couldn’t stop hugging each other. They had their arms around each other for hours, sitting at the Shabbat table or walking around the house, laughing at private jokes and singing songs from their childhood. They stayed together as if they were glued. Nechemya and his brother, already growing their payot longer, sang the traditional Shabbat songs with all their might, laughing a lot and talking Torah. The three kids were like fish in water.
On the day of the wedding, her two brothers and sister had been living with their father for exactly thirty-six months. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were praying for them ever since the nightmare had begun.
Now with the wedding over, it was getting close to the date of their return flight to the US. It was time to test what they had been told by an attorney. The three kids walked into a Jerusalem police station to file an affidavit that they wanted to stay in Israel with their mother. The youngest was now only four months before his Bar Mitzvah. There’s an agreement between the USA and Israel that applies to some custody arrangements. It states that Jewish children who have a Jewish parent living in Israel, and are of Bar/Bat Mitzvah age or older, will not be forced to return to their custodial parent in the US, if it is not their desire.
They filed their affidavit, prayed hard and held their breaths to see if it would work. The father came tearing into the police station, furious that they had not come back to his accommodations the night before, screaming that they had been kidnapped.
At first it seemed like the police were on his side, ready to send the kids back to Byers, Colorado with him. But then he lost his temper, cursed and threatened the officers. The police saw enough to figure out what would be best for the three kids. The father was forced, according to the US-Israel agreement, to ask the kids in front of witnesses which parent they wanted to live with. They said they wanted to stay in Israel with their mother. The police backed the children’s decision. The father and his wife flew home to America without them, only to find out in the US that there wasn’t anything they could do to reverse the decision.
This was their Jewish family’s prayer come true. The Israeli immigration representative in Chicago dropped everything to reunite the family. In perhaps the fastest aliyah ever processed, two days, their Jewish step-father and five younger siblings were on an El Al flight, tickets paid for compliments of the Government of Israel — one-way — for their new life in the holy land.
By the Shabbat of Sheva Brachot (festive meals for seven days in honor of the new couple), the whole family was together in Tsfat!
The blessing from the Skuliner Rebbe had come true. The children were not hurt by any non-Jews. Their suffering made them stronger in their desire to serve G-d. As for why they had to suffer so much for three years, we don’t know. Maybe it was for one boy in the Byers high school, who came up to Rivka one day and told her that his birth mother, who had died when he was very young, was Jewish. Perhaps he needed to see another Jew for the first time in his life. Who knows?
The family has been living mostly in Tsfat since then. Both of Nechemya’s older sisters are wives and mothers of beautiful, growing Orthodox families. Now it is Nechemya’s turn to go to the chupa [wedding canopy]. The blessed event is to take place on Wednesday, November 10, 2010 (Gimmel Kislev), be”h. It will be a modest, happy, forest wedding. But Nechemya and his parents need to raise the money for their half of the expenses.
Please share this story with people who need encouragement to hold on for their own salvation. And with people who might have money set aside for charitable causes, or other monies, to help make Nechemya’s wedding the celebration that he deserves.
May every Jew be redeemed from their own personal sufferings, and may it happen as suddenly, and with tremendous and ongoing joy.
* Also: the family’s story was featured in Maariv Newspaper, on-line edition www.maariv.co.il on January 30, 2005 (no longer available on their archives site) and in the Hebrew edition of Mishpacha Magazine in 2005 around the same time.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.