Volume 3, Number 171
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Sunday-Monday, August 16-17, 2009


A kibbutznik becomes a convert to Torah Judaism

By Rabbi Baruch Lederman

SAN DIEGO—"Children are you to the L-rd your G-d. For you are a holy nation. a treasured people." (Deut. 14:1-2)

We are a special, holy, treasured people. When we realize this, we embrace our role as G-d's children and as such we come closer to Hashem (G-d). Sometimes Hashem's children reunite with their Father in the most unexpected ways, as the following true story illustrates:

Though born in the Jewish state, Omri's childhood was devoid of any Judaism. Omri Vartash grew up in Kibbutz Ruchama - an affiliate of the socialist-Zionist Shomer HaTzair

A product of secular Israel, it didn't occur to anyone, apparently, to mark his bar mitzvah - not even with a symbolic celebration. He'd never set foot in a synagogue, or wanted to. "I knew that religious people didn't eat bread on Passover, but that was the extent of my information on that holiday."

His parents enrolled him in the School of the Arts in Mitzpeh Rimon, to develop his artistic talents. When, in time, Omri received a tempting invitation: to travel to Italy, the home of
theater, to study acting, he jumped at it. The Theater Lab was headed by the world-renowned Jerzy Grotowski, who even after his death is held in such high esteem that some
theater fans stand up respectfully at the very mention of his name.

"My parents were elated to hear that I would be studying with the great Grotowski," Omri recalled. "They stood tall, bursting with pride, and told anyone who was willing to listen!"

Occasionally, Grotowski would invite one of his students for a private meeting. His students hailed from all over the world. "Every one of us hoped for a chance for such intimacy
with our mentor, a relaxed conversation in his home or in some secluded place. We learned so much from him then; it was a mini-lesson on the 'tricks of the trade' of theater life, a
truly eye-opening talk."

And then one day, it was Omri's turn. He was beside himself with excitement. What would Grotowski say to him? What questions should he ask "the master"?

Grotowski invited Omri to dinner in an Italian restaurant. There, in the midst of devouring an enormous plate of spaghetti, he asked the young Israeli a very pointed question: "What do you know about the Baal Shem Tov?" He even pronounced the Baal Shem Tov's name correctly

"Baal what?" Omri asked, thoroughly confused and at a loss. "What Shem?" The words sounded like Hebrew, but what was Grotowski talking about?

Now it was the great director's turn to be shocked. "You are a Jew, are you not?! Do you mean to tell me that you've never heard of the Baal Shem Tov?! Who educated you?! Where did you grow up?! Why, he was one of the greatest men of your nation!"

Grotowski, the Polish gentile, looked long and hard at his student. Then, patiently, he proceeded to tell him about the Chassidic movement, which began in the Ukraine and spread
across Grotowski's native Poland. But mostly, he described the holy Baal Shem Tov, and the miracles he performed.

Omri Vartash, kibbutz-born secular Israeli, sat in an Italian restaurant in the heart of Rome, and listened breathlessly. He'd never heard anything remotely like it.

"It was the most meaningful discussion of my life. I started to think: 'How could this knowledge have been hidden from me for all these years? I'm completely disconnected from the
history of my own people! How is it that a Polish gentile knows more than I do?"

Omri never imagined what would happen next. The next morning, Grotowski phoned to set up another meeting with his Jewish student. And he gave him a book, an English
translation of Shivchei HaBesht (Praises of the Baal Shem Tov). "Read this! It will greatly enrich you," his "rebbe" told him. Omri took the book, and so began his journey into


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Judaism. He read the book from start to finish, and the more he read, the more he wanted to know. Meanwhile, Grotowski was keeping tabs on his student, to see what he would do
with his newfound knowledge.

"I'm simply astonished!" Omri told him. "But what should I do next?"

"Continue your search!" Grotowski told Omri. "You came here on a spiritual quest but all the spirituality you could ever need is right there before you, in your own ancient religion! I
know that there are special books that explain the laws and customs to Jews who are searching for the truth."

Omri didn't sit idle; he went looking for more. And he began committing himself to observing certain practices. "I started by maintaining a separation between milk and meat,
despite the fact that I didn't yet eat kosher food. And, with Grotowski's encouragement, I began going to synagogue for the first time in my life. I tried to take part in the prayers."

"The deeper I went in my research of Judaism, the deeper my relationship became with Grotowski. My non-Jewish friends noticed that the two of us had developed a special
kinship. He would question me in great detail about my visits to the synagogue, and about my experiences during prayer."

"You have no further need to remain here," he told Omri, one day. "You must return home, and continue there to search for your roots."

And Omri, forever loyal and obedient to his master's words, packed up his bags and returned to Israel.

When he got home, he told his baffled parents just what he had learned from the famous director Grotowski: that he needed to become religious.

"My parents were speechless. Totally. They'd sent me to him so that I'd return as an accomplished actor. Instead, I was now going to become a 'dos' ('ultra-Orthodox Jew)!"

In Jerusalem, he continued along the path to Judaism. Omri accepted upon himself, completely and absolutely, the yoke of religious observance, and totally became a part of the
Torah world.

On the advice of a Torah sage, Omri decided that he needed to make use of his acting skills and of everything he had learned in Italy, in order to increase awareness of Torah. He
and an actor friend, who was also returning to his roots, began to write skits that would teach children about their heritage.

"What we try to do is to use our acting skills to serve the greater public. We are tools to assist people in rediscovering their beliefs," explains Omri.

The duo began their work with no equipment, no scenery, and no props. They traveled, as they were, from school to school, and performed for children. Today, three years later,
there's no sector of society before whom the duo haven't performed - Yeshiva schools, Chassidic cheders, even some secular high schools. A highlight of their career was being
awarded a National Prize, in recognition of a play they wrote, and performed all over the country, about guarding one's speech.

There is one performance that to Omri will never forget. The school principal warned that none of his students could sit still for more than five minutes. Throughout the play, the
children sat unmoving, their eyes glued to the stage. Afterwards, one of the students, complete with a dyed blond, moussed, "mushroom-style'' hairdo, approached. There were
tears in his eyes. He had a tough appearance, but his heart was soft. "You spoke about prayer," he explained. "Never in my life did I cry as much as I cried just now."

Says Omri: "Keep in mind that we're talking about a teenager whose entire life is entwined in the Western culture, with all its ugliness. Yet the Torah message succeeded in
penetrating his soul, and awakening his faith. That is what is most moving for us." (The foregoing, researched by Aharon Granot, was submitted by Rabbi Aryeh Moshen.)

Mazel Tov to Ben Cohen on the occasion of his Bar Mitvah, from his parent's Eli & Naveh Cohen and his brother Matan.

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