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Astonishing stories of return


As we approached Shabbat Shuva, teshuva, loosely translated as repentance but literally meaning return, was on my mind.

I have long been intrigued by teshuva personalities. In Tanach, even before the famous instance of King David’s sin and repentance, there were the People of Israel after the debacle of the Golden Calf. Moses believed that change was possible, so instead of dooming the nation, he fought for it to have a second chance. The personal stories of Judah and King David are part and parcel of complex, flawed people of greatness.

These personae of teshuva speak to the possibility of transformation, to the hard emotional work of change.

Many years ago, I met one of my younger sisters in the Boston airport as she was about to begin university. A dear family friend, Joel Orent, was kind enough to drive us to her campus. Throughout the drive, his brilliance flooded the car like a never-ending river with astonishing breadth and depth. I wish I remembered all his pearls of wisdom, but one thing from that car ride has stayed with me: Hillel Zeitlin and his son Aharon.

Born in 1871 into a Lubavitch family, steeped in tradition, Hillel Zeitlin was influenced by the Enlightenment as a teen and left traditional Judaism. He became a student of philosophy, a renowned writer, journalist and editor. After much intellectual wrestling, he later in life found his way back to observant Judaism. But more than that, he died as a symbol of Eastern European Judaism: in a drama of Biblical proportions, Hillel Zeitlin the defector was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto wrapped in tallit and tefilin, clutching the Zohar in his hands.

And then I learned of another, similar personality: the Yabloner Rebbe. To summarize, Rabbi Yechezkel Taub, a chasidic rebbe from Poland, was influenced by Rabbi Yeshaya Shapira, a pioneer chasidic rebbe who encouraged chasidim from Poland to move their communities to then-Palestine. Rabbi Taub, the Yabloner Rebbe, responded to this call and encouraged his chasidim to join him in the land of Israel. In 1925, they founded Kfar Chasidim. Among the many who lauded the Yabloner Rebbe’s efforts and came to be photographed with him were Lord Balfour, Lord Rothschild and Chaim Bialik.

But due to poverty and hardship, the project soured. Devastated, rejected by his chasidim, the Yabloner Rebbe left for America. He took the name George Nagel, shaved his beard and peyot, and stopped observing Shabbat.

After decades in the U.S. and success in the real estate business, now an older man, George Nagel decided to pursue a university education. He earned a BA and an MA in psychology and was recognized as one of the oldest people ever to do so. Finally, the Yabloner Rebbe found his way back to Kfar Chasidim. He reconciled with his followers. Although they had been angry with him for impoverishing them in Palestine, they now thanked him for saving their lives.

Had it not been for the rebbe’s harebrained scheme to leave Poland and build a chasidic community in Palestine, they would have all been murdered in the Holocaust, which, in fact, had been the fate of their families left behind.

The Yabloner Rebbe returned to a life of Judaism. He returned to his birth identity and name and lived out his years in Kfar Chasidim, where he is buried today. The inscription on his headstone refers to him as the Yabloner Rebbe.


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