True ahavas Yisrael means that no matter how different people may be, their commitment to each other triumphs over any and all barriers. This concept is something with which I was unfamiliar until I turned 20, when I somehow wandered onto a path that would forever change my life.
I’d always been intrigued by chasidim and even secretly aspired to be a yeshivah bachur, but it was nothing more than a fantasy. Whenever I drove down the streets of Brooklyn I’d see groups of black-and-white clad boys, a veritable army of pious adolescents a world away from my own. Then after my second year of college I found myself working for a diamond manufacturer from Kiryas Yoel. I was deeply impressed by the lifestyle of the chasidishe community and promptly decided that I wanted to join it—and no amount of nay-saying could stop me. Upon learning that my employer’s son was attending the Satmar yeshivah in Queens, I showed up on its doorstep one night in the middle of winter, stylishly dressed in black jeans and a knit kippah.
My initial encounter with the boys was scary and humbling. Although I had diplomas and certificates of achievement piling up on my desk at home, I was suddenly surrounded by boys who barely spoke English, let alone submitted papers critiquing modern literature. Still, they were way above my level, even though many of them were younger than I was. They were exactly the kind of bachurim I’d seen from afar all those years ago, and they could have easily dismissed me as their inferior, or even worse, a rachmanus case. Thankfully, I would never know what that felt like.
The first two weeks were awkward, and like all transitions in life, filled with moments when I second-guessed myself. What am I doing here? It’s not too late to turn back, you know. Everybody in the college will understand that you just went through one of those “phases,” followed by a moment of clarity when you realized you almost joined a crazy sect. Everyone who knew me from before was absolutely shocked by what I was trying to do, and it’s doubtful if I slept through a single night uninterruptedly.
But after that period ended and I kept coming back to yeshivah every day, things started to get even more serious. My former boss made sure that his son sat next to me every night at dinner, and his friends started warming up to me. Then, in an act of unbelievable kindness, a boy with a working command of English approached me in the lunchroom and informed me that he was going to be my chavrusa, and that I should buy one or two sefarim and we would have a standing shiur every night. Exactly what he had to do to get permission from the hanhalah is still unknown, but he made it his top priority to learn with me, even giving me books in English that would help with the basics of Yiddishkeit. After a couple of months of seeing my devotion to taking on the chasidishe lifestyle and realizing that I wasn’t turning back, he took it upon himself to help me acclimate, starting with teaching me how to pronounce the alef-beis with a Hungarian accent and learning to speak Yiddish.
Learning the language would prove to be key if I wanted to survive in the yeshivah, as many a night went by when I didn’t know exactly what dinner was. After all, in Long Island the term “beheimah fleisch” isn’t used all that often, and it was only after a few sumptuous meals that I realized it was brisket or steak, depending on the night. Nonetheless, the boys stood by me the entire time, even when I didn’t know what we were eating and they couldn’t tell me in English. We shared many wonderful times together, laughing at our linguistic gaffes.