Short Story: ‘And They Shall Return’

By Marcus Lehmann

Our family spent many summers in Tannersville, New York, a small village around two hours north of the George Washington Bridge. Considering that the eight or maybe nine weeks of the summer are very precious to us, it was certainly a rare occasion when we stayed home in Brooklyn for Shabbos. 

Yet, one of the very first weekends of the summer of 2019, due to certain circumstances, we found ourselves staying home in Brooklyn for Shabbos.

As disheartened as I was about staying home, in the back of my mind I knew there must be some higher reason Hashem wanted me to be in Brooklyn for this particular Shabbos. I would soon find out what that reason was.

Shabbos morning, an hour and 45 minutes after davening began, a young man walked into our shul — a midsized shtiebel in the heart of Flatbush. The young man, with long tzitzis hanging from either side of his pants, was dressed in a colored shirt with no tie, light blue pants, brown shoes and a knitted yarmulke with a big Star of David embroidered on it. He clearly stuck out from the other congregants and most definitely didn’t fit into the yeshivishe crowd of our shul.

After davening was over, I went over to the young man to wish him a gut Shabbos and to introduce myself. As I approached, I saw he had his finger on the siddur page and was still in middle of davening. In fact, it was only 30 minutes later — after he had fully caught up on his davening — that I was able to say hello and ask him his name.

He told me his name was Efraim and explained that he just returned from a year of learning in Israel. He planned on spending the summer in the States and hoped to return to Israel to continue learning for another year. 

The learning in the yeshivah he just left was not serious enough, and he planned to go to the Gesher program at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem for the following year. When he went for an interview at Aish in June — prior to his return to New York — he was told his learning was not up to par for admittance. 

I asked Efraim where he was staying, and he told me at his two older brothers’ apartment down the block. When I asked what his lunch plans were, he hesitated and said he was going back to his older brothers’ apartment to eat with them. I sensed lunch with his brothers wasn’t going to happen. When I asked, he admitted that when he left to come to shul, his brothers were still asleep, and that he may, in actuality, have to prepare some lunch and eat on his own. 

I ended up asking Efraim to join us for the seudah. I brought him home, and while my wife finished preparing for lunch, we learned some Gemara together. At around 2:00, Efraim announced that he’d better get back to his brothers as they may be nervous as to his whereabouts. I suggested he come back to our shul for Minchah and we could give him an aliyah. Perhaps I could learn with him a little after Minchah

From the onset, there was something about Efraim that impressed me greatly — his demeanor, his depth of knowledge and his philosophical outlook of Judaism. By the time the seudah was over, my wife felt the same and was grateful I had invited him.

Shabbos afternoon, Minchah in our shul is at 6, and Efraim arrived at 5:55! I asked him if, upon his return, his brothers were concerned as to his whereabouts. He meekly responded that they were still sleeping when he got back to the apartment!

Efraim was called up to the Torah at Minchah and stayed not only to learn with me for an hour but also stayed for the shul’s seudas shelishis. After Maariv and Kiddush Levanah, I wished him well, and we bid farewell.

Over Shabbos, I learned about this young man’s background. After a 10-year process, both of his parents converted to Judaism around 20 years ago, and 19-year-old Efraim was the first child born after the conversion. Interestingly enough, Efraim’s paternal grandfather was Jewish and married out; his mother was Catholic. Efraim went to various Jewish day schools but, due to various circumstances, did not acquire a high level of Torah learning.

It was Monday morning, after this most interesting Shabbos, that I thought to myself: Imagine anybody who had a hand in bringing Rabi Akiva — also the child of converts — to become the great Rabi Akiva. What a zechus it would be to somehow have a hand in bringing Efraim’s full potential to fruition. 

I remembered that Efraim told me he was returning to his parents’ home in Waterbury, Connecticut, for the summer. Hashem then put it into my head to call the yeshivah in Waterbury and ask about arranging for a Rebbi for Efraim. I figured if he could, perhaps, get his learning up to snuff, he could get into the Gesher program at Aish HaTorah after all.

I called the yeshivah, and the first Rebbi I was referred to was away in California. The second Rebbi’s wife just had a baby, and he was too busy. Finally, the third Rebbi — Rabbi Moshe Dov Heber — said he was available. And so, for an hour every single day for the rest of the summer, Rabbi Heber and Efraim learned Maseches Brachos. Some days they even learned for an hour and a half. Efraim was shteiging!

I also contacted the Rabbi at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem who had interviewed Efraim back in June and told him about what I was, b’ezras Hashem, trying to accomplish. Rabbi Green — who runs the Gesher program — agreed to revisit Efraim’s admittance, possibly at the end of the summer. 

Rabbi Heber was very impressed with Efraim’s devotion to his learning, and his growth in Yiddishkeit as well. Throughout the summer Rabbi Heber would send me nachas texts to let me know how well Efraim was doing. One after another they came in…

“Efraim got 20 words correct on his first try!”

“I tested him on the first 60 words, and he got 52 right.”

“Efraim just told me the steps of the Gemara perfectly — outside — on 18 lines!”

“Efraim just read 56 lines in a row perfectly.… I am so proud!”

“We were learning a mishnah today, and he asked the question and gave the answer of the meforshim!”

Every time a nachas text came in, I took a screenshot and forwarded it to Rabbi Green at Aish to apprise him of Efraim’s hasmadah and advancement. 

Finally, the end of the summer arrived, and it was time to call Rabbi Green in an attempt to make Efraim’s dream a reality. To be sure, there were lots of issues that had to be sorted out. Rabbi Green wanted Efraim to take a bechinah for admittance. Another big hurdle was arranging for tuition money. Finally, baruch Hashem, the call came in on the next to the last day of August — Efraim had been accepted to Aish HaTorah’s Gesher Program and could join the yeshivah for the Elul zman!

Everyone was euphoric. When Efraim decided to come to Brooklyn on Sunday of Labor Day weekend to say goodbye to his older brothers, I told him I’d like to meet him to say goodbye as well. During our conversation, I shared that I normally would have been upstate and how fortuitous it was that he decided to come to shul that Shabbos morning. “For the same money, you could have stayed in bed, and our paths would never have crossed,” I told him. Efraim responded, “In truth, I saw my brothers, and I was ready to turn over and sleep in as well, but I decided to come to shul instead.”

When I heard him say that, I was blown away. I told Efraim, “Wow, the all-powerful words of Chazal, ‘Habah l’taher mesayin Oso — He who comes to purify himself is helped by Hashem’ — was at play in a big way. You will now be learning Torah in an amazing yeshivah opposite the holiest place in the world — the Kosel Hama’aravi and the future home of the third Beis Hamikdash.” Efraim was certainly moved, as there were tears streaming down his face.

There were a few more hoops to jump through, and, Hodu laHashem ki tov ki l’olam Chasdo, Efraim landed at Aish for Elul zman and, baruch Hashem, did amazingly well. 

Efraim stayed at Aish for three full years. During that time, he grew tremendously in his middos and Torah knowledge. We stayed in contact and, through the assistance of a friend, Steve Eisenberg, I was able to arrange for Efraim to be set up with local Israeli families for the various Chagim

In June of 2022, I received an unexpected phone call — Efraim called to say that he was engaged to be married to a girl in Israel. I was so emotional that I could barely enunciate the words mazel tov.

Baruch Hashem, Efraim got married shortly thereafter and is now learning in a kollel in Yerushalayim. Although I couldn’t celebrate in person with him at his wedding because I was in aveilus for my father, a”h, I did participate from a distance. And I cried tears over what is and what could have been. n

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