A couple of years after graduating from yeshivah high school and not finding satisfaction in the restaurant business or in teaching phys-ed, I decided to give learning another chance. The logical place to go was Eretz Yisrael, but I needed a yeshivah where the learning would be serious but where there would be no pressure. Ohr Somayach, the leading yeshivah for baalei teshuvah, was the logical choice. Anyone attending was there by choice, which brought with it a high degree of enthusiasm. Indeed, it was like no yeshivah I’d ever seen. The people I met there were so serious and so into what they were doing. Absolutely no aspect of Yiddishkeit was taken for granted. It was the perfect environment for an uninspired F.F.B. — a wake-up call of sorts.
And the Gemara learning was at a much higher level than I had imagined. I mean, these weren’t a bunch of guys being taught how to read and translate Aramaic. The shiurim were given by major talmidei chachamim, and the format of the learning was the standard yeshivishe lomdus. Seeing a long-haired baal teshuvah with a Bucharian yarmulke on his head arguing with a gray-bearded alumnus of Lakewood about how to understand pshat in Tosafos was a daily occurrence. It gave me a new taste for learning and eventually, after my kollel years, gave me the opportunity to get involved in harbatzas haTorah and kiruv rechokim. It also provided me with the following story, which extends over a period of some 28 years. All the names except my own have been changed.
I was learning in the beis medrash one day when Shlomo Werner came over to me. Shlomo had arrived in the yeshivah as Jason and had graduated from one of the top Ivy League schools. He was now fully frum and in the highest shiur, soon to leave and enter a mainstream yeshivah where he’d rub shoulders with top learners. He was someone I admired, both for his high intelligence and his fine middos. He was also an excellent athlete and we played basketball together on most Friday afternoons.
“Dovid, we’re going to be playing a basketball game against the Israeli Air Force,” he began. “The tachlis is to show them that not only have we frummies got them beat in ruchniyus, we can top them in the physical realm too. Would you like to be part of the team?”
I had played quite a bit of basketball in my life and he knew there was no way I’d turn down such an opportunity. “When do we go?” I asked.
“In about 20 minutes. There’s going to be an army jeep to take us. Make sure to bring your passport, because we’re going to the Air Force base and they won’t let anyone in without proper identification. Pack up and get ready.”
There were six of us in the jeep and we were very excited. What could be better than playing a basketball game l’shem Shamayim? We also felt pretty important. I mean, how many people get to enter a high-security Israeli Air Force base and have transportation provided besides?
The game was actually only a small part of a much bigger program which was in operation at the time. As part of its Jewish heritage program, the Israeli army would send groups of soldiers to Ohr Somayach’s Israeli division for a day or two to see what Judaism is about. They genuinely believed that no one would be affected by what a bunch of out-of-touch chareidi Rabbis had to say, and then they couldn’t be accused of not giving the soldiers some Jewish culture. Boy, were they ever wrong. Dozens of secular boys in green uniforms eventually returned to full Torah observance as a result of their brief encounter at Ohr Somayach, many going on to become serious talmidei chachamim.
One of those affected by such an encounter was Peter Lang, an American who had joined the Israeli Air Force. Peter knew next to nothing about Yiddishkeit before sitting in on one of the Ohr Somayach seminars, and then afterward wishing to find out more. He eventually became frum and started a program where he and others would come to the military bases to give lectures to the soldiers. He had spent the day at this particular Air Force base delivering lectures, and he felt that after all the intellectual stimulation, a demonstration of how normal we are by administering a beating on the hardwood would be a perfect ending.
It was a rough-and-tough game. We were American finesse ballplayers and they were — uh — Israelis. It could most accurately be described as tackle-basketball. We lost. But we did make a good showing, and they were impressed.
After the game, we had a private meeting with the base commander, who gave us a 10-minute lesson in flying F-16s. What we felt at the time is almost indescribable. Here we were, young Americans, and this Air Force colonel, who was one of the most striking individuals I’d ever met in my life, was taking the time to speak to us as if we were distinguished guests. He was a rare combination of confidence, humility and arrogance all rolled into one. Although over 30 years have passed since then and our encounter was brief, I still remember his face clearly, so strong was the impression he made.
There was also one thing he told us which really penetrated deeply. A pilot flying at twice the speed of sound can sometimes experience a condition called vertigo, where he loses any sense of direction. He doesn’t know which way is up or down, and if he’s out over a body of water he can be in big trouble, because if he pulls the plane in what he thinks is the up direction and in reality it’s down, he’s a goner. He has no choice but to trust the indicator on his panel, which tells him what to do.
“We train the pilots to put blind faith in that indicator,” the colonel told us.
I’ve used what he said many times since then in shiurim and lectures as a metaphor for life. Millions of people in the world are speeding through life with no sense of direction. No right or wrong, no up or down — nothing. Only one group of people, Klal Yisrael, has an indicator called Torah. It gives us direction and we follow it with blind faith.
We then returned to the yeshivah and that was the end of the adventure. Over the years I’d run into Peter — now Pinchos — once in a while, and we’d always end up reminiscing about that special day. The educational program he was involved in was stopped eventually by the military because it was simply too successful, which from their secular perspective was a failure
* * *
A couple of decades passed. My kids heard quite a few stories from me over the years, but for some reason or other I never told them about the basketball game.
One day I was walking with my 15-year-old son, and in the course of schmoozing I told him all about it. He was extremely interested and asked all sorts of questions, which I answered, and that was the end of it. Or so I thought.
The very next night I was at a chasunah and who should I run into but Peter! To me he will always be Peter. Once again we got to reminiscing about that glorious day.
“You know, two pilots who played in that game actually became frum,” he said nonchalantly.
“You’re kidding!” I practically shouted at him. “You never told me that little detail! I can’t believe it! Why didn’t you ever tell me? I’ll never forgive you.”
We laughed together.
“You mean from that basketball game two guys actually became frum?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t say that,” he answered, deflating me slightly. “There was a full day of lectures and involvement. But the game certainly contributed. Yeah, Gadi Muller and Avinoam Nir made it. Gadi is a Rosh Kollel and lives in Unsdorf. I think he has about 10 kids. He’s a massive talmid chacham. Avinoam was living in Bnei Brak last I heard and is still in kollel.”
I was listening to this open-mouthed and in a genuine state of shock. He’d never told me this before, and it was great to hear there were tangible results from that day. I didn’t imagine it was the game that did it, but it was nice to feel that perhaps I had some share in the happy outcome.
“Gadi’s father was so upset when he became frum,” Peter continued. “He was the deputy mayor of Be’er Sheva, and the last thing in the world he wanted or expected was that his brilliant pilot son would become a baal teshuvah. I think the correct word is ‘livid.’ I don’t think he stopped talking to him, but he was not a happy camper.”
We parted and I went home quite excited. “You’re not gonna believe who I saw tonight and what he told me,” I told my son and the rest of the family as soon as I walked in. I told them all the story of the game, and they were certainly spellbound, but I thought that was the end of it.
I was wrong. The coup de grâce was yet to come.
That Shabbos my oldest son was home from his yeshivah gedolah for the first time in about six weeks. On Leil Shabbos, after Kiddush and the first course, I told him what had transpired that week, emphasizing the coincidence of seeing Peter the day after telling my other son the story for the first time.
“What’s the name of the one who became a Rosh Kollel?” he asked.
I was surprised at the question. He’s never been the type of kid who’s interested in details such as names that have no bearing on anything. And I also knew he couldn’t possibly know the man. But he asked, so I told him. “Gadi Muller.”
“Was his father something or other in Be’er Sheva?” he asked.
I looked at him wide-eyed. “How could you possibly know that?”
He smiled. “His son was my chavrusa all of last year,” he announced.
We all spontaneously gave a yell. I was so excited I actually jumped up and high-fived my son. “There’s just no way!” I kept shouting. We were making so much noise that our neighbors later asked us what had happened. I mean, who in the world would have thought that a secular pilot with whom I’d played ball over 25 years earlier would ever reappear in my life — and with his son being my son’s chavrusa. It was just too far-fetched to be true. It was more like something out of an O. Henry story. But it still wasn’t over.
Two minutes later came the second shock of the evening. We had all sat back down in our places and my son asked what the name of the second pilot was. Again, I couldn’t understand why he was asking because again, it was so out of character for him. He had gotten lucky with the first name but the second name really couldn’t matter.
“I don’t remember,” I said. “I only know that it was a short name like “Nim” or “Bir” or something like that.”
He stared ahead for a few moments in concentrated thought and then excitedly asked “Is it Nir?”
“Yeah! How do you know?”
“His son is my roommate this year.”
We started shouting and dancing around the room again.
* * *
There’s so much more here than just the story of a remarkable coincidence. There is a commonly repeated idea that one never knows the end effects of his actions and the impression he’s making on others. Countless baalei teshuvah have related that the impetus for their religious renaissance came from some small act or other that they saw performed by a religious person. The thought that “if that’s how a frum Jew behaves then I want to be one” is often followed by commitment. I am genuinely skeptical about the long-lasting effects of a basketball game — but you never know. You just never know.
Several weeks passed. One night my 15-year-old walked through the door after a day in yeshivah. “Daddy, the story hasn’t ended yet” he said.
I was busy with something else as he said it, so I wasn’t fully focused. “What story?” I asked.
“You know, the business with the two pilots’ sons ending up in my brother’s yeshivah.”
I was suddenly very interested. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, I found out today that Gadi Muller’s younger son is going to be coming to our yeshivah next year!”
He was right. The story hasn’t ended. And we hope it never does. n