Rabbi Israel Itshakov: On Those Who Heal The Soul

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The appearance, authority, prestige and popularity of any cultural and religious center, including Beth Gavriel, to a large extent depends on the degree of preparedness, professionalism, natural talents, and abilities of those who provide virtually around the clock, under various circumstances, the spiritual life of the community, its organizational structure.

Our center has been operating on a continuous daily basis since August 1997. Since its founding, it has expanded and brought many new congregants under its roof. Hard to imagine that Beth Gabriel opened its doors only one or two times a week on Shabbat. That’s how it was nearly a quarter century ago.

As the number of congregants grew, the Center ran on continuous mode. With time, thanks to the perseverance and tenacity of its leadership and activists, the organization became the property of the community.They laid the foundations of life-affirming and multifaceted functioning of the spiritual life with several daily minyans, Kollel Beth Din (religious court), the Russian-language Beth Gavriel monthly magazine since 2000. Then in September 2017 the bilingual Bukharian Jewish Link was launched, publishing twice a month. The center hosts the Shaarei Zion Ohel Bracha yeshiva for children from preschool age through high school; the Tiferet Zion yeshiva, numerous programs for people of various age and social status. A wide variety of rituals, including weddings, brit milah, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, and many others, are performed at the center..

One of the mainstays who has been with the synagogue since its beginning, growing in his Judaism and everything connected with it is Rabbi Israel Itshakov, who has steadily and successfully been leading the Beth Gavriel youth minyan. Its members are the future of our community.

If, moreover, we take into account that modern young people, as a rule, are mostly well-educated and socially well-off, then it will become more clear that in order to captivate them with the secrets of the Holy Scriptures, extraordinary abilities are necessary. This is our conversation with Rabbi Israel Itshakov.

Veliyam Kandinov Introducing you to a wider audience, it would be appropriate to share your bio. Who you are, where you come from, and of course, what prompted you to connect your destiny with a calling so important in Judaism as a rabbi. In content and in form this kind of activity is akin to healing souls. They would not accept mediocre people in their ranks, without a spark of God. The Creator clearly endowed you with these advantages.

Rabbi Israel Itshakov It is not for me to judge how much according to my personal characteristics, I approach the criteria that you quite justifiably deduce as the main advantages that a rabbi should possess.

Kandinov – Why, judging by the fact that you have been working in a youth group for more than 20 years and as far as I know, enjoy recognized authority, which not every mentor can achieve, we have every reason to emphasize that professionally you without a doubt, are in place.

Itshakov: Thank you. Concerning for my “personal data,” you will not find anything sensational. Everything is very ordinary, not unlike thousands of my peers and fellow tribesmen. After my older brother, I was the second child, born in Samarkand in 1967 to Yakov-Hai Itshakov and Mazal Aminova. After me, they had a daughter. I can’t say that I was lucky from an early childhood to learn and absorb all the necessary nuances of the laws of Jewish life.

Most likely, our family was among those who had ideas and tried to observe Jewish holidays by visiting the synagogue on those days. But no more than that. A common and fairly widespread story with Soviet Jews.

1973 was a turning point for our family. As soon as the doors for immigration were opened, my parents decided to leave for Israel as soon as possible. They left immediately. I was only five and a half years old when we ended up in a new country that was so unlike our former Samarkand home, and it was during the Yom Kippur War.

Kandinov: – How were you connected with a religious childhood education and upbringing?

Itshakov: – In my case, this happened by chance. But given that in each case there are necessarily elements of necessity and patterns, then my example is a colorful confirmation of this obvious fact.

My father happened to meet a close friend from Samarkand, Rabbi Boris Schiff, who was serving as director of a boys yeshiva. He strongly recommended that my father give his two children to his yeshiva under his responsibility, providing many arguments in favor of such a step. My father followed his friend’s advice. That is how I received my religious education, 12 and a half years in all, elementary school through high school.

It was an educational institution that is difficult to classify as strictly orthodox. Most likely it was an orthodox yeshiva of a modernist direction, which allowed students to get basic ideas about Judaism, but not the ones that are required for professional entry into the world of Holy Scripture and all that is connected with it.

Kandinov: Judging by your reputation, you managed to go much further, to connect with Judaism as a way of life, thought and action, without which it is hardly possible to achieve results in this special world, especially as a rabbi who also specializes in working with youths. As a rule, your work requires serious arguments in discussions, and the ability to convince the audience, which imposes many higher demands on the rabbi-teacher. How did you succeed in this effort?

Itshakov: – That is a logical question. I’ve served for three years in the IDF Air Force as a unit commander, providing communications between aircraft and ground targets in order to avoid mistakes, which takes place in a combat situation, potentially leading to tragic consequences, and I learned a lot. First of all – life and the price of relationships between people.

On March 2, 1990 my brother and I arrived in New York as tourists, our first outing into the world as is customary after army service in Israel. I’ve strayed far from religion, God, and Torah. But somewhere in the depths of my soul doubts were growing every day: “Why am I without a kippa, without God in my soul? What will be the end to my unbelief? The result is obvious: I will become one of those who thoughtlessly go with the flow, subject to the development of circumstances, like the thousands of my fellow tribesmen who surround me everyday.” At that time, I was working long hours at a car service, trying to earn a living in a strange foreign country. Time flew by swiftly. The elder brother had already managed to start a family and become the father of two charming girls. This awaited me ahead. Glory to Gd, today I am at the head of a large family, and my wife and I are now grandparents.

Kandinov: Family is a great fortune to have. But how did you manage to overcome your spiritual doubts?

Itshakov: Doubts, as you know, have at least two features: they either lose their strength over time, giving way to confidence, and then the desired goal; or they continue to control the actions of a person who rushes from side to side and is unable to moor his boat to the right bank.              One day I was picking up a fare in one of the Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn. It was a woman with a girl who was 14 or 15 years of age. Word by word, seeing a kippa on my head, and feeling good ground, she asked: “Do you have tefilin?” Hearing a negative answer, she suggested writing down the address where one can get tefilin on credit. A moment later, I miraculously managed to avoid a ticket for an expired parking spot in the process of searching for the specified house, like a signal from the Creator: “Act on it, you are on the right track.”

On that very moment, when my doubts literally overnight were overcome with confidence where and how to go in the name of my own future and future family. There was a strong desire to observe Shabbat, to reconsider my attitude towards television, and many other things that changed my everyday life, made it more meaningful, allowed me to catch the first symptoms of internal consistency with oneself, which is so lacking in many of today’s youth.

I should note that the emergence of closeness between the Creator and man, judging by my personal experience, although it is a purely individual phenomenon, but having one common parallel at the same time: the desire to acquire a universal compass or, in modern times a navigator, leading through life for nearly six millennia is the Torah. My fate in this regard is no exception.

Kandinov: – And still I would like to once again hold your attention to the secret of your more than 20 years of success as a rabbi in a youth audience?

Itshakov: – There is no secret to this. Everything here is open and simple. I first crossed the threshold of the Beth Gavriel Center more than 22 years ago when it was just getting on its feet. This is a special and unusual organization due to the fact that from its cradle it had people deeply devoted to its work, embracing a huge desire to change the world around us for the better.

I rose to my feet professionally through our Center, studied, and self-taught not from under the stick, because it is necessary, but because it is impossible in a different way, it won’t work, because I dreamed day and night to master the secrets of the very compass that will lead me in life.

Every day standing before the congregation, sharing my knowledge, I studied myself as if rising to a new higher level. My listeners see and feel that I never “play” with them, I am extremely frank and honest, I speak about what excites them and me equally. This is the best way to get to the truth with your students, to get rid of doubts, and sometimes from pain, moral discomfort, of which there are quite enough in our troubled and stressful world.

Kandinov: In your opinion, what worries our youth today most of all?

Itshakov: – On the one hand, America is such a fertile country that everyone who strives for success and who puts his strength and soul into it can reach the highest level. But, on the other hand, life is not hassle-free, and our young people have more than enough of them.

There is no doubt that the excess of goods here corrupts a person (“odamo a siri mas shudan”). Many moral values were shaken from us here, serious problems appear in marriages, a large number of young people aged 25-45 years hesitate to advance their personal lives and family relationships are broken up without a shadow of doubt.

Kandinov: Is there a remedy for these afflictions?

Itshakov: The solution is in our hands. First of all, the Torah with its 248 positive and 365 negative commandments. Anyone who goes through life, guided by this compass, is 100 percent sure, as I know personally, will not get lost and will not turn away from the right path.          As for the difficulties in terms of family problems, I think that a lot of things here arise on the basis of elementary ignorance and illiteracy on this matter. It is advisable that everyone intending to start a family should be required to undergo a special paid training course under the supervision of a rabbi for 3 months. Let us agree that the family is not an easy science, and therefore literacy in this matter is no less important than in any other matter requiring high professionalism. The same is desirable for the parents of the newlyweds.           By the way, the experience of Beth Gavriel speaks of so many young people who managed to find their happiness in their personal lives.

Kandinov: – I cannot disagree with you. I want to wish you good success in such a noble cause that has become the meaning of your whole life. Accept my heartfelt appreciation. I think that this is only your first interview, because I feel that we will have something to talk about in the future more than once.