Meandering the quaint, winding alleyways of Nachlaot, I feel transported to an earlier era. This intriguing enclave in central Jerusalem is sandwiched between the busy thoroughfare of Rechov Yaffo, Machane Yehuda shuk, the quieter residential neighborhood of Sha’arei Chesed, and the expansive, grassy Sacher Park. Nachlaot’s various neighborhoods date back to the late 1870s, when overcrowding in the Old City caused a notable portion of its population to relocate. Many artists as well as colorful residents of all types and stripes live here create a mystique and vibe of diversity and inclusion. My curiosity is piqued. I want to know more about Nachlaot and meet its residents.
I head toward the home of Tzvi and Shaindel Deutsch and chat with Shaindel about her aliyah journey over a cup of tea. Shaindel Siskind Deutsch was born and raised in Baltimore until age 12, when she relocated to Israel with her parents and two brothers. The year was 2001, and Shaindel’s parents, Mark and Paula Siskind, had been contemplating aliyah for several years before deciding on the right time to make a go for it. The Siskind children did not make official aliyah together with their parents, so that they would be able to get their own aliyah benefits later on in life if they chose to remain in Israel.
I ask Shaindel how she experienced the move as a teenage girl. She responds, “It was super hard. I was really excited about it in the beginning until I realized that it meant not being in Baltimore with all my friends.” The Siskinds settled in Efrat, and Shaindel began a regular Israeli school immediately. It was only a few months later that they realized that it was not working out for her there. Although in Baltimore Shaindel had gone to Rambam and had spent a short time in Bais Yaakov as well, she was unprepared for the foreign language in her new environment, where everything sounded like gibberish. The language barrier was a challenge, because Shaindel is by nature a very sociable person.
She switched to a school in Baka, commuting every day from Efrat to Yerushalayim. In this school, the student body was comprised of olim chadashim (immigrants), and classes were formed based on each student’s Hebrew level as opposed to age. She received a heavy dosage of ulpan (language instruction), and Hebrew, at whatever level, was the spoken language among her new circle of classmates and friends. She laughs at the memory of how she stopped talking entirely to her friends back in Efrat until she felt confidant enough to speak to them in Hebrew.
Four years later, Shaindel moved back to the States by herself for high school and attended an open religious Jewish school in New York. She describes her reasoning to go back: “It was hard for me to find my groove in Israel, and I just felt like I would be happier in the States.” After high school, Shaindel resumed living with her parents, who had moved back to Baltimore, and started cosmetology school and her career in hair salons. After finishing cosmetology school, Shaindel felt an urge to go on vacation and spend some time in Israel with her older brother, who was still living there.
“The minute the plane landed, I felt I would not be able to leave Israel,” she recalls. Aside from being on vacation, the trip was meaningful for Shaindel in other ways: “I was already on my spiritual journey seeking truth, connecting to G-d. I wasn’t religious then, but I was in my own space with spirituality and looking for meaning. While in Israel, I kept on having these hashgacha pratit moments. I would be walking down the street and thinking, ‘Okay, G-d, if you want me to live here, just give me a sign.’ And then all of a sudden it started pouring rain.
Another time, Shaindel was near the shuk with her laptop when it started raining out of the blue. Totally unprepared for the rain, Shaindel ran into a shop to buy an umbrella. There was no reason for the storekeeper to think that Shaindel was a tourist, but he proceeded to ask her if she lived in Israel. She answered him honestly in the negative, to which he replied, “You need to live here!” And this was after Shaindel had once again asked Hashem to send her a message if she should live in Israel. Some of her doubts were that she had just started her hairstyling career in Baltimore and was hesitant to begin again in a foreign country.
* * *
Returning to Baltimore, Shaindel started filling out the aliyah papers with Nefesh B’Nefesh, even as she was still struggling with her doubts. Shaindel was 20 years old at the time, and was connected to Buddhism through literature and a yoga Hindu movement in Baltimore. “I felt Judaism was so exclusive,” she says, “and had trouble with people telling me to do things or not to do things based on what the Torah says. I had a lot of confusion in my younger years of what’s okay and what’s not okay. To me, Israel was associated with the Jewish religion and I was not holding there. I thought I would have to become religious or something by moving there.”
However, her “wild experiences” of hashgacha moments followed her to Baltimore. She recalls one such episode: “I had gone to sleep after doing paper work, with my head spinning, wondering how I could leave? How would I make money? I opened my eyes in the morning to notice the can of hairspray on my bedside table with the large letters, ‘BS”D’ (acronym for ‘with the help of G-d’) on it. It was bizarre; I had certainly never noticed that before.”
Ultimately, Shaindel felt enough “G-d winks” pointing her in the direction of aliyah to make her brave move. Even so, Shaindel muses, “The whole move came from a spiritual longing; I just didn’t want to be brainwashed. I felt I had seen a lot of brainwashing and people doing things not from the place of connection to G-d but from a place of this-is–what-we–have-to-do-don’t-think-about-it. I was in this period of enlightening my consciousness to connect, and I did not want to lose that. I wanted to remain open enough to be able to go on my journey without feeling forced by being told to do certain things”
Upon arriving in Israel, Shaindel rented a studio apartment in Nachlaot, where she had connections and friends. On day two, Shaindel put on her prettiest clothing and made the rounds of the salons in town, looking for work. “I experienced some serious horror stories with secular people taking advantage of me, a young innocent new olah,” she recalls, although she recognizes that similar situations can happen anywhere in the world and were not a reflection of most Israelis. Shaindel eventually found work in a salon and stayed there for about half a year.
* * *
Overall, Shaindel’s adjustment back into Israeli life was fairly smooth. Hebrew fluency was not immediate, although she had spoken Hebrew years before. But her language skills came back, with the bonus of being able to speak Hebrew without an American accent. She also felt comfortable living with the many Anglo olim in Nachlaot, with whom she could identify.
On Friday nights, although she wasn’t keeping Shabbos yet and would not go with her religious friends to shul, Shaindel also couldn’t bring herself to hang out in bars or go out to the movies. Instead, she would sit in her apartment and paint. “I couldn’t figure what to do with the obvious shift in time upon the arrival of Shabbos,” Shaindel explains, and then describes how she broke her own rules about becoming religious. One of her friends in Nachlaot asked her time after time to join her for Friday night kabbalas Shabbos. Shaindel finally agreed and went along to Rabbi Raz Hartman’s V’ani Tefila shul, where she felt a deep connection resonate within her. “They sing everything; there’s this beautiful harmony, an orchestra of tefila. I was blown away. I had never experienced anything like that before. It was so moving, and I just knew that that was what I needed.” This was the beginning of her return to religious life.
Shaindel continued to work 10-hour workdays in addition to making time to attend local Torah classes. Some time later, she studied at a midrasha in Bat Ayin for nine months. Returning to Yerushalayim to work again, she took up residence around Davidka Square in the center of Jerusalem. Her encounters with the salon scene in Israel were very different from what she was used to in the States. In Israel, she explained, there are more male stylists, and, “when you combine male energy and beauty, it becomes gross very quickly.” She was also used to earning a lot more money in less time.
After jumping around among various salons, Shaindel found a place where she was happy and worked there for two years. Sadly, her boss died in a tragic motorcycle accident while Shaindel was visiting her family in Baltimore. At that point, she began working from home and also started Mechina at Hebrew University. Mechina classes prepare students for the university, and offer Hebrew language classes as well. Shaindel felt it was too similar to high school and a waste of time. She found that her style of learning was not compatible with the strict classroom setting but was more hands-on and interactive.
Realizing that her real interest was to study psychology and work with people, Shaindel found a “transpersonal” psychology program at Reidman College and started the four-year program. Started by Sally Reidman, an American olah, Reidman College has branches in several locations in Israel, where classes such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, naturopathy, massage, and transpersonal psychology are taught. Although the college was not accredited when Shaindel enrolled, accreditation was being sought.
The field of transpersonal psychology began in America in the 1960s and focuses on transcendence beyond the ego to understand one’s true identity. The therapy offers holistic healing for the mind, body, and soul, in contrast to traditional psychology, which focuses primarily on the mind and emotions. After about two years of studying psychology along with meditation techniques in Reidman College, Shaindel started to question the halachic aspect of what she was being taught. Before beginning the program, her rav in Nachlaot, Rabbi Shalom Brodt, had warned her to be careful to be on the lookout for studies that involved avoda zara. Now that Shaindel was actually experiencing questionable practices, she tried addressing the program’s administration about her conflicts, but they were not receptive to her not participating in certain classes or activities.
At the same time, the yad Hashem led Shaindel to be introduced to a healer in Tzfat, Hilla Dvir, who would become her spiritual guide for studies in health and healing. Shaindel decided to move to Tzfat to intern with Hilla. It was disappointing to leave Reidman, because there is no other program in the country that teaches transpersonal psychology. “It was so hard to accept that something that seemed so good for me was not good for me,” says Shaindel. But upon meeting Hilla, Shaindel saw that she had the missing piece that Reidman lacked, which brought the practice of healing into kedusha, which was really important for her. While in Tzfat, Shaindel continued to work in Yerushalayim once a week to support herself.
* * *
Little did Shaindel know that she would meet her soulmate in Tzfat as well. Tzvi Deutsch, a Brooklyn boy, was learning in Ohr Somayach, and while on a Shabbaton with the yeshiva in Tzfat, he fell in love with the atmosphere and decided to move there. This was just around the time Shaindel moved to Tzfat as well. Shaindel first met Tzvi at an open jam on Chanukah but did not connect in a deeper way. Several people suggested that they date, but Tzvi wasn’t ready. It wasn’t until Pesach that Shaindel met Tzvi again at a barbeque and they started dating.
A few months ago, after celebrating their wedding in Tzfat, the young couple moved to Yerushalayim to start their wig business. They chose to live in Nachlaot because they feel the most comfortable there. They also have lots of friends in the neighborhood, and Shaindel’s brother lives there, too. Another benefit of being in Nachlaot is that they are able to travel easily to places like Har Nof, Bet Shemesh, and Bnei Brak to offer sales and develop relationships with other wig businesses interested in selling their brand of wigs.
Tzvi and Shaindel’s business is a franchise of Fortune Wigs in America, with sales in the MazaliTM line of wigs. Shaindel says that the wigs are unique in that there is no other line in Israel with such high-quality hair at relatively low prices. Another dimension that Shaindel is trying to focus on is the emotional aspect for many women who cover their hair. She views her business as another way she can benefit others from a place of healing and is happy to provide her wigs to women to enable them to feel comfortable with covering their hair.
Shaindel appreciates the time she spent in Tzfat and feels that she did a lot of internal work with Hilla, drawing closer to her own inner self and identifying more with who she wants to be. “I learned how to live and work, give and receive,” she says. In the future, Shaindel would love to study craniosacral therapy and toys with the idea of going back to Reidman one day – setting boundaries with what she will and won’t do. Right now, her concentration is on the wig business, and she is channeling all that she's learned about working with people into her art form.
* * *
Describing life in Nachlaot, Shaindel points out the many baalei teshuva and other people, whether religious or not, who are into holistic lifestyles. Young Israelis and Anglos in their 20s and 30s live there, as well as growing families. They are looking to make changes in themselves and to create a better world around them, whether in politics or community life. It’s a spiritual, hippy place with various levels of religious practice. What’s special is that people are friendly and willing to help out the next one irrespective of religious beliefs. There’s a chareidi section in Nachlaot as well, which is gated to uphold a more sheltered lifestyle. “The common denominator in our community,” says Shaindel, “is that people are into conscious living.”
Nachlaot has a very high concentration of shuls, both longstanding and newer ones. One popular shul is Kol Rina, known for its beautiful Carlebach-style nigunim. Tzvi and Shaindel have been attending an Anglo shul, called Kehillat Chaverim, a community-style shul with a modern chasidic vibe of spirituality. It embraces the type of chasidic learning that involves tikun hamiddos and developing a personal relationship with Hashem. In general, Nachlaot has many kinds of Torah classes to choose from, along with meditation groups, yoga classes, and alternative living workshops, which include herbal medicine and healthy living.
* * *
Looking back at her aliyah, Shaindel muses on some large life lessons she gained as a new olah. When she first started working with Israelis, she saw as a truism the common belief that Americans are culturally more polite and courteous. It took some time to acclimate to her new work scene and Israeli culture. After a while, however, her perception changed. “What I learnt through those difficulties is that there’s no such thing as a stereotype. People say Israelis are one way and other people are another way, but people are people.” She believes that how you treat others is by and large how people will reciprocate in their behavior. “Even when speaking to the most annoyed person, there’s no space for someone to treat you rudely if you are really owning who you are and being authentic,” she says.
Reflecting on her internal growth, Shaindel remembers how, when working in high-end hair salons in Baltimore, she encountered all kinds of celebrities and was quick to judge who was walking into the salon based upon externals. “I would make a story in my mind how I would respond to them according to who they were,” she recounts. “Of course, this was pretty subconscious. I learned to take the responsibility away from the other person and put it back onto myself. It’s the attitude of – I can be who I am, and that is more than perfect.”
Another lesson Shaindel learned from her aliyah was how to stand up for her needs. While working for her last boss, she was tired of the long hours and having no life beyond work. In the past, her boss had brushed off her requests for time off, until one day, Shaindel approached him again and said straight out that she needed two mornings off per week. His response was a curious, “Why?” Shaindel recalls, “I was embarrassed to say this to him but I said, ‘Because I want to learn Torah.’ He stopped what he was doing and said, ‘You want to learn Torah?! Why didn’t you tell me this before? Of course you can come and go when you want to learn Torah.’ He even joked, ‘Maybe I’ll come with you!’” It was a moment of truth for Shaindel as she realized that her needs are valid and cannot be compromised.
Shaindel believes that an advantage to making aliyah while single was that she had no other responsibilities tying her down. Even so, she shares her outlook about Eretz Yisrael. “All the other ways of functioning we have learned elsewhere are not the way here. Eretz Yisrael is run only on emuna (faith). It’s about letting go and learning how to believe.”
Her favorite piece of Torah on this topic is from Rav Nachman of Breslov. “When the Spies came to look at the Land and called it, ‘eretz ocheles yoshveha – a land that consumes its inhabitants,’ Rav Nachman has a completely different peirush on it,” shares Shaindel. “Eretz Yisrael is the bechina (test) of emuna, and the Land will eat away at you until all you are is emuna. You will keep encountering situations that peel away your layers of false beliefs – such as needing the right job or a certain amount of money in your bank account bank to live here. This will happen until you are able to be a complete vessel of emuna. I think the way to do this is to tap into your bitachon and recall the last time you needed something, and it completely worked out.”
Shaindel concludes with the thought that since Eretz Yisrael was given to all of Am Yisrael, it can’t be that a Jew “won’t make it here.” Although it’s important to be flexible with employment and to find the best community for you, ultimately, if someone’s desire is deep enough, they will remain here and, b’ezrat Hashem, be matzliach (successful).