Surrounded by majestic desert mountains, Neve Yaakov lies just north of Pisgat Ze’ev at the very edge of northeastern Yerushalayim. With its warm, friendly, out-of-town atmosphere and its acceptance of variety amidst its chareidi population, it’s no surprise that the growing community attracts many Baltimore families.
Back in the days when Neve Yaakov had fewer residents, Chaim and Ruthy Hersh joined its close-knit community. Raised in Baltimore, Ruthy, whose maiden name is Engles, forged a path for herself as a young adult, and years later merited to plant roots in Eretz Hakodesha. I listen as Ruthy happily shares her story with me.
As a child, Ruthy lived near Beth Tfiloh and attended school there until eighth grade, switching to Hebrew Academy in Silver Spring for high school. While in seminary at Machon Gold, Ruthy fell in love with Israel, and during her subsequent college years in Brandeis, she returned to Israel often to staff fellowships. Her involvement with the fellowships began during a winter break, when she saw a sign offering a cheap trip to Israel on Jewish Fellowships, an affiliate of Aish HaTorah. She was turned down because she wasn’t secular but was advised to apply as a madricha. This turned out to be Ruthy’s entry into the world of kiruv.
As a college student, Ruthy reached out to the many non-observant Jews on campus. She and her religious friends would make Friday night seudos for the other girls on their females-only floor. She would even attend all three minyanim every day to look out for other girls searching for religion and invite them to join her seudos. Ruthy rationalized that the possibility of a secular student going back to shul a second time if she didn’t feel connected the first time was slim, and this spurred her on to continue to attend the minyanim. In addition to Shabbos meals, Ruthy and her friend conducted a survey before the Yamim Noraim. Using a pretense that she was writing up a report from the results, they passed around sheets in the dining hall with trivia questions related to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Her plan was to point out the contrast between the secular students’ meager knowledge of their own Jewish New Year compared to their knowledge of the secular New Year. Ruthy did actually write an essay about her findings and the meaning of the Jewish New Year and handed it out to interested students.
After graduating with a BA in psychology and education, Ruthy returned to Baltimore and found a job at Yeshivat Rambam. Ruthy shares an episode that highlights how a small action can go a long way. One Shabbos, Ruthy made an effort to walk from her far-flung home to a frum shul quite a distance away. During the kiddush, Ruthy felt very much alone. She did not recognize a single person, and no one approached her. As she decided that this was the last time she would be attending that shul, a kind woman came over and warmly welcomed her. That one encounter strengthened Ruthy, and she began attending the shul frequently, in addition to forming a connection with the Rav. That Rav turned out to be instrumental in helping her grow closer to Torah and in moving to Eretz Yisrael.
The winter after college, Ruthy was back in Israel, staffing another Fellowship trip. It was during that pivotal trip that Ruthy decided it was time to make the move. Simply put, Ruthy felt spiritually fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael, like “a glove that fit.” She went home for two weeks to pack before returning to live in Israel. She did not officially make aliyah at that time, since the rabbis she consulted told her that settling in Eretz Yisrael permanently also depended on whom she would marry and where he wanted to live.
Ruthy began studying at EYAHT to further solidify her Yiddishkeit and grew close with Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg and the other rebbeim and rebbetzins who taught there. After Shavuos, she started working in the girls kiruv program, Jewel, as a madricha. That summer, Ruthy was ready to start dating and was given two suggestions. One bachur’s main quality was emes, truth, and the other was described as being idealistic. “I chose to meet the emesdik bachur,” says Ruthy, “because truth never changes, whereas idealism can come and go.” Fortunately, her meetings with that bachur, Chaim Hersh, resulted in their engagement. Originally from Silver Spring, Chaim was a baal teshuva learning in Aish HaTorah. Chaim and Ruthy shared the same values. They wanted a life of Torah learning while being involved with kiruv to reach out to the klal (community).
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The young Hersh couple began their married life in Ramat Eshkol and lived there for three years before deciding to move on to a more permanent community. The turnover rate of the many incoming and outgoing young Anglo couples in Ramat Eshkol was high, and Ruthy wanted friends who would last! After exploring several places, the Hershes chose to settle in friendly Neve Yaakov. Shortly after they moved, Ruthy’s married brother moved into the neighborhood as well.
The Hershes appreciate the large English-speaking community in Neve Yaakov but are glad that the overall atmosphere is Israeli and that their children are therefore becoming full-fledged Israelis. They value the relationship they were able to create with a well known mechaber sefarim, Rav Elazar Barclay, author of the Guidelines series, who is very accessible to the English-speaking community in Neve Yaakov. Indeed, a big benefit of living in Neve Yaakov is the proximity to the many chashuv people who live there, including chinuch habanim (childrearing) experts Rabbi Dov Brezak and Rebbetzin Sima Spetner, and of course the Mara D’asra, Harav Tzvi Webber, who is accepted and beloved by all.
“The Americans living alongside the Israelis are made to feel welcome and accepted,” says Ruthy. “People are friendly and will say hello to new faces in the makolet.” When the Hershes moved into Neve Yaakov, everyone knew each other, but it’s harder to know everyone now
because the community is growing and flourishing.
The Hershes live in Kaminetz, one of Neve Yaakov’s two distinct neighborhoods, which is completely shomer Shabbos. The other neighborhood, known as the “Mitchareid,” has a predominantly secular presence but is now changing as new frum families move in and secular ones leave. The secular families include many Russian and Ethiopian immigrants who joined Neve Yaakov during the mass immigrations in the 1990s. Ruthy thinks that secular Jews have a hard time staying because of laws that cater to Torah lifestyle, such as stores not being allowed to open on Shabbos, as well as not being used to the noise naturally generated by large families with many children. Although most of the frum families identify with the chareidi outlook, a sprinkling of dati leumi families live there as well. There are a variety of shuls, both Ashkenaz and Sefardi, as well as two chasidishe shuls, a Chabad and a Russian shul and two English-speaking minyanim.
An important benefit of living in Neve Yaakov, as compared to central Jerusalem, is that real estate is less expensive (although not cheap!), and the standard of living is lower. “People live simply, and there is no pressure to keep up materialistically with the neighbors,” says Ruthy. A disadvantage is that, being somewhat out of the way, the shopping is somewhat limited. It does boast a clothing and shoe store, a fully-stocked paper goods store, two large supermarkets, a post office, and a pizza shop. In addition, families sell items from their homes, such as baked goods, nuts, and sweets, and outsiders offer sales from time to time in local shuls. There is also a subsidized clothing store funded by a generous donor. Lots of chesed takes place, as well, such as subsidized food sales before Pesach, cooked meals for women after birth, and gemachim for medical supplies; the list goes on and on.
There are no banks in Neve Yaakov, so people travel to central Yerushalayim for banking and more variety in shopping. “The buses are good and come regularly,” says Ruthy, “so I don’t mind the approximate 25-minute bus ride to reach the Shmuel Hanavi commercial area.”
“Israeli chareidim are generally not very “into” restaurant eating so the lack of eating establishments is not a downside,” says Ruthy. She enjoys shopping for groceries at the heimishe makolet (small grocery) a few minutes from her home because of their friendly customer service. The store workers get to know their customers and deliver groceries to Kaminetz. One time after giving birth, Ruthy called the makolet to order food for the shalom zachor, and, as anticipated, it was delivered right to her door! Ruthy is very happy with the doctor and dentist clinics in Neve Yaakov and appreciates the English spoken in them.
As the northernmost neighborhood in Yerushalayim, Neve Yaakov benefits from being part of the city. On Chol Hamoed, buses are provided that go straight to the Kotel just as in the other neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. The city also sponsors the standard Shlucha Hachariedi program in their Matnas/community center. These are programs that run every week for women and kids. Activities include exercise for women; electronics and woodworking for boys; and jewelry making, painting, baking, and music for girls. There are even special lectures in English.
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Before moving to Neve Yaakov, Ruthy spoke to many people who were happy with the schools there. The choices include about four Ashkenazi and Sefardi chadarim and two Ashkenazi and one Sefardi girls school, which goes until eighth grade. Girls must leave the neighborhood for high school. The younger Hersh boys go to what Ruthy would describe as the Zilberman-style cheder in Neve Yaakov, Toras Ha’emek. By the end of third grade, the boys have finished Chumash with trop. They start mishnayos in fourth grade and gemara in the middle of fifth.
The nephew of Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zt’’l, Rav Avraham Yona Scheinberg, directs the yeshiva ketana high school, Nachlas Shmuel, in Neve Yaakov where the older Hersh boys go. The Hersh girls go to a private Bais Yaakov, Hatznea Leches, which is under the auspices of Harav Webber. There is also a special needs school. “The school system in Israel is very accommodating for children with special needs,” says Ruthy. “A special benefit is that the homes and schools for these children are run by Jewish and, in many cases, frum staff. Neve Yaakov is also home to two yeshivos for boys from chutz la’aretz (abroad), Bais Yisrael and Lev Aryeh.
The Hershes are very happy with their children’s schools and find that their own values are very much in line with the chareidi system that they placed their children into. Their children are accepted in their schools thanks to the effort Chaim and Ruthy put forth to learn the system. Conforming to the Israeli system was a high priority for Ruthy. Remembering her days in Beth Tfiloh and how the many Russians in her class stood out in their culture, dress, and food, she wanted her kids to fit in and not be looked upon as different from their Israeli classmates, now that she is the immigrant. Ruthy consults others to learn the ropes of the school system, like what to pack when the children go on tiyulim. Another example of something she had to learn is how bar and bas mitzvas are celebrated. The schools do not allow classmates to be invited to private parties, rather each student’s special day is celebrated in school. The schools created this system because of families’ different financial standards; they wanted to minimize conflict and jealousy. Since everyone gets the same treatment, students won’t compare their popularity among their peers.
Another difference Ruthy had to adjust to was the daily schedule. The girls get out of school early, at 1:00, and the boys walk home for lunch. Ruthy had to switch gears and cook the main meal at midday, as is customary in Israel. The boys then return to school, and, after putting in a full day (with only 45 minutes of secular studies each day), don’t get homework.
More school differences: For a week after a mother gives birth, the older daughters don’t have to do any homework; the schools understand that they are given more responsibility to help at home. It is common for older children to walk their younger siblings to school and pick them up. The schools expect technology at home to be as minimal as possible. Therefore, children don’t have cell phones, nor do they watch videos or play computer games after school. Instead, they ride bikes, play marbles, run around outside, and attend chugim (after-school organized activities). When Lag b’Omer comes around, all the neighborhood boys collect and drag wood for bonfires. Chaim and Ruthy’s willingness to understand and conform to the Israeli system has borne fruit. They are very happy with the schools and are grateful that their children are accepted as full-fledged Israelis.
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Aside from being a focused mother for her children, Ruthy is an inspiration to others in demonstrating what one woman can accomplish. For many years, Ruthy has been directing Aishet, a woman’s kiruv-training program. When Ruthy first moved to Israel, the idea for Aishet had been conceived by Jerusalem Fellowship, and she was asked if she could begin such a program. Ruthy agreed and started to recruit seminary girls taking part in Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminars. She had the girls fill out a form inquiring whether they were interested in doing kiruv. She then called each girl who responded in the affirmative, inviting her to join the first series of kiruv-training classes to be given after Pesach. It was such a hit that the next year, the UK’s program joined the newly-formed Aishet. The program continues to meet every other motzei Shabbos to train young women studying in seminaries to do kiruv and has been successful in giving them the tools and knowledge to reach out and inspire secular Jews.
When Ruthy married Chaim, he joined her in leading Aishet. He managed to get top expert kiruv figures to speak. Chaim also enlisted Rav Zev Leff to act as Aishet’s posek and turned the organization into an official non-profit organization. After three years of leading Aishet, Jerusalem Fellowships ran out of funding, but the Hershes knew that they couldn’t let down the 150 or so girls who were registered for the program, and began fundraising in America. Before long, Chaim decided he wanted to create a similar program for young men, and thus Achim was founded. Achim currently trains over 100 yeshiva bachurim yearly in kiruv. Other than his involvement in Aishet and Achim, Chaim has been able to continue his learning all these years, first in the Mir and now in a kollel of Rav Aharon Sklar, who is originally from Baltimore.
Although Ruthy runs Aishet as a volunteer, almost full time, she also travels to Neve Yerushalayim once a week to meet with departing students. She matches them up with Aishet girls who want to learn with them b’chavrusa in the States as well as with families who want to host them for Shabbos meals. Although Ruthy does this matching service as a chesed, she is able to use Neve’s dining hall and classrooms for Aishet programs in exchange. Concurrently, Ruthy acts as a liaison for Aishet students who want to become further involved with kiruv in the States.
Although the Hershes are actively involved in kiruv, one thing they do not do is host a large number of guests at their Shabbos table. “This stage in life requires us to focus our attention towards our children,” says Ruthy. “Even though it is important to reach out to other Jews, one’s own children take priority.” On the street, Ruthy greets both secular and frum women with her friendly, warm smile. She notices secular people like the woman at the post office and gets to know them, thus making a kiddush Hashem.
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Until five years ago, the Hershes were living happily in Israel without citizenship. They did not make official aliyah after their marriage because they were concerned that Chaim would be drafted into the Israeli army. Even though he would have gotten an exemption as a married avreich learning full time, they were concerned that laws might change. Chaim and Ruthy also were not sure about staying in Israel long-term. Plus, their families, although Zionistic, had a hard time being separated from their children and grandchildren, and a clear commitment towards living abroad would have made things even harder for them. Five years ago, after giving birth to their sixth child, the Hershes decided to solidify their resolve to live in Israel. With their aliyah official, Ruthy hopefully anticipates that her parents will join them in Israel one day.
Reflecting on her beginnings in Eretz Yisrael, Ruthy is thankful that she adjusted rather easily towards life here. Although part of her focus in college was Hebrew language and her skills were quite high, once she moved to Israel and didn’t practice speaking Hebrew, she slid backwards. “Years ago, we had a blackout,” she recalls. “I called the electrician but I didn’t know half the words I needed to explain our situation.” Nevertheless, Ruthy’s attitude is “You learn from your mistakes.” She also manages the differences in Israeli life by not being shy about asking advice from people with experience, as when learning the medical system.
Ruthy shares her feelings about the beauty of life in Eretz Yisrael. “It’s amazing to walk around and feel that everything here is Jewish; there are no feelings of being the underdog.” Even secular people who are not shomer Shabbos call Saturday Shabbat. Now, during Chanukah, the Yom Tov atmosphere is felt everywhere you go: “All the bakeries have donuts, and menorah decorations are set up on the streets, creating widespread observance and festivity that you don’t find in the States,” Ruthy states. “Until Mashiach comes, let us be able to celebrate all our Yomim Tovim the way they are supposed to be.”
Ruthy feels that since all of her grandparents are Holocaust survivors who lost their families in the war, this influenced her feeling of pride in who we are. Walking the streets of the Holy Land and looking around at the stone buildings, she muses with her children what the Land looked like years ago. The awesome feeling hasn’t changed from when she was 18 years old, experiencing Eretz Yisrael with fresh eyes. She gently explains to her children how Moshe Rabbeinu davened so hard to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, and they have such a wonderful zechus (privilege) to be able to live here. Ruthy believes that her deep feelings toward Eretz Yisrael run in her blood from the time when her great-great-grandparents traveled from Vilna to live in Eretz Yisroel several generations ago.
Ruthy advises those interested in aliyah that it’s much better to make the move when you’re younger, as it is very challenging to move with older kids. On the other hand, it’s not too late to make aliyah later in life after the kids are grown. Several such couples have moved to Neve Yaakov in their senior years. Ruthy recommends that men heed the saying, “A happy wife is a happy life.” She says, “It’s important to find a community that the woman will fit into and will feel comfortable establishing friendships. Having a good social network is very important for women, especially after giving birth without being surrounded by close relatives.” Ruthy is grateful that her experience in Neve Yaakov has been very positive. She truly feels at home in the community.
An aspect of Israeli life that Ruthy feels is often misunderstood is the “aggressive” stereotype that people assign to Israelis. She views this tough external mentality in a positive light. “People in Israel treat each other as one big family, brother to brother, letting their guard down. At times, as in families, there is arguing, but the thread of caring for the next one remains throughout. Unlike life in America,” she says, “people in Israel can be absolute strangers, but they really care.
“One time I was on a bus, and my baby was exhausted and started screaming. Everyone offered to help! One woman took the baby and pat her on the back thinking she needed to burp. Another woman thought the baby needed to nurse, while yet another woman made her way from the back of the bus and gave me a pack of brand-new pacifiers. Finally, the baby fell asleep!” And a much relieved Ruthy returned home reflecting on the generous outpouring of caring she experienced.
More recently, Ruthy was in the hospital with one of her children on a Friday night. She was all alone and unsure how Shabbos would be spent in the hospital. She didn’t have long to wait. A young boy soon made the rounds, making Kiddush in all the little cubicles. The warm experience of the young boy’s act of kindness stayed with Ruthy long after she returned home with her child. “Native Israelis are called Sabras, like the fruit of the sabra cacti that grow wild in Israel, because they are hard on the outside and soft in the inside,” says Ruthy, “There’s a lot of beauty in that.”