Rabbi Zev Shandalov
by Asaf Cohen

By Toby Klein Greenwald

I need to open with a small disclaimer. I have not really known the author of this book, Rabbi Zev M. Shandalov, as an adult, other than as a Facebook friend. But when he was a child, his father was the director of Camp Moshava in Wild Rose, Wisconsin, where I spent the most glorious summers of my life. His very kind parents, Rabbi Ben, of blessed memory, and Simmie, may she have long life (who Rabbi Zev calls “The driving force” behind his father), exemplified everything that was good in religion and in Zionism. We would see little Zev and his siblings around camp, and when we were in the older counselor-in-training program, I even babysat for them a few times. Those summers were probably among the most significant in my decision to live in Israel someday.

I tell this story because it is rare that one is witness to the atmosphere in which an author has spent time as a child, and then meets him again as an adult. Obviously, Rabbi Zev’s parents did something right.

Rabbi Zev Shandalov served as a rabbi for ten years at the Modern Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago, Illinois. He and his wife Andy and their three daughters made aliyah in 2009 to Maale Adumim, Israel.

There are ten chapters in this 100-page book, in which Rabbi Shandalov has compiled ten years of his Yom Kippur sermons, which opens with a letter of recommendation by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union. He imparts his messages through images and imagery. There are three images in each sermon, 30 in the whole book. I assume they are abridged, and if not, then he had lucky congregants, eh?

Perhaps I connected with this little book so intuitively because, as a theater director, playwright, and photographer, I think visually, but I think that anyone will find these images and stories alternately moving, entertaining, and inspiring, and sometimes all three.

Even better, you will probably find yourself remembering your own stories that are inspired by these, thus enhancing your personal memories.

The images are sometimes memories of things the rabbi has experienced, and sometimes images that he conjures up in his mind to help him get through a difficult experience, or to help him to help one of his congregants.

For example, one of the first memories in the book is one that Rabbi Shandalov had when the electricity in the shul, the same shul he would serve in as a rabbi many years later, went out. The chazzan said the Kol Nidrei prayers by candlelight, with the congregants repeating every word after him. From this he extrapolated to “It was…the most spiritual and special Kol Nidrei of my life…I believe it served as a paradigm for what the day is all about. We were all in the dark…There was much confusion and murmuring…our entire kehillah (congregation) banded together…We all approached G-d unified as one people.”

In another chapter, he tells the well-known story of the man who carries two buckets, one with a crack in it that always arrived back half empty, but in the course of time the man discovers that exquisite wildflowers have blossomed on the side of the road where the water provided a steady drip. Rabbi Shandalov asks, “How do I find a way to serve Hashem with my shortcomings?” It reminded me of the mid 90s when I was teaching creative writing in a school for boys with ADHD. I said then at a fundraising evening (prophetically), “If I were stranded on a desert island with no way off, I’d want to be there with boys from this school, because they would find a way.” Today, more than 30 years later, one of those students commands an award-winning search-and-rescue dog unit in Israel.

My one criticism of the book is the image that Rabbi Shandalov cites in Chapter 3. He describes his visit to Birkenau (Auschwitz II), in Poland, and while standing in the guard tower, he imagined the Nazi commanders below deciding who would be sent to their deaths, and who would live. “It was as if I were witnessing a Yom Hadin (Judgment Day),” he writes. “I closed my eyes and…I wondered what must have gone through the minds of the terrified men, women, and children…” But later, he writes “This idea is reminiscent of U’Netaneh Tokef (“Let us speak of the awesomeness”)—one of the most inspiring passages that we read on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur…” and he continues the analogy that “all human beings pass before G-d on this day…” I sent the rabbi a voice note that I found that image disturbing, and even though I understood his thinking, I could not bring myself to compare the decisions of G-d to the Nazis, whatever the good intentions of the message, and even though he added in that chapter “l’havdil elef alfei havdalot (in total contradistinction) …” He replied, “I have no problem with someone saying they don’t agree with something I wrote… B’simcha (‘With pleasure’)… I like hearing things like that. It’s very helpful.”

A tense and very Israeli image is described by the rabbi in Chapter 5, when he writes about the 2006 Lebanon War. After the capture of Gilad Shalit by Hamas in Gaza, and Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser up north, followed by katyushas on the northern border, the IDF entered both Gaza and Lebanon. A short video clip went viral. It was of four or five soldiers inside a tank, reading Tefillat HaDerech (Traveler’s Prayer) by the light of a flashlight. “However,” writes the rabbi, “the soldier…is not reading… like someone taking off in an airplane…He is reading it with a full heart, knowing that it may be the last prayer he says in this world.” He adds later, “Our prayers on Yom Kippur are the Tefillat HaDerech for the upcoming year.”

He sees meaning in even trivial items. Yehiel, a child in his neighborhood, suffered a severe head injury. Following a miraculous recovery, Rabbi Shandalov continued to save his visitor’s pass from the local hospital where Yehiel was treated and writes that he continued to look at that visitor’s pass before every single tefillah. “I reminded myself that we are all given a visitor’s pass when we are born. Throughout life, we get battered and bruised. Like Yehiel, we too can recover with Hashem’s help…We come, we visit this world, and then we leave.” And he quotes Rabbi Yaakov who said, “This world is like a hallway leading to the Next World. Prepare yourself in the hallway in order to enter into the Great Hall.”

He writes about a friend, David, who, following a difficult encounter with a new boss at a place where he had worked for 25 years, was considering leaving his job. He went for a walk and “coincidentally” bumped into an old friend, who told him he had started a new company and, after they spent some time reminiscing, asked him to join him. David did, and his friend said he never would have thought of him had he not happened to bump into him. The rabbi concludes this chapter with the words, “Hashem is always there. We just need to open our eyes.”

Another image is of a train on which the rabbi commuted. He observed people getting on and off the train at certain doors, day after day, and it didn’t appear to correspond to how crowded a certain area was on the platform, or whether it was to protect oneself from the elements. He finally realized that they were getting on the train based on where they would later get off. He concludes, “Where we choose to stand [in life] and with whom we choose to stand, will determine where we ‘get off’ from that journey into the Next World.”

One of his final images is of a star, which is many light years away. He cites metaphors in the Torah that refer to stars, such as when G-d shows them to Abraham and tells him that so numerous will his offspring be. Rabbi Shandalov reminds us that, like the stars, “we will leave our mark on this world long after we are gone” and that “G-d blessed us that we should be like the stars and should emulate Avraham and all of our forefathers.”

This book can be read in one or two sittings. It is a meaningful and pleasant addition to the High Holiday literature, but it will inspire you any day of the year.

May we all merit to a healthy and joyful new year, in which we see only images of light and love.

The book can be ordered from ravzev@gmail.com. It costs $18 plus shipping to the U.S. It will soon be available via Book Depository and Amazon. The book is also available in Israel at Pomeranz Booksellers located at Be’eri 5, Jerusalem. They can be contacted at 02-623-5559 or at pomeranzbooks@netvision.net.il. n


The reviewer is an award-winning journalist and theater director and the editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.


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