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Stars Aligned

They were success stories at work – but lonely seekers within

As told to Rivka Streicher

Nili, 19:

New Yawker, that’s what I was. Free, opportunistic, extroverted, fun. Bring on Times Square, bowling, biking, dancing on the Hudson…

I grew up Modern Orthodox; I went to HAFTR, where I got a solid Jewish education, but come weekends I ran around in short sleeves and pants.

Inside I was deeply inspired, spiritual and idealistic, and I took to seminary in Israel like a fish to water. In Baer Miriam in Har Nof I met all sorts of girls from a range of backgrounds. There was genuine warmth in Baer Miriam — not just the Jerusalem sun, but Jerusalem hearts — the leaders, the teachers, the madrichot. It was an immersive experience, to get to know Eretz Yisrael and its people, to feel the achdus, the greatness, and our responsibility for one another. I was just 19 — what did I know about life-plans and decisions — but that year, seeds were planted.

And there was Penny, my roommate from London. Both of us are the only girls in our family, and we became sisters. Soul sisters.

In the summer after seminary, Penny came to visit me in New York. I took her around, we drank in the sights; long after the sun set over the skyscrapers, we sat and spoke and laughed.

She went home, and I started work that September. I was teaching little ones, Pre-K. It was good work, hard work.

In the winter break, I needed to get away. Penny. She’d come all the way here in the summer. I’d go to her now.

London in December was cold and icy and wonderful. I hung around with Penny and some friends. One of them had an idea for me: Daniel. I’d met him briefly at a social event, but that friend introduced us properly, and he asked me out.

Daniel, 22:

I had a very liberal Jewish childhood; when I was growing up, the Reform seemed “frum” for me. It wasn’t that I was anti-Yiddishkeit; it was that my brother and I had very little exposure.

I’m a thinking person, and I did well scholastically, but I struggled in other areas. I had sensory issues as a child, couldn’t wear certain clothes, was sensitive to touch. When I got a little older, I would sometimes take things too literally, had difficulty reading subtle body language, and I also felt things very intensely; my emotions could swiftly overtake me. I’d come to feel sadness, anger, or jubilation much more quickly than other people. At some point I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (today it is considered part of the ASD spectrum). I was determined not to let my challenges define me and knew with a conviction I can only attribute to G-d that I was going to succeed and fulfill my dreams.

My parents divorced when I was young, and my mom went on to do her thing in a decidedly non-Jewish fashion. She also went back to her maiden name, but kept our father’s surname — Bendelman — for my brother and me.

When I was around 17, I went on an Aish trip to Poland with Rabbi Daniel Rowe. Seeing Auschwitz, the camps, the forsaken cities, shuls that were now but shrines to all that had been, that devastation, and what our People had endured, touched me deeply.

“G-d,” I said. (I’d made gradual progress in my Yiddishkeit by then; I’d started to learn the basics, but I’d been talking to Hashem throughout my youth, even when I didn’t know Him). “I want to try to do my bit to bring Mashiach in a good way, through teshuvah, through good deeds. I don’t want him to come through all this pain and suffering and devastation.”

At 18, I went off to Israel to learn in yeshivah. Before I left, I asked my mom why she’d kept the name Bendelman. She said that the name was almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust, and she wanted it to endure. Later I did some genealogical research and discovered that I was descended from the Sosnowiec Jewish community of chassidim of Gur and Alexander. The community was practically obliterated in the Shoah.

In Israel, I made my rounds: Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somayach, Midrash Shmuel, Dvar Yerushalayim, and YTD in Tzfat. When I flew back to England I tried to maintain what I could. But it was hard, it wasn’t Israel.

By then, my father had died and my brother was taking a different path (he ended up marrying out, and his children are not Jewish). I felt a strong sense of responsibility to keep Yiddishkeit alive in the family.

I had a lot to figure out still, but that winter I was introduced by a mutual friend to a girl who was visiting from New York, a woman with radiant energy, Nili Haimoff.


Nili, 20-30:

Daniel took me to Camden in London for a date. The city scene in London is great, but I could see after just one time that Daniel was not for me. No siree. I said goodbye to him, to Penny, to the friends I’d made in London, and went back home.

I went on in my teaching career. From Pre-K to Kindergarten, and then on to seventh grade. I majored in history and taught American history in middle school. I gave them my heart, but middle-schoolers are challenging. Some kids were plain indifferent; they just couldn’t care, and that apathy was a hard thing to bridge. I tried, though. I remember a particularly difficult student who missed a lot of classes. At one point, I started dropping off notes at her house. She was very touched, and slowly she started showing up for my classes. Another kid had learning issues, and I gave up my break to teach him the material he couldn’t get in class.

I also started teaching social studies in the local public high school.

After some years, I was an all-around educator; I’d covered a range of ages and classes, Jewish schools and public.

I have a soft spot for the special needs population, and I was working for HASC on the side.

In the early weeks of Covid, I found myself on lockdown shift in a HASC women’s residence. Two weeks of a full-on shift, and then it was Erev Pesach, and I had one measly day to go home, change my wardrobe, and do what I needed for Pesach. And I was back at the residence where I ran four Sedorim (two in each division) over the first two nights of Pesach.

Between teaching and HASC, life was full to bursting.

And there was more. I’m an outdoorsy kind of girl, and in my mid-twenties I discovered the joys of camping. After a couple years of nature, hiking, and being in the Great Outdoors, a group of friends and I considered ourselves good, experienced campers and figured we could make a business out of this. I set up The Camping Maven, a business that offered kosher catering and halachically approved camping (including constructing an eiruv if it was over Shabbos). I then branched into renting out camping gear and that really took off, as so many people want to experience camping without investing in the gear.

With all this going on, there was the spiritual journey as well.

My name, Nili, is an acronym for Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker. I was constantly on a Yiddishkeit journey. I represented Jewish causes at events; I could inspire a crowd. But for myself, there was a lot of back and forth. Sometimes I was able to be more committed, sometimes less.

But my dating life? A quick relationship here and there. Nothing happening.


Daniel, 23-33:

Ten years; a soaring career.

I still struggled with the Asperger’s I’d been diagnosed with, and I turned my neurodiversity into a calling, the basis for a career.

I went to drama school in my early twenties, and my first degree was in drama-applied theater and education, applying drama and theater to different methodologies (for example, creating theater for prisoners or homeless people).

I loved what I was learning; it appealed to the creative, critically thinking artist in me. When I started my Masters, I knew I’d use my art to tell a story, to challenge, to create change.

In addition to being an artist, I’m an academic. I chose to study myself in a sense — autism and how it’s perceived, and how the perception and representation of it was harmful. My PhD was on tackling autism representation in the media.

The work was important, original. In this role I was a freelance academic at Kent University, and I combined my art and academic research, doing art installations about autism. I designed an exhibit called Disrupting the Gaze, which would get people to all but “experience” autism and so think about it in another way. The exhibit had viewers navigate through various installations by an audio-guide, narrated by myself. For example, one exhibit had a refrigerator with the words, “Hug me,” representing Bruno Bettleheim’s theory of the “Refrigerator Mother,” that parental neglect was behind autism. The theory was later firmly debunked. In the exhibit, viewers could open the fridge and see Bruno’s books and the ice chips I put inside and experience the frigidity that came along with misunderstanding.

The exhibit ran at a gallery in Kings Cross, in Central London. I also set up an arts festival for individuals with disabilities, which was covered by two huge British publications.

If I stayed in England, I would’ve made a name for myself. In fact, I was already making a name for myself. I was aiming for the Tate Modern, one of the premier galleries in London, and had started to make contacts in the art world, because in this competitive milieu, it’s often not about what you know but who you know.

I started working at a big autism charity — “Resources for Autism” — as a support worker. I worked my way up and then did training and policy work. Using inclusive voices is called co-production, and it’s a big deal.

Professionally, there was so much going on. At home, I was learning, trying to grow in my observance in my hometown of Edgware. The community had adopted me when I first started becoming interested in authentic Judaism, and I learned to be a Torah Jew through the tzaddikim of Edgware.

I had a full life of Torah and community, an interesting and fascinating career. I felt I was bringing about good stuff, but what would be with marriage, with a Jewish family?

Back in my teens I’d made a promise to Hashem. I’d heard what had happened to my Bendelman family in the war, I saw where my brother was going. “I promise that even if I fall, I’ll come to You, I’ll give You a Torah family.”

That pledge had stayed with me, but I was 34 and no closer to fulfilling it.

I was sitting over a Gemara one day and learned something cryptic (Bava Metzia 84a). Reish Lakish, a thief, jumps over the river to chase a beautiful person. Turns out the person in the water is Rav Yochanan, a holy sage. Rav Yochanan promises his sister to Reish Lakish if the thief will do teshuvah. He does that and merits to marry the beautiful tzadeikes.

I read that and reread that and couldn’t get over it. I was deeply inspired by this “deal” — by the power of teshuvah, that such a low person could merit a holy woman, something that seemed impossible.

From this place of inspiration, I davened to Hashem. “Hashem, can we make a deal? If You send me a wife, a holy, wonderful woman by my side, I will drop my career and do greater teshuvah, recommit myself to Torah.”

I knew that Hashem, and only Hashem, was behind the drag of my dating life. At that moment, I knew deep down, that our salvation comes only from Hashem — the plea came from my heart.


Nili, 32:

My 30th birthday hit me hard. For a day. And then I was hurtling headlong. Work, HASC, The Camping Maven. Hard, rewarding, fun.

But I really wanted to settle down. I so wanted a family. I knew I needed to do something for Hashem, for me. By now, I was desperate. I just wanted to find my bashert. I was tired at the thought of networking, getting to know more people, opening my heart again….

I felt that it couldn’t be the way for me. I had this inkling deep down that Hashem didn’t need more of that sort of hishtadlus from me. I didn’t need to meet more people; my bashert was someone I already knew.

One day, I sat down and I thought back to the frum guys I’d dated. Was there anyone remotely on the same page whom I knew?

Two quick, no-go dates later, I noticed an old comment online. A comment by Daniel Bendelman. Daniel?

It had been years. Years. Was it a long shot?

I called my old friend Penny, who was long married with a couple of kids.

He was frum and available, I learned.


Daniel, 35:

Hi, the message on my phone said simply. I’m reconsidering, here’s where I’m at….


Could it be; could this be it?

It was a girl I’d once met for a brief date. A woman whose energy and zeal I thought I’d connected with, but it had been a dead end.

And now this?

It was about 12 hours after I’d learned that gemara and made that deep, sincere pledge to Hashem.

Nili was ready to date seriously. It had been 13 years since our date in London, and we were both 13 million miles from there. Both of us had worked hard on ourselves, our careers. We’d found true Yiddishkeit and were on our way to complete observance. We were ready to settle in a way that we never could’ve been in that blink of an evening in Camden.

I flew to New York to date, and within a matter of weeks, we were engaged.

Mazel tov.

Hashem had come through, oh how He had — and it all started within less than a day of my most sincere prayer to Him. I now had to fulfill my part of the deal.

I was going to uproot my entire life in England and go learn His Torah.

Tzfat, I decided. I wanted to spiritually isolate, to really be able to grow. It didn’t make sense; neither Nili nor I had been in Tzfat in over ten years. Nili really wanted to go to Jerusalem — but she respected this spiritual decision of mine and stood behind me.

Our wedding was right there, under the skies of a mystical city.

Sunset blushed its way over the horizon; a woman from New York and a man from Edgware were wed, k’das Moshe v’Yisrael, against the odds and the miles.

I started kollel. In Tzfat there’s one high-level English-speaking kollel. I walked in and gaped. A few months ago, back in England, I’d had a dream in which I walked into a building — high windows, streaming sun, and I felt and heard the words, “Welcome home.” This English-speaking kollel building was the building from my dream.

Tzfat is a city of mystics, but it’s also the city of halachah — the Shulchan Aruch was written here.

Here I can delve into halachah, then dive into Kabbalah. It’s a city of air, and air can be elevating and uplifting, but it has qualities of drowsiness and laziness and lethargy. That’s something you’ve got to fight here. But it’s the best place, the sweetest place. Sometimes I think you can smell Gan Eden here.

Some days I think about what I left in England. The academic, the artist.

I want to bring some of that back here. I dream of setting up a Torah institution for people with neurodiversity. I dream of an educational-artistic platform, to present the cases of the gemaras dramatically and thus aid learning.

But that’s for later. Now it’s about learning Hashem’s Torah. He did His, He sent Nili on the wing of a prayer, and we’re here, both of us, like newborn butterflies in Tzfat. This is the time to learn.


Nili, 33:

I hadn’t seen Daniel in years. On the evening that he arrived in New York, my dear dog, Sir Charles, was hit by a car and passed away. Daniel could feel how upset I was and was there for me. The concern and care I felt from him, right from the onset, was something I’d been lacking in previous relationships. I was impressed. And when I introduced him to my family and saw how easily they loved him, I gained the confidence to go forward. A cousin who was helping me on the dating scene pronounced us deeply “matim.” I trusted his opinion and continued dating. Then I started to feel it for myself. I was laughing a lot, smiling widely. Could it be that Daniel was making me happy?

There was also Daniel’s neurodiversity, and I saw it as a chance to enter his world, to be there for him as he was for me. I was fascinated by his extensive work as an artist-advocate for autism.

When Daniel proposed I was ready.

Next stop: Israel.

Much of my family, including my grandmother, lives in Central Israel.

When I landed in Israel before our wedding, I stayed with Savta. She’s the real deal Israeli — her parents came in 1911 by boat and camel through Baghdad and Palestine.

I stayed with Savta for three weeks until my aunt shooed me out, saying Savta needs her space.

“But come back, come live here,” she said. “Why Tzfat?”

I wasn’t sure, but I was following Daniel, and I was learning for myself.

In Tzfat, I stayed at a friend’s and began apartment hunting. We found a place on the outskirts of the Old City with a view facing the Ari’s kever and Mount Meron.

Daniel has dreams, I have dreams…. One day we’ll fuse them and bring his dream academy right here. For today, looking out the window at the haze of Mount Meron, in my tichel and long skirt, I’m doing what He wants me to — aligning with myself. I’m not so much a New Yawker; I’m a woman of Tzfat, wife to a talmid chacham and artist.

I — we — have come home.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 873)

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