I felt pulled to Eretz Yisrael in ways I couldn’t explain. What had happened to the atheist within me?
As told to Barbara Bensoussan
Those of you who come from the former Soviet Union will find my background familiar: grandfathers who served in World War II, grandmothers who took refuge in Uzbekistan, families reunited after the war under the Stalinist regime, although Orthodox practices were quashed under fear of execution. As a child, my father was frequently taunted with “Zhid!” He broke the noses of a few of his schoolmates in retaliation, but later confessed to me that he didn’t really know what the word meant or why it was such an insult.
My father did have the perspicacity to realize that “Soviet paradise” was an oxymoron. He opted to emigrate with my mother and me in 1978, when I was four, and both sets of grandparents followed shortly afterward. We all took apartments in the same building in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, and my father brought me to FREE, a Chabad organization that reaches out to Russian immigrants, where they gave me the bris I’d been forbidden to receive in Kiev.
Immigration is brutal. My parents worked long, hard hours; my father drove a cab, and my mother worked in a fur factory. Eventually my mother took a programming class and worked her way up to an impressive position at Morgan Stanley. Their example of succeeding through hard work, perseverance, and intelligence left a strong impression on me.
I worked hard, too. I worked in a clothing store after school and would spend the money I earned on clothing and other possessions I hoped would boost my status for others and make me feel better about myself. I got great grades, graduated at the top of my class at Hofstra, and earned a full scholarship to medical school at SUNY-Buffalo in my third year of college. The irony was that while other students admired and even envied me, mostly I still felt stupid, ugly, and lonely. The clothes and gadgets I bought didn’t fill the void of emptiness and unhappiness. I knew something was wrong, but I was unable to identify what it was — and my angst attracted me to the nihilistic, atheistic philosophies of thinkers like Sartre and Nietzsche.
I had one summer to go before becoming immersed in medical school, and I wanted to do something enjoyable. “There’s this trip to Israel through Hillel International,” my roommate said. “Rabbi Moshe Shur from Queens is leading it. Why not give it a try?”
The trip was free, and I’d never been to Israel, so I signed up. For some reason, Rabbi Shur took a special interest in me as we toured both the secular and religious parts of Israel. He brought me to the Old City of Jerusalem for Shabbos. The experience was completely foreign to me, and I was very ill at ease, not knowing how to comport myself. Yet I was touched by the atmosphere of tranquility and family harmony, as well as the delicious food and soul-penetrating songs. Rabbi Shur brought me to the Kosel on Shavuos, where I witnessed thousands of Jews fervently praying together. But I had no context to relate to prayer, and so it left me simultaneously confused and intrigued.
Still, I felt pulled to Eretz Yisrael in ways I couldn’t explain. What had happened to the atheist within me? In the end, I decided to stay on until the fall, and Rabbi Shur helped me enroll in the Isralight program in the Old City. There I tasted Jewish learning for the first time and was introduced to Jewish practices. Until then, my entire education and outlook had been purely materialistic and rationalistic — I had no idea if it was even possible to see the world through a spiritual lens or reconcile Torah with science.
Fortunately, during that summer I had several opportunities to meet and speak with Dr. Gerald Schroeder, an MIT-trained Orthodox physicist, author, and lecturer who’d been living in Jerusalem since 1971. He intellectually eviscerated me! I realized my understanding of both science and Torah was so elementary that it was the epitome of arrogance to deny faith based on my superficial understanding.
When the summer ended and it was time to depart for Buffalo and med school, I worried that my still-fragile connection to Yiddishkeit would dissolve. “How will I maintain this in Buffalo?” I asked Isralight director Rabbi David Aaron. He answered, “I’m actually giving a lecture today to a group of students from Buffalo and their rabbi. Why not come along?” That was the Hashgachah pratis that introduced me to Rabbi Nosson Gurary, a Chabad shaliach in Buffalo, and when I got to Buffalo, I’d attend his shul from time to time.
I was still very much a work in progress, with my yarmulke and ripped jeans. But medical school magnified the Big Questions for me. When I dissected a severed human head, it made me think about what it means to be human and what G-d wants from us. Then Hashem gave me another push.
In January 1996, the northeastern US was blanketed by a huge blizzard. I called home to say hello. My father answered. He’d just been shoveling snow, and he didn’t seem right. “I came in because I was starting to feel sick,” he said. “My chest hurts and I’m having trouble breathing.”
“You could be having a heart attack!” I shouted into the phone. “Hang up and call 911!”
I called back a few minutes later. He was waiting for the ambulance, but he was feeling worse and increasingly frightened. “Say Shema Yisrael with me,” I told him, and walked him through the prayer word by word. I think it was the first time he ever prayed.
The ambulance arrived not a minute too soon. My father’s heart stopped as soon as he was being wheeled into the emergency room. Clinically speaking, he died. But since he was already in the ER, the doctors were able to shock his heart and administer medications, and he recovered. For me, it was the first time I felt a profound sense that Hashem had listened to my prayers. I started going to shul every day and became shomer mitzvos.
I spent that summer back in Israel learning in Ohr Somayach and came back for the next year of med school. Then I took a year off to study at Yeshiva Ohr Tmimim in Kfar Chabad. Many of the shiurim were given by Rabbi Schneur Zalman Gafni, who became my mentor. When I threw out the idea that maybe I should drop medical school and become a rabbi, he advised me, “Zev, you can also serve Hashem as a doctor.” (Years later, that advice would save his life. At one point I’d called to ask how he was doing, and he told me he’d recently had a stroke. When I asked about his care, I wasn’t satisfied with the follow-up and insisted he go for more tests. It turned out that the stroke was the result of a major blockage in the artery running from the heart to the brain. I was able to bring him to a top cardiologist in the US for life-saving surgery, and he recuperated in my home for a month afterward.)
While I was growing up as a Russian immigrant in the US, I’d always felt self-conscious and ashamed of my origins. But my stay in Kfar Chabad changed that. For one thing, I became close to Rabbi Dovid and Chaya Chein, Russians who’d come to Eretz Yisrael after World War II and who were among the founders of Kfar Chabad. They told me many stories about Jews who performed heroic acts of mesirus nefesh to remain Torah-observant under Soviet rule, and it inspired a new pride in my heritage.
I graduated from medical school in 2000 and moved to Crown Heights, where I trained as a mohel while learning Torah and looking for a wife and a residency. I found a residency in family medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital. And I also found Sima Chana, my wife.
Ask anyone who’s gone through med school, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing: Residency was like being thrown into deep water and ordered to swim. I was suddenly expected to handle everything from brain bleeds to heart attacks, sometimes at the same time, and to be the bearer of both good and bad news. And then one Shabbos I saw my parents’ number come up on the caller ID. I knew they wouldn’t call me on Shabbos unless there was an emergency. “I’m taking your mother to Coney Island Hospital,” my father said. “She has severe pain in her abdomen.”
I drove to the hospital to find my mother getting a CT scan, which revealed a large tumor in her colon. She needed emergency surgery, and later, a second surgery. At the time my wife was expecting our first child, and in my simplistic spiritual equation, I felt it was unfathomable that Hashem would allow our joy to be marred by a family crisis. But I soon got a tiny glimpse of His wisdom in the way things were timed. My mother, by then a well-respected professional, was exhausted and depressed by her intense medical challenges and the prospect of chemotherapy. Just as she was feeling ready to give up, we placed her first grandchild in her arms. The baby restored her will to live, and she fought her way back to a full recovery.
At that point in my life, I knew I’d be most comfortable working within the frum community, and when I completed my residency in 2004, I accepted a position at the Ezras Choilim Health Center in the Satmar kehillah of Kiryas Joel. On my very first day, a medical crisis landed at my door that would ensure my popularity: I had a patient who claimed that a fish bone was stuck in her throat. This was a very real concern in that community, because someone had died from such a situation in the recent past. It was big mystery, because the X-rays and scans showed there was nothing wrong. So I went back to basics: I looked into her mouth, saw the bone, and removed it with a tweezers. Thanks to that community’s speed-of-light word of mouth, my reputation was immediately secured.
It wasn’t long before I was recruited to Hatzolah. But while I immensely enjoyed the new friendships and community work, not every story had a happy ending. When a four-year-old child was hit by a truck and died in the ambulance, I was so badly shaken I began obsessively calling home to ask if my children were okay. A friend suggested, “You should read the Chovos Halevavos.” It took a while, but eventually I came to realize that my fears stemmed from a lack of emunah and bitachon: Although I’d changed my life around religiously, I was still functioning in control mode, believing that I was in charge and it was up to me to either make things better or be the cause of a catastrophe. It was an internal overhaul to finally come to a place where I could accept that only Hashem is in control, and hishtadlus notwithstanding, every outcome is solely in His Hands.
I saw this repeatedly in my practice, often when medical “errors” occurred. For example, I remember ordering a test for a patient, and the technician ran the wrong test — which then revealed a life-threatening condition we were able to catch just in time. One day a mother came to my office and kept pestering me about her postpartum daughter’s headaches. She became so annoying that I tossed off, “So bring her in, maybe she has meningitis!” My chance remark turned out to be correct and saved the woman’s life.
After five years at Ezras Choilim, I took a deep breath and opened my own practice in Monroe, borrowing a lot of money and relying on advice from experienced businessmen. At that point my mother had tired of the rat race of corporate life and surprised me by offering to run the office for me. I even built a shul next door, Beis Medrash Schneur Zalman. As you might expect from a shul in Monroe with a Lubavitch name, it attracted a wide variety of Yidden. True, Monroe is relatively isolated and protected, but I find it to be one of the most beautiful and spiritually balanced communities I know.
I opened a satellite practice in Monsey as well and moved my family there. But directing two practices and being an active Hatzolah member were all-consuming and exhausting, and unfortunately took a terrible toll on my marriage. My wife and I grew apart and divorced in 2016.
It was horrific — it felt like an amputation. I moved back in with my parents, which was like turning back into a child at age 43. But my main concern was to remain close to my six children and smooth the path for them as much as possible.
Fortunately, Hashem didn’t leave me to suffer for long. I was soon introduced to Rinat Lustig, a perceptive, insightful, Israeli psychotherapist. After we married, she began working in my practice, seeing patients with great success.
Rinat had never had children, and while both of us were over 40, we wanted children very much. We made the rounds of kivrei tzaddikim in America and Eretz Yisrael. Again, Hashem heard our prayers, and Rinat bore our first child at age 43 — to be followed by a second less than two years later.
Marrying Rinat gave me a new lease on life, and not only emotionally. A month before our first child was due, I developed a terrible cough with asthma-type symptoms, which didn’t dissipate with the antibiotics and inhaler I prescribed for myself.
“You have to see a doctor!” Rinat insisted.
But as we all know, doctors are the worst patients, although I finally dragged myself in, telling the doctor it was “just for shalom bayis.”
Well, it soon became clear that it was more than a shalom bayis visit. An examination revealed a huge pulmonary embolus, or blood clot, in my pulmonary artery. Within minutes, Hatzolah was on the scene to transport me to Lenox Hill Hospital. There I was treated with blood thinners and sent home after a few days, with instructions to do a CT scan in a month to verify that the clot was shrinking.
Rinat gave birth a few weeks later, and in our immense gratitude, we organized a kiddush in shul the following week. We stayed in the home of some friends who live a ten-minute walk uphill from the shul. I was fine walking down, but when it came time to walk home Shabbos morning, I suddenly felt out of breath and so weak that my friend had to help me stagger up the hill. Once I got to the house, I began violently coughing up blood. Rinat was terrified!
Hatzolah arrived and again sped me to Lenox Hill. There the doctors determined that my clot has worsened — it had invaded my right lung. My condition was so dire they scheduled surgery for the next day, a procedure that requires sawing into the chest to remove the clot. My family and best friend came to keep vigil, including Rinat with our not-yet two-week-old baby. I put my affairs in order in case of the worst, and we all prayed hard.
The following day, surgeon Derek Brinster didn’t find a clot when he opened my pulmonary artery. Instead, the situation was much, much worse. A tumor had colonized and killed most of my right lung. The surgeon had to remove the diseased lung and reconstruct the pulmonary artery. A biopsy of the tumor revealed that the cancer was a sarcoma, a deadly, aggressive form of the disease.
Before my operation, the doctors had considered the option of exploding the “clot” rather than removing it. In the end, the decision to go with surgery saved my life, because had they tried to blast the tumor, it would have seeded my other lung full of cancer cells.
It was a heroic surgery. My non-Jewish thoracic surgeon later told me, “I felt the presence of G-d in the room as I operated.” But the recovery was extremely painful, both physically and psychologically. The pain was somewhat alleviated by sedation and visits from family. The Satmar Rebbe and Rebbetzin, whom I’d come to know in Monroe, came to visit. Once I got home, it took every ounce of Rinat’s strength to cope with both new motherhood and an extremely sick husband who sometimes fainted from coughing spells. I still don’t know how she did it.
I’ve always tried to serve as a devoted physician, and I’m ever-grateful to my patients who returned my devotion by praying for me and visiting kivrei tzaddikim all over the world on my behalf. The entire community rose up to help in my hour of need, and my gratitude knows no bounds.
Six weeks later, it was time to consult an oncologist about starting chemo. I went to Dr. Gary Schwartz, an expert on sarcomas. Of course, I’d done my own research before the appointment, and I’d found promising studies of a drug called Olaratumab. When I mentioned it to Dr. Schwartz, he smiled and said: “I invented that drug.” I wanted to try it even though it wasn’t yet the accepted standard of care, and he agreed. It made me feel Hashem had sent me to the right shaliach.
Chemo was miserable, but my therapist, Daniel Schonbuch, with whom I’d been sharing my feelings about my situation, helped me alter my attitude. He recommended the book Love, Medicine and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel, which is about the way some patients have fought their diagnoses, some with positivity and others by using their illness for personal growth (even when the outcome was death). With his help I started putting a positive spin on my situation. I saw the chemo drip as a life-saving liquid; when my hair fell out, I saw it as proof the treatment was working.
I came to realize that the length of my life is out of my control. Everyone dies eventually and to worry about it shows a lack of bitachon. Instead I should be worried about how I choose to live and how I use the precious time Hashem has given me. I actually found myself at a new level of inner tranquility, and just for that, I’m grateful that I went through the experience of having cancer.
Today I have only one lung, but I’ve recovered; and miraculously, Rinat and I had our second child last year. I’m mostly back on schedule, seeing patients, helping Hatzolah, enjoying my family. (Divorce and illness taught me to prioritize my family.) I’ve scaled down my practice somewhat, getting partners to help me with the business end so I’m free to devote myself to patients. I still don’t sleep much, and in the wee hours I write.
In my practice, I try to retain a lesson from Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, who was one of my teachers at Ohr Somayach. When I once asked him how to reconcile Torah Judaism with the practice of medicine, he replied, “Before I see a patient, I pray. I keep in mind that I’m nothing, just a shaliach. But once I see the patient, I summon all my kochos to help him.”
At the time, I was a new baal teshuvah, and that idea didn’t come naturally. But it’s not a contradiction. I live the dichotomy every day.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 803)
Dr. Zev (Vladimir) Zelenko is the author of the autobiographical Metamorphosis, as well as a book on chassidic thought entitled Essence to Essence.
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