The Story of Chaburat Sharabi

Seven years ago, the joy of Chanukah was eclipsed by a tragedy in the Baltimore community. Arye Avrahami, an Israeli-born owner of an electronics store downtown was murdered on the first night of Chanukah. Although most of us didn't know him, his brother Meir Avrahami, owner of the Sunoco service station on the corner of Reisterstown Road and Clarks Lane, has been a familiar face to many of us for years.

When Mordechai Shaul heard about his friend's death, he approached Rabbi Emanuel Goldfeiz, Rav of the Sephardic congregation Beit Yaakov (Beit Safra), about making a hesped (eulogy). Over 60 people attended the levaya (funeral). After the levaya, Rabbi Yehoshua Levy (former Sefardic rabbi in Baltimore) told Arye's friends that it would be good if they could get together once a week to learn Torah and daven, so that Arye's brother could say kaddish for the first month.

Heeding Rabbi Levy's advice, the short-term suggestion led to a free, twice-a-week learning schedule at Beit Yaakov, which is still going strong after seven years. On Tuesday evenings Mr. Yoni Alon gives a gemara shiur for men, often followed by a gemara shiur given by Dr. Aaron Weissberg. On Thursday evenings, as many as 50 to 150 men and women attend a shiur by the charismatic Mr. Alon, as well as occasional guest speakers, on halacha, hashkafa (Torah philosophy), and parshat hashavua. Afterwards, it's "Israeli Night," with shiur-goers mingling over a complimentary meal of Israeli favorites pita, chumus, fish, potato burekas, caponata, pickles, and olives giving them the feeling of being back home. In this warm, family-like environment, they have formed a special bond.

Last year, through a generous donation by Mr. Elliot Sharabi, the group was dedicated in memory of his father and is now called Chaburat Sharabi. Although everyone who participates is a volunteer, the funds cover food and activity expenses.

In addition to meeting twice weekly to learn Torah, the Chabura meets for Shabbatons, mesibot (parties) surrounding the various yamim tovim, and special events, like their hachnasat sefer Torah. Yoni Alon, assisted by his good friend Mordechai Shaul, has impacted the lives of hundreds of families. He relates to these Israelis in their native Ivrit (Hebrew), and they know that Yoni understands where they are coming from, since he, himself, became a ba'al teshuva shortly after serving his stint in the Israeli army. The group has grown together, developing a tight-knit closeness.

With the unbelievable success of the program, these Israeli Baltimoreans began turning to Yoni at significant moments in their personal lives. Yoni has officiated at their bar mitzvas and weddings. He has even prepared both the chatan and kalla to establish a home filled with the traditions of Torah. In fact, he recently flew to Eretz Yisrael to be mesader kiddushin (officiator) at the chasana of one of his students. When tragedy strikes, unfortunately, it is Yoni whom they turn to, not only to officiate at the funeral but also for family counseling to work through a trying period of their lives. Mr. Alon is grateful for the support of the group's posek, Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer.

Rabbi Goldfeiz's sincere interest in the Israelis was evident from the start. Feeling comfortable with the Rav, they opened up to him with their stories. One man admitted that soon after arriving in the U.S. he attended a shul and did not feel welcome. He had not stepped foot in a shul since. Another young man, when asked by Rabbi Goldfeiz what his plans were, answered that he was about to go to India to study Buddhism. The Rav then asked him if he knew anything about Judaism. When he answered "not much," Rabbi Goldfeiz suggested that he learn about Judaism first. Today, this single young man is learning in a yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, after spending three years learning in Monsey. Another young man, a recent newlywed, also learned in Monsey and has now decided to learn in kollel in Eretz Yisrael.

Walking into the Israeli shiur, the faces are familiar. These are the house painters, movers, and community store employees of our community; several young people work in local shopping mall kiosks, among other places. Some of these men and women come from a background completely devoid of Yiddishkeit, and although some of them are presently not completely committed to a Torah lifestyle, they look forward to learning Torah each week.

Yossi learns in Chaburat Sharabi twice a week. Each Tuesday evening at 7:30, he receives a telephone call from Mr. Shaul as do more than 50 others inviting him to the shiur. Yossi comes from Hod Hasharon, outside Tel Aviv. He came to Baltimore right after the Gulf War, in 1991. Before becoming the owner of Pikesville Auto and Worldwide Cars, Yossi suffered a severe financial loss as the owner of another business. "You learn to be a better person from the stories that Yoni tells us," says Yossi. "People have to know where they come from, and learning these stories makes you realize that life can change for the good or the bad. What do we live for? This past Rosh Hashana, I decided not to work on Shabbat. Also, I have put tefilin on for the past three years."

Although Yossi is not from a dati (religious) family, he was raised to have a lot of emuna (faith) and bitachon (trust). "I don't go anywhere without Hakadosh Baruch Hu," says Yossi. "Without Him I can't see myself successful. I think that sharing what we have with others is the least we can do." Putting his money where his mouth is, Yossi donated a minivan to a poor family he didn't even know. (See sidebar). He plans to buy and donate a sefer Torah in about one year. Chaim, better known as the Paint Man, is Yossi's nephew. His friends introduced him to the shiur three years, and he has been enjoying it ever since. "I think it is important, because we're Jewish and we have to keep our religion growing," says Chaim. "If we don't keep it, how are we different from other people?"

Batel, a young woman who grew up dati in Netivot, is a nanny to a Baltimore family with four children. "I'm really glad to have the opportunity to come to the shiur," says Batel, "because it is the only time, once a week, that I have a chance to listen to a dvar Torah. Also, I feel like it is like a family." Shlomo the Photographer," as he is fondly known, hails from Jaffa, and has a background devoid of religiosity. Settling in Baltimore in 1974, soon after the Yom Kippur War, he stumbled upon Congregation Beit Yaakov on his first Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in town. "You would not see this group if Yoni weren't here," says Shlomo. "As religious as he is, he is able to come down to our level. I enjoy it so much. He is the key that pulls and keeps the group together. I think it's wonderful."

Shalom Shalom yes, that's really his name; he showed me his driver's license! is the owner of Tony's Seafood. "Do you think Shalom's Seafood sounds better? I really do look Italian anyway," he admits. As a young soldier stationed in the Golan Heights, he met his Baltimorean wife, who was volunteering at the soldiers' club, serving coffee and cake. They married in 1977 and soon moved to Baltimore. He is the chazan for the group, a skill he learned from Yoni. "I love this group, and I have become very good friends with Yoni." Needless to say, Arye's brother, Meir Avrahami, is grateful for the program, as well. He is taking the tragedy in stride, as an Israeli who has experienced much pain growing up in a country where violence has become a way of life. "This shiur is a way to keep my brother alive," says Mr. Avrahami.

Some Chaburat Sharabi members have had a Torah upbringing, like the young Israeli man dressed in the stereotypical Israeli open shirt and sandalim who stumbled upon Rabbi Goldfeiz one Friday evening. The Rav and his son were coming down the stairs on their way home for the Shabbos night meal. He asked the Rabbi if there was a Sefardi shul nearby. The rabbi answered that his shul was Sefardi, however, he had just missed the minyan. When Rabbi Goldfeiz asked him if he had a place to go for the Shabbos meal, the young man said he didn't, and took the Rabbi up on his invitation. At the Shabbos table, as one of the Goldfeiz boys was singing a nigun (song) from the gemara, their guest began to cry.

"Why are you crying?" asked Rabbi Goldfeiz.
"I know that gemara," admitted the guest, and he began to recite it from memory.
"How do you know it?"
"In Ashdod I went to cheder until seventh grade," said the guest. "One day, my rebbe gave me a big potch. I took off my yarmulke, threw it down, and never went back to yeshiva." This young man found his way back to Yiddishkeit through the Chaburat Sharabi classes given lezecher nishmas (in memory of) Arye Avrahami, a"h. As he began taking on the mitzvos once more, Rabbi Goldfeiz bought him a new pair of tefilin and a suit. Today, he lives in Canada and leads a Torah-observant life. By the way, this guest was not the only Israeli for whom the Rabbi bought tefilin. He bought them for about 14 others who came back to their roots as a result of the classes. As far as shul attendance goes, some people walk as far as three miles each way to attend Beit Yaakov on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

A very special, spontaneous "Shabbaton" happened just before Rosh Hashana. Mr. Alon challenged the group to keep the last Shabbos of last year in the proper way, and invited them to come to his house to do it. Instead of the two or three he expected, 30 people responded. "It was an incredible Shabbos," says Mr. Alon. "The TA community opened their homes, and my caterer friend Josh Lewis offered to provide everything for the Friday night meal. It was amazing to watch the men struggling with not smoking a cigarette, not picking up a cell phone. On Friday night at TA, everyone danced and danced. It was so inspiring for everyone involved."

"Just as a person who is thirsty obviously needs to drink, so it is with the Torah," says Mr. Shaul. "People find out that they are more and more thirsty. Our shiur has been going on for seven years." Quenching this thirst has sown seeds of change for each and every one of the shiur-goers, whether it is giving tzedaka, coming to shul on Shabbos, or putting on tefilin even a less tangible change, like a shift in attitude about frum people.

Chaburat Sharabi has earned the trust, respect, and haskama (approval) of Baltimore's Ashkenazi community, as well. "Reb Yoni is someone who is so full of enthusiasm and joy for Yiddishkeit," says Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer, Rav of Shearith Israel. "It's genuine; it's not a put on. He is not getting paid for it. It is something that is so real to him and true to him, and he just wants to be able to impart the truth that he knows is his life, to somebody else. I would very much want to encourage anybody who is able to help promulgate this shiur. There is such wonderful work being done successful work and it is something that would really be a great zechus (merit) for anybody that participates in this work."

by Margie Pensak