A Jewish couple's religious journey from LA to Safed with Chabad

In 2002, Shalom and Roni were married at 770 Eastern Parkway. They parent according to the Rebbe’s writings and moved to Safed to build an Anglo community.

 Rabbi Shalom and Rebbetzin Roni Pasternak. (photo credit: COURTESY SHALOM PASTERNAK)
Rabbi Shalom and Rebbetzin Roni Pasternak.

Like wildflowers, love can be found in the most unlikely of places. This has definitely been the experience for Roni Hodis and Shalom Pasternak.

Roni had a very unusual past. She grew up attending Reform day school in Los Angeles and remembers always feeling like there was something missing from her life – something she could not quite put her finger on. 

She sought meaning in her life through meditation and moral activism. She studied Buddhism and went on a 10-day no-talking retreat.

She protested against police brutality and got arrested doing so. She volunteered to help the Navajo, a Native American people who live a nomadic shepherd lifestyle and are known for healing and connecting with nature. “I was trying to find a good righteous life,” she reflects.

Shalom, who grew up in Philadelphia, went to public school and Conservative summer camp. His first real interaction with a religious Jew was when he came face to face with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, famously known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. 

 The Pasternaks are turning a five-star boutique hotel in Safed’s Old City into the new Yeshivat Temimei Derech. (credit: COURTESY SHALOM PASTERNAK) The Pasternaks are turning a five-star boutique hotel in Safed’s Old City into the new Yeshivat Temimei Derech. (credit: COURTESY SHALOM PASTERNAK)

When Shalom was 12 years old, his uncle became gravely ill. Shalom’s father took him to all the best doctors in the country. The uncle was given six weeks to live. With that grim prognosis, Shalom’s father was advised to seek out the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights, New York. Shalom recalls their waiting in line for five hours to meet the Rebbe. When their turn finally came, his father lost his nerve and passed the Rebbe without even asking for a blessing for his sick brother. The Rebbe stopped the line, called him back, gave him two one-dollar bills, and amazingly, unprompted, declared: “Your brother will dance at his daughter’s wedding.” 

The uncle had a miraculous recovery and, sure enough, two years later, he walked his daughter down the aisle. Six weeks later, he passed away.

The Pasternak family interpreted the Rebbe’s seemingly odd behavior in the following way: They believed that the two dollars the Rebbe gave to Shalom’s father represented the two years of his brother’s extended life. The six weeks of life after the wedding was in keeping with the doctor’s prognosis. It was as if his disease was supernaturally put on hold for two years, and then what remained were the six weeks that were medically allotted to him. 

How did the couple meet?

This prophetic event left a deep impact on 15-year-old Shalom, although he would not revisit his Jewish identity until college. In 1998, he decided to do a semester abroad and traveled to Jerusalem to study philosophy at Hebrew University. 

That same year, Roni also decided to spend a year in Israel. She, too, attended Hebrew University and majored in psychology. Wandering around Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, the two students bumped into each other. They talked for 10 hours that night and saw themselves in each other. 

“We were both seeking something,” Shalom recounts. “I knew there was something special about this girl.” 

They met up a few more times that year and then returned to the United States to finish their respective degrees. Over time they lost touch, and Shalom started exploring the world of Hassidic Judaism.

When he was ready to settle down, he felt that “Roni was the only one that fit into the picture.” He started looking for her by reaching out to mutual friends and asking for her contact information. 

He was told that she had gone to a Rainbow gathering, which is a psychedelic-filled experience in the woods of Colorado. “I don’t know what came over me, but I felt like I had to get her out of there,” he explains. 

He drove from Oregon to Colorado and actually managed to find and convince her to leave the Navajo and return home. Roni then went to New York to attend Machon Chana, a women’s Chabad school for ba’alei teshuvah (those returning to Judaism). 

What had prevented her from accepting Torah fully was the way she understood women to be regarded in Judaism – as hidden from view, less valued, and on the receiving end of male wisdom. She found new meaning to the role of women in Judaism through the teachings of Hassidism and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). 

According to these texts, the wife is the “crown” of her husband, and in the ideal future of the Messianic Era, women will be on the giving end of wisdom. Now she felt that she had uncovered the truth and the meaning to her life that she had been seeking for so long. 

“It resonated with the activist side of me,” she realized as she quotes the Rebbe, “‘The main thing is what we do [to bring the Messiah].’” 

Meanwhile, in Oregon, Shalom began studying the daily Torah portion and Kabbalah. That year, he even built a sukkah (festive tabernacle). Rabbi Moshe Wilhelm, who would later become his mentor, noticed and inquired about the sukkah, as there were very few religious Jews living in Portland at the time. This interaction led to daily classes and Shalom becoming fully observant.

In 2002, Shalom and Roni were married at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Chabad World Headquarters in Crown Heights. They have six children, whom they decided to raise in an extremely different way from how they grew up. They call their parenting style an “experiment.” 

They parent according to the Rebbe’s writings, emphasizing hassidic aspects of Jewish education with little secular education. They lead by example as to how to run a Chabad house and how to be successful shluchim (Jewish inner-faith missionaries). 

Their hope for their children is for them to “find a place on this Earth that needs to be lit up by Torah and for them to be the messengers to do it.”

Moving to Safed

After their first year of marriage, the couple decided to try living in Safed, a place both of them connected with on their trip to Israel as teenagers. At the time, there was no English-speaking community in Safed. There was not even a set minyan (religious quorum) in the main synagogue, the Tzemach Tzedek, as it was just finishing extensive renovations. The couple felt that “everything was just starting,” and it was a great opportunity to jump-start their new religious lives. 

Shalom decided to study for smicha (religious ordination) and enter the rabbinate. His family subsequently became Chabad and decided to follow them to Safed. When Anglo tourists would come to visit, the pair would try to convince them to stay and build up the English-speaking community. And that is exactly what they did.

In 2021, Roni established Thriving Wives, a relationship support group that focuses on self-care, independence, and mutual respect. She teaches relationship skills based on instructions found in Kabbalah and hassidic passages on how to reveal godliness. 

She believes that “everyone has a piece of Hashem inside of them,” and the key to living a fulfilled life is to “dedicate your life to helping others.” 

She provides many necessary resources in the community, including an annual children’s summer camp.

In 2006, the Pasternaks opened a yeshiva called Temimei Derech. Since then, they have had over 400 students. The program is extremely intensive in that it transforms beginners who may not know any Hebrew, Halacha, or Gemara into rabbis after just a couple of years.

About 20 of the alumni stayed in Safed, and some even opened their own synagogues and kollels (study groups). There are now several Anglo synagogues in the Old City of Safed which branched out of the Pasternaks’ yeshiva. 

“There is now a vibrant English-speaking community here,” Shalom notes. 

Over the past five years, the Pasternaks have been raising money to expand the yeshiva. They recently succeeded in securing a five-star boutique hotel in the Old City of Safed that will become the new Yeshivat Temimei Derech. 

They are seeking to fill their beit midrash with open-minded and passionate students who believe that it is never too late to start anew.

It took traveling to Israel for two kids from the same country to meet. It took the Rebbe to bring them together. It took Safed to build a home. It took a yeshiva to create a community. But it only takes one to take the first step towards renewal. ■