Starting over: From Chicago to Ma'aleh Adumim

An American rabbi embarks on a physical and spiritual journey that leads him to unexpected places.

ZEV SHANDALOV (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A tree grows in Ma’aleh Adumim and under its shade sits Zev Shandalov – rabbi, teacher and tutor extraordinaire. Education is Shandalov’s passion, and most days he can be found sitting on a bench beside the tree, outside the P’nei Shmuel synagogue, tutoring students in Jewish studies, history, literature and English.
Before making aliya to Ma’aleh Adumim in the summer of 2009, Shandalov, who had served as a congregational rabbi in Chicago for 10 years, taught Jewish studies in the local Jewish day school and high school, and tutored privately. “I loved what I was doing, but every day I hated the fact that I was living in the Diaspora.”
Upon arriving in Israel, Shandalov first worked for a local tour operating company, but after a year returned to teaching, his first love.
“I really missed teaching,” he says, “because teaching was my passion.” He jumped back into education, and began teaching at the Yeshiva Tichonit in Ma’aleh Adumim. Soon, he branched out, and started tutoring students one-on-one.
“An amazing connection is being made with the kids and with their families,” he relates. “I become an advocate for the student, go to parent-teacher conferences, attend meetings and speak to teachers.” In addition to his tutoring, he teaches at the Amit Boys’ School.
Shandalov, 58, also serves in an unofficial rabbinic capacity for many families in the community, providing a variety of services, ranging from answering questions about Jewish law, to providing pastoral counseling and guidance.
“There are many people – from new arrivals to residents who have been here for many years – who miss having an American-style shul rabbi. I have the opportunity to fill a role, unofficially, for many families of becoming their rabbi in terms of helping them with problems, Halachic questions and giving classes. It comes with tremendous responsibility, but with no official organization.” Shandalov emphasizes that he maintains excellent relations with the official rabbis in the community, and that his role complements their activities.
When it comes to formal education, the biggest difference between the Israeli and American classroom “is the lack of ‘distance’ between teacher and student, and the presumed familiarity between student and teacher and principal,” he says.
“There are certain lines that are crossed here, that in the United States and other countries would be seen as being shameful. It also leads to discipline problems.” Nevertheless, he adds, somewhat philosophically, “It reflects the greater society at large. We are one big dysfunctional family in this country, and it comes out there also. Whether it is in the army, the school, the supermarket or a bus, it's a culture, and it’s fine… it is what it is.”
In addition to his teaching, tutoring and rabbinic roles, Shandalov is a passionate writer and blogger whose writing appears on numerous Israeli websites as well as the online site of the Jewish Press. The purpose of his writing, he says, “is to influence the public discourse” on various topics that are close to his heart. For a time, he toyed with the idea of becoming active in Israeli politics, but concluded that a political career in Israel is “not good for a Jewish boy” and remained in the educational world.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in Shandalov’s life since moving to Israel eight years ago was his decision to give up the Ashkenazi customs and practices with which he had been raised, in favor of the Sephardi practices and customs as practiced by the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and Middle Eastern countries.
“Even as a synagogue rabbi, I never considered myself very spiritual,” he says, but as he was teaching adult education classes about prayer, he began to feel that there was something spiritual missing from his life. Gradually, he came to embrace the practice of hitbodedut, self-seclusion, spending time alone, speaking to God, thinking and meditating. Eventually, he says, he felt a spiritual connection that he had never felt in his life.
“If you told me 20 years ago that I would be doing that, I would have said you were absolutely crazy.”
He felt closer to God, but he wanted to improve his prayer experience. He began by opening the siddur (prayer book) of the Edot Hamizrah, the Jews who came from North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries. He read the piyutim (religious poetry) found at the beginning, before the actual prayers, and he says, “It spoke to my soul.”
He began to surreptitiously read the Sephardi prayers underneath his Ashkenazi siddur and consulted with Rabbi Elisha Aviner, chief rabbi of Ma’aleh Adumim, who ruled that he could officially change his prayers to those of the Edot Hamizrah. He was thrilled.
“I felt like I was starting over, tripping over the words to prayers I had said my whole life.” Eventually, he adopted the Sephardi practice of reciting the slihot prayers for 40 days before Yom Kippur. But he says, “I wanted more.” He asked Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, one of the most respected halachic authorities in Israel, and head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim, if he could extend his observance of Sephardi practice beyond prayer, to daily observance.
Rabbi Rabinovitch told him, “You are already Sephardi,” and permitted him to continue with full Sephardi practice. Now, Shandalov says, he puts on tefillin differently than he did, he recites havdala differently, and he eats legumes (kitniyot) on Passover – although, he notes with a smile, that his wife, who accommodated to his Sephardi customs, still refuses to eat legumes during the Passover season, in keeping with Ashkenazi practice.
Shandalov relates that his parents, whose ancestors hailed from Russia and Poland, “at first thought he was off his rocker” for the Sephardi switch. But once he explained the reasons for the change, they were understanding and accepting. It is, he says, “part of a journey as to where I am going in life.” Where will the journey lead? With great sincerity, he adds, “I hope, to continued growth in spirituality.”
While he has embraced the Sephardi traditions, he says emphatically he has not become a supporter of the Shas political party.
Despite his Eastern European roots, he is convinced that he has strong Sephardi origins somewhere in his DNA. “The first time I walked into an Edot Hamizrah synagogue to pray, I felt right. It felt like I'd come home.” And, he adds with a smile, “I like the Sephardi food better.”