Monday, December 31, 2012

Interview with Shlomo Epshteyn

I met Shlomo Epshteyn when we were both competing for the Niles West chess team. We got along just fine, but were never close friends there. It was Shlomo’s senior year, while I was a freshman. Shlomo graduated, and went on to study engineering at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana.

To say that I had a hard go of it at Niles West would be a huge understatement. Those were some of the darkest years of my life. It took my parents’ superhuman-like efforts to help me graduate high school in four years. I attended one year of Oakton Community College and decided to make Aliya to Israel the following year.

Shlomo and I were reunited when I came back to Chicago following a six-year stint in the Holy Land. Amongst other things, I now had a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and spoke fluent Hebrew.  I was just beginning to get interested in religious Judaism, while besides having gotten married, and having kids, Shlomo was deeply involved in Chicago’s Jewish community.

Shlomo and I immediately became best of friends. I’d often stay with him and his family for Shabbat, and we spent a lot of time learning Torah together. Shlomo became a significant influence in my life: more so than when he was beating me in chess a decade back.

I returned to Israel more than a year ago. In doing so, I felt I’d be a positive influence to those in the Chicago community who’d always wanted to make this step.  My joy knew no limits when I found out that my close friend, and confidant, Shlomo Epshteyn was making Aliya half a year later.

I recently had an opportunity to spend Shabbat in Shlomo’s new hometown of Rechasim about 15-minutes drive from Haifa. After my trip to Rechasim, I was able to ask Shlomo a few pertinent questions regarding the changes that have taken place since he’s decided to come to Israel. The following is the contents of our interview.

Me: How did you decide to make Aliya to Israel?

Shlomo: My wife, Esther and I lived and studied in Israel for three years during the first few years of our marriage. When we returned to the U.S., we settled down in West Rogers Park, and lived comfortably the first three years back. During our fourth year in America, we began feeling extremely nostalgic towards Israel. It became clear to us that sooner or later, we’d move back. It took another year for us to fill out all the paperwork, get all the logistics done, etc.
Me: What led you to make this decision?

Shlomo: A Jew who lived in the Land of Israel for a period of time knows that there’s “something in the air” here (and of course I’m not talking about the physical air). There’s a special life energy here that’s conducive for a Jewish life. America, though cushioned by comfort and materialism, is missing that.

Me: How were you able to cope the first week in Rechasim?

Shlomo: Imagine running to catch a fast-moving train with lots of heavy bags in your hands. You see it taking off, you run as fast as you can to catch up to it. Somehow, you’re able to jump on at the last moment knowing all along that you’ll need to find your seat, put away your things, and get settled in. Now that you’ve made the train however, a comforting thought prevails over you: you’ve made it! I’m on!

That’s how it felt after our arrival here. We knew that we had a lot of toil ahead of us, but a
major part of the journey was now in the rear-view mirror.

Me: How has the transition to an Israeli lifestyle been for you and your family?

Shlomo: We live in a city that barely has any immigrants so we’re still experiencing quite a bit of a culture shock. The good side of it is that the locals are very warm, and welcoming. They have a clear understanding that while we’re all Jews here, we’re new to the community. We act differently, dress differently, etc.

Me: What are your hopes for the future?

Shlomo: We’d like to continue growing in our love for our homeland by visiting interesting places, and learning about the unique history of the people who’ve lived there. We want to instill that love into our children.

Me: What’s your message to Jews still living in the Diaspora?

Shlomo: Visit Eretz Yisrael. See for yourselves the land of our ancestors. Feel the unique energy inherent in Israel. Those who want to provide their souls with that extra ingredient they’ve been missing will give serious thought to returning home. Your actions will follow your thoughts.


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