The 19th Annual SimXa Shabbaton Inspires Newcomers as well as Old-Timers
With much excitement, appreciation, and a shared feeling of achdus, SimXa Company conducted its 19th annual SimXa Shabbaton over the Thanksgiving weekend. Held at Hyatt-Regency Hotel in the picturesque Valencia, California, the Shabbaton brought together hundreds of Jews of various backgrounds to learn Torah and get inspired by the meaningful Jewish programming.
As usual, the Shabbaton was attended by Jewish families of Russian, American, Israeli, Bucharian, and Persian descent and offered parallel tracks of lectures, in Russian and in English. The Russian-speaking lecturers, the popular Rabbi Aryeh Katzin of Brooklyn, New York, founding principal of Sinai Academy, director of RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience) and publisher of a Russian Jewish newspaper, and Rabbi Yitzchak Roytman of Netanya, Israel, a student of the famous Rav Yitzchak Ginzburgh and an expert in Chassidus and mysticism, were received with much enthusiasm from the Russian-speaking attendees.
English-speakers were mesmerized and inspired by Rabbi Reuven Wolf, Rav of Maayon Yisroel in Los Angeles; by world-renowned expert on Jewish mysticism, Mrs. Miriam Yerushalmi, a psychologist and a prolific author from Brooklyn, New York; and by local popular educators, Rabbi Gershon and Rebbetzin Chana Rochel Schusterman. The lecture topics ranged from Thanksgiving in Marriage to Trump, Putin, Netanyahu and the Messianic Process, drawing diverse and engaged audiences.
As always, the SimXa Shabbaton offered a fun-filled children’s program, with the return of last year’s popular SimXa Kids’ Club, baby-sitting, gourmet meals and luxury accommodations, hikes and nearby attractions, live music and entertainment. A new wine-tasting experience was added this year, and the popular poetess and performer Katya Kapelnikova held concerts for women.
The attendees spanned the ages from newborn to great-grandparents. A highlight of this year’s Shabbaton was the attendance of four generations of the same family, who have been participating in SimXa Shabbatons for the past 14 years, slowly growing in their Torah observance. This year, this family’s daughter and granddaughter, who grew up attending the SimXa Shabbatons, joined her parents and grandparents together with her husband and young son, bringing lots of nachas to the organizers and numerous old-timers. Her brother was not in attendance this year, but for a good reason—he is learning in yeshiva in Yerushalayim, also bringing nachas to the extended family and friends.
We spoke with the whole extended family: the great-grandparents, Raya and Roman Teper, the grandparents, Toly and Elvira Begelfer, the young couple, Chava and Gavriel Shields, and their son Moshe. They shared a bit of their journey with us.
Toly and Elvira were invited to attend their first SimXa Shabbaton by their friends. It was their first experience spending Shabbos together as a family in an Orthodox environment. “I asked my friend, ‘What should I wear?’” recalls Elvira. “She said, ‘Wear whatever you want.’ I got there and oh my goodness! Everyone was wearing skirts, and I was wearing jeans.” Despite the initial culture shock, the Begelfers enjoyed the Shabbaton. “We were taken away by the lectures and learning, and by the warmth,” says Elvira.
“We’ve been coming back every single year, since I was eight years old,” says Chava. “The Shabbaton was the highlight of my year, and I’ve always looked forward to it. I knew there was a fun children’s program, but I didn’t participate. Instead, I would sit in on the lectures. I loved the learning. I would argue with the rabbis. I thought I’d be able to stump them, but they always had intelligent answers. The Shabbaton planted the seeds for our growth.”
The whole family has fond memories of the hikes and classes with Rabbi Sholom Rodal of Chabad of Mount Olympus, a popular lecturer at SimXa Shabbatons. They’ve kept up with Rabbi Rodal outside the Shabbatons, and he’s helped them along their journey.
They also feel that they gained a lot from the Shabbaton organizers, Esther and Moshe Davidoff. “It’s amazing to watch Esther’s middos as she deals with hundreds of different people,” says Chava. Elvira adds, “The way she handles everything is very special, with the highest middos.”
The path to observance was a gradual process. “Every year we added something: Shabbos candles, kosher,” says Toly. After high school, Chava attended UCLA, where she learned more about Yiddishkeit through JAM (Jewish Awareness Movement, a campus organization). There, she also met her future husband, Gavriel, although they didn’t reconnect until they were both learning in Israel several years later.
After graduating, Chava attended Neve Yerushalayim, where her commitment to Yiddishkeit solidified. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without family support,” she says. “Every step of the way, my mother wanted to understand me. I would write to her every week to share what I’d learned and tell her more over the phone.” A dedicated mother, Elvira wanted more than that. She traveled to Israel and joined her daughter in Neve for three weeks, becoming the first parent in Neveh’s history to stay in the dorm and attend classes with her daughter.
Family cohesiveness was very important to the Begelfers. “When Chava called from Neve and asked us to buy a couple of [separate] pots and pans for her, we called Chabad of Northridge and koshered our kitchen,” says Toly.
Chava is very appreciative of her family’s support. “I have friends who went through the same process,” she says. “My Russian friends got so much backlash from their family.”
Like Elvira, Toly is also very supportive of his children’s spiritual growth. Torah observance was initially more familiar to him because he attended a yeshiva for a year at age 14. “Looking back, it was one of the best years of my life,” he says. “But it was very hard because my parents didn’t keep Shabbos or kosher and I was not strong enough to talk to them about Judaism.”
As a parent himself, Toly is determined to make Torah observance easier for his children without pressuring them in any way. When they began keeping Shabbos, their son, Shawn, would participate in the Shabbos meals and then escape to his own room and do his own thing. After 9th grade, he attended the CTeen Chabad camp. He came back with a firm resolution to wear his kippa and tzitzis to public school. “He was very impressed by the counselors and their beautiful middos,” says Elvira. Mid-11th grade Shawn transferred to Valley Torah High School.
The Begelfers are grateful to another Shabbaton family, Rabbi Menachem and Rena Vilner, who were instrumental in Shawn’s growth. Their son befriended Shawn, and they spent a lot of time together. While Shawn was still in public school, the Vilners arranged for a chavrusa for him at the Calabasas yeshiva. Later, Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman, Rosh Yeshiva in Calabasas, helped Shawn transfer to Valley Torah. Currently, Shawn is 22 and in his 5th year in Israel.
Where did such amazing family closeness come from? It is easy to see when speaking to Elvira’s parents. “We have a wonderful daughter,” says Raya, Elvira’s mother. “We try to support her and her family as much as we can.” Chava recalls a time when she was trying to explain something about Yiddishkeit to her grandparents but felt unable to express herself in Russian. She burst into tears. Her grandmother immediately comforted her and bought kosher dishes, no questions asked.
“We bought a double stove and separate milk and meat dishes,” says Raya. It’s important to her that her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild eat at her home, though it is not easy. But Raya and her husband Roman are not strangers to Yiddishkeit. They came from Kishinev in Moldova, where they were surrounded by a loving Jewish extended family. They’ve always celebrated Jewish holidays. “Yiddishkeit is always in our hearts,” says Raya. She showed us an old family picture of her own parents and grandparents, who look very religious. Proudly, she pointed out her uncles who knew how to read from the Torah.
Roman agrees. “In my heart, I’m a Jew. When I come to the Shabbatons, I learn more about Yiddishkeit.” “We enjoy coming and listening to lectures,” adds Raya. “It’s such a nice event. People are very friendly. It’s relaxing and meaningful.”
The Begelfers’ and Tepers’ old-timer sentiments are shared by the newcomers as well. Chana Bukshpun from Los Angeles, who attended the Shabbaton for the first time, says, “I love the people! The speakers are amazing! The lectures are interesting, deep, and yet easy to understand, the way they connect Torah and real life. I got such a powerful energy boost.”
Another first timer, Nechama Langer from Berkeley, California, is also enthusiastic about her experience. “My most memorable moment is dancing with my kids,” she says. “I enjoyed watching my son dance with the DJ.” Her favorite teaching is Miriam Yerushalmi’s comparison of our bodies with the Beis Hamikdash and the food we eat with the offerings. “What do you want to offer in the Beis Hamikdash—chemicals and French fries or the finest healing food?” Nechama adds, “I am amazed by the Davidoff family and their dedication to bringing people together.”
Moshe and Esther Davidoff, the Shabbaton organizers, draw their own inspiration from the Shabbatons. “We truly feel that every Shabbaton comes together in a miraculous way! We are grateful to HaKadosh Boruch Hu for this big blessing and Siata diShmaya that He sends us every year,” they say. “Families like the Teper-Begelfer-Shields family are a big nachas to us, along with many other families that have been participating in our programs for years. A special mention must go to the popular SimXa Kids’ Club started by Chana Hertzberg, continued by Tzippy Kin and recently taken over by Tzippy Mochkin. The children’s programs volunteer staff from Bais Yaakov Los Angeles is at the core of our success every year!”