Haim Ha’Cohen Gerber was first exposed to Judaism at age 10. Even at such young age, he realized that this is the real thing. It all started when one of his friends who would visit a certain yeshiva for Shabbat invited Haim to join him. Haim’s first Shabbat there was a powerful experience; the prayers, the singing and classes were all deeply impressive. Haim was so impressed, he knew without a doubt he wanted to pursue this path.
“After my first Shabbat, I knew I wasn't going back to my non-religious public school no matter what,” says Haim. “It was difficult for me to explain how I felt at the time but I was very stubborn and my parents’ and teachers’ attempts to convince me otherwise failed. They told me I was too young to make such a decision or to know what is good for me. They pitied me and thought that the yeshiva brainwashed me and took advantage of my innocence, convincing me to do strange things but I knew the truth.”
This truth was very sweet for him personally but everyone else considered it a catastrophe. “However the more they opposed me the more I dug in my heels. I boycotted my secular school and every time they brought me back I ran away to the Yeshiva. When they saw I was stubborn as a mule they simply gave in and let me go to yeshiva.”
Haim learned in yeshiva for that year and became stronger in Judaism. Afterwards he went to a religious school nearby his house where he continued for 2 years until 7th grade. Later, he moved to another place and that's where things started falling apart. “At that time I met a few bad people who caused me to hate Torah and Judaism instead of strengthening me. Haim went down spiritually and at age 15, he found himself out of school. “At that time I hated religion so much and I looked for ways to run as far as possible away from it. I couldn't find myself a suitable school and decided to depart Israel and fly to my father in the United States.”
“I took an entrance exam to Public School hoping they wouldn't accept me but they did.”
Moving from Israeli mentality to American mentality is difficult but Haim overcame this without a problem. At first, he thought about going to a vocational school but his father made a deal with him. “He insisted I take an entrance exam for Public High School and if I don't get accepted he'll get me a vocational course in Car Mechanics. I went to the test hoping they wouldn’t accept me but to my dismay they did. I was placed into a 4-year ‘ESL’ Program, which stands for ‘English Second Language’ where everyone came from a different country, so none of them spoke English. I studied English intensively for 3 hours each day and was placed into mainstream English classes after only 2 years.”
Haim succeeded in school and integrated phenomenally with all this friends from various countries and social levels. His friendliness and his ability to get by everywhere enchanted his friends. They would run to him like bees to honey. At a certain point Haim became a student leader that was in charge of many social events and was considered one of the most influential personalities in school.
Haim graduated high school with honors, he then went on to study Computer & Information Science at Brooklyn College and became involved in social life there. American universities have fraternities-brotherhood organizatons that organize parties, trips, rallies and other social gatherings. This is very popular and every university or college has it.
In Haim’s first year in college, he was already the official Fraternity DJ. He was also elected to be the Social Chairman in charge of all social events and parties. In his second year, he was the Fraternity’s treasurer and in his third year, he became the Fraternity’s president. In student life, it is the most desirable position any student could imagine. Being a Frat president means you do the craziest things. You get a lot of respect and you are the center of everything.
Haim wasn't satisfied with that and in addition to his social success he started working in the IT department of a large Foreign Exchange company on Wall Street. Today this company has branches in almost every country worldwide. I was very young when working there and I also made a lot of money on the side from computer repairs and DJ’ing gigs.
It would seem that Haim had everything; money, friends, and success. At a young age he already fulfilled many dreams and desires but still, inside he felt unfulfilled. “As someone who experienced so much, I already achieved everything the American Dream has to offer at the age of 24. The world with all its temptations didn't do anything for me anymore. Any wild idea I conjured up and did would feel good for a week or two. Afterwards I would leave great emptiness. Life started to become boring. I started questioning the purpose of life.”
Those questions didn’t get Haim to do something about it and seek out the answers as of yet. A lot of water went under a bridge until he decided he was lacking something and had to actually seek the truth again.
Where was G-d your life then?
“Even though I was very far away from G-d I still had a relationship with Him. I always looked for the truth and I always knew I wasn't on the right path. I knew I sinned, I knew I caused others to sin. I always spoke to G-d and I asked him to have mercy on me and show me the right way so I could fix myself and find purpose.”
When did your personal search bring you to act?
“You can say it happened after the Twin Towers fell. On that day I was late for work and was not able to get on the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. After I saw the magnitude of the disaster I could not stop thinking about the great kindness God did with me.”
This was the trigger that sent Haim to Kiruv seminars looking for answers to his questions.
Did you get your answers?
“Yes, but not right away. I went through a long process of preparing myself, fashioning myself into a vessel that could accept the answers.”
G-d saw Haim’s inner longing for spirituality and his search for the purpose of why he is here and G-d orchestrated that one of Haim’s close friends became religious. “That friend used to invite me to his house for Shabbat meals. He would tell me: At least before you go out to the nightclub make sure you don't drink and dance on an empty stomach.”
“As I was dancing at the night club, my Tzitzit was peeking through and made me extremely confused!”
“After going to Shabbat meals, I started going to synagogue and shortly after that I started going to Torah lectures. The people who most influenced me were Rabbi Meir Ben Shabbat, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi and Rabbi Abraham Halevi who was the community rabbi in Mill Basin. They all inspired me and at one point I even started wearing tzitzit but I was not prepared to give up my world which still included going to night clubs.”
How did you feel about that?
“This was a major internal conflict that caused me deep confusion. As I was dancing at the night club, my Tzitzit was peeking through and made me extremely confused. My soul would cry: ‘What are you doing here?’ The cognitive dissonance I lived with pushed me to the darkest places inside myself and forced me to make a decision which way I should go.”
Then he decided to keep Shabbat. “I tried keeping two Shabbats and it was hell for me because I was so addicted to television that even with all my good will to stick to my decision I was keeping Shabbat with the television on in the background choosing my preferred channel before Shabbat.”
Haim’s turning point was when he went to a Yeshiva in Monsey for Shabbat together with his good friends. He was 26; he had many unanswered questions on the Torah, on why he was created and on life in general. “I came as is without a Kippa on my head and with the feeling that there's no one on earth who can answer my questions and convince me to go all the way. Since I also learned Science in college, my questions were deep and I didn't think anyone could give me an all-encompassing answer that is deep, sharp and real. Today I admit I was mistaken.”
This was before he met Rabbi Yaakov Bacharach the dean of the Yeshiva in Monsey. “He was sent to me from heaven. Not only did he answer all my questions he asked me questions I never thought of and enchanted me with the idea Torah had about science. My meeting with him was foundational and it also led me to come to yeshiva every week to experience another enriching Shabbat.”
Everyone reveals the truth ultimately so the sooner the better!
A few months later Rabbi Bacharach invited him for a week in the Yeshiva. “After that week it was clear to me that I couldn’t go back to Brooklyn. I left everything and went to learn in Yeshiva.” Haim learned for three years, absorbed Jewish values and didn't stop investing his diligence and strength succeeding in Torah.
Nonetheless, he never neglected his sociable side. Over the years, Haim organized activities for the youth in the Mill Basin Community in Brooklyn and over time became an important part of their lives. These activities included a youth prayer service, lectures, trips and raffles with great prizes.
“Rabbi Avraham Halevi helped me to realize my potential and encouraged me to keep on doing these special activities. I always had leadership skills but with Rabbi Avraham Halevi’s guidance, I learned to sharpen my skills and thank God I was able to help a lot of people, many who are married today. Up to this very day all of my students are like younger brothers to me and today they still call me up with questions they would never ask anyone else”.
According to Haim, his success in giving advice is because it comes from a non-judgmental place with total empathy, which is what you need the most in Kiruv. Haim says: “You feel this most when you deal with youth that went off the path. Society around them judge them and think bad of them. A teen surrounded by people that don't think good of him will try to prove it because he has nothing to lose. “Nobody believes in me anyway so why should I try to share what I'm going through with anybody?” When I give advice, it comes from understanding, empathy and true caring. Even if that person did something seriously wrong, the way to get to him is to let him know that what he did doesn't match up with the amazing person he really is. If you can say it in that way it will never fall on deaf ears.”
In conclusion, what would you tell a person that had the same questions as you which are preventing them from doing teshuva?
“There are things that prevent us from coming to the truth. One of them is the great difficulty that we all have admitting: “I made a mistake”. In order to come into the world of tshuva and truth, I had to give up the lies I lived with until now. But that naturally is one of the most difficult things a person can do and it doesn't matter how truthful he is or how much he's searching for the truth and wants to live by it.”
“Secondly, I think that one of the things holding someone back is the fear of losing his identity. The moment we come close to G-d, the environment is expecting of us to dress differently, to behave differently and do things that are different from what we were used to until now. To a certain degree we could say that it requires us to cast off our old me, to forgo our habits, our desires and our ideology that were the basis for what we thought was our identity until now.”
Rabbi Eli Mansour once explained: if a person is asked to carry a huge 5-gallon bottle of water, it would be difficult for him because the water is external to him. But if a person is already dipping in the ocean even if millions of gallons pass over his back he's not going to feel anything, it's not heavy at all. Why? Because he's already in it, he is a part of it. When you're outside of the world of Torah and you look in from the outside, everything seems heavy and difficult. But it doesn't feel that way when you're in it and you understand the essence behind everything. Then you suddenly discover the sweetness of it all. Then it's not at all heavy or difficult for you to accept G-d’s rules upon yourself.”
“So when you understand that you're not giving up your identity at all, rather, you are revealing your true identity; the one that is buried inside you, hidden from your eyes and covered over with lies. As long as you're living a life of falsehood you didn't reveal who your true self is; your character traits, your personality and who you really are. When you come closer to the truth you start to taste and enjoy spiritual pleasures that do not exist in the secular world like Shabbat and learning Torah. These are pleasures that you cannot describe, you really have to experience. A person standing outside can’t understand what it is until he's there.”
As a young man who likes science and learned it in-depth, I came to know that the Torah has the answers and knows more about science more than I could imagine. The Torah doesn't only know about science, it knows about all of life, psychology, astronomy, astrology and much more. Every Jew who has questions should not be embarrassed to look for the answers. Today there is no shortage of information and places like Hidabrut that can give you answers. Just be brave and don't be afraid to discover the truth. At the end, the truth will be revealed even if it's after 120 years, but wouldn’t that be a shame? Go find the answers now. The sooner the better!