Safed, Israel – He once broke into shuls but is now praying in them three times a day.
He demanded protection money from businesses, but is now paying stipends to avreichim.
He once wore handcuffs but his hands are now enwrapped in Rashi and Rabeinu Tam tefillin.
He was once the head of Sefas’s criminal underground but is now the head of a yeshiva of baalei tshuva.
There was no crime category that N. didn’t excel in.
Reb Nissim Tshuva, then a Sefas policeman, remembers the day he caught N. right after he had broke into a house. “I finally managed to catch him. I had been waiting a long time for this moment. All of Sefas’s policemen wanted to arrest him, but no had managed to until then. But N. didn’t want to enter the police van. I tried to force him, but he began pounding me until we had to call the border police.” He concludes, “If he can be chozer b’tshuva, anyone can!”
The city of Sefas was stunned when the criminal with the most break-ins under his belt suddenly was chozer b’tshuva several years ago. Says N., “I’m trying my best to forget my past, but I agreed to return and publicize my past as a way of giving nachas ruach to my Creator. Maybe people will learn that one should never despair, and one can pick himself up from the lowest abyss. You only have to want. Any day, a person can change himself from a rosha to a tzadik.”
N.’s first theft occurred at the age of 14, when he pilfered a pack of cigarettes from a kiosk. “I was frightened, not from the police, but from Hashem. I came from a religious home. I felt terrible. But before I knew it, one sin led to another. The fear vanished and the sins became the norm. I made bad friends. I advanced from kiosks to houses, first as the lookout for the thieves, then participating in thefts myself. I specialized in breaking locks and slowly advanced to other criminal acts.”
The day came when he was caught by policeman Nissim Tshuva. He spent 1 1/2 years in a prison for juvenile delinquents, where he formed professional ties with other criminals and learned new techniques from them. By the time his prison term was up, he was a thief summa cum laude, full of enthusiasm to implement what he had learned in jail. He soon realized that drug peddling and demanding protection money was much more profitable than breaking into homes.
At one point, he fell out with his criminal partner and decided to murder him. “I waited by his house with a loaded gun,” he recalls. “He arrived, and at the critical moment when I was about to shoot him dead, I was seized with fear. I put away the gun and ran away. I told myself, ‘You’ve done it all — theft, robbery, extortion… but murder? No way!'”
That night, thoughts of tshuva assaulted him. “I was on fire inside. I thought to myself — if you can do all the other stuff, why should murder bother you? Murder and theft are both forbidden in the Ten Commandments. That’s when I decided to leave the world of crime.”
The next morning he went to Yeshivat Yated Hatshuva, to his friend, Rav Yosef Sha’out, today the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Yeshuat Tzion in Jerusalem. “I told him simply ‘I want to be chozer b’tshuva.”
“I asked him ‘What happened?’ He told me that he had almost murdered a man and realized to what netherworlds he had fallen. Pangs of conscience had afflicted him the entire night, and he decided to leave the world of crime,” recalls Rav Sha’out. “First I checked out that he really meant what he said and didn’t come to pickpocket the yeshiva students. When I saw he was for real, I told him to take a seat and begin to learn. He had once learned in yeshiva and I knew that returning to it would solidify his dramatic decision.”
“It was very difficult to sit and learn after a career in crime,” admits N. “But I knew that if I don’t stay here, I’d end up dead, if not physically then spiritually.”
Without crime, N. soon realized he had no income. He was owed lots of money by his criminal friends, but he was afraid to meet them lest they suck him back into their world. But the rosh yeshiva, Rav Raphael Cohen, and his friend, Rav Sha’out, encouraged him to stay firm.
During the next year, N. had the difficult test of maintaining his virtue, while being suspected by the police of every crime committed in the city. Once he was accused of breaking into a jewelry store and was arrested and kept in jail for a week.
“That week,” N. recalls, “I stayed in jail and just learned. Rav Cohen came to visit me. I came out to the visitor’s desk with a gemora Brochos in my hand, so the rav could explain a difficult passage to me. Rav Cohen couldn’t hold himself back and called out to the policemen ‘Does he look like a thief?’ In the end, I was acquitted and freed.”
Elul arrived, and N. began to learn Hilchos Tshuva with the other avreichim. He read ,”Sins that a person did against Hashem, Yom Kippur atones for, but sins that one did against his fellow man, Yom Kippur doesn’t atone for until he appeases his fellow man.”
“When I got to this passage, my whole body shook. How much money I owed to people whose houses I had broken into! How could I face the Beis Din shel Maalah knowing that so many people’s money was in my possession? I decided to look for the people whose homes I had broken into. Since everyone in Sefas is traditional or better and goes to shul on the holidays, I decided to take a bold step and go from one shul to another and announce that whoever’s house I broke into in past years, should contact Rav Raphael Cohen.
“I stood on the bima with lowered eyes and announced I was a thief. It was terribly difficult. But the reactions I heard in shul were amazing. Policemen in the congregation began to cry, people who were not known to be religious all year round, couldn’t believe what they were hearing. In the Abuhav shul, one of the distinguished worshippers got up — not an observant man — and said to everyone else, ‘You have to learn from him what courage is.’ People clapped hands. They couldn’t believe that the city’s main criminal had become a baal tshuva.” The local newspaper also wrote a blurb announcing that N. wants to make restitution.
“Almost no one asked for their money. They just flooded the shul to see how Sefas’s biggest criminal had changed and was chozer b’tshuva out of love for his Creator.”
There were difficult moments. In one shul, a man stood up and announced that he refuses to forgive N. When asked why, he said in tears that his wife had passed away from aggravation caused by the break-in. “Go to her grave and ask forgiveness,” the man told him angrily.
Rav Cohen went to the man and sat with him for 6 hours. “I told him that if he wouldn’t forgive N., then heaven wouldn’t forgive him either. A person who stumbles but does tshuva, should be forgiven. It’s not self-evident that the woman died because of the break-in, as she was anyway ill. It is Hashem Who gives life. After the lengthy talk, the man agreed to forgive N.”
Another woman made a stipulation for her complete forgiveness: she asked N. to do community service at the Rivka Ziv hospital in Sefas because she didn’t need the money back. Rav Cohen sent N. to Rav Kanievky to ask what to do. He told him not to cancel his Torah study to appease the woman. “She can’t decide how she wants the theft returned. If she wants restitution, give her the money back,” he said.
At a tshuva rally arranged in Moshav Delton, N. got up and recounted his career of crime and how he was returning to Judaism. In the crowd was Yosef Menachem, the head of Sefas police who stood up enthusiastically and said, “I tell you that he was the kind of criminal that you couldn’t catch! If he was chozer b’tshuva, everyone can be chozer b’tshuva!”
Nissim Tshuva was retiring from the police, and he decided to fulfill a lifelong dream to begin studying in yeshiva. He had become religious after his army service during the Shalom Galil campaign, but had never had a chance to learn seriously. He decided to learn in the local Yated Hatshuva yeshiva, and on his second day of studies, was matched with another avreich learning in the yeshiva. He had to pinch himself to be sure he wasn’t dreaming — but it was true! It was N. himself, his face now covered with a thick beard. “I had waited in ambush for him, I had longed to arrest him, I was afraid of him… and now here I was sitting opposite him with him teaching me how to analyze a gemora sugya. Amazing.”
N. spent 6 years in Yated Hatshuva, until he gained semicha and became a rav. He decided to leave Sefas and join a kollel in another city in the periphery. He reached out to youth who were on the fringes and starting a crime career. “I knew how to speak their language. They asked me to open a yeshiva for them. I asked Rav Sha’out and Rav Cohen, and both of them sent me to Rav Ovadya Yosef to ask his advice and get his brocha. He pinched my two cheeks and sent me to open the yeshiva.” Yated Hatshuva helped out financially.
The yeshiva’s 15 original boys have since grown up and founded their own families around the yeshiva. The effect of the yeshiva has been to change the city completely. “No one believes that we were all former criminals,” admits N. sheepishly.
“My goal in life is to balance out my past and bring more people to tshuva,” says N. “I want to prove to everyone that there is no room for despair, and from the lowest place, one can elevate himself, because Hashem is there too.”