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A Candle of My Own

A Candle of My Own

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Laura as a teenager.
Laura as a teenager.

“Shhh, my children. Make sure the blinds are closed tightly. Come to the table, light the candles.” That is how many Jewish children grew up in communist Russia in the 1960s and ’70s. No explanations about their heritage—not about Chanukah, Purim, Passover, or even Shabbat. If they knew nothing, they could not repeat anything that would put their families in peril…

Friday night, the summer of 1979, two hundred small candles are flickering in the dining hall of Camp Emunah, a Jewish camp in upstate New York. The glow of the Shabbat lights is almost as bright as the shining eyes of the little girls who lit them.

Laura had come to America from Russia less than six months before, friendless and speaking no English. Through the kindness of a rabbi, she found herself at a Jewish overnight camp. That summer, she learned to read Hebrew and made new friends. She also became very close to her counselor, Yona, who nurtured her and taught her about her Jewish heritage.

If they knew nothing, they could not repeat anything that would put their families in perilWhile in camp, Laura entered a contest, writing an essay about the experience of lighting candles. It was published, together with many other essays written by young immigrant girls, in a small book entitled A Candle of My Own.

The book was compiled by Mrs. Esther Sternberg at the direct request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Its purpose was to inspire women with the importance of the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles.

As camp was ending, Yona presented Laura with a prayerbook in which she had pasted a small picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Opposite the picture of the Rebbe, Yona had written the following words of spiritual encouragement in Russian: “. . . Let this siddur with a portrait of this holy Jew be your true guide in your life . . .”

The prayerbook given to Laura by her counselor.
The prayerbook given to Laura by her counselor.

Fast forward 32 years. Laura made a life for herself in America, and now lives in Philadelphia, still friends with many of the women who had come to America from Russia in the late 1970s as young girls. Of these close friends, one is named Yana.

One Shabbat in June 2011, when Yana and her family were at their rabbi’s home for a Shabbat meal, her oldest daughter picked up a small book called A Candle of My Own. As she flipped through it, a name caught her eye: Laura Brovender. She knew that name . . . it was the maiden name of her mother’s close friend. They sat in amazement, reading the sincere words she had written when she was practically the same age as Yana’s own daughters. Yana was so moved by Laura’s words describing the impact of Shabbat candles that she decided to surprise her friend and frame the essay as a gift.

After hearing the story, Laura wanted to meet the woman who had compiled the book. They soon connected over the phone, and Mrs. Sternberg immediately became a role model and inspiration to both Yana and Laura. They had the opportunity to hear her speak of her various experiences in her work with the candle-lighting campaign and the publication of A Candle of My Own.

After hearing the story, Laura wanted to meet the woman who had compiled the bookLast December, Yana and Laura went to New York for Shabbat as the guests of Mrs. Sternberg. As they lit Shabbat candles along with their daughters in Mrs. Sternberg’s home, the power of the mitzvah was palpable. The shimmering lights connected them, creating a bond that was felt by all.

But there was still one missing link. Laura wanted to contact Yona, the counselor who had motivated her to write the essay in the first place. She wanted to show Yona the impact she had made on her life, to tell her how her encouragement, kind words and warmth were coming to fruition 32 years later.

Sadly, it was discovered that Yona had perished in a terrible car accident 26 years before. She had left behind a husband and four very small children.

Laura with her family now.
Laura with her family now.

One can only imagine how powerful it was for her now grown children to hear a story about their mother that had never before been told. They knew that their mother had been a tremendous woman, but to learn of one more life that she had touched impacted them greatly.

Laura still had the prayerbook that Yona had given her. Yona’s inscription was still encouraging her and connecting her to her Judaism all these years later. Every time she held that prayerbook, and every prayer uttered from it, was a reminder of the influence Yona had had on her life—and by extension, a reminder of all the lives Yona had touched. It was the warmth of a camp counselor to a little girl whom she would never see again that reignited Laura’s soul.

Laura still had the prayerbook that Yona had given herThere are many beneficiaries of this incredible story. Laura has slowly started to realize that she and her daughter are links in an unbroken chain of Jewish women spanning thousands of years, just like Yona was. Yona kindled and then rekindled a spark in Laura’s soul, and now Laura is able to return that favor by giving Yona’s children a glimpse of who their mother was.

Yona’s children, now married with their own children, are able to peer through yet another small window to see the extraordinary person their mother was. The impact of her actions, done quietly and with little fanfare, can be felt to this very day.

Everyone will meet, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, to connect not only through words, but also now through actions.

When we do a good deed, if we are lucky, we see the immediate impact it has. But we have no idea at the time how far-reaching that act might be. The truth is, we might never know. But as we see from this story, a kindness done over thirty years ago softly lingered until it was rediscovered, and is now inspiring and igniting many more people in an ever-growing circle.

Joannie Tansky is the author of Girl Meets God; The Gift of Being a Jewish Woman. She is an international speaker and coach and is currently working on her second book, In The Eyes of Other Women. You can reach her via her webpage.
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Joannie (Henya) Tansky February 11, 2013

Yona's Yarzeit As per one of her daughter's, it is Tes Zion Iyar. Reply

M. Gordon Melbourne February 11, 2013

Yona's Day Yonah passed away on a Saturday evening, 16th of Iyyar 5746, which, the secular date was May 24th 1986. She was 28. Reply

Anonymous February 9, 2013

from chicago i was also young when she passed away; as i had seen her earlier that day at gathering of sorts i think of her often. she was a special woman who passed away on her way home from helping another woman. how nice for her children to have another story of her. can someone post her yahrtzait? its in the winter. Reply

Devora New Jersey February 5, 2013

I Miss you Yona Yona was a very special woman. Although I was just a young girl when she passed away, I still think about her often. She accomplished so much in her short life. May we soon be reunited with the coming of Moshiach. Reply

Anonymous USA February 5, 2013

A Candle Of My Own Wonderful story of encouragement. But I believe that if we do a good deed we will be blessed by Hashem, blessed be He. I do not believe in luck, a pagan word.
We need to change our language as we are encouraged to change our behavior for the sake of Heavens. Reply

Anonymous Melbourne February 5, 2013

A Very Special Woman Yona was indeed a very special woman. Although I did not know her personally, I heard a lot about her from my mother who did. She inspired many women to keep mitzvos, especially lighting Shabbat candles and keeping the laws of Mikva.
For some deep reason known to G-d alone, she was taken at a young age, as she was on her way to help another woman do a mitzva. It is heartening to know that her legacy lives on.
May we soon merit to see the era in which all tears will be wiped away, all secrets will be understood, and families will be united with their loved ones. Reply

Welcome to our candle-lighting section, where you will find the details and practicalities of lighting Shabbat candles, along with the meaning, spirituality and power of doing so . . .
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