Every congregation needs a great piano player. Tents of
Mercy has an almost embarrassing glut of riches in this department. Since
our founding, "the Maestro", Leonid Gelbit (See,
"A Notable Soul", August, 2009) has been our
mainstay on the keyboards. But for the last three years we have had the
good fortune to add another amazingly talented keyboardist to our ranks,
Michael comes by his musical acumen honestly. Michael's maternal
great grandmother was a famous singer in her native Belgium. His paternal
grandfather was also a famous violinist in his native Poland. Not to be
outdone, Michael's father was a professional composer in the Soviet
Union. Michael was enrolled in piano lessons at age four. Michael, "I
didn't have any alternative but to learn music. I had to go to music
school." At fourteen years old, Michael had grown tired of the demanding
expectations of formal musical training. To the dismay of his parents,
Michael informed them that he no longer wished to pursue the piano and
gave up playing altogether.
After a year off, Michael began to play again, but only as a pastime. One
day while casually playing the piano, the creative spirit within him
welled up in a new passion and joy for music. Michael knew what he wanted
to do, "I told my mother, 'I want to be a musician.' I realized
this was something I wanted to do for myself not just to meet my
parent's expectations. I didn't realize it at the time but it
was God at work in me - He was the one who put this passion in me."
Michael poured himself into music, "I played every day, 8-10 hours a day.
My parents worried ... this time because I played too much!"
Michael continued his formal music training, completing an undergraduate
degree in music and then another five years post graduate studies. During
his college days Michael's musical tastes broadened beyond his formal
classical training. He developed an interest in avant-garde jazz and was
soon traveling the country with a jazz-fusion band. Michael recalled those
heady days, "We were in our own frame, we were not going to be successful
playing this sort of music, but that didn't matter to us."
In 1991, Michael's world was abruptly and dramatically turned upside
down. He crashed his car and as a result lost both pinky fingers (no
insignificant injury for a pianist), broke his back in three places, and
had his teeth knocked out. To add to his difficulties Michael had been
preparing to return to his mother's house (Michael's father had
since passed away) and had packed all his valuables and documents in his
car. In the ensuing car fire, everything was destroyed. This was not the
worst of it. Michael also sustained a serious head injury which resulted
in post-traumatic amnesia. He did not know who he was; he even had
forgotten that he was a musician. His mother had no idea where he was or
what had happened to him - Michael was completely alone.
As one could imagine, this was an extremely difficult period in his life.
Even now, as he recounted the trauma of those days, Michael had to pause
to collect himself and was reluctant to delve into the details of that
painful time. During the course of his rehabilitation, the hospital
arranged for Michael to move out to a small village where he could rest
and recuperate. Slowly Michael's memory began to return to him; he
remembered his music background and despite his credentials being destroyed
in the car fire, was able to find employment as a music teacher in the
village school. All this time Michael's mother had been looking for
him. The police helped her track him down and after a four year hiatus,
Michael and his mother were reunited.
Reuniting with family after such an ordeal should have been a great
encouragement to Michael, but the trauma of the accident had left him
depressed and discouraged. A chance meeting changed Michael's life
again, but this time for good. Michael explained, "In 1998 I met a woman
on the street, she didn't know me but she told me, 'you are
Jewish, there is a connection between Yeshua and your people.' I
laughed at her. To my mind this was fairly tales for children." This same
woman invited Michael to her home to watch a film. Despite his skepticism
he accepted her offer. "They were watching a film about Moses, I was
intrigued. They had lots of Bible movies and I would continue to come back
week after week to watch the films." Michael continued meeting with this
small band of believers for about six months - there was a freedom about
these people that attracted Michael. "I had longed for freedom my whole
life, I started playing jazz because I had hoped it would bring me
freedom. After my accident I had resigned to believing that there was no
way I could be free - life was a struggle, the best I could do was just to
Michael and Marc
Taking a chance on freedom, Michael reached out to Yeshua and repented of
his sins. Michael had a genuine spiritual encounter but his depression
continued to plague him, "I was still troubled, I would repent and find
some freedom but then the depression would return." Michael was invited to
attend a Bible college in Vladivostok. He had hoped his new surroundings
and focused time in the scriptures would break his cycle of depression.
Matters only got worse. Michael broke his leg and was hospitalized once
again. However, this hospital stay was different than his previous one. In
his lowest moment Yeshua met Michael in a life changing way.
"As I was lying in bed my room began to glow with a purple light. At the
same time I smelled the most pleasant fragrance. I started to pray and
began to speak in tongues. I had no knowledge about these things and
thought I was going crazy. I couldn't speak about my experience to
anyone but the depression was gone." After Michael was discharged he met
with his friends and reluctantly told them his story. This little group
had Baptist roots - they were not familiar with this sort of experience.
Michael wondered if they would also think he was going crazy. To his
surprise and delight they received his testimony with enthusiasm. What
Michael didn't know was that his friends had had a similar encounter
at the same time.
Michael still worried that his depression would return. The Bible college
faculty had asked him to participate in leading worship but Michael was
reluctant, "I told them, 'I am not sure I can help because I have
problems.' They told me not to worry, that they would pray for me and
I would be free. That night as I was praying I heard the Holy Spirit speak
to my heart, 'You have repented, you are free, you do not have to be
Michael's journey to freedom was also a journey back to his Jewish
heritage: "As I got closer to God I got closer to my Jewish soul. My
family was Jewish, but all this really meant was that we could not get the
best jobs or go to the best schools. My father's name was Epstein,
but when he married, in order to distance himself from his Jewish identity,
he took my mother's Russian surname. My mother always told me to be
proud I was Jewish but not to tell anybody - this was to be our family
secret." Shortly after his graduation from Bible college, Michael heard
the Holy Spirit speak to him again, "You are Jewish, one day you will
return to your homeland." In 2008, Michael and his new wife and children
made aliyah just as the Holy Spirit had promised.
In Israel, Michael met a fellow musician who shared his passion for
worship, Marc Chopinsky (see, "Yes and Amen", Oct.
2011) "My relationship with Marc is very important to me, God put us
together." The Tents of Mercy family also has a special place in
Michael's life. "I love the people of Tents of Mercy. My relationships
here are so different than the ones I had in the Soviet Union. People are
so open - I love this." As is the experience of any new immigrant, Michael
and his wife have their challenges adapting to life in Israel, but he is
learning what Shaul learned, "In whatever state I am to be
content" (Phil. 4:11).
Looking back, we can see the grace of God intersecting Michael's life
at critical moments, from rediscovering his passion for music, to even his
darkest hours, he was never alone. Step by step the Holy Spirit has led
him. Michael is very optimistic about the future, we believe his confidence
is well founded.