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Over the past few weeks, we have travelled across Germany, visiting the cities of Worms, Darmstadt, Mainz, Michelstadt, Speyer, Limburg, and Heidelberg, to name a few. It has been both a wonderful and heavy experience. We were constantly cognizant that we were walking on soil that has been drenched with Jewish blood, yet we strolled the streets in Chassidic garb, on a mission to spread Judaism and bolster the spirits of the German Jews, which we considered our personal proclamation of “Am Yisrael chai”—“the Jewish nation endures.”

We were fortunate to meet many Jewish people, including a large number of Holocaust survivors, and we treasured the opportunity to spend time with these elderly people who have suffered so much. A particularly memorable experience took place just a few days ago, in the centrally located town of Kassel.

We had just concluded a home visit with a contact from previous years, when we noticed an elderly woman staring at us through the window of her apartment, wide-eyed.

“Do you speak Yiddish?” she asked us (in Yiddish). When we replied in the affirmative, she called her husband, visibly excited. “We haven’t spoken Yiddish in fifty years!” she exclaimed.

They introduced themselves as Hershel and Anna, and invited us inside, understandably with a small amount of reservation—we most certainly were not their typical guests.

Still, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room, and before long Hershel was sharing his life story. He told us that at 90 years old he is the oldest Jew in Kassel, born in Warsaw, in 1926, the third of five boys. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew and has fond memories of attending cheder with his brothers. In the late 1930’s, as the Nazi movement was tightening its grip on Europe, Hershel’s father moved the family to Russia, where they remained for the duration of the War. When the dust had settled, they returned, this time to Kassel. Hershel was amongst the lucky ones; his entire immediate family survived, although his two older brothers have since passed on. The younger two moved to the Israeli port town of Haifa many years ago, and Hershel seldom sees them.

There was a lull in the conversation, and Hershel seemed lost in thought. We took out our tefillin and he considered our offer for a few moments before agreeing. “When was the last time that you wore tefilin, Hershel?”

“It’s my first time,” he replied, adding that his older brothers had celebrated their bar mitzvahs, but he had turned thirteen during the War. We carefully wrapped the straps around his arms and head, and began reciting the blessing, intending for Hershel to repeat it: “Baruch…” but Herschel needed no help from us. “Baruch Atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’haniach tefillin,” he enunciated. He had remembered the blessing he had learned in cheder and heard from his brothers nearly 80 years ago!

After that, the atmosphere was noticeably lighter. We suggested we affix a mezuzah on the front door and he agreed. Hershel showed us a Jewish video he had and in general seemed more relaxed. We were gratified to see that we were leaving them in a better state of mind than when we had arrived, and wished them lots of health and happiness in the years to come.

As we continued with our day, our conversation kept returning to Hershel’s bar mitzvah. There were many elements of Divine Providence to this story, but what struck us most was how Hershel had perfectly remembered the blessing. It didn’t seem possible that a small schoolchild could retain that, especially after experiencing so much pain and trauma. The only explanation is that those pure words, along with the Torah he had studied, had been engraved upon his heart and soul, waiting all these years for the opportunity to mark his bar mitzvah by performing the sacred mitzvah of tefillin.

Cambodia’s Jewish community has been faithfully served since Rabbi Bentzion and Mrs. Mashie Butman arrived on the scene in 2009. Currently, they are abroad, providing themselves and their six young children some much needed time family time, and we are here attempting to fill their very large shoes. Last week, we received a phone call from the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Mr. Yuwal Waks, whose official title is ‘Deputy Chief of Mission, Political and Public Affairs’ (which means that he is second in command at the embassy), had some business in Phnom Penh, and was interested in visiting the Chabad House. Of course, we responded that we would be thrilled to host Mr. Waks, and immediately got to work on the logistics.

In anticipation of our important guest, we spent most of the morning preparing—making sure the rooms were tidy and presentable, and overseeing the lunch that the Cambodian chefs in the Chabad restaurant were whipping up. We were excited but also apprehensive—this visitor was in a different league from our typical easygoing Sabra backpacker!

But as soon as we met Mr. Waks we relaxed. He was easygoing, soft-spoken, and respectful. We began with a grand tour of the 8-story building which houses a synagogue, preschool, restaurant, social hall, offices, mikvah, and more. Our visitor was extremely impressed with the building and the full gamut of Jewish amenities the Butmans provide to Cambodia’s Jewish community of locals and tourists.

Over lunch (which thankfully turned out delicious!) we had a spirited discussion about some Jewish and Chassidic philosophical concepts. At one point, Mr. Waks mentioned that he had grown up on a secular kibbutz, and had never had the opportunity to put on tefillin. “I would like to do so, would that be possible?” he inquired.

Chabad boys are trained from a young age to help others with mitzvahs, including tefillin, and we log countless hours in that pursuit. We almost always are the ones doing the asking, so being approached like this made for a rare and happy occasion.

About an hour later, after we had finished lunch and our conversation, we brought out our tefillin and explained the process to Mr. Waks, who had about a dozen questions for us about every detail, until he was wrapped up, and turned quiet, introspective. We gave him time to pray and when he was ready we removed the tefillin and celebrated together.

“This is your Bar-Mitzvah, mazal tov!” we toasted L’chaim in honor of the occasion.

We’re quite certain that when Yuval Waks turned thirteen, back on the kibbutz under the hot Israeli sun, he could never have dreamed that the day would come when he would celebrate his Bar Mitzvah nearly 5000 miles away at the Jewish hub of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A summer searching for Jews on the streets and in the marketplaces of Vietnam’s capital

Hanoi has been the locale this summer for rabbinical students Mendy Tubul and Berel Dubinsky, who have scoured the capital of Vietnam, often on moped, looking for Jewish residents and tourists, and offering them services, kosher food and sometimes, just their company. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Hanoi has been the locale this summer for rabbinical students Mendy Tubul and Berel Dubinsky, who have scoured the capital of Vietnam, often on moped, looking for Jewish residents and tourists, and offering them services, kosher food and sometimes, just their company. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Forty Jewish people from around the world sat around a table not too long ago in Hanoi, celebrating Shabbat together.

“Almost everyone discovered that they had a previous connection to someone else there,” reports Mendy Tubul, a senior student at the Chabad yeshivah in Antwerp. “One woman had stayed at the home of the parents of another person at the table. There were some teens who knew the granddaughter of an elderly couple there. There was a fellow who lives a five-minute walk from my parents in Paris.”

He and fellow rabbinical student Berel Dubinsky have reported similar instances across the capital of Vietnam, where they have been working this summer to bring services and amenities to Jewish residents and tourists. They temporarily replaced Rabbi Levi and Mushky Laine, permanent Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to Hanoi, in this city of more than 7.7 million people.

During their time over the past four weeks, they note that “G‑d has literally been guiding our steps.”

For example, a group of British Jews had been worried about where they would celebrate Shabbat. In a dark, underground area in the city’s much-frequented Old Quarter, they met the two rabbinical students who had been trying unsuccessfully to find an Uber to take them home after a fruitless-seeming search for Jewish tourists.

It was during one of those walks that Tubul and Dubinsky also caught the attention of a Canadian mother and son. Spotting the bearded young men in kipahs and with tzitzits, the son called out “Shalom!” from the rickshaw he had been riding in with his mother. Soon, he found himself wrapping tefillin.

Another encounter took place in a mechanic’s shop, where Dubinsky had taken his moped—along with bicycles, the transportation of choice in Hanoi—for repair. Trusting his sixth sense for finding members of the tribe, Dubinsky called out “Israelis?” and was rewarded with yet another connection.

‘Feeling Blessed’

Prayer was part of the “chanukat habayit” ceremony for American Joseph Berman, who recently moved to Hanoi.
Prayer was part of the “chanukat habayit” ceremony for American Joseph Berman, who recently moved to Hanoi.

This summer, some 300 Chabad rabbinic interns have fanned out to hundreds of locations all over the world as part of the annual Merkos Shlichus “Roving Rabbis” program. Each year, they leave New York City and go to places near and far to bring Jewish services to residents and travelers. They hold daily prayer services and offer tefillin, host Shabbat dinners—for many, access to kosher food they don’t get during the year—and answer questions about Judaism and related issues.

In addition to combing the streets for tourists and staffing the Chabad center, the duo reports that they have been able to help some Jewish people affix mezuzahs in their homes. For example, American ex-pat Joseph Berman, who moved to Vietnam this summer, was gratified to host a mini chanukat habayit (“home dedication”) ceremony that included the installation of a new mezuzah and words of Torah in his new apartment.

He plans to pray regularly with the tallit he brought from home and hopes to procure a pair of tefillin to complete the set.

“Thank you so much, Chabad,” he posted on Facebook (noting that he was “feeling blessed”). “This small act meant more to me than you’ll ever know.”

The word “Shalom!” called out from a rickshaw alerted Dubinsky, left, that there was a Jewish person inside, who got out and put on tefillin.
The word “Shalom!” called out from a rickshaw alerted Dubinsky, left, that there was a Jewish person inside, who got out and put on tefillin.
The duo spent significant time searching Hanoi’s teeming markets for Jewish people. Here, Dubinsky talks with another Jewish man.
The duo spent significant time searching Hanoi’s teeming markets for Jewish people. Here, Dubinsky talks with another Jewish man.
The Trang Tien Plaza building in Hanoi, a popular a shopping center in downtown. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Trang Tien Plaza building in Hanoi, a popular a shopping center in downtown. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Iceland  (1)
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