Koziatyn is a small city in Western Ukraine with roughly 200 Jewish residents. It doesn't have an organized Jewish community or a synagogue of any sort. The Jewish mover and shaker in town is Clara, who claims to know all the Jews in town, and occasionally organizes holiday programs.
We were planning to spend a day in Koziatyn, so we called Clara to make arrangements. She gave us her address and told us to come see her as soon as we arrived. “I’ll take you to many Jews,” she promised.
We came to town on a Wednesday, and with Clara and Lonya, our translator. We made a great team! Thank G‑d, we were able to bring a measure of Jewish feeling and pride where it was sorely needed.
Alexander, 75 years We made a great team! old, has lived in Koziatyn his entire life. He never had the opportunity to put on tefillin, and accepted our offer to do so, because, he said, he "knows it's the right thing to do."
We also visited Dimitry, a cheerful 10-year-old boy, who lives with his mother. He was so thrilled to see us—real American rabbis! This was his very first Jewish experience, so we did our best to make it enjoyable and informative. We taught him about the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah, blew the Shofar, and showed him our tefillin, explaining that he will soon have a bar mitzvah and be able to wear them.
Dimitry really drank in all the attention. He played the piano for us, his captive audience, and peppered us with a variety of questions. We spent about an hour together, instilling in Dimitry memories that will hopefully last a lifetime. Before we left, we promised that we would put a nearby Chabad Rabbi in touch with him, and G‑d willing, come three years, he will be able to mark his Bar Mitzvah according to Jewish law and tradition.
At about 4 p.m., we decided it was time to head back to our car to have some lunch. We were eating and talking, when suddenly, we heard the strains of “Hupp Cossack”, a Chassidic medley. At first, we thought we were dreaming, but we left the car to investigate, and it was unmistakably coming from the vehicle behind us! The middle-aged man behind the wheel came out of his car to greet us.
“Hi, we really like your music!” we began.
“Hello, I’m Gregory. Yes, it’s good music, isn't it?”
“Are you Jewish, Gregory?”
“Yes, I am!”
With Lonya’s help, we soon uncovered the story behind Gregory’s unusual choice of music. Several We really like your music! years ago, he had travelled to Israel, where he heard Jewish music for the first time, and instantly fell in love. Since then, he has built up quite the extensive collection, and plays them at every opportunity.
Gregory lives in Riga, Latvia with his wife and three children, and they were taking a family road trip to Odessa, stopping at various points of interest along the way. But he wasn't really sure why he had made a stop in Koziatyn!
“Well, Gregory, we're glad that you stopped here, and that you were playing your music, so we could know that you are Jewish! Now that we met, what do you think about putting on tefillin?”
It turns out that even though Gregory lives in a vibrant, Jewish area, and had even been to Israel, he had never put on tefillin before. With his wife standing proudly by his side, we all celebrated his unofficial bar mitzvah.
It’s amazing when we can see with our human eyes how G‑d runs the world so perfectly. Had we not parked in that exact spot, or returned at 4 p.m. for a break, we wouldn't have caught Gregory while he was in town.
Several hours later, we were once again returning to our car, this time to head back to Mogilev-Podolskiy, the city we were staying in with some of our fellow roving rabbis. We noticed two young men walking towards us.
“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
After a moment, one of the guys said, “Misha, tell them you're Jewish, we all know you’re Jewish!”Misha, tell them you're Jewish
We learned that Misha had in fact spent time in yeshiva in Israel several years back. Currently, he did not observe much of his Judaism, but when we asked if he we would put on tefillin, he donned them right there in the street, without a shred of shame.
In a city with 30,000 people, only 200 of them Jewish, what are chances of bumping into a Jew? Statistically, not very high. But when G‑d is running the show, they appear, walking towards us at just the right moment.