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Showing Posts from Northwest Connecticut  |  View All

In case anyone is still interested in reading about me, well then, today is your lucky day…

Yossi and I got in our trusty Chevrolet and drove down the road to Southbury, where we found the house of our longing without too much trouble. Eli, for that was the name of our Persian-Jewish host, welcomed us with open arms. He seemed genuinely happy to see us, which was nice. We met the family, Eli's mother, wife, and sister, and then began to chat. Nothing earthshattering was said by either side; we just exchanged some family histories and they found out that I'm a big fan of tahdig, the golden-crusted Persian rice which no human (at least the ones that I've ever met) could possibly resist.

After this rousing conversation, Eli put on Tefillin, we all recited a few Psalms for the health of everybody involved, and then it was out the door to grandma's house we go.

Well, not exactly grandma's house. In fact we Chevied our way up to New Milford Hospital, where we were informed that a Jewish patient was on the second floor. The second floor of the New Milford Hospital is the location of the ICU, and consequently we weren't so enthusiastic. Sure, it's great to visit people, but it's not so great so see them lying on beds with bunches of tubes sticking out in multiple directions.

Anyway, we got into the ICU, and besides for a couple of nurses and a police officer (she was just sitting there reading a paper), we found neither Jewish hide nor Hebrew hair. The nurse suggested that we pay a visit to maternity ward and off we went, feeling even more apprehensive. When you visit an ICU, everyone expects clergymen to pop in and administer last rites or comfort the patient/family members/pet goldfish. In a maternity ward though, nobody expects a couple of 21 year olds to just pop in and say, "Hey, we just thought we'd pop in."

Fortunately, there we met a kindly nurse who asked the father to come out, and we were quite happy to wish him a hearty Mazal Tov on the birth of his daughter - Cameron - who was born just a couple hours before we rambled in. He seemed happy to see us, and it sure was nice to finally be in a hospital for a good thing.

And that, friends, was another day in my life. Shocking, but true.

No, this is not his room but it expresses his state of mind.
No, this is not his room but it expresses his state of mind.

I told myself that I wasn't planning on writing about my experiences until something interesting happened. Well, today something interesting happened.

Last year, Mordechai Lightstone was a Roving Rabbi in Northwest Connecticut and here is an excerpt from his blogpost on the matter:

"Hello," came a voice on the other side, "Am I speaking to the rabbis?"
"Yes," intoned Mendel, "My name is Rabbi Mendel, how can I help you?"
"Well, my name is X, and I would like to set up a meeting with you guys and the residents of my Hospital."
"It would be our pleasure to visit, should we come tomorrow?"
There was a pause for a moment,
"It might be a little difficult, because this is a maximum security hospital, for forensic psychiatry patients."
"I see . . . you mean people with mental illness."
"Yes," X said, "but more accurately, psychiatric patients who have committed crimes."
Mendel stated his understanding of the situation, and then asked "So you're a warden there?"
"No," X said in an exuberant voice, "I'm an inmate here – I can't wait to see you!"

After pulling into the parking lot of the Connecticut Valley Hospital we searched for ten minutes for the entrance to the wing we were supposed to be visiting. After finding it, we had to fill out a brief form, deposit our phones in a locker, and go through a metal detector. We were then permitted to visit our guy, who I will call X, just like Mordechai did.

X came up to us and we slowly ambled on into a conference room. It seems that last year he was in an intensive security wing, while now he's in minimum, which means that he has a lot more freedom. After introducing ourselves, we began to discuss Judaism.

He's a fan of Mussar and we talked about how Mussar and Chassidus differ. This distinction colored the rest of our discussion, which ranged from reward and punishment to heaven and hell, Gan Eden and the world of Moshiach, suffering in Jewish thought, and the purpose of our existence. I did most of the talking and congratulate myself on having made at least a bit of sense. Once we were finished, X put on Tefillin and we parted amicably.

In the middle of our discussion on Teshuva, wherein I mentioned that Teshuva is properly not repentance but rather return, he mentioned something along the lines of "Well, I did a big sin. I killed my parents." I didn't quite know what to say, and just responded with a "hmm". The conversation continued unabated, and I explained how no one is inherently evil, no matter how heinous a crime he or she has committed. If anything, their soul has merely become covered; all they really need to do is wipe off the grime.

Once we got back to the Chabad House, I of course asked the Rabbi to explain what was going on here. In short: X was never all there mentally. At one point he wanted to go and study in Israel. His parents told him that he couldn't. He killed them both with furniture. He was found not guilty on grounds of insanity, and spent the next 16 years in a maximum security hospital.

When we visited X, he seemed perfectly normal. When I look back at our conversation, I think "Wow, he knows something about good and evil, huh?"

Today was a day like no other. Most days are like that. Anyway, enough chit-chat. It was looking like today would be a wash-out when we pulled up the drive of a posh elder-living facility this afternoon. All the people we had previously seen were either sleeping or not interested, which is always a bit of a let-down. Nevertheless, adjusted our ties and prepared to enter the domicile of our next host. Not that he knew that he'd be our host, but he found out about it pretty quickly.

We introduced ourselves to the elderly man, his wife, and their grandchild, a 15 year old named David who laughed at my jokes and is therefore assured of eternal paradise. In what seemed like no time at all we were discussing Wolf's (for that is his name) life story. All the details are his, so no griping, okay?

Wolf was born in a Polish town, population of 35,000, on the border with Germany, in 1923. His father wore a Shtreimel (fur trimmed hat worn by many Chassidim) and was a Chassid of the local Rebbe, whose Tish (literally a table but actually meaning inspirational gathering) they would regularly attend. Wolf remembers going half day to the local Jewish Polish school and half day to the Cheder (literally a room but actually meaning Jewish religious school). The Poles and Jews went to separate schools for two reasons: In Poland, kids had to attend school six days a week. The local non-Jews would send their kids every day but Sunday, while the Jews sent their kids on all days but Shabbat. In order to avoid problems, they had separate schools. The second reason is that no Polish peasant would allow a 'dirty Jewish kid' in his kid's school.

In 1938, when Wolf was 15, the Germans kicked all foreign-born Jews out of Germany. All these Jews were thoroughly Germanized, and it came as a big shock to them. These Jews had originally left Poland ten or twenty years before in order to find a better life, and they had done so in Germany. Even though they had become German citizens, the Nazis decided to deport them. They were brought to the border on a Thursday, and put outside German territory. The Polish Government didn't want to accept them, as they were officially German citizens. The Germans had stripped them of their citizenship, so they weren't citizens of anywhere.

The local Rebbe managed to bribe the guards to allow the Jews through, but the only time they could do it was on Shabbat. All the townspeople went to the border, with their horses and wagons, and brought their fellow Jews to the town, though they had to go outside the Eruv (enclosure in which one may transport certain objects on Shabbos), as Wolf noted. Once everyone came back safely, there arrived the additional problem of food, as no one had prepared for the guests. Back in the day, everyone used to make Cholent in their homes and then bring it to the baker's oven to cook until Shabbat afternoon. The Rebbe announced that all the Cholent was now owned by the community, and would be distributed to the refugees. The townspeople went home and ate herring and crackers.

It was a beautiful town, with two Synagogues, several Batei Medrash (study halls), a kosher butcher and baker; life was good. In 1939 the Nazis marched in and destroyed everything. The local Poles lined up outside, and when they saw a Jewish family being lead away from a house, they came in and occupied it. Wolf was in concentration camps for six years. One day, in 1942 or '43, he saw a whole group of Chassidim come to the camp with their Rebbe. They all had long peyos (side locks) and kapotes (black coats), as he once had. They turned to their Rebbe as they were being lead to the gas-chambers, and asked him, "What can we do now to save ourselves?" Before, he had always had the answers yo their questiond; now, he had nothing to tell them.

In the camps, they were worked from dawn to nightfall, and the religious Jews had no time to pray in the morning. They would put on their Tefillin while they were walking to the work sites, and pray by heart. This was of course extremely dangerous, as it was illegal to possess any sort of religious article. Once a guard saw one of the prisoners putting on Tefillin, and he walked over, thinking they were some sort of bomb. When he saw what they were he smacked the prisoner in the face, and the Tefillin fell down to the ground, ruined.

After Yom Kippur one year, one of the Chassidim in the camp was desperate to do Kiddush Levana (sanctification of the moon). Everyone else in his barracks told him that he was mad, because if you left the barracks at night then you would be shot. He could not be dissuaded and jumped through a window, as the door was locked. He went to the fence to try and see the moon, and the guard shot him.

There weren't only Jews in the camps; many criminals were sent there, including some German ones. Even though these criminals were in concentration camps, they still felt that they had some power, and they were just as happy to kill Jews as were the guards.

After the war, a British chaplain gave Wolf a pair of Tefillin. Later he made his way to Sweden. In 1947 he came back home, to his town, but everything was desolate, as he had left it. The sites of the Shuls were still in ruins, and Poles inhabited all the Jewish houses. Wolf realized that there was no more life in Poland; the whole country was simply a cemetery for the Jewish dead.

While he was in the camps, Wolf prayed many times for Moshiach to come. After the war they told him he was lucky that he had survived. He said "No, the others were lucky. They died."

Where was G‑d in the camps? Where was G‑d during the entire 2,000 years of Jewish suffering? It's not my job to answer those questions, because no human, no matter how great, can answer them.

Telling a story is not as easy as it sometimes appears. Which details are important, and which are extraneous?

The subway system in New York, for example, is a wondrous thing. It's truly marvelous when you consider a metal tube hurtling down a tunnel deep beneath the earth. The AC generally works too, which makes the whole thing even more marvelous. There is a large article on Wikipedia dedicated to the NY subway system, and there are many websites whose whole raison d'être is this wonder of America. Nevertheless, when I write that I took the subway somewhere, I don't devote two paragraphs to the experience. I took a subway. I survived the experience. Go me.

I bring up this important topic because of today's experience.

The first time I wrote about visiting elderly people, and their reactions, it was nice. The second time was more of the same. The third? Well, we won't go there. My point is that today was more of the same. Yes, it was very nice. We put Tefillin on one man, and visited with several more people, bringing hope and inspiration to the teeming millions of Northwest Connecticut. Nevertheless, it wasn't exactly scintillating work. There were no brilliant lines, no ripping repartee, no incredible shocks to the nervous system.

Oh yes, it rained heavily today. Our visibility was, for a time, obscured. We also ate dinner at Chaim's Deli in Waterbury, CT.

By the way, in case you're interested, I got a corned-beef sandwich with mustard, fries, and a peach Snapple. What did I write earlier about not recording extraneous details?

So now that I've written a post about nothing, I think I'll wind this one up with a short anecdote. If I can think of one. Which I can't. Unfortunately, this means that your blog reading experience will end a bit earlier than was previously planned. The good news is that I can go to sleep that much faster.

Today was a good day. I'm sure you're all thrilled to know that.

This morning we drove up to Sharon, CT, and dropped off a "Think Jewish" by a sleeping patient in the hospital there.

Yossi and I went to visit a patient (yes, I remember his name, and yes, I won't be writing it here; there's a thing called privacy, you know) in the ICU, and turns out we had to talk to his nurse before gaining admittance. The reason for our little chat is that it was recently (this morning) confirmed that he has an antibiotic-resistant virus, MRSA, and we'd therefore have to take a couple of precautions while visiting. We had to wear hospital gowns and latex gloves, and we weren't supposed to touch him, which meant that unfortunately we couldn't put on Tefillin with him.

Nevertheless, we had a very nice visit. He's in the hospital for emphysema, which was caused by 45 years of smoking. He told us, "I remember a Lucky Strike commercial from my childhood that went, 'If you have any respiratory problems, smoke Lucky Strikes.' No one knew back then." In fact, he's pretty young; a Vietnam veteran as it turns out. I remember receiving an email that went through all the things that kids did back in the day, and how most of them grew up and lived happy lives. While that's true, it's also true that people did a lot of things back then which literally shortened their lifetimes. It's also scary to think that we're also probably doing things nowadays which have a lot of negative potential down the road.

After talking about health we got onto his family, including his twelve year old son's upcoming Bar-Mitzvah, and his fervent desire to be able to attend. When you've been hanging around seniors for a week, you begin to understand how very important family is; without them, we're lost.

This point was made very clear by our next host, a sweet old lady in Bantam, whose husband has only recently passed away. She smiled our whole meeting, except when she said, "I miss him." I'm just 21, and I really don't know how to respond. I'm not sure that any amount of training can teach you how to help someone deal with the loss of a loved one. Until you've crossed the bridge yourself, how can you help others make their way over? I translated kaddish for her, and explained the Jewish concepts of life, death, and resurrection.

Our next hostess was another kindly old woman in Morris, who started our conversation by observing that, "I'm a product of a mixed marriage." Yossi and I looked at each other, not quite knowing what would come next, when she continued, "My mother was a Litvak (Lithuanian Jew), my father a Galicianer (Jew hailing from Galicia)." They came to America well before the war, and her family has been living here in the US ever since.

Tonight we went to a boarding school near here, where there's a Chassidic boy studying; I shall not elaborate, because again, privacy is important. I told him every thought I could remember on this week's Torah portion, Mattos, and several that I couldn't. Altogether, a fun and educational time was had by all.

And that, friends, was another day. Will the next one bring joy, gladness, song, jubilation, and slurpees at 7/11, or are we doomed to eating dry crackers with margarine? Only time will tell, so come back soon! Yippee! Hooray! (Yeah, I'm just a wee bit tired.)

I am happy to report that the first couple days here in Connecticut have gone very well. Yossi Beenstock and I spent most of our time visiting old-age homes, which was actually pretty cool. Most of the people were happy to see us, even if we only stayed for a few minutes. We must have visited twelve or thirteen of these homes, which was A. tiring, and B. enlightening.

Sometimes it's difficult to think of things to say; after all, many of these people are in their eighties and nineties. At other times, the conversation flows, and you really feel like you're connecting. Another nice thing is that whenever we left a home, the other seniors gathered around the one we had met and wanted to know who we were and why we had come. I guess that most of these people simply don't get visited very often.

At one of the places we encountered a woman who wasn't particularly interested in the Torah thought I was saying. Mind you, it wasn't anything deep, just a cute and positive thingie about the 17th of Tammuz. Anyway, as I was wrapping up with her, a woman wheeled herself over and asked if she could listen in. I told her that of course she could, and was she Jewish? She answered me, in Yiddish, "Ich bin a Shiksa with a Yiddishe Hartz", "I'm a non-Jewish woman with a Jewish heart." Then she asked us how we would know when the messiah had arrived. She then proceeded to try to convince me that the messiah had already come two thousand years ago. I politely disagreed. We parted on amicable terms; I agreed to believe what I believe, and she agreed to believe what she believes. Still, it was nice to be at the receiving end for a change.

This afternoon we went to the Waterbury hospital and I put Tefillin on a guy who can't speak with his mouth; it didn't matter, because his eyes spoke louder than words ever could. Funny, you read a sentence like that, and think, "Man, Chanan is being trite and illogical, eh?" Funny thing is, it's the truth. He really did communicate with his eyes.

After that we stopped at a local mall and picked up a tie each from Burlington Coat Factory. I got a hot sky-blue number, while Yossi went for a more staid English-school style (as he put it) clothing accessory. Mine isn't quite as shocking and classy as my famous orange and pink ties, but it worked on the short notice provided.

With our brand new ties resting comfortably in a plastic bag in the back seat we attempted to navigate Waterbury traffic; it only took us half an hour to go two miles, which made us very nearly late for an appointment with a guy in Torrington. His Hebrew name is Mendel, if that's any help. The building his contracting company is housed in has glorious exposed brick walls and polished yet aged wood floors. In case anyone wants to build me a house, make sure there's lots of exposed brick and wood floors. Thanks.

Anyway, turns out he's a really nice guy, and we sat and talked for a while. We talked about the usual things: why we're on Merkos Shlichus, Yeshivas we've been to, the local Jewish community, his family, our families, how Chabad dates, when we're gonna date, etc. At the end he put on Tefillin, which was a great end to the day.

And that, friends, was that.

Hey folks, this is Rabbi Chanan Maister, and I'm writing to you from beautiful Crown Heights, Brooklyn, preparing to travel to Northwest Connecticut with my friend and co-RovingRabbi Yossi Beenstock. We're looking forward to finding Jews and bringing them closer to their father in heaven. This is an awesome responsibility, and we certainly hope that we can come through with shining colors.

As we approach the three weeks and the anniversary of the destruction of the Holy Temple, we're reminded that the reason for this time of sadness is the lack of love among Jews. The only way to remedy the problem of our continued exile is with added love, and hopefully Yossi and I can bring our redemption a little closer.

Sometimes it seems that in life we're always preparing. Preparation is undoubtedly a wonderful thing, and I would probably accomplish a lot more if I ever had time to do it. Since my last summer's trip, I've learned and matured in many ways. At least once a week I'd think, "Hey, if I had only done X or Y when I was in Kansas...."

But that year of preparation is over. Now it's the real deal. Am I excited? As we say in Minnesota, you betcha!

A year ago I really didn't know what to expect when I went out. This year, of course, I know what to expect. In fact, when I discussed blogging about this with a friend, he said, "Why bother going out at all? You can just make it up from the comfort of your home. It's all pretty standardized anyway, right?" I laughed, but I had to tell him that this wasn't quite true. Who would ever think to meet a guy dressed like the High Priest standing in a parking lot in Sedalia, Missouri? That's the only example I can think of at this moment, but it just goes to show you that truth is several times stranger than fiction could ever possibly imagine.

Is this really about having cool stories to tell my friends? Of course not. It's about bringing Jews closer to their traditions, which is where all that preparation comes into play. The only way you can give to other people is if you have something yourself. Preparation doesn't only involve buying books, maps, and food. Preparation means changing yourself, making yourself a vessel for the wisdom of the ages.

After writing the above, I'm feeling rather pretentious and snotty. The truth is that I'm just a student, just a guy, hoping to make a difference in someone's life.

What I can say is that I hope that my trip will in some way make the world just a little bit better. Every Mitzva we do, every Mitzva we try and help others do brings us closer to the final Redemption. Who knows, maybe I won't even have to go out?

Iceland  (1)

Indiana Gazette
November 14 2015
Fairfield Sun Times
August 11 2015
KCFW - NBC - Bozeman, MT
August 07 2015
AP
August 05 2015
Lewiston News-Argus - MT
August 03 2015
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