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Old Torahs waiting to be repaired
Old Torahs waiting to be repaired

To my dear and loyal readership,

You have all read about our boys trottin' the globe, totin' books, Tefillin, and Mezuzot. Where do these Judaica supplies come from? Read on and be enlightened:

Hidden in the upper floors of an ordinary looking building on Kingston Ave., in Crown Hights, Brooklyn, is Hasofer, purveyors of Tefillin, Mezuzot and Torahs. Hasofer is a veritable goldmine of Mezuzot (they have thousands in stock) and Torahs (they have dozens of those as well). A team of expert scribes are constantly hard at work, checking the new and repairing the old.

To those in the know, the establishment is known as 'Moshe Klein', after its founder and proprietor whose name is none other than…Rabbi Moshe Klein!

"Now Rooted lifted his feet and went to the Land of the people of the Mezuzot (see Genesis 29:1)."

Each Mezuzah is carefully checked
Each Mezuzah is carefully checked

I was greeted by Zalman Schapiro, a longtime employee, who told me that most groups take a pair of Tefillin and a ten, twenty Mezuzot. The boys take the supplies on consignment with the understanding that they need only pay for whatever they do not bring back from their travels. This arrangement allows them to bring these goods to the people they meet at cost-price.

According to Zalman, the hottest spots are South America, Eastern Europe, and the Far East, where these supplies are not so available. The boys who go to those places very often come back with nary a Mezuzah, and very often they sold the pair of Tefillin as well.

(Maybe another day I'll tell you about the people who supply the books and the other fine folk who make the whole operation tick.)


That's a lot of Mezuzot!
That's a lot of Mezuzot!
Even the scribes like to read RovingRabbis
Even the scribes like to read RovingRabbis

Check out the menorah collection!
Check out the menorah collection!

Two weeks into our trip and we have yet to meet a German Jew…

The Russian takeover didn't call for any gunshots, as over two hundred thousand Russians have moved westward, and been placed throughout Germany. Under the Right to Return Policy, finding Jews isn't too difficult; it's the German Jew who is hard to find!

As Yankel and I make our way around Schleswig-Holstein (one of the sixteen German states), visiting many townlets and the Jewish Gemeindes (community centers) therein, we have been amazed at the strong Jewish spirit amongst the Russian Jews, who, with none or very little Jewish education, are still strong in their faith and ardent believers. Many of the people we have met are intermarried, yet they show such love and joy when they have the chance to tell us about their religious grandparents, or when they do Mitzvot, many for their first time.

With great difficulty we manage to talk to them in a mix of Russian, German, Yiddish and English. But the cocktail has its affect and the stories come out! They tell us of life in Russia, of their parents' and Grandparents' lives in the Shtetel (hamlets), of Rebbes and Chassidim, of Chadorim (schools) and M'lamdim (teachers), of Mishpocha (family) and of pogroms.

Even though the communists drained as much practical Yiddishkeit as they could out of the Jews, they couldn't take the Neshoma – the soul of our people – away. And from one generation to the next, the heart of our fellow Jews in Russia was kept alive and pumping through the stories and traditions, through the nourishing knowledge that we are all really a part of something much, much bigger. And so, even though many of the people we meet didn't have the opportunity to keep the law, they definitely have kept the lore. And with a little prodding, the many people we have met begin to recount their memories, their stories, their songs and their traditions.

Say it with flowers!
Say it with flowers!

Oh, do I hear you say Shalom? Yes, of course there are Israelis here – that goes without saying! Only a handful I must say, but Israelis after all. There is Itai, the owner of a successful coffee store chain who came to Germany to study music. Then there is Yaniv, who fell in love with the charming town of Lubeck. Zahava and her son Rahit, the only Jews in their tiny little Mülln, have been here for seventeen years already. Another Israeli woman, Sara, heard about them from an Arab taxi driver in Jerusalem and passed the contact onto us! Talk about G‑d taking care of his people!

Mendel and the Mochileros
Mendel and the Mochileros

Welcome to the city of Huaraz (pronounced Waraz)!

We took a seven-hour bus ride to reach this city, nestled in the mountains, 3,090 meters above sea level.

In this town you are either a local or a mochilero (backpacker). While most of the foreigners were climbing mountains, we were busy trekking through the city trying to find a place to lodge. The problem is that July 28 is a grand Fiesta: Peru's Independence Day and all hotels and hostels are booked solid. It took us a hot, long, sticky two hours until we found a resting place – for the right price of course.

Now we had to prepare a Shabbat meal for all of our Israeli mitayalim (Hebrew for mochilero). My partner and I have more experience studying in a yeshiva than working in a kitchen, there is no reason to worry, because G‑d always provides.

Pre-Shabbat prayers
Pre-Shabbat prayers
At 11 AM, a group of four friendly mitayalim set up shop in our place and cooked the whole afternoon away. They made chicken, rice, salad, and then some.

An amazing sixty people showed up for the meal! We sang songs and shared words of inspiration until late into the night.

Another forty-five Jews attended the meal on Shabbat day.

All in all, it was a great Shabbat.

On Sunday, we visited the Israeli hostels and walked around the city. We bumped into many Israelis and had some stimulating conversations about belief in G‑d and other such weighty matters.

As the sun was nearly setting, we popped in the supermarket to buy some much needed water. We met two of our Shabbat friends and offered them the opportunity to lay Tefillin.

"In middle of the street?"

Tefillin in high in the sky
Tefillin in high in the sky


"No, we can't do that."

So we went to his hotel on the other side of town (only 15 minutes of walking) and did our thing.

On our way back, we heard a man tell his friend "Hey, look, two Hasidim!"

After days of Hebrew and Spanish, it sure was refreshing to hear some American English!

Bill (an art director) and Gary (a writer) are both New York Jews. Surprisingly, neither of them had put on Tefillin since their Bar-Mitzvahs.

To report next time from Ica, Peru,

Rafi and Mendel

When people enter the S. Petersburg Synagogue, if they're not being herded by the cruise tour-guide, they often approach me on their own. This approach is no ordinary 'Hello, how are you?' or 'Could you please help me?' No. This look is most similar to one an explorer would wear when approaching some newly discovered tribe in the uncharted jungles of the Amazon or Papua, New Guinea.

A typical conversation goes something like this:

Pointing to himself (though in truth I should say herself – due to an unforeseen quirk of chivalry, women are often the first to enter, while the menfolk hold the door open)

"Hi. How are you doing today?"

"We -Americans. Amerikansky. Americans . . . Yes. We no speak Russian – No. English – Yes. Russian – No." -I almost expect someone to raise his hand one day and say 'We come in peace.'

"Yes, I see. I'm from Los Angeles . . . Where are you from?"

"No. We are not from Los Angeles. Los Angeles in California. We – Florida. Florida. Flo-Ree-Dah. Amerikansky."

"No, you see I am from Los Angeles. I was wondering where you were from."

"Well I'll be jiggered! I thought you spoke English rather well!"

More meaningful Conversation ensues...

The average Jew traveling Europe sees dozens and dozens of cathedrals and the like; often in places which he knows were formerly centers of Jewish life. There is something missing . . . he misses his own heritage.

The other day, for example, three families entered through the sweeping Moorish arches of the synagogue. One was affiliated with Chabad in D.C., while the other two were self described Reformed and secular Jews respectively (I told them that labels were for supermarkets, not for Jews).

As I showed them around the synagogue, I asked one of the husbands – we'll call him Ira (not that his name was Ira but I have yet to meet an Ira who isn't Jewish) –if he wanted to put on Tefillin. He demurred.

As the tour progressed, I asked another member of the group if he wanted to put on Tefillin. Though this individual was nervous, as he had never done so before, he agreed to go ahead and do the Petersburg Tefillin Express (as I have since dubbed the experience of putting on Tefillin here). After the third man, who as mention supported Chabad, got in on the deal, Ira decided to put on Tefillin as well . . . it was a truly moving experience.

Tuesday morning while parading through the mall ('parading' is a word I use for hanging around in Chassidic attire – a surefire invitation for curious people to approach us), we met quite a few people.

First was the security guard who for years had wanted to know what those tassels were and finally summoned up the courage to ask. We told him that they were Tzitzis.

The next guy we met was an Israeli fellow, who owns a few kiosks in the mall. He said he doesn't leave his house in the morning without first putting on his Tefillin. That was definitely nice to hear.

Then we turned down the next corridor and saw a young man on his way out of the mall. He stared at us, we stared at him, and then we all broke out in smiles. We walked outside and sat down in the shade. He told us his life's story, well a short version of it anyway. He was born in New York, moved to Israel as a teen, joined the army a few years later and moved back to the states when he got out. Apparently, there aren't too many black hatted Chassidim walking around Riverside because we were the first obviously Jewish people he saw since he left Israel. He decided to put on Tefillin for the first time since his Bar-Mitzvah, but for this we had to go back inside. He wanted everyone in the mall to see him proudly wearing the Tefillin and saying the Shema.

We sat down and soaked in the hustle and bustle of the busy mall. As we were leaving, a girl came over to us and said, "excuse me, are you Jewish?" For a second I was shocked! Hey, that's my line, copyrighted by Chabad!? Then she continued, telling us that she lives in Riverside, and that there is no Judaism here for her or her boyfriend. She needed to do something to feel Jewish; she just couldn't find that Jewish spark. Well, what better Jewish spark than the flame of the candles Friday night? So, after explaining what the candles were, how and when to light them, she made a resolution right then and there to light candles every Friday night. She also accepted our invitation for her and her boyfriend to join us for Shabbat.

Normally, we give out Shabbat candles and help people lay Tefillin. Yesterday we were unwitting park rangers.

Here is how it happened:

We took a trip to Estes Park CO. Perched in the Rockies, the small town has a lot of tourists and a few Jews.

Seven in the afternoon, we arrived at a house and discovered that a whole flock of elk were casually sitting on the lawn. For those of you who have yet to meet an elk, they are the size of a horse and have huge antlers.

I decided that I'm not going to leave the car, but my partner drove up the driveway and slowly proceeded to open the car door and inch toward the front door of the house. He rang the door bell. An elderly couple answered the door and they started talking.

I was still in the car and I started to feel a little left out, so I mustered up my courage and gingerly made my way toward the house, coming within three feet of the beasts. When I moved too fast, they started running in all directions and I almost fainted!

When I got to the door, I heard the man scolding my partner, "These are dangerous animals…" We started talking. One of the things he told us was that he and his wife were afraid of the elk and had been stuck inside the house all day. We did them a really big favor by coming and scaring away the elk!

On the way back, my co-rover remarked that this episode reminded him of the following aphorism of the Baal Shem Tov:

"A soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years just in order to do a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one."

Our bar-turned-Chabad-house
Our bar-turned-Chabad-house

Where we are…

It has almost been a week since we arrived in Aiga Napa, Cyprus. Located near the border of Turkish controlled Cyprus, Aiga Napa is a resort town famous for its pristine beaches. In recent years, apart from being a family holiday destination, it has become a 'party capital.' As of late, it has become especially popular with Israeli youth, who come here before beginning their army service.

What we do…

The past few years, Rabbi and Mrs. Zevi Raskin, of Chabad of Larnaca, have been operating a summer Chabad house here. The Chabad house serves as a home away from home, with free internet to contact home and cheap kosher food, as well as a chance to lay Teffilin, study Torah, or just hang with us – the Chabad rabbinical students.

What has been happening…

During the day, we go to hotels and youth hostels where the Israeli kids stay. We offer the guys a chance to lay Tefillin and give the gals candles for Shabbat. Usually, after meeting us, some of them come over to the Chabad house to hang out with us. We have made tons of new friends and exchanged contact info with dozens of Israeli teens. These past few weeks have seen over a thousand kids pass through our doors!

Isser New, Yehuda Freidman, Dovid Losh & Avremi Raksin

In Which I Meet Old friends and Make New Ones

Me and Mr. M from LA
Me and Mr. M from LA

The other day, a group of Farsi-speaking Jews came to the synagogue. Living in Los Angeles, I am rather familiar with Persian Jews and their various customs. In fact, I used to spend time visiting Persian merchants in LA's fashion district on a weekly basis, laying Tefillin with them. Thus fortified, I called the group over for little inspiration and spirituality.

Soon Shmuli and I had them all putting on Tefillin . . . Nothing out of the ordinary in the day's work of a Roving Rabbi. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I noticed a familiar face – one of my close friends from Downtown LA!

Playing it cool, as it were, I waved to him, as if it was one of our weekly meetings in LA. He did a double take, his eyes almost popping out, and teared up with emotion.

One can not describe the joy and surprise of traveling half way around the world, only to see the face of a longtime acquaintance!

Now that is a lot to drink!
Now that is a lot to drink!
That evening, Chief Rabbi Pewzner recommended that we stroll around the city and visit the hotels, in order to locate various other vacationing members of the Tribe.

As we walked down one of main thoroughfares, passing the acclaimed Mariinsky Theatre, we stopped briefly in a 24 hour convenience store to pick up a calling card (Called Hallo Mama, it costs 150 Rubles and gives rates to call Palestine[sic], but not Israel). Besides calling cards, they sold fruit, bread and a sickening amount of alcohol . . . including these 3 liter bottles of beer (yuck!)

In the Astoria, one of Petersburg's nicest hotels, we met a lovely Jewish couple from Denver resting in the hotel's lounge after a long day touring the city.

Joining them, we spoke for a while about various topics of interest -Jewish history in Russia and S. Peterburg, the Holocaust, life in Colorado and the discovery of natural gas off the coast of Haifa.

Late night sunshine Tefillin
Late night sunshine Tefillin
Before Petersburg, they had been in Lithuania, where Colly, the husband, had roots. We spoke about the community there, what was, what could have been and the recent blossoming Jewish life after the Holocaust and Communism . . . Concluding that we needed to do something practical, I suggested putting on tefillin.

It was already 9:50 in the evening, but with the sun shining outside, it hardly could be called night.

Walking through the streets in the eerie evening light, everything took on a surreal, dreamlike state. My senses told me that I was tired from a long day's work . . . but it just seemed too bright outside. Perhaps, to some small extent I hope, things were just a little bit brighter due to our work.

The synagogue
The synagogue

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.