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West Palm Beach – a winter hotspot – is quiet in the summertime, especially the residential areas. It’s not easy to find Jewish people, or any people, for that matter. But with high spirits and hopeful thoughts, we turned on the music and drove downtown, the only place that can conceivably be called “busy.” We arrived at "Cityplace" - a European village-style alfresco mall with fountains and a slew of dining and entertainment options. We were sure to meet someone.

But we had a problem: parking. After a few rounds, we finally found a meter. But when I felt around in my pocket for change, I only found a few pennies.

"Hey Boruch," I called to my partner, "have any change?"

"Nope,” he answered, “maybe the car's got some.” We rummaged around and found a few coins. “That’ll get us about an hour,” Boruch said.

It was 12 p.m.

We made our way in and out of some stores, having the same conversation over and over:

"Shalom! Are you Jewish?"


"No Problem, have a nice day!"

"You too!"

This happened a few too many times and before we knew it, it was 1 o’clock and time to feed the meter.

We approached the car, added some quarters to the meter, and were ready to head back to the main area when I spotted someone on the other side of the street.

I ran over to the man who appeared to be in his mid 50's and said, "Shalom! Are you Jewish?"

"Yes,” he replied, “Why do you ask?"

Howard was dressed for work. Most people wear casual clothes these days in sunny southern Florida, but he was not on vacation and seemed to have no time for long conversations.

We explained that we are two rabbinical students who travelled to South Florida to meet Jewish people, and he seemed to open up a bit. After some small talk we gave him our card and a copy of the publication, "The Scroll."

We said, "Howard, whenever we meet someone, we like to leave off with a Mitzvah. Did you do the Jewish wrap?"

"What's that?"

"The tefillin.”

He agreed and we helped him put them on and say the shema prayer.

"So when is the last time you did this?" we asked.< /p>

We were surprised to hear his answer.

"Never. This is my first."

"Wow! Today is your Bar Mitzvah! Mazal tov! Congratulations!"

The initial annoyance now seemed like clear divine providence. Had we not returned to refill the meter, perhaps we would have missed Howard entirely.

Suddenly, the petty change didn’t seem so petty anymore.

We invited the older men in the small town of Zhitomir to the synagogue on Shabbat morning. After the service, we prepared a small Kiddush and shared some Torah thoughts.

One elderly man sat with us long after everyone else had left. Being a good Russian Jew, he polished off an entire bottle of “mashke” (spirits), and made sure we drank the entire bottle of Pepsi, thinking it was wine.

We sang Chassidic melodies together, and told him tales of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. We emphasized the Rebbe’s love for every Jew, even those living in small towns far from Jewish communities. This is the legacy the Rebbe left us, and this is why we’re here.

Our new friend began to cry. “Six million! Do you know that the Nazis killed six million?” He told us that the Nazis came specifically here, because this town used to be full of Jewish residents. All of his friends and family were killed. He escaped via horseback, travelling and hiding for 3 months, until he reached safety.

“It is incredible that you came here, so once again there can be Jewish life in this city,” he continued. “You show people how to be proud to be Jewish, and you do mitzvahs with them.”

Earlier this week we stopped a guy in the street and asked if he was Jewish. He nodded and asked if we had some time to come talk in his office. Of course, we went to his office and celebrated a Bar Mitzvah, as it was his first time putting on tefillin.

“What does a Jew have to do every day?” he had asked. We told him about Shabbat, tefillin, kosher, tzedakah (charity) and the concept of marrying Jewish. And we showed him, which houses a wealth of Jewish material in Russian.

“I want to buy tefillin,” he told us. So we helped him contact the nearest Chabad House in Zhitomir, three and a half hours away.

When we visited him a few days later, he told us that he had only eaten kosher fish that day, and had just placed an order for kosher meat from Kiev. We were extremely impressed and inspired.

We’ve been visiting him every day, and are excited to share in his spiritual journey. To make such major life changes after one meeting seems so illogical. Here, we clearly see the message of the Rebbe of the intrinsic power that exists within every Jew.

Joe Ribnick puts on tefillin.
Joe Ribnick puts on tefillin.

Hello from Fleming Island!

At first, we focused on the more “civilized” areas surrounding Fleming Island. But towards the end of last week we moved outwards, towards the outback, with its dirt roads and no GPS signal. Thank G-d for iPhones!

According to our list, Mr. and Mrs. Joe R. lived at the house we were about to visit. We rang the doorbell and heard a very familiar sound – dogs barking. Usually, while we wait, we try to guess how many dogs are on the other side of the door. An older gentleman opened the door and greeted us with a smile.

“Oh, you guys are Jewish?” he asked. “How'd you guess?” we replied. “Did the glasses give it away?”

We explained how we ended up on his doorstep, and then Mr. R. proceed to tell us that he actually grew up in the Boro Park and Bensonhurst areas of Brooklyn , and he even remembered the Lubavitcher Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway which still operates at that location. Almost thirty years ago, after a series of blizzards, he and his wife went searching for warmer pastures and ended up in Middleburg, Florida.

After chatting for a while, we asked Mr. R. if he’d like to put on tefillin. There’s always that split second of bated breath where you’re unsure what the response will be. Fortunately, our new friend agreed and we helped him wrap the tefillin around his arm and head. We began to recite the shema prayer with him, but amazingly he was speeding through the words on his own.

When he finished the paragraph we just had to ask him, “How do you know the shema so fluently?”

And he told us, “Every night before I go to bed, I say the shema.”

Imagine, this is a man who is not surrounded by anything Jewish: no kosher, no Shabbat, and certainly no Jewish neighbors. But night after night, for thirty years, he has said the shema before retiring to be, connecting with his Jewish identity and expressing his spirituality. Wow!