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Thessaloniki. Once referred to as the "Mother of Israel," its Jewish population of sixty thousand had been slashed to one thousand by the ravages of the Holocaust.

As we were walking in the streets of Thessaloniki, visiting the Jewish store owners, a local Greek man asked us to come into his shop. He then proceeded to tell us an amazing story:

The White Tower of Thessaloniki marked the edge of the Jewish Quarter.
The White Tower of Thessaloniki marked the edge of the Jewish Quarter.

"My mother was a Christian woman who lived in Thessaloniki during the Second World War. She lived next door to a Jewish couple who were desperately trying to escape the Nazi butchers. Seeing their distress, she hid them in her attic for a full year until the war was over.

"After the war, the Jewish couple could find no way to express their gratitude to my mother. The Jewish woman decided to give her benefactor her most precious possession: a rolled up piece of parchment, which she said had been passed down in her family for many generations.

"My mother treasured this scroll, and before she died, she gave it to me."

He asked us to come again the next day when he would show us his treasured heirloom. We returned the next day and discovered that the precious gift was a Hebrew amulet, written by a Kabbalist many years ago. The Kabbalist had written that the amulet would serve to protect a Jewish woman and her family in the future.

Well, it sure did serve its purpose admirably!

As we continued from city to city, we were constantly reminded of the horrors of the Holocaust. Towns which had once been flourishing centers of Judaism now contained few Jews.

Many of these towns, some with just fifty Jews, make great efforts to gather together for Shabbat services on Friday night.

From door to door we went, visiting the young and old. It was painful to see the tears falling from the eyes of the Holocaust survivors, as they spoke about the glorious past, when the streets and synagogues were filled with their family and friends. However, often they became tears of happiness as we discussed their love of Israel and their strong devotion to Judaism.

In Tefillin for the first time since his Bar Mitzvah
In Tefillin for the first time since his Bar Mitzvah

Today, we went searching for Jews. We came across a building full of lawyers. Well, if it's got lawyers, it's got Jews. But how to get in? As we were standing around deciding on our next move, a gentleman strode out and headed straight toward us.

He told us, "I saw you guys walking by the window of my office and I thought to myself that one doesn't normally see guys like you around here. Beards, black hats, and suits don't do so well in the Florida heat. So I came out to find you."

We followed him to his office were we had a wonderfully enlightening conversation.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbis Yisroel Noach Majeski & Nisson Vaisfiche

We do our best to reach out to all people, regardless of their background and social status.
We do our best to reach out to all people, regardless of their background and social status.

A family of Mitzvot. As you can see, grandpa is wearing Tefillin, his granddaughter is holding a new set of candles for Shabbat, and her brother is holding a charity box.
A family of Mitzvot. As you can see, grandpa is wearing Tefillin, his granddaughter is holding a new set of candles for Shabbat, and her brother is holding a charity box.

Sweaty and ''Crushed''
Sweaty and "Crushed"

Wood which does not burn is to be crushed until the fire is able to take hold. A body which is not burning with the flames of the soul is to be crushed until it is aflame with the fire of the soul. (Zohar III 168a)

Sounds kind of harsh.

Well, we saw it in action in the nicest way (no, we did not beat anyone up).

During our stay in Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, we strolled around the Plaza de Armas, meeting fellow Jews. At one point, we chanced upon a fellow Jewish traveler from Michigan. We had a nice chat about this and that. Before parting, we offered to lay Tefillin with him, and he declined.

Forty-eight hours later, eighty kilometers northwest, and 2925 feet lower, we met again in a very different setting.

At the site of the ancient Inca ruins known as Machu Picchu there is a mountain path which leads to the Intihuatana Stone, which lines up with the sun at the equinoxes, casting no shadow during those times of the year.

Now, there are no signs telling you how long the hike up is. If we would have known that it takes forty-five hot, sweaty, uphill minutes, we definitely would not have began this grueling hike carrying our backpacks laden with Tefillin, water, lunch and Jewish materials.

After much sweating and panting, when we stopped to rest on one of the outlying rocks, I asked someone returning, "How much longer?" I almost fell off the mountain when he told me that we had not even done half of it!

At last, we reached the top. There we met our friend from Michigan. We didn't recognize him, but he remembered me. After all, tall bearded Chassidim are a scarce commodity in this corner of Peru.

He was resting on a stone, his shirt drenched by the noon sun and long trek. He was trying to catch his breath. He was tired, thirsty, and "crushed," and so were we. This time our offer for Tefillin was gladly accepted. As you can see in the accompanying picture, he put on Tefillin. He thanked us for the opportunity and said that he hoped to do it again!

The Irish countryside is a stunning collage of brilliant shades of green.
The Irish countryside is a stunning collage of brilliant shades of green.

Frieda and her son Simon moved to Waterford, a town in southeastern Ireland, eight years ago. Coming from a town in England where there wasn't much of a Jewish community, the fact that Waterford has no synagogue or Jewish life did not concern them very much. And though they don't hide their Jewish identity, they didn't really expect to meet other Jews. Together, they run a shop selling alternative clothing and jewelry.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, we were wrapping up a meeting with a Jew in an Irish hamlet when we asked whether he knew of any Jews in the surrounding areas. "I believe there's a guy Simon," he responded after a moment's thought, "Together with his mum, he runs a shop at the Waterford mall." He then gave us the approximate location of the mall. We immediately made our way over, but to our dismay, the mall was already closed. A Google search at a nearby internet café got us to the shop's website. We weren't sure who reads the company emails, but we figured that an email to the company contact address couldn't hurt.

Early the next morning we received a call from a woman who was both shocked and thrilled that rabbis wanted to visit her and her son. Though we had already left the area, we made up a time to meet later that week.

In classic Irish style, the outdoor tables of a local pub served as a great location to meet with Simon, Frieda, and a few of their friends. An analysis of Guinness and beer production served as a great springboard for a discussion about kosher – the Jewish dietary laws. But it didn't stop there. After much dialogue on the topic of assimilation and intermarriage – and a Tefillin wrapping in the middle of a parking lot – Simon confided that although there is nary another Jewish soul in Waterford, his unwavering commitment not to marry out of his faith was renewed with our discussion.

It's been a few weeks, and I've traveled a few thousand miles since, but the story of Simon, the lone young Jew whose fire burns bright, continues to remind me of the unvanquishable spirit of the Jewish soul.

With the transcript of the Rebbe's talk
With the transcript of the Rebbe's talk

As I close my file on our time in Monticello, I leave you with some memorable details of our travels there:

We met an elderly Jew who, during the Holocaust, was on the same plane from Riga to Stockholm as the Sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, and his entourage. They were also together on the boat ride from Europe to America.

When we met again at our goodbye barbeque, we gave him a transcript of the talk which the Rebbe had given at the airport before boarding the plane. He promptly sat down and meticulously read the entire Yiddish transcript. He hadn't read Yiddish for a while and was clearly moved.

In one bungalow colony, a gentleman was shocked at the proposition that he put on Tefillin on a Monday. Chabad people had been visiting him every Friday for a number of years and he had no idea that Tefillin were worn on the other five weekdays.

Another fellow asked if we charge for putting on Tefillin. He knew what they were but wanted to make sure that there was no hidden gimmick. After our assurance that there was no fee, he gladly put them on and recited the Shema.

We met a Russian woman who many years ago was beginning to lose her sight. The doctors had predicted that she would eventually be completely blind. After she and her husband had immigrated to America, they went to the Rebbe for his blessing and guidance. He told them that she should undergo a certain operation which was unheard of at that time. She followed his advice and now sees well. These days, she reads Psalms every day in Russian.

Shalom!

In addition to providing services to the Jewish athletes in the Olympic Village, and helping in the bustling Chabad Houses and kosher restaurant, we make time to seek out every Jew, wherever they may be. The following is just one of the many moving stories which took place this summer.

We were walking through the Westin Hotel when we met a Dutchman named Daniel. He had studied hospitality in Austria and came to Beijing to pursue his dream of working in the hotel industry. When I mentioned that I was from South Africa, he excitedly told me that his father was South African and added that his mother was Jewish. We told him that he is a bona fide Jew. He told us that while he feels part of the Jewish race, he feels no connection to the Jewish religion.

We began speaking about various Jewish topics and found out that he had never had a Bar Mitzvah and certainly had not put on, or even heard of, Tefillin.

After a lengthy discussion about Tefillin, we asked if he might want to don Tefillin for the first time. He was hesitant at first but agreed.

After saying the Shema and a short prayer of his own, he was visibly moved and said that he felt an overwhelming sense of connection to something he didn't even know existed, a soothing comfort, and that he had begun to fill a void he could never place. For the first time in his life, he felt an element of spiritual fulfillment and a deep desire to explore his heritage.

There is no end to this story, only a beginning.

We left Oklahoma City with plenty of time for our two-hour drive to Fort Sill -- the largest U.S. Army training base in the country. Our prearranged security clearance got us through the gate, but then we realized that we were in trouble. There are 15,000 soldiers on base, and it stretches miles and miles in each direction. How would we find the part of the base we were looking for?

We needed to find the chapel where we were told that there was a group of Jewish soldiers and the N.C.O.I.C. awaiting our arrival.

We stopped at the base hospital where we were greeted with a "What can I do for you sir?!" We asked where the chapel was and were given some directions ("Affirmative, Sir!"). We passed by many soldiers doing basic training -- being shouted at and bossed around by a drill sergeant who was relaxing in the shade.

At last, we found the chapel!

We received standard-issue military kippas, a general rundown on being Jewish in the army, and got right down to business. We introduced ourselves and lead a prayer for all the men and women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and the I.D.F.

We then served a delicious kosher lunch which was enjoyed by all, complete with a lesson on kosher laws, symbols, and what makes food kosher.

We were treated to tour of the base, got a close-up look at the life of soldiers, and even a lesson on ranks and the chain of command.

What a day!

Never too young for Torah!
Never too young for Torah!

Greetings,

In my last post I told you that on my first Shabbat here, I met someone who had gone to my public school in Brooklyn. I had asked him where he lived, and he gave me some landmarks to know how to find his bungalow colony.

That Sunday, we spent a good portion of the day looking for him. After a while, we decided to call it a day and to move on. The next day, we also dedicated a few minutes to trying to find him. This continued for each day for the next three weeks—dedicate a little time each day to try to find him. But to no avail.

My old buddy from school
My old buddy from school

Finally, on our last day, we got into the car and told each other, "We need to find this guy!" We drove down the same road we had driven down ten times a day for the past three weeks, and all of a sudden we noticed a side road that we had never noticed before. With nothing to lose, we turned, and lo and behold, we found a bungalow colony! Not sure if it was the right one, we figured we would give it a try. But wait a minute, we couldn't find an entrance! We drove back and fourth and then decided to just ask someone how to get in.

We asked a random guy who was working on his garden if he knew where we could find so-and-so. He replied, "That's my grandson!" and ran to get him. After talking a little while, it turns out that not only did we go to school together, but we even were in the same class!

By Divine Providence, I met up with someone with whom I had finger painted in first grade, and finally on the last day, was able to find him (again!) and exchange contact information.

We served 300 kosher meals at this BBQ!
We served 300 kosher meals at this BBQ!

Here's are some snippets of what's happening on the West Coast:

Thank G‑d, we've had so many interesting meetings that it's hard to keep track of all our adventures!

Yesterday, we decided to check out an area in the mountains around twenty minutes from Burbank. It was incredible how many Jews we met. They couldn't believe that there was someone who cared enough to send yeshiva boys to visit them!

One particularly moving visit was to a widow who unfortunately suffers from Alzheimer's. Although she can't remember many details of her life, it was evident that she truly enjoyed conversing in Yiddish. After we had handed her some Shabbat candles and turned to go, we overheard her telling her aide, "I really enjoyed that visit!" It made our whole trip worthwhile.

We drove up a very steep hill and decided to knock on a random door to ask about Jews in the area. The lady who answered the door told us that the next door neighbor is Jewish and shouted over the fence, "Hey Rick, you have two Hassidim at the door for you!" "No way!" came the reply.

Rick speaks Hebrew (his mom was a Hebrew school teacher), but has not been to synagogue in years. He told us that he thought he wouldn't feel comfortable in the synagogue, but now he thinks he might start going. We certainly hope he does.

In the evening, we met a family who excitedly invited us in. Dad put on Tefillin, and the whole family recited Shema together.

Today, we had been having a hard day and decided that we needed to do at least one mitzvah with someone before the day was out.

We entered a shop and asked if anyone was Jewish. Turns out that there were four Jews there. We sat down for a small torah class. Afterward, we gave the lady some Shabbat candles and helped the gentlemen put on Tefillin. For two of them, it was the first time! We also put a mezuzah on the door before bidding them a good Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom!

Though Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru, the only Jewish presence is the ancient cemetery.

As we were roaming the Plaza de Armas (city center) drumming up interest for our Shabbat services, we were shocked to see a Mezuzah on the door of a Radio Shack. Unfortunately, it was hanging on the left side of the door, instead of the traditional right.

We went inside to investigate. None of the workers was Jewish or even knew what the funny thing on the door was.

We contacted Rabbi Blumenfeld in Lima to see if he had a clue. He told us that the owner of Radio Shack in Peru is a Jew named Rafael who is a close friend of his. A few hours later, he told us that Rafael had arranged with his manager in Arequipa that the rabinos with the sombreros should affix small cases on the doors of all of his stores in Arequipa.

After fixing the Mezuzah on the first store, we continued to the second and third locations.

One of the people who joined us for Shabbat was at the mall when we were affixing a Mezuzah on the Radio Shack there. After our departure, all of the employees and many bystanders came to check out this new gadget on the door. Understandably, the Peruvians didn't have the slightest idea what it was. With pride, our friend answered all of their questions and let them know about our special security system.

So keep your eyes open, and you never know what may come your way.

At the moment, we are based out of Stowe, Vermont. Many tourists come here to enjoy exhilarating hikes and breathtaking views. There are also locals; the're just harder to find.

We were driving from Lyndonville to Stowe. We had just completed some very nice visits and had some time on our hands. We were passing through a village called S. Johnsbury in an area known as the Northeast Kingdom.

We stopped at a local grocery to get some stuff and see what we would see. In the produce aisle, I heard a friendly "Hi." I turned around and saw an elderly couple smiling at me. We got into a conversation. It turns out that the husband is 89 years old and his wife is 87. They regularly drive over from their hicktown, where they have lived for fifty years, to buy provisions. They now divide their time between Florida and Vermont. They had never encountered Chabad before. We gave them an open invitation to Chabad of Burlington, and they said they hoped to make it over.

The other day, we met with a woman who lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere all by herself. She calls herself a hermit; she is fed up with people and thinks the entire species is cruel. She hadn't spoken to other humans in many years. She told us that she is a direct descendant of the famous Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1838).

Today, we had a nice visit with some old folks who live on a farm, far from society. They both grew up in Alabama. They told us that they remember the roving rabbis who used to come with their hardboiled eggs and speak to their father. In their words, “Father really enjoyed these meetings. They meant a lot to him.”

Our trunk -- fully stocked and ready to rumble!
Our trunk -- fully stocked and ready to rumble!

Benny in an ancient synagogue
Benny in an ancient synagogue

Our tour included seven Romanian cities, visiting and searching for the last remaining traces of once-flourishing Jewish communities.

Oddly enough, many of the peasants here speak a crude Hebrew. This is because they have all worked in Israel at one point or another, as farm laborers and janitors.

We spent sleepless nights driving our tiny European car on even tinier roads, competing with bicycles and horse-drawn buggies, our trunk laden with kosher food.

We have had many encounters with local Jewish townsfolk as well as numerous tourists with whom we've crossed paths. Almost all of them were astonished to discover that we had travelled from America for one reason: to visit and attend to their spiritual and material needs.

We're lookin' fine!
We're lookin' fine!

A cold call led us to Mrs. Bernstein, who lives in a seniors' residence. As we walked into the ornately furnished lobby, a familiar hospital odor washed over us. A stooped old woman greeted us and led us, albeit very slowly, to her apartment.

"Sit down boys," she almost commanded us.

There is something awesome about old people. Sitting in the presence of someone more than three times your age commands deference. They talk and reminisce of a world bygone, of a yesteryear not so distant in time, yet so foreign in concept. Listening to their stories is history coming to life.

"What brings two good Jewish boys like you to Mississippi?" she inquired.

"We're part of the Chabad Lubavitch movement - "

"You're Lubavitchers?” she interjected, “My grandparents were Lubavitch!"

"I'm 94 years old," began her fascinating narrative, "I was born in Milwaukee to Russian immigrants. My father immigrated as a youngster; his mother sent him off alone, seeing no future for him as a Jew in Russia. His family never made it out of Russia. They were all killed.

My mother came to Ellis Island as a very little girl with her parents. Their name was Dachevsky. Upon arrival, they changed it to Cohen. They moved to Milwaukee. My grandfather never really adapted to the American culture, and his English, although better than my grandmother's, was never really impressive. Like many Jews back then, my grandfather would peddle wares to make a living. I remember every Shabbat he would walk to the Lubavitch synagogue. I didn't know Lubavitch still exists!"

She spoke of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, inviting us to browse through the pictures and cards they had sent her.

"I am now ready to pass away, knowing that I've done all I can to ensure that my children and their descendants will grow up as proud Jews.”

Walking out of her apartment felt like leaving the cobblestone streets of the shtetl and landing in the modern world. Her life story, a testimonial to Jewish determination and continuity, left us deeply inspired.

Hi y'all!

It’s quite an honor to join the team!

We just arrived in Burbank, CA, and we're having a blast!

The second we landed, someone came over to us and asked, “Excuse me, where is the local Chabad?” We knew that there would be a lot of work ahead of us...

On Friday, we went to our first destination, where a father and son had us help them don tefillin. The son was a first timer!

On Monday, we met many interested people. One individual told us that although he had been laying tefillin for years with the visiting rabbis, he finally summoned the courage to ask us what they actually mean! We tried our best to give him some insight into this special mitzvah. We also put on tefillin with his friendly Israeli boss who gratefully gave us each a painting from his art collection.

Later on the same day, we met a young man who has just moved to town three weeks ago and couldn't believe that Chabad had contacted him before the gas company did!

Anyways, no time for small talk; we have work to do!

Leibel Kudan and Yale Spalter in Burbank, CA

Last week, I sent out an email to many of my friends with some stories which had been posted on Roving Rabbis.

Below is a response which I just received:

“I was sitting on the beach yesterday, chatting with a neighbor. Her oldest son will be celebrating his Bar-Mitzvah in September. The family belongs to a temple where a new rabbi has just been hired.

"The newly installed rabbi was immediately embroiled in the intrigues and controversies which plague so many communities.

"She and her husband were both getting frustrated with trying to plan an event in the midst of all this turmoil, and were disappointed with the new rabbi’s lack of sensitivity. The conversation turned to the Reform/Conservative/Orthodox labeling thing. I brought up Chabad. She said she thought they were a clannish Orthodox group, and that while she receives literature from Chabad occasionally, she just throws it out. I explained that Chabad was very accepting and helps all Jews be Jewish.

"Then I remembered that I still had your last email on my Blackberry. I opened your email, handed her my Blackberry, and showed her how to scroll. I watched her face as she read it. Her face lit up with a warm smile. When she finished reading, she asked me, 'Is this real?' I told her it was. She said she misunderstood what Chabad was all about, and she would be visiting the Chabad as soon as possible.”

It is stories like this that keep me going. We never know the extent of our actions....

After a grueling twelve hours on the road, we came home hoping to grab a bite to eat and get some sleep. Just as we were about to settle in, the local rabbi told us that a member of the community was not doing too well; he asked that we go and visit him. He hoped that our Yiddish would serve as an icebreaker and help cheer him up.

We got on the trolley, got lost, snuck past some drunks, and finally made it to Igor’s apartment.

It was already past ten, but our Yiddish did the trick, and Igor invited us into his home.

A friend of his had just died. Neither the father nor the wife of the deceased were Jewish, and no one cared to arrange a Jewish funeral. We took down the address of the home and said we would meet him there the next morning.

We finally got home that night after one in the morning. We ate some much-needed bread and tehina, dropped off to sleep for a few hours, and found ourselves on the bus to the house of mourning.

The fifth floor walk-up was filled with friends and family. We asked that the coffin be closed and we lead the Jewish relatives in some traditional funeral psalms. We helped the Jewish men lay tefillin and, after ascertaining that there was a minyan, recited kaddish.

On the way to the cemetery, we telephoned Rabbi Moskowitz in Kharkov to see what we should do at the burial.

The relatives respectfully allowed us to help carry the coffin and cover it with earth. As we recited the Molay prayer, we thought about all of the unfortunate Jews who never had a Jewish funeral.

Afterward, the son of the deceased tearfully clasped my hands and thanked us for all that we had done to ensure that his father was afforded a Jewish burial.

In my mind, I thanked G‑d for giving us the honor to be His agents at this time of need.

We had no trouble finding Samuel’s apartment. Everyone in this wonderful land of sun and sea, indefatigable street vendors, and unflappable locals, seems to know this spritely 81 year old.

Once we were settled into his living room with cold drinks firmly in hand, we could see why. Despite having fled Poland when he was a wee lad of 8, Samuel converses in a rich Yiddish which seems more at home in the lanes of Lvov than the calles of Cartagena. A torrent of thoughts, memories, and fiery conviction poured forth as we sat there in the hot summer night, the fan whirring noisily in the background. The sometimes unbridgeable chasm between belief and practice is no more evident than in Samuel, but somehow he manages to dance merrily on the edge of this awful ravine which has devoured so many, his white hair flapping in the ocean breeze. He says that he has no need for Tefillin; modern day Judaism is all but laughable. As he said it, “Mein tatte is geven a tzaddik, ober ich bin a goy” (My father was a saint, but I am a non-Jew).

He shuffles over to the door and points defiantly at the Mezuzah. He tells us of his true pride in having raised a fine Jewish family who have all remained faithful to their heritage. He leads us to a wall and shows us a certificate honoring his 50 years as a loyal member of the Bogota Chevra Kadisha burial society.

The evening has worn on. It is now fully dark outside, and the fan continues its valiant struggle against the stifling heat. His wife Fanny looks on from her seat with kindly concern and nachas, while their daughter and son-in-law discuss Jewish life in Bogota.

Samuel escorts us out, bidding us farewell in Yiddish. He closes the door and the heat hits us. But behind the door a bigger flame burns, stoked and kept alive by a man who taught me that to be Jewish is immutable, a status conferred on man not by himself but by his G‑d.

This gentleman told us that the services we arranged this past Sunday for the ninth of Av were the first Bristol had seen in years.
This gentleman told us that the services we arranged this past Sunday for the ninth of Av were the first Bristol had seen in years.


Check out the T-shirts!
Check out the T-shirts!

This morning, as we were walking to the Chabad House, we encountered a Russian couple. They stopped us and asked if they could take a picture of our "I love Chabad" T-shirts. We agreed. We then enquired if they were Jewish, to which they replied that the husband was. While he knew that he was Jewish, he had no idea what Judaism was or what Jews do. We invited them to visit the Chabad House.

In Cyprus, this is almost a daily occurrence.

Yoav, an Israeli tourist who hangs out at Chabad, told us that most of the teens at the Chabad House, himself included, would have never layed Tefillin in Israel. "When we lay Tefillin or just hang out with you at the Chabad house," Yoav related, "we get this sense of camaraderie and belonging that we never feel in Israel; thank G‑d for Chabad."

Last night, a few guys who had never stepped foot in a synagogue in their lives came to the Chabad House. They told us that they would never have walked into a synagogue in Israel, yet when they leave Israel, their innate connection to Judaism breaks through the barriers which have unfortunately sprung up in modern Israeli society.

This past Friday night, approximately 300 Israeli teens came over. For many of them it was the first Shabbat in their lives.

Sephardic and Ashkenazic, traditional and kibbutznik, all Jews come together under one roof to celebrate their Judaism.

Moshe – not a common name in Mississippi!

We were in our hotel room in Jackson, MS. We had just had a very hard day and were relaxing and makings some phone calls for the next day’s appointments. One of the names on our list was Doctor Moshe R.

After introducing ourselves and exchanging pleasantries, we asked about scheduling an appointment. "Sure,” he said, “why don't you come over now?"

Pulling up to a ranch style house about fifteen miles out of Jackson, we parked in the driveway and knocked on the door. Moshe opened the door and with a sweeping hand gesture cordially invited us in.

"Would you like to make a l'chaim (toast)?" he asked. "Sure," we replied. A warm conversation ensued. Turns out he is a South African Jew. In 1973, after things began to heat up in Johannesburg, he moved to Mississippi.

He reminisced about his South African Jewish childhood, going to a cheder (Hebrew School) where his teachers were all Lituanian shtetel Jews. His memories of Yom Kippur, seeing the men weeping and praying for forgiveness, left an indelible impression on him. He spoke with a genuine fondness and warmth for Judaism.


Meeting Jews in Mississippi is exciting. Meeting a Russian Jew who speaks Yiddish is even more refreshing. We met David at a hotel near his office. Walking up to the hotel lobby, he welcomed us with a warm Shalom Aleichem and a firm handshake.

We were mesmerized as he told us about Jewish life in Moscow back in the fifties and sixties. He told us about the famous Archipova Synagogue and about the Shabbats of his youth. We told him about the Jewish renaissance that is taking place there today.

He told us how much he appreciates Chabad's work. "It's like what my Aunt Frieda would do back in Russia, she would call us together and make sure we met with this cousin and that relative, always making sure that the family stays close."

The ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague attracts thousands of tourists.
The ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague attracts thousands of tourists.

I was putting Tefillin on someone whom I had met on the street.

After he had finished saying the Shema and we were unwinding the Tefillin, I began to talk to him.

"How are you; what brings you to Prague?"

To my surprise, he was silent!

I tried again, but he just stood there, calmly unwrapping the Tefillin.

When he had finished taking the last strap off his arm, he looked at me and asked, "What did you say?"

He's a Russian Jew, living in New York. Every week, some nice Chabad boys come over to his workplace to share a Jewish thought and help him with Tefillin. They taught him that when one is wearing Tefillin, one should concentrate on their sanctity and not speak of mundane matters.

For this reason, while wearing Tefillin, he did not even notice my question, let alone answer it.

Now that is a lesson that I can learn!

"All rivers flow to the sea…"

But which sea? Well, east of the Rockies, they flow into the Atlantic, and west of the rockies, they flow into the Pacific Ocean.

"…And the sea is never full (Ecclesiastes 1:7)"

As much as we do for G‑d, we can always do a little more. So at the Continental Divide in Colorado (we were in Aspen for Shabbat), we met a gentleman who happily laid Tefillin for the fist time in his life!

Late last week, we arrived in Bristol, England. Upon arrival, we heard that Bristol hosts an annual hot air balloon festival. The event attracts people from all over England and beyond.

This was enough to get two Chabad boys on wheels. We picked ourselves up and parked ourselves by the entrance, intending to find some Jews. "Out of the thousands of people, there must be a ton of Jews", we reasoned.

But as the day progressed, we began to wonder if Jews like hot air balloons after all...

In all those hours we had only met a few Jews.

However we didn't have much time to keep our spirits low, for that very night we had planned a Torah class with a few Israelis. We were expecting three or maybe four attendees.

When we arrived, we had a pleasant surprise waiting for us: there were eleven people there!

Before we started, most of them laid Tefillin with us.

After a class filled with meaningful discussion and insights, they stuck around for a Farbrengen (informal Chassidic gathering) which lasted into the wee hours of the morning!

Mendy Gurkov and Sender Gordon
Bristol, England

Rabbi Pelman, The Chabad representative to Guatemala, told us that a few years ago a woman came from Quetzaltenango to Guatamala City in order to celebrate her son’s Bar Mitzvah. He gave us the number of a relative of hers in Guatemala City to see if maybe he had more info on how to find her.

He told us that he does not have her address or number but that there is a non-Jewish relative who lives in Quetzaltenango and would know how to contact this Jewish woman and her brother – a doctor who also lives in Quetzaltenango. He gave us the name of the non-Jewish relative and told us that she works in an electronics store which is next to a bank near the center of the city.

Armed with this valuable information, we hopped onto a bus to Quetzaltenango.

Six hours later, we got to the city and started looking for stores. Unfortunately, there are dozens of banks and hundreds of electronics stores!

After trudging around with no luck, we stepped into a travel agency to buy return bus tickets for that afternoon. After purchasing the said tickets, we asked the travel agent if he had ever heard of the store in question. He did, and even told us how to get there.

We walked into the store, found the saleslady and asked her for her relative’s phone number. She was uncomfortable giving numbers to two funny-looking Americans but did agree to call her relative for us. The phone rang and rang but no one answered. We then asked if she knew how we could find this woman’s brother, the doctor. She said that while she had no number or address, she did know how to get to the clinic where he works.

We went to the clinic but did not see his name on the list of doctors displayed on the wall.

After the receptionist figured out who we were looking for (she had a hard time with our American accent), she told us that he was on vacation. She did, however, offer to call him for us.

We got on the phone and told him that we just got off a six hour bus ride just to meet him! He told us not to go anywhere and that he would drive over to pick us up.

He invited us into his home and we started talking. During the course of the conversation, he mentioned that while he would love to don tefillin every day, he unfortunately did not have a pair. He was smiling from ear to ear when we told him that we actually had a pair on us which we could sell him!

The hours flew by, and all too soon we got back on the bus for a six hour bus ride back to Antigua, sans one pair of tefillin.

We were entering uncharted waters, literally. The island of St. Lucia is a place where Chabad has never been, an island famous for pleasure-seeking travelers basking in the wonder of the undiscovered, the adventure of the unfamiliar, and the stimulation of the exotic.

It is also home to the International American University College of Medicine – a school where American kids who did not get into American medical schools are offered a second chance at their dream career.

Picturing an island paradise of beautiful resorts and tourists sipping cool drinks under swaying coconut trees, we were shocked to see that many of the islanders living in the Vieux Fort Quarter live in abject poverty.

The feeling of want is overwhelming; makeshift housing is sometimes shared by multiple families. Walking through the streets of Vieux Fort, a feeling of sadness hits me, as fragmented pieces of tin line the outside of people's huts. Women congregate by the well with their pitchers waiting to get their much-needed daily water supply.

Yet we decided that this is where we would spend Shabbos, as our only Shabbat guest lives nearby.

Gary is a specialist in the field of fertility and twinning, as well an Orthodox Jew. He has lectured at Harvard and at Yale. He comes to St Lucia to lecture for months at a time. The rest, he divides between New York and Jerusalem.

As we prepared to welcome the Shabbat with the universal melodies which unite Jewry worldwide, my co-rover, Moshe, remembered he had left some items for the meal in our room.

On his way to retrieve them he heard a loud "Shalom." Turning around, he saw a young Jewish student. Moshe seized the opportunity and proceeded to invite him to join our Shabbat meal.

Gary was totally taken aback. He had been coming to St. Lucia for three years now, and had not interacted with a single Jew, yet we, who weren't here for twenty-four hours, had already met six Jews, and now another one is coming to join us.

In his words: "This only Chabad can do."

Yesterday we drove down to S. Diego where the final round of Maccabi games were being held. Since we knew a number of the players from the Richmond, VA soccer team, we went straight to the soccer field.

This was the final game and Richmond was loosing 3-1. The air was thick with tension.

The boys from Richmond came over to us and asked us to assist them with the proper blessings to be recited on water and to make sure that we would stick around and lay Tefillin with them after the game.

Well…Richmond scored five more goals and walked off with the gold medal!

Back at the JCC, the boys came over to put on the Tefillin, along with hundreds of other young men.

Over the course of the past week close to 1,000 boys put Tefillin on at the games – a few hundred of them for the first time.

Then it was time for the closing ceremonies and goodbyes. After bidding farewell to all our friends and wishing them a safe trip home, we were off to Riverside to prepare for the next day.

Today, we met an angel. This is how it happened:

Yesterday, We had exhausted our list of contacts and decided to just get into our car and see what we could find.

Now, West Virginia is farmland. There are cities where the people have never seen a Jew. A day and a gas tank later, we still had not met a single Jew. We did not even meet anybody who had ever met a Jew.

Today, we started our day in Belington, WV. We pulled up at the post office and asked if they knew of any Jews. "We remember an old lady who was Jewish. She has a son nearby. His name is Joel." They told us where he lives.

We started down his road. The road is very narrow — as wide a single car and it's a two way street! We passed many houses, hoping to see someone and ask them where Joel lives. We finally saw someone. She told us to look out for a mailbox with his name on it. So we now looked at each mailbox, not realizing that his house was five miles up the road. The houses are more or less the same, houses of farmers with noisy watchdogs in front.

There was a car behind us. They seemed nervous since were driving slowly. We pulled into a driveway to let them pass. He pulled up right next to me and said, "Who are you looking for? I'll take you there."

We followed him about two miles, he pointed to a road, and I honked to thank him.

The road was a mixture of rocks and dirt. We started driving up, but our car couldn't make it. We parked the car and started walking. I remembered the watchdogs we saw along the way and was scared. We went back to the car, and I tried to drive forward. We drove a bit higher but realized once more that this ain't gonna work. I honked, hoping to attract someone's attention but we were alone.

I attempted to back out, but Chaim told me that we're heading into a ditch. He was right; we were stuck. We noticed a jeep heading toward us. We were petrified! Not only were we on his property uninvited, we were blocking his road! He came out of his car, and I hoped he didn't have a gun on him. I forced a smile on my face and bravely offered a "Shalom Aleichem!"

"Shalom!" he answered back with a bigger smile than mine.

"We came to meet you."

"Me!? But I think you're getting stuck."

He got in to our car and gave a try, only to confirm that this car wouldn't move. "Don't worry; I have equipment to get you out."

While we were standing there, he showed us a bush. "Do you see these berries? They are delicious," Joel told us. We recited a blessing and enjoyed the berries. Joel went back up to get his equipment.

Joel reappeared perched on top of a very loud 1960s-era tractor.

"Don't get on the ground; two people don't have to get dirty. It's gonna be one person and it's gonna be me."

I found it odd to see a 60-year-old man bending under a car, while the owners of the car, who are 22, are sitting and watching.

He finished undigging and insisted that I drive the tractor back to his property while he directed.

We drove around his 500 acre estate. He grows tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and other vegetables.

"You see it – I built it," Joel said proudly.

He built a three story house with an elevator, revolving cabinets and a sewing machine on tracks. He dug a twelve foot deep pond, cleared fifteen acres for cattle, roads, and a massive storage house.

"By the way, do you have a gun?" I asked.

"Sure, do you want to shoot?"

"Of course," I answered. We missed every single shot!

"Eight years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors gave me a year and a half. I traveled to the Manhattan Cancer society they said I had a four percent chance of making it. They threw everything at me; chemo, pills – you name it."

"Now let me tell you something, I talked to G‑d a lot at that time. Me and G‑d are very close! So why should I put on Tefillin?

I felt bad that we would not be able to share this special mitzvah with such a nice man.

"I grew up in a religious family in New York. Our immediate family was not as observant as the extended family who were Chasidim. To them we were not Jewish enough. I don't know Yiddish too well, but I understood exactly what they ware saying. Or rather, I felt what they were saying. Deeply. Very deep. My mother wanted an Orthodox funeral. I gave it to her but I didn't invite them."

I saw pain in his eyes.

"There is a wall in between us. I don't know them now, and I don't want to know them. But you guys are different. I feel like I want to put on Tefillin!" He went ahead and put on Tefillin for the first time in forty-five years.

Every year, on top of his lonely mountain, Joel lights Chanukah candles and fasts on Yom Kippur. He never eats pork. "I don't know what it tastes like," he told us.

The hours flew by, and it was getting late. We left him a mezuzah and said our goodbyes. He promised to visit us next time he comes to New York.

I was deeply inspired by him. I never met such a kind person. He made us feel as if he loves driving his tractor and that shlepping us out of the ditch made his day.

We drove down the driveway very carefully. Suddenly we realized that a tire is flat. In middle of NOWHERE!!! Actually in middle of somewhere, right next to Joel - the professional engineer.

Fifteen minutes later, Joel had our tire replaced and we were back on the road. (Sorry there are no pictures; I wasn't in that kind of mood.)

I can still hear Joel crying, "Mendel, stay out of trouble!"

This was the most memorable day of my trip. Perhaps of my entire life.

Me giving a class
Me giving a class

We came over at the appointed time only to be greeted by an empty house.

A few minutes later, she arrived puffy eyed and crying. With difficulty, she managed to explain that her seventeen year old son had run away from home and that she had been out looking for him.

He had been having difficulties for some time now, but running away was something new. In spite of the elephant in the room (which was the son who was not in the room), we became good friends very quickly.

We talked of her life and ours, of G‑d and of Judaism.

Before we knew it, she had us taking a look at her mezuzahs to see if they were properly made. Turns out that one of them was printed on paper instead of parchment and the other wasn't either acceptable.

At her behest, we ran out to the car and brought two mezuzahs which she promptly hung on the front and back doors. In spite of the fact that her son sorely needed some spiritual protection at the moment, we advised her not to place a mezuzah on his bedroom door without his permission. The last thing she needed was provocation for yet another fight.

We spoke about lighting Shabbat candles, how this brings true peace to a home and draws the family together. She happily agreed to light Shabbat candles every single week from then on. Her eleven year old daughter also decided to do the same.

At this point, her son finally came home. We were able to see how hard she was trying to be a good mother to him.

After some initial wariness, he warmed up to us. He told us about the challenges which he was encountering and about his hopes. We talked about the importance of doing good things and how even one small mitzvah can make a very big difference.

Our very meaningful discussion ended up with his putting on Tefillin and agreeing to his mom's suggestion that he put a mezuzah on his bedroom door.

Hours later, we parted with promises to keep in touch, and the warm feeling which making friends brings.

"There is no place like home."

Most of us always have a special spot in our hearts reserved for that unique place we call home.

But not so for the thousands of Israeli tourists who come to South America for weeks and months at a time. Some even stay for over a year; trekking, climbing, sightseeing and camping.

A tourist prays near the Shabbat tables before the onset of Shabbat.
A tourist prays near the Shabbat tables before the onset of Shabbat.

We try to create some of that homey warmth for them when we make our weekly Shabbat meals. Backpackers who haven't seen home in months, never mind a Shabbat table, joined us for Shabbat. We sang, danced, laughed, and shared insight into our very special heritage.

This week, we are in Huacachina,pop.119. The town hugs an oasis in middle of the desert, surrounded by massive rolling sand dunes.

A nice place to be warm by day and chilly at night; most of the folks come down here primarily for sand boarding. Some also fly over the famous and mysterious Nazca lines.

If we stay any longer, I just might call this place home.

The Jews traveled the desert to Mt. Sinai on order to receive the Torah. Though not Mt. Sinai, and there were no Moses sightings reported in the vicinity, it was 10,000 feet up Mt. Baker where Robert received his very own belated Bar Mitzvah, as we helped him put on Tefillin for the very first time!

A Russian Jew alone with his Creator
A Russian Jew alone with his Creator

Americans are loud. We're brash and busy, and we like our Judaism that way as well.
Russians also have their bravado . . . but when it comes to religion, there is a certain simplicity, a certain wholeness of the heart and soul, which we Americans lack.

There has been much made in the press about Chabad's success in the Former Soviet Union. Whatever the cause may be, in part it is not just due to Chabad's own efforts but also due to the perception of the locals on how Judaism ought to be.

No matter their walk of life, or level of personal observance, many of the locals wish to see Judaism in its pure state – unadulterated by politics and agendas. They want Torahs and Tefillin, Schnapps and Herring, Hebrew and Yiddish.

Since I am an American, and thus gifted with that proud sense of pomp and bombast which our manifest destiny has blessed us with (and it's a good thing, don't doubt me), I immediately noticed the Americans who came into the S. Petersburg Synagogue.

I noticed the Israelis as well – they all had skipper caps and spoke in loud, thick Hebrew, asking questions but not patient enough to hear the answers.

I noticed the Mexican Jews as well: large families sporting spiked hair and Jewish bling – golden Stars of David and Hamsas, proud to be a Jewish minority in Mexico City – the most densely populated city in the world.

I would notice the British, the South Africans, the Australians and the Italians . . . and the French. How could one forget the French?

But of the Russian Jew, of the local who weathered the fire of Nazism, the ice of Communism, and then the gradual thaw (and resulting chaos) of the fall of a political system so great that none had fathomed that such a day would arrive in their lifetimes? Of this brave soul, sojourner of the cataclysmic tides of history of which he sat in the eye of the storm? Of him I sadly did not take notice.

At first.

But as time has gone by, when I've turned away from the questions of the Americans ('Is there Anti-Semitism?') and the Israelis ('Do You speak Hebrew?), I noticed the local Jews who come to their synagogue.

They come. The young – clad in western blue-jeans and stylish shirts, the old – with weathered jackets and battered caps or Babushkas, and they pray. They take out a book of Psalms, or a prayerbook, and they sit in the solitude of their synagogue – one that sheltered them during the German siege and was open during the darkest days of Communism.

They pray in silence, the silence of the soul that calls out to G‑d not in words, not pompous voices, or even roaring tears, but the utter silence of the soul as it communes with its Creator in a way so deep, so whole and so real, that words, even sacred ones, would pervert it as sacrilegious.

And when they are done, they kiss their prayerbooks, tucking them safely aside in the shelves behind the pews, and leave.

I notice them. And I am in awe.

"Hello, Rabbis in Riverside? Geveld!"

"Hi, my name is Chaim, and this is Mendy"

"And I am Shmuel," he replied with a smile.

As we continued to chat, he told us that he was so happy to see Jews in the desert. He said he remembers back in 1969 when he moved from Los Angles to Riverside to get away from the noise and traffic of the big city.

He said there was a lot of anti-Semitism, but it has calmed down some thanks to him and some of his friends. "One of them made such a fuss about getting into the country club that they finally let him in. Now many Jews go there; in fact, I was invited to play mahjong there last Tuesday night."

He told us about his service in the Navy on the DE580. It was the smallest boat in the Navy. They would locate and shoot German submarines. There were exactly ten religious Jewish sailors on the boat who would pray together three times a day but Shmuel wouldn't join, saying that it wasn't his thing.

One day, Schneider was sick and couldn't make the Minyan so Shmuel's bunkmate, a Jewish boy named Silverberg, asked him to come and be the tenth man. He agreed. "That's my Mitzvah, and nobody can take that away. I may not be religious but that was my Minyan."

We continued talking into the afternoon. He had so much to share and never had such an interested audience as us.

Eric is a proud Jew who was raised in South Africa. After living in Israel for eight years, he moved to Ireland where he works as an anesthesiologist. A few years back, he bought a pair of Tefillin from the roving rabbis, which he has been putting on every weekday since. Of course, he was excited to meet with us, despite the fact that he had other company scheduled for that evening.

Our conversation ranged from kabalistic minutiae to why G‑d created us with a foreskin if he wanted us to remove it anyway. Eric mentioned that a Jewish friend of his from Capetown happened to be doing a month long locum (doctor talk for being placed somewhere temporarily) in a nearby city, and though his month was nearly over, he would probably enjoy a visit. We, of course, thought that it was a marvelous idea and took down his contact info. When we were in the area where his friend was staying, we called him and arranged a meeting for Wednesday evening.

When we met Ed on the appointed Wednesday evening, he was delighted to see us, since we were the first and only visitors he had had throughout his entire stay. He too keeps kosher, so we brought up three MSG laden soup cups and sat down to eat and talk. We spoke about his family, his job, Chabad, some Jewish jokes, and some Torah thoughts and all-in-all had a wonderful time.

The kind of photo where one normally sees this kind of kippa
The kind of photo where one normally sees this kind of kippa

As we were about to take leave, he told us that one of his fellow doctors at the hospital brought him a book titled "The Jews of Ireland," saying that he thought Ed would like to read it. When Ed returned it to him a couple days later, the doctor mentioned that it just so happens that his mother was Jewish. However he was not raised in the faith and doesn't consider himself Jewish.

Immediately, the "Lubavitcher bells" inside us started ringing, and we excitedly began to explain how since his mother was Jewish, he's Jewish too, and that we would really like to meet him. Ed told us his buddy's name and promised to get us his contact info.

We didn't wait for Ed to call, looked the friend up in the phonebook, and dropped him a line. Since he didn't view himself as a Jew, he was not exactly sure what we wanted from him, but agreed to a quick visit.

He lives on 60 acres of farmland, which his wife works and he finances as a radiologist. He warmly welcomed us to his home, and a nice conversation about this, that, the other, and then some ensued.

He told us of his grandfather who had moved to Ireland from Eastern Europe, how his mother had married an Irish psychotherapist ("he was a pure Freudian!"), and the Holocaust survivors who frequented his home, seeking counsel from his father. After about an hour of healthy banter, we were ready to leave but explained that before we go, we like to offer the people we meet the opportunity to put on Tefillin. He told us that he had never worn Tefillin in his life but was willing to give it a try.

When we took out a kippa, he exclaimed, "I have one of my own!" and went to the next room to bring it. He came back with a kippa the likes of which I've only seen in faded black and white pictures. It was more box-like than round, with a button in the center. "This belonged to my Zeide, and I took it after he died," he explained.

We reflected on the unbelievable turn of events which led us to chance upon this long lost Jew, who wore his grandfather's kippa on the occasion of his first Tefillin laying.

He placed this giant kippa (which had not been on a head in a good fifty years) on his head and we wrapped him up. He recited the Shema, and we offered to take a picture which we could email him at a later occasion.

As we stood together and smiled for the picture, he commented, "My mother would have liked to see a copy of that photo," to which we responded in unison "She doesn't need to, because she and your Zeide are both present at this very moment, beaming with pride."

He asked that we not post the picture on the web, so you'll just have to imagine what we looked like.

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.

It is startling how quickly night falls in Bahia. One can be reading by the light of day one moment, and bathed in an inky darkness the next. There is no slowly fading day or lingering dusk. The sun plunges beneath the horizon as if it itself is afraid of the night.

We were racing the sun; anxiously watching its rapid descent. We had a meeting with Samuel that evening and were having difficulty finding his house. The palm trees were already casting long shadows when we finally rang his doorbell and with nary a word of introduction, we rolled up his sleeve, wrapped him in Tefillin and welcomed the night with a final mitzvah.

Samuel left his native Israel about forty years ago. He traveled the world, trying his hand at odd jobs and business ventures before settling down in the little Bahian coastal town.

His list of properties, interests and investments was impressive; hardware stores, farms and motels amongst others. "It´s like you see", he told us, "in Israel I would be competing with thousands of other Yiddishe kep (Jewish minds), here I am the sole Jew." His success speaks for the soundness of this advice.

On the home front things were not as rosy; his two gentile children neither could nor wanted to speak Hebrew and expressed no interest in visiting the land of their father.

We sat in the garden of his motel cum house surrounded by luscious growth and the quiet hum of insects. We sipped ice cold water and discussed politics and parsha (the weekly Torah portion), business and brachas (blessings).

He told us of his time in the army and the horror of having friends die before his eyes. We told him of the Rebbe's regard and love of those who are prepared to give their life protecting the Land of Israel. We didn't see eye to eye on all issues – he likes American football and CNN and we like Australian footy and Ray Martin. (If you have not guessed, we are both Australian). He likes 'from the farm to the table' and we like the best produce for the best price. The fundamentals were similar – we love the same tradition and the same land.

He boasted of being completely gastronomically self sufficient and we were treated to a tour of the pantry: fruits, vegetables, spices, flours, meats and poultry – all from his own farm and garden. We tasted cocoa, coco, and coca from the cacao, coconut and Erythroxylum coca plants...all from his own garden. We reminded him of the Jewish history of farming and of the portions of the Bible devoted to agricultural laws. He was proud to continue the tradition and expressed his deep longing to be able to farm once again in the Holy Land.

Two guys
Two guys
Three guys
Three guys
Four guys
Four guys
Kosher hot dog guy
Kosher hot dog guy

Peter put on Tefillin as we and his stuffed animals looked on.
Peter put on Tefillin as we and his stuffed animals looked on.

"I used to have Q Clearance; do you know what that is? It's equivalent to a United States Department of Defense Top Secret (TS) clearance" We were listening to a man who appeared to be in his fifties but was actually 67.

Born in 1941, Peter had a very colorful life. During World War II, his family ran from place to place for close to three years. Every time someone would find out that his family was Jewish, they would quickly leave town. His mother kept the family alive, while their father was forced to work in a concentration camp.

When American troops liberated Germany, Peter's family was on the Eastern side. Eventually the Americans put them on a navy ship which took them to America.

Peter got a job cleaning nuclear waste; something which he did for many years. He would visit many top secret sites and get rid of any nuclear waste. "There are ways to clean it properly" he says.

But what's more interesting by far is a story that happened to him 18 years ago: He was driving in a company van when he suddenly fell out. "This happened at 65 mph and my skull cracked open." He spent the next three months in intensive care. During that time he was in very critical condition. "I was already up there when they sent me back down." It took a full year for Peter to recover.

Peter also had a heart attack and drove himself to the hospital "I knew something was wrong when I felt the pain reaching my arms." He parked his car by the emergency entrance of the hospital and walked in. "The nurse barely made it through the first few questions when I collapsed."

Peter's heart came to a complete stop. The doctor's shocked his heart and it came back to life. Peter ended up having six bypasses.

As we wrapped him up in Tefillin he got very emotional; "I haven't done this in years" he told us.


Peter also has incredible hearing abilities; he played a game with us where we had to whisper something and he would tell us what we said. "I am going to turn around so you won't think that I am reading your lips."

"G‑d loves me; I cheated death three times and I am still going" he said as he promised to visit the nearest Chabad House.

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?"

Michael and me
Michael and me

At about a quarter to twelve this afternoon, the City of Riverside shook. I heard later there had been an earthquake and I thanked G‑d that I had survived.

While the ground was shaking, Michael was putting on Tefillin. Hashgacha Protis (divine providence) became the word of the day as we discussed the series of events which brought about our meeting.

Basically it goes like this:

Michael had recently been promoted, and could now work from any of his company's locations. Someone was unable to make it to work this morning so Michael was sitting in for him when we chanced by.

The earthquake had disabled the telephone service. Since employs are not allowed to talk on their cellular phones inside, Michael went out to call home and assure everyone that he was ok. When he saw us parading (see my last post for more on that) he decided to do something for G‑d.

Panama  (1)
Poway, CA  (2)

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