Meet Gabi, champion of "chess sub-18" in South America. He's only 11 years old, and he has beaten professional chess players seven years his senior. He's a bright boy. And he's Jewish too.
His bar mitzvah is fast approaching, and his parents, Oscar and Sandra, are getting worried. "He's had many chess teachers, and he has learnt well," says Oscar, beaming, "but he knows almost nothing about Judaism. And here in Dolores, how's he going to learn about his heritage and prepare for his bar mitzvah?"
We tell him that in today's technologically-advanced world, almost nothing is impossible. We make a commitment to learn with him once a week via Skype. Gabi is thrilled.
After a few chess games, which we understandably lose (Levi almost drew once), we move on to our next meeting.
Are you Jewish, or just kosher?
On our way, in the middle of nowhere, a tire pops. To make matters even more interesting, the only living things around us are cows staring at us from behind a fence. We try calling, but our cellphones indicate that there's no reception.
After what seems like forever, a car passes by. The kind man takes us to a nearby police station, where we meet Officer Pedro, our new friend, who comes back with his police car and helps us fix the wheel. No, he's not Jewish... :)
Pedro to the rescue.
We move on.
Jack owns a big clothing store. After chatting a bit, he says he wants to tell us something: "I didn't grow up religious like you guys, and I never had a Jewish education. In fact, I never knew what Shabbat was or what it implied. Then I got married. I knew that Friday night was a special night, because that's what Dad always said. So in order to honor the Shabbat, my family and I sit down to eat chocolate every Friday night. That's our way of commemorating the special day."
Now that's inspiring!
After explaining to him a little about Shabbat and some traditional ways of celebrating it, we leave...a little different than before we walked through Jack's door.
After many long, strenuous hours of unsuccessfully searching for Jews, we were about to call it a night. Suddenly my eye caught a glimpse of the very tempting yellow phone book, the one that had helped us navigated thus far through the far south coast of Massachusetts.
Instinctively, my fingers started flipping through the pages as hundreds of Jewish names flew through my mind, Goldberg, Steinberg, and many other 'bergs--names we had already covered. Then a name stared up at me, Gordon. This was what I was looking for. Not too Jewish, but the kind that could be Jewish. Maybe this time we would find actual members of the tribe.
"Hello," a deep voice answered. "Hi, this is Zalman from the Roving Rabbis... No, not part of a rock band; we're traveling rabbis..." It turned out that this gentleman was Jewish and would love to meet us, but we needed to hurry, since it was getting late.
With the press of the "end call" button on my phone, Hirschel hit the gas, and we roved over to his house. "Go right… keep right… bear right… You have reached your final destination."
The house had a long wooden ramp leading up to the door. As we came closer, we noticed that in every single window there was a sign: "NO SMOKING. OXYGEN IN USE." Before we even knocked on the door, someone from across the street asked us, "Does he know your coming?" "Yes," we replied. "Then just walk right in. He is in the first room on the right. I'm his caretaker. He won't be able to come to the door by himself."
The door swung open with a slight push. We came in and saw a man in his seventies lying there. Mr. Gordon excused himself for not coming to the door, explaining that he had been paralyzed for a few years.
During the course of our conversation we found out that he knew very little about Judaism.
Just before the sun dipped below the horizon, we took out our pair of tefillin and helped our new friend put them on. As we started saying the Shema prayer, we were amazed to hear him say the words with no prompting at all.
He explained that every single night before he goes to sleep he chants the Shema Yisrael, just like his parents before him. Amazing!
We talked about a host of things, ranging from the history of Chabad to all kinds of other Jewish topics. All the while he seemed mesmerized. Apparently, he doesn't get visitors very often, let alone rabbis who rove in out of of nowhere. We blew the shofar and then put up a mezuzah on his front door.
We left the house with renewed motivation and a sense of urgency. Who knows how many more Jewish souls are eagerly waiting for us to give them a chance to put on tefillin, light Shabbat candles, do a mitzvah, or maybe a just share a Jewish story or joke?
See this little sign here? It mean that Jews can eat this.
So many exciting things that have happened to us here in Surrey, but we haven't yet have the time to write them up properly. Here is a small glimpse into our recent roving experiences:
This past Sunday, we hosted a kosher display table at a Wal-Mart in North Surrey. We set up a large display at the entrance of the store, packed it with all varieties of kosher food, and put up a poster that said, "Got Kosher?"
Throughout the day we met hundreds of curious people who had never heard of kosher before. Most importantly, we met many Jewish people who were delighted to meet other Jewish people and learn more about kosher. Some of them even bought mezuzahs from us! We met a bunch of Israelis who staffed some kiosks in the adjacent mall. They invited us over to their kiosks and we helped them put on tefillin.
All in all, it was a great display of Jewish pride and helped show many people how doable it is to keep kosher.
A light moment after services.
We spent our days visiting many Jewish people all over Surrey, Langley, White Rock, and Abbotsford. During our treks we have had some interesting experiences, like meeting a Sephardic Jew who lives on a huge estate in the mountains of Abbotsford. He was so excited to see fellow Jews. He showed us some amazing paintings he has painted, including one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.
Another Jew we met had not had much Jewish contact in over 40 years. He was shocked that we made the long trek out to meet him and expressed his regret at not having raised his kids in a Jewish lifestyle. We spent over an hour shmoozing and encouraging him to grow Jewishly. We suggested that he learn more at Chabad.org. He told us that he is going to make the trip out to the closest Chabad congregation in Surrey, BC, for Rosh Hashanah, so that his children will experience an authentic Jewish celebration.
There were many more exciting adventures—too numerous to recount at the present moment—but viewing the attached pictures will give you a glimpse into some of the encounters we have had.
Shalom from Surrey,
Roving Rabbis Yosef Schtroks and Yaakov Kotlarsky
One of the Israelis in the mall putting on tefillin.
P.S. Those of you who remember Yankel from our last post will be happy to know that we visited him with a bunch of local Jewish kids in tow. They helped him install a mezuzah on his door and really made his day.
It is Thursday in Paysandú, and we still have to decide whether we should go back to Montevideo (the capital) for Shabbat or try to make a minyan
(prayer services) here. There had once been a large community here, but time had done its work, and although the old synagogue is still open, the fifty-or-so Jews who remain here rarely use it.
Thursday night we find out that someone from the community has passed away and the Jews left in the city would gather at the synagogue for Kaddish.
We lead the services and say some words of comfort to the bereaved relatives. We invite everyone to come back the next night for Shabbat services, followed by Kiddush, challah and some gefilte fish.
After one of the busiest Fridays of our lives (whew!), we are finally ready.
Expecting 15 people, we started getting worried when 20, then 25, then 30 people
show up—we only have 20 pieces of gefilte fish!
We sing, we dance, and the prayers are uplifting. The festive meal is unbelievable. People are so happy, after not having such an event in many years. There are stories, memories, words from the heart and a warm atmosphere around the table.
Immersing our food-prep utensils in natural water, so that they may be used with kosher food.
Surprisingly, there is even enough gefilte fish.
Saturday night, we get a phone call from Mario, the president of the community. He wants us to join him for lunch and meet his family. "What could you guys eat?" he asks us, half expecting the answer. "Well, I guess Pringles, fruit and Coca
Cola would be just great," we tell him.
As soon as we come, the questions start coming…and coming. Before we know it, it's been
five hours! After a final farewell, we say goodbye to Paysandu, and hello to Salto, a city famous for its "termas," natural hot baths. It's not so famous for the
six Jews who call it home.
Enjoying Coke and Pringles with the entire family.
We search for Henya, an older Jewish woman. We are told that she passed away
two days earlier. She left behind a son, Martin, who is the supervisor of a nearby supermarket.
He's home, we are told, mourning his late mother. We go to his house, and although a bit confused at the beginning,
not knowing who we are and what we want, in matter of minutes we become fast friends. He opens up to us about his mother. We offer him
the opportunity to do something for his mother's soul by putting on tefillin. He starts crying. This is the very first time Martin is putting on tefillin. He doesn't know what they are yet, but he is willing to learn. After some explanation, we
help him put them on. It's hard for him to finish saying the blessings. He is
crying and choking over his tears. When he is finished, he says, "Thank you. I
really feel at peace with myself and like I really connected with Mom. You guys
are direct messengers from G‑d…"
On second thought, that title isn't particularly appropriate (even if it does get full marks in the alliterative department). First of all, once a shliach (Chabad emissary), always a shliach, and second of all, it's way too pretentious. Just last week I assisted an Israeli customer (I work in retail) who needed help finding a minyan in Manhattan. Another customer, this one a South African, happened to be celebrating a birthday, and I directed him to the Rebbe's Ohel (resting place). Is it the same as visiting Jews in Kansas, Missouri, and Connecticut? It's something along those lines.
Point is, there's always someone out there waiting for the proverbial lamplighter to come by and spark a flame inside. Wherever we are, whatever we're doing, we can be the ones to light that wick and create a raging fire. And that's really what Roving Rabbis is all about. Reading the stories of the current crop of Roving Rabbis makes me realize how truly awesome it is to have been part of something so incredible. Like everyone connected with any enterprise, I never realized how much I was accomplishing through my simple slogging-through of the spiritual desert that is much of modern day America. Because really, that's what it's all about. Take a car, crank up the AC, and drive out onto the prairie, following in the footsteps of all those pioneers on the Oregon Trail so many years ago. Once you're out on the road, open up the local Yellow Pages, Google a bit, and find some Jews. Reach out, put on tefillin, put up some mezuzahs, inspire, get inspired, drink some Coke and eat some potato chips, and generally make the world a better place. And if you have any cool stories, submit them here to this blog.
Thing is, there are so many Jews out there waiting to be found, their souls simply crying out for spiritual solace, and all you've got to do is try. We don't expect any miracles, and there aren't even any quotas to be filled. There's no measurement for accomplishment; the only requirement is to rove far and wide, searching for the remnants of a people that has been beaten so many times it's often forgotten how to raise its head in pride. Which is exactly what the Roving Rabbis are for. Lift those heads high, show them what you got. I know this has all sounded corny, but sometimes life is like that. Kansas is like that too. I mean, lots of corn.
This man carries his letter from the Rebbe wherever he goes.
As soon as we arrived at our first stop, in the city of S. Jose, we come across a Jew, a shochet from Israel, who is on his way home. He was very surprised to see us walking down the street of an almost "Jewless" city. We told who we are and what were doing. He replied, "You're Chabad? Let me show you something." Out of his wallet, he pulled an original copy of a letter that the Rebbe, of blessed memory, sent to him around 35 years ago, in which the Rebbe wrote on the bottom, "And may you have much success in the dissemination of Torah and mitzvahs."
What a start!
"It's been two years since I put on tefillin."
We visited a man who can neither walk nor talk. As soon as we came in, his face lit up. He was so happy to see us. He started motioning frantically with his hands. We couldn't understand what he was saying. Finally, he took out a paper and wrote (in Spanish): "It's been two years since I put on tefillin." We were awestruck. This man can barely do anything. Yet, he is bothered by the fact that he was not able to do the mitzvah of tefillin. We helped him out with a few things he needed around the house. He bought a book about Judaism from us and insisted on paying, although we tried to convince him that he should take it as a gift.
With our Yiddish-speaking friend.
We met an older Jew who told us that he doesn't believe in G‑d. We told him that although he doesn't believe in G‑d, G‑d believes in him. He smiled. We offered to lay tefillin. with him. He refused, saying he never did it before and doesn't want to do anything Jewish, and feeling Jewish inside is enough.
We spoke to him in Yiddish. He liked that since it reminded him of his parents and the olden days. Our conversation went on for over an hour, all in Yiddish. At this point, we were close friends. Before we left, we asked him again if he's sure he doesn't want to put on tefillin. He relented. We helped him with the straps, and he repeated after us, "Baruch … atah ..." Suddenly, he burst out crying, tears running freely. Putting a hand on his shoulder, not really sure what to say, we reassured him that right now he's connected to G‑d in a special way. He said, choking, "Mein tateh, mein tateh (my father, my father)." He chanted the Shema, all the while sobbing.
Before we left, we hugged warmly, and he told us to please come back.
We were in Aruba, a small Caribbean island that is home to about 35 Jewish people.
Sunday morning, we started with calling the "Jew of the island." Tony is his name. He knows everyone and everything and waits a whole year for the Roving Rabbis to come.
Sadly, his eyesight is poor, and he suffers a lot from that, but he still came downstairs, got into our yellow compact car and said, "let's go."
So we started off. "Go straight…now turn right…another right." Even with the little eye sight he has, he was able to direct us like a pro. Like he says, "I know the island inside-out."
At last we arrived at the Parliament of Aruba, also home to the office of Mike Eman, the Prime Minster of Aruba, who is Jewish. As we were walking in, we naively asked Tony if we had an appointment. "No, no, we don't need any appointment. A few month ago I was with the Prime Minister, and we were speaking about you guys—he met your friends in the past when he was running for Prime Minister—and he said that when they come to the island this year I should just bring them in."
We came to the secretary and asked if the Prime Minister is in. "He is in Columbia," she replied, "but will be back tomorrow."
We got back into the car, and Tony asked, "Where now?" As per our request, Tony directed us to the Jewish cemetery where Tony showed us were his parents are buried. We said some Psalms together.
Saying Psalms with Tony at his parents' grave.
Bright and early the next morning, we woke up, studied some Torah, prayed, and were on our way to pick up Tony. We drove to the Parliament and waited for the Prime Minister to arrive. When he saw us, he came right over and invited us into his office.
He sent a message to some people who were waiting for him that he would be a little late, and we sat down to speak for a while. We talked about his family and their Jewish heritage. He told us how he is planning on commissioning a monument for Anne Frank in Aruba, to remind people of the Holocaust and how we have to be tolerant of one another. We also spoke about the upcoming New Year and the shofar. He asked, "So did you bring the tefillin?" Of course we had them. So he put on the tefillin, said some prayers and heard the shofar.
We presented him with "Towards a Meaningful Life," a book based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory. He asked us to keep in touch and send him the email addresses of the rabbis who had come in the past few years.
Showing us a picture of his mother who had recently passed away.
Right before we left Aruba for Bonaire (were we currently are), we printed pictures of our time together, framed them, drove back to the Parliament and gave them to the Prime Minister. He then placed them on the table in his office (right next to the photo of his mother). Then came—again—the tefillin and the blowing of the shofar.
As we were preparing to leave, he asked that we arrange him his own pair of tefillin. So if you're ever in Aruba and need to find a pair of tefillin, you can always get one from the Prime Minister!
We hugged, wished him and the whole of Aruba a happy and sweet new year, and ran downstairs to catch our next appointment.
Sounding the shofar for the kids of the Providence JCC day-camp.
Providence, Rhode Island, is home to Jews of many walks of life. This Friday, we made a stop at the local JCC, a fairly sizable center, which houses a summer camp for some 70 children. Before dismissal, the kids came together for circle time. Seventy little faces were glowing to see us distinctly-dressed rabbis. Some knew our type; other couldn't help but stare.
We began with a "Shalom" and a shofar, the kids mimicking the sounds in preparation for the blows. Then with a hush, as the Hebrew-school kids finished calling out everything they knew about Rosh HaShanah, the shofar rang out for all to hear.
And then the show:
The kids acted along the story line, and together we told a story of two simple tailors who scored a big job from a squire. When the payment was transacted, the greedy squire told them of a Jew imprisoned in his dungeons below—whose release could be arranged for 300 rubles, half of what they had earned. The tailors split ways, one taking his money, while the other traded his for the release of the captive. Upon returning home, the noble tailor was left impoverished, with no money to buy food for his family. The tailor was forced to ask a local fellow for some money. The person agreed to give him a few coins in exchange for a blessing. To his surprise, the blessing brought him unbelievable success, and soon the tailor was known far and wide for his ability to bless people.
When word reached the Baal Shem Tov (18th-century founder of the Chassidic movement), he decided to meet the tailor, hoping to understand the source of his blessing-powers. When the Baal Shem Tov learned of this man's special deed, he explained that because of this tailor's incredible act of charity and self-sacrifice, he merited this gift from on high.
A couple of twists and turns, and some jokes and quirks, kept all the ears perked.
We told the campers of the power of charity—a mitzvah that we were about to perform—as the counselors helped us distribute pennies to be put in the pushka (charity box). We even prepared a catchy song to teach the kids, a pushka tune to the beat of chassidic song: "Find a pushka / Do a mitzvah / G‑d will look on us /With a very big smile."
All the while, one of us Rovers used the time to wrap-'n-strap the male counselors and parents coming to pick up their children.
All in all, a big success, a fun experience, and many young minds stimulated with thoughts and acts of goodness and kindness.
Stu laying tefillin for the first time in his life.
After a long, tiring day of searching for Jewish people on
the White Rock coast, we met a Jewish man named Stu, who was delighted to meet us!
He had been raised as a Catholic. Only a few months before
his mother's death did she reveal to him that he was really a Jewish man and that she had kept it a secret from him because she was scared of anti-Semitism. Interested in his heritage, Stu ended up getting involved with a "messianic synagogue" in Vancouver. We spoke to him at length about not depriving himself of his genuine heritage.
He was very inspired by the shofar, which we blew right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. We told him about the message of the shofar and how vital it is to heed its call to return to G‑d.
After donning tefillin and reciting the Shema
for the first time in his life, Stu decided that he was going to put up a mezuzah
on his door. He invited us to drop by his place tomorrow with a mezuzah and help him install it.
Maryam installing her mezuzah--this time with a scroll.
After waking up quite early, we drove off to Duncan, a small town on Vancouver Island. We had already spoken to Maryam about meeting the day before, and after hearing why we were coming, Maryam was more than exuberant to welcome us into her home.
At 11:15 on the dot (the time when we had set for our appointment), as we were getting out of our car, my phone rang.
"This is Maryam, are you on your way?"
"Not only are we on the way, but we are on the doorstep!"
"That's great; I'll be waiting for you on the second floor at the elevator."
We followed her into her apartment and started talking. To make a long story short, to say that she was very interested in Judaism would be an understatement. Eventually, we started saying our goodbyes and looked at the time. It was already 3:45! We all couldn't believe that we had been chatting for over four hours.
As a parting gift, we gave her a set of candles that she would be able to light on Friday night. And since we would not be able to remain forever, we referred Maryam to chabad.org as a wonderful resource where she would be able to continue to learn about her heritage.
As we made our way to the door, I noticed the mezuzah. "I see you have a wonderful mezuzah. Have you opened it up to see if there is a scroll inside?" To Maryam's dismay the case was empty. So we reinstalled it with a kosher handmade mezuzah scroll that we had with us.
After some songs and more goodbyes, we were off to our next stop.
(Fast forward a few hours)
We drove out of town towards the freeway, and stopped to marvel at the beautiful sunset. Getting out of the car to stretch and eat an orange, we took some Torah books and sat down on to study together.
Suddenly, a car pulled up. A man got out.
"Shalom, I'm Marvin, and this is my son, Josh."
Marvin putting on tefillin as the sun sets.
We sat down and talked as the sun sank below the horizon.
We all headed back to our respective cars, and drove back to Victoria, tired and happy after a long day on Vancouver Island.
From Glasgow to Sydney, from Capetown to Vancouver, we meet Jews from across the globe in the historic 350-year-old synagogue of Dubrovnik, "the Pearl of the Adriatic." This little city on the tip of Croatia is a major stop for the hundreds of cruises that sail through the Adriatic each summer, sending swarms of curious people through the narrow cobblestone streets of Grad Dubrovnik. On one of those fine streets stands a synagogue dating back to the time of the Jewish expulsion from Spain. Naturally, all Jewish visitors flock here. Yisroel and I, both veteran Roving Rabbis, have learned the tricks of the trade through the years.
Some of our Shabbat guests, just before the sun set.
People who enter the synagogue empty-handed, leave with something. Men may leave with marks on their arms and foreheads where they just wore tefillin,women may leave with a nice package of Shabbat candles, and all leave with the words of the Shema on their lips. We basically have this down pat.
Until Friday. Two young men are supposed to cook a Shabbat meal for 40 people.
Now we enter the big leagues.
Our challahs rising.
As opposed to the offerings of the supermarkets back in the US, the only kosher options we have here are canned corn, jam and soy milk. Those just don't cut it for a traditional Friday night meal, and rabbinic training doesn't exactly include a course on challah braiding.
After a package a band-aids, some minor burns, and a sprinkling of trial and error, we basically got it. From meeting the bus at early in the a.m. to retrieve raw chickens (shout-out to Rabbi Zaklos of Chabad in Zagreb), to schlepping a 35-pound boiling pot of soup through the streets to the Hilton, Friday is Erev Shabbat in its fullest sense.
Not bad at all, eh?
And when we host a meal, we mean business: challah, four salads, chicken soup with matzo balls, and chicken with two sides. Our guests all ask, "Who made this challah? it's delicious!" You should see the look on the faces of the Jewish bubbies, who have been baking challah for more years than we have been alive, when they hear that two rabbinical students pulled it off.
"So, is it tasty?" you ask. The old maxim goes, "The proof is in the pudding." We like to give ourselves a pat on the back when the guests are scraping out the last drops of golden broth from our cauldron of matzo-ball soup.
Although Shabbat was beautiful, we are still looking for volunteers to wash the dishes…
After Shabbat, with some of our guests.
I always knew Roving Rabbis is a preparation for life…but a life in the kitchen?!
Yankel saying the Shema right in front of Zellers.
We had planned to get a head start on our first day, but things came up.
We had attempted to pick up our car the night before, but it was not ready. Once we got the car, we had some trouble getting it to run properly. Things kept on coming up, and by the time we got on the road, it was already late afternoon. But we were determined to accomplish at least something. Yaakov suggested that we head to the local shopping mall to see if we could at least meet one Jewish person.
Upon entering, we were quite disappointed to see that the mall was very close to closing and only the department stores were still open. So we headed over to one called Zellers to try our luck.
Right in front of the door we noticed a man riding in an electric scooter. It was clear that he had some health problems. We struck up a conversation. When we asked him if he was Jewish, we heard a gentle, "Yes of course!" It turns out that his name is Yankel Goldstein—you can't get much more Jewish than that.
Yankel hadn't had much connection to Jewish people for quite a few years. The fact that he was homebound most of the time increased his feeling of isolation. He spoke to us in great detail about his recent bout with cancer and the passing of his adopted mother, who had raised him from very soon after he was born. He had requested of the congregation where she had been a member to find someone to say Kaddish for her, but nothing had come of it.
We promised we would contact the closest Chabad center and try to find someone to arrange transportation for him so that he would have the opportunity to say Kaddish for his mother at least once.
After schmoozing some more, we observed how incredible it was that we walked in just that moment when he was coming out of the store, because we had entirely different plans for the day. He responded that he had not even planned on leaving his house today, but for some reason he felt an urge to take care of a little shopping. He had not planned on coming to this store, but only decided to come to this store because he suddenly remembered that the item that he needed was cheaper at Zellers.
We told him that this is no accident. We were taught that if G‑d caused us to meet each other it is surely in order to do a mitzvah.
We offered him the opportunity to put on tefillin. He responded that he had not done since the day of his bar mitzvah but would be happy to do it again. So right then and there, smack in middle of the shopping mall, he put on tefillin, proudly displaying his Jewish identity.
Suddenly his eyes closed and he sat emotionally for a few moments. He then opened his eyes and told us that today was his birth mother's yahrtzeit!
None of us had planned on meeting that day, but someone on high had other plans.
A most extraordinary and moving encounter awaited us when we entered the seemingly-ordinary law firm in Libertyville, Illinois, where we've been spending the past week and a half, meeting Jewish people at their homes and businesses.
We soon discovered that the attorneys–a father-and-son pair–were Jewish. During the course of our conversation, we inquired as to when was the last time they had put on tefillin. We were surprised to learn that neither of them had ever done so, the son now 40 years old, and the father 65!
After some discussion, the pair decided to each do this mitzvah for the first time. And we were delighted to assist them in celebrating their belated bar mitzvahs!
We shared some words of inspiration in preparation for the upcoming High-Holiday season, and let them know about the newly-established Chabad center in nearby Vernon Hills, IL, by Rabbi Shimon and Rochel Susskind.
After the conclusion of our very pleasant visit, we were ready to head out further on our search for Jewish people, but not before joining our new friends for a special l'chaim in honor of this special occasion. The staff at the office, Jews and non-Jews alike, were all very happy to participate in the celebration and wish the "bar-mitzvah boys" well, as they marked a new milestone in their lives.
The entire office staff joined in the celebration.
We spent a beautiful Shabbat with the community in Genoa, Italy. There were many young people there from all parts of Europe. The differences of language, culture and upbringing all melted away as we worshiped and celebrated together as one big family, a Jewish family.
Here are some pictures of the synagogue of Genoa. It was the last synagogue to be built in Italy in the "old style" before the Holocaust.
When it was built, there were over 2,000 Jews in Genoa. Today there are barely 200. Not more than 15 or 20 locals come regularly to Shabbat services, and there are no longer any services held here during the week.
This cozy little sanctuary is graced with hauntingly beautiful furniture, bearing testament to what once was.
This hanging was lovingly created nearly 300 years ago by a woman named Leah.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is one of the beach areas on the eastern coast of the U.S. Our job is to travel along the coast, meeting people and doing mitzvot wherever we go. We bring tefillin, mezuzahs and Torah literature for the young Israelis who work in beachwear stores.
We meet all kinds of interesting people. For example, we entered a beachwear store, and the Israeli guy behind the counter beckoned to us to see what he had next to his register. He showed us that he had a small photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. "It hangs here proudly all week. But on Shabbat, I know that the Rebbe would be sad to see me work, so I cover it for the duration of the holy day."
In another place, Surf City, we met a middle-aged guy who told us how tough life had been to him. When he warmed up a bit, he told us the following story:
"Many years ago, I ran a jewelry business in Brooklyn, on the corner of Church and Flatbush avenues. Business was good. On November 30, 1990 (I remember the date because it was the day that my wife due to give birth to our child), my store was held up. As you can imagine, I was shaken and traumatized. To make things worse, the thieves made off with all my merchandise, worth more than $300,000. I was devastated and considered my future in business destroyed forever.
"The following Sunday, I joined thousands of others on the long line to receive a blessing and a dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After giving me a dollar, the Rebbe called me back and told me in Hebrew, "Besurot tovot hayom," which means, "good news today." I was very confused and left wondering how everything would be okay today?
"Later that day, someone to whom I owed a substantial sum of money came knocking on my door. I was afraid to open it because I owed him more than $40,000 and had nothing at hand with which to repay. I didn't open the door, but he kept knocking. At last, I decided to open up and try to explain my predicament. I told him what had happened, and he told me that he had actually come to help me and that he wants to start a business with me.
"To make a long story short, the business was wildly successful, and I more than recouped whatever I had lost in the robbery."
We presented him with a book, and he asked if it was a Tanya. Seeing the quizzical look in our eyes, he related a most fascinating story that took place when he served as the first Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
At that time, the Rebbe, of righteous memory, had begun his campaign to print Tanyas all over the world. As you can imagine, there were Chassidim who wanted to print a Tanya in Egypt. So they turned to Mr. Israeli to see if he would be able to help them. And he did. In fact, it was his diplomacy that enabled the entire project to proceed smoothly.
We are not sure if Mr. Israeli knows this, but it seems that the Rebbe was very pleased by how things turned out. In fact, here is a rough translation of the Rebbe's words at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) on the holiday of Shavuot, 1984:
Recently, the Tanya was printed in Egypt, in the capital city.
This is incredible. In general, Judaism is not so tolerated by the government of that country. Surely, one would expect this to be the case with regards to a book that discusses Jewish matters and is directed to a Jewish audience.
Nonetheless, they permitted the Tanya to be printed there, and even allowed some of the books to be to be brought here. Moreover, they themselves said that it is a merit for them to print the Tanya, calling it a special honor for the city in which it was printed. In fact, they were thankful to us for printing the Tanya there.
And now we know the story behind the story.
(By the way, we will be leading Shabbat services at the U.S. Army Base here in Seoul.)
We are here in the Italian city of S. Remo, famous for its music festival and good weather. We met Eugenio, a fine fellow who owns a car repair shop. He just installed a mezuzah on the door of his shop. Now, whenever he enters or leaves the shop he will be reminded of his Jewishness.
In addition to visiting Jewish people in Northern Germany, we also printed the Tanya—the most fundamental book of Chabad Chassidic thought—in several of the cities throughout the region. (In 1984, the Rebbe, of righteous memory, began a worldwide campaign to print Tanyas wherever there are Jews.)
This week we printed Tanyas in the cities of Schwerin and Rostock.
Finding a place in these small towns to print on a relatively large scale is no easy feat. It can take hours of searching to find a facility. We then print 100 Tanyas, in accordance with the Rebbe's directive, and distribute them to the Jews we meet.
One of our searches for a printing house brought us, inadvertently, to a shop that prints license plates—not books. We had a feeling that the Department of Transportation wouldn't be looking to print chassidic texts...
However, once we were in the area, we started looking for Jews. In that very building, we met an elderly man who greeted us warmly.
We sat down to talk. He told us that he is Jewish. During the course of our conversation, he confided that his wife of 54 years had passed away three years ago and, as there is no Jewish infrastructure in town, he had not been able to memorialize her. To make a long miracle short, at the age of 81 he put on tefillin for the first time in his life and recited the Shema. He told us that he remembers his father putting on tefillin when he was a child but had never had a chance to learn what they were.
We saw clearly how G‑d directs our steps. Our "mistaken" trip to a license plate factory led us to meet this very special man.
As you may have read in our last post or in the news, Isser and I are two deaf rabbinical students, roving in Rochester, NY, where there is a large deaf community.
We are on a high from the Torah workshop that we held this evening. We and three others – all deaf – participated. It was a pleasure to discuss Torah in ASL, and we had great discussions on various topics related to the weekly Torah portion.
Here is an observation about how a deaf event differs from one in the "hearing" community:
The first ten to fifteen minutes of the event was spent on various snippets of conversation among the participants. It took more than waving hands to get everybody's attention back to the main point of the gathering: to discuss the Torah portion.
And every fifteen minutes, the same thing would happen. The discussion would veer off into conversations about personal experiences in the Jewish community, various opinions on different topics, or sharing of photos. And every time, we had to lasso in the conversation and bring it back home. At a "hearing" event, everybody notices when the topic goes off course and they try to get it back in place. On the other hand, we tend to cherish every conversation, even when it has no relevance to the gathering itself.
Perhaps the very nature of the isolation in the deaf community results in such a strong need to talk to others. The participants who gathered for tonight's class all knew each other, but they still had lots to share. They saw the workshop as an opportunity to talk to their friends and to express themselves. Since the deaf experience includes a lot of isolation from the "mainstream" hearing world, we seem to have an internal urge to compensate for all the missed opportunities by grabbing every opening to chat with a fellow deaf person.
The Talmud teaches us that "the main thing is the deed." For our "hearing" readers, we have a message. If there is a deaf person in your community, please take the time to know him or her. Share some of your time with that person, and show that you care. Even the seemingly unimportant things you might have to say carry more weight than you may imagine. Also, learning a few words of sign language means worlds to us. It shows your interest in our language and culture.