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We received the warmest welcome.
We received the warmest welcome.

“If you are looking for Jewish people, you have to meet Joanie on the next island,” a resident of Bocas del Toro exclaimed with excitement. “She has become the source of everything Jewish in this area.” Jumping into a water taxi, we made our way to Caremero, the next island over. At Caremero, we began walking around the exotic island to find the Jewish people we had come to visit. With no street signs, we had to continually ask people for directions. At one point we even thought we would not be able to find the people we had come for. But we did not give up, and after asking a few more people and walking around a little bit more, our efforts paid off.

Walking up a pastel-colored restaurant dock on the water, not really knowing who we were looking for, a woman jumped out of her chair and ran towards us. “Chabad! I can’t believe you are here. What are you doing here?” She invited us to sit down for a drink, and for the next several hours we discussed a gamut of topics. Just as we were getting ready to leave, we decided to end the visit with a few words about the importance of lighting the Shabbat candles. But as soon as we started, she replied, “It’s too much. I can’t prepare my house for Shabbat every week. There is no way it will happen!” “Don’t worry about the house,” we reasoned, “just light the candles.” As soon as she heard these words, she fell back in her chair and looked as if she had been struck by lightning. “What did you say?” she asked in a dazed voice. “Just light the candles,” we repeated, not knowing why these words had struck such a raw nerve, but she interrupted us and began to tell us her story.

“I had unsuccessfully been trying to have children all my life. One day it looked like I was going to have a beautiful healthy child; I was in my eighth month, and things were going really well, when suddenly, inexplicably, I had a miscarriage. The doctors told me to stop trying. They said I was not made for childbirth, and I was on the brink of accepting their advice.

A short while later we were visiting Israel. I felt horrible. Life had no meaning. And as I was sitting there pondering my fate, I fell asleep and began to dream. I saw my grandmother. She looked happy to see me. She told me, “If you want to be blessed with kids, light the Shabbat candles.” “But it’s too big of a job,” I complained. Her response seemed to put me at ease, convincing me that I could do it. She simply said, “Just light the candles.”

“I decided to begin lighting the Shabbat candles,” she said, and then pointed to the playground where a bunch of children were playing. “You see that boy and girl with the beautiful blond hair? Those are my Shabbat candles.”

Learning the Hebrew letters and having fun doing it. These kids were born after their mom started lighting Shabbat candles.
Learning the Hebrew letters and having fun doing it. These kids were born after their mom started lighting Shabbat candles.

She continued, “At first I was very careful to light the candles, but over time I stopped. My children are now seven years old. And here you rabbis come, and say to me the exact words my grandmother told me. G‑d is sending me a message, I will not forget.

“This time,” she said with visible pride, “my prayer will be for you. What I should pray for? Are you married?” she pointed to me. (Lipa is getting married, please G‑d, right after the summer.) “I will pray for you, and I promise you will see results.” Her confidence and excitement was clear for anyone to see.

We got into our water taxi to make our way back to our accommodations, I don’t know the end of the story, but I sure want to find out.

In-depth Torah study.
In-depth Torah study.

We spent a beautiful week here in Las Vegas, complete with all of its flashing lights and scorching heat. But, as we came to find out, in addition to the physical heat, it is spiritually hot as well. Not a desert, but a hot spot of Torah scholarship and a fiery warm Jewish community.

One of our first stops was to an old-timer whose Hebrew name is Yosef. Yosef is an 88-year-old man, living by himself in the middle of town, after having relocated here several years ago from New York City. He happily put on tefillin with us, an act that he admitted he hadn’t been able to do in quite a while. He shed some tears as he showed us pictures of his family, who had been gone now for a long time, and reminisced about the Jewish life of a bygone era.

Yosef getting strapped up in tefillin.
Yosef getting strapped up in tefillin.

One of our favorite locations to find “customers” quickly became the malls sprinkled throughout Vegas and the surrounding areas. The Las Vegas Premium Outlets, one of the largest outdoor malls in the country, is a hotbed for young Israeli men and women selling all kinds of products. The expressions on the faces of Rami, Tzvi, Benny, and many of the other people whom we encountered was truly priceless! In classic Israeli fashion, they all put aside whatever they were involved in and did a quick mitzvah.

All in all, we visited dozens of these mall merchants. One could truly see the meaning of the verse, “And all the nations of the earth will see that the name of G‑d is upon you,” which the Talmud explains as a reference to the mitzvah of tefillin. “Everyone knows that Chabad operates synagogues all around the world. But that Chabad can even come to a mall in the middle of Vegas to offer us Judaism there—that is something special!” remarked Yossi, one of our regulars.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of each day was the nightly learning sessions in the many Chabad houses throughout the region. Every night, between 20 and 40 men and women would pour into their local Chabad center to study the Torah topic of their choice—some for the very first time. The two-hour sessions were enjoyed by all, and many promised to come back for more.

Dozens of people put aside time to taste the authentic yeshivah experience.
Dozens of people put aside time to taste the authentic yeshivah experience.

Shulem in our tefillin.
Shulem in our tefillin.

When you are doing what we do, a guy like Shulem is the kind of guy you want to have around. You see, we Roving Rabbis travel to cities all over the world. And as exotic as that sounds, it’s not always sunshine. Think of it this way: You’re a young man, fresh out of yeshivah (rabbinical college), with no training in business or public relations. Yet your job is to go out there and find people. Let’s just say that it is not always a cakewalk. But getting to know Shulem was a rewarding experience. Shulem, a fella in his mid-forties, with a warm, humorous personality, helped us spend less time as detectives and more time interacting with the local Jewish population.

Shulem lives in David, the largest city in western Panama. (We are told that it was named by Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Apparently they wanted it to have a Jewish name, but not one that would attract too much unwanted attention.) We had decided to make David our hub. Our plan was to make small trips to various cities in the region, returning to David for supplies and accommodations.

On one of our trips we found ourselves in Boquete, which Forbes ranked as the #3 retirement destination in the world. As we made our way around this beautiful city with sparkling mountain air, we decided to check in with Shulem.

“Do you know anyone in Boquete?” we asked him over the phone.

Somewhat surprised, he responded with his own question, “You are in Boquete?”

“Yes, why?”

“I am in Boquete right now for a business meeting. Why don’t you come on over?”

When we got there, he was noticeably excited. “You don’t understand. Less than a minute before you called, I was telling the person next to me that I needed to call you, but I had no idea you were in town.”

We began to talk, and we soon found out that Shulem puts on tefillin every day, ever since the last group of Roving Rabbis taught him of their importance. Today he had forgotten his tefillin at home in David, and he was worried he would not be able to get home in time to put them on. We handed Shulem our pair, and he put them on with great delight.

He then said to us, “G‑d always helps me put on my tefillin. He makes sure I never miss; today, you were His messengers. Good job!”

We met with the only Jewish anchor/reporter at KSPR-TV in Springfield, MO. His name is Jonah. He took us around for a bit, showing us the inner workings of a TV station. When he put on tefillin in the studio room, we were pretty sure that it was the first time it had ever been done in that room before.

Later we sat down to learn a page of Talmud in the conference room—surely another first!

Helping Yuri into tefillin in the gas station.
Helping Yuri into tefillin in the gas station.

We were driving down Lone Tree Way in Antioch, California, on our afternoon visitation route, and a red light was coming up ahead. Trying to slow down, Shmuel pushed the pedal down, but the donated car—which had seen better days—just kept on moving. In other words, we had a brake failure.

Thinking quickly, knowing that he did not have enough time to make a complete stop, he swerved into a gas station. He pulled the emergency brake, and with G‑d’s help, our miracle happened. The car came to a complete stop.

Catching our breath, we took in the beautiful scenery, happy to be alive. Shmuel went into to the shop to buy a drink, and I took a moment to pray the afternoon service, Minchah. As I am finishing up my prayers, I notice a taxi driver filling up gas. I ask him if he is Jewish, and he replies, “Yes. Two of my daughters are religious, but I have not seen a black hat like yours in this neighborhood.”

Yuri and I chat about this and that.

He asked about Chabad in the neighborhood; he had seen an ad in the paper but never followed up on it. We gave him the Jewish calendar for the new year of 5772 produced by Chabad of the Delta, and he was happy to get it. He also asked us to pass on his info so that he can get more involved.

If not for the failing brakes, who knows what would have been with Yuri?

Some of our guests.
Some of our guests.

As dedicated Roving Rabbis we continuously look out for Jewish people and see how we could be of assistance for anything Jewish they need. Throughout our journeys we have had many inspirational episodes. Here is one of our most amazing experiences:

When we came to the city of Payson we did our regular thing, meeting the Jewish people scattered throughout the city. The way it usually works is that you meet one Jew and that one knows another etc. After meeting a few Jewish families, we understood that there aren’t any Jewish social events to bring the Jewish people together. People asked us, "There are actually other Jewish people living here in Payson!?" They were shocked to hear how many Jewish people we had come across.

Then we met Nancy and Ike Feiges, and they had the greatest idea, "Why don't we gather all the Jews so that we can get to know each other!" they exclaimed. We sprang into action, notifying as many people as we could that on Sunday we will be having a Jewish gathering at the Miller residence in Payson.

it was an unforgettable experience. The gathering was a grand success. We started off with everyone introducing themselves, sang the traditional songs, had a kosher buffet, toasted l'chaim, shared stories, and so on. When we sang the Yiddish classic, "My Yiddishe Mama," there wasn't a dry eye in the room.

Everyone left their contact information so that they could have a Jewish social group, which would get together every so often (hopefully once a month).

The event was really beautiful, it lasted about 2 hours. After the event was over, the men put on tefillin, the woman, who had learned about the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles, practiced the blessing so that they will be all ready when Friday night comes. Many left saying that this gathering was so meaningful and it really brought out a sense of Jewish pride. One lady came over to us after the event, and said, "I really feel proud to be Jewish being here. Although, since I have moved to Payson, a year and a half ago, I haven't put up a mezuzah, I think now is the perfect time. Can you please come over to my house later tonight and help me put one put up?"

After everyone had left, we thanked the Millers, and off we set to put up the mezuzah. When we entered the home, our hostess was ready with her hammer and nails. We discussed the specialness of the mezuzah, said the blessing and put it up on her door.

When we sat down, she shared her story, "I used to live in Phoenix, where I was part of a Jewish community. Ever since I had left, I felt a bit alone, not being with anyone else Jewish. I would always say to myself that the only thing missing here in Payson is a circle of Jewish friends. I thank you for bringing the Jews of Payson together. Now I can say that I have plenty of Jewish friends."

Our post-mezuzah discussion.
Our post-mezuzah discussion.

Feeling a little discouraged after the last few offices, which were either closed or the people we wanted were away for the summer or in a very important meeting, we plugged the next address into the GPS. Driving along, however, we came to a detour, and saw the street name that we thought we were looking for. So we decided to park and walk to the office. As we started walking, it quickly became clear that it was not the correct street (see how much the word North can change things!), but we figured that the street we needed was just a block over and decided to cut through a parking lot to get there.

As we’re walking, a man comes out of an office building and starts walking towards us. He greets us with “Shalom!” We ask him if he’s Jewish. With an accented English, he tells us that he’s Jewish and that he came to the States from Tashkent. “Wait just one second,” we tell him. “What about tefillin?” “What’s that?” he replies. So we explained to him the mitzvah and he happily put them on.

He told us that in Russia he never had a chance to wrap tefillin, and that here in Clearwater there was no synagogue to do it in either, so this was his first time. “No synagogue? Why, there’s a Chabad right around the corner!” We directed him to the Chabad house.

After we said our goodbyes and exchanged numbers, we walked to the other side of this building, and lo and behold, we find the right address!

But this is a double dose, so here is story #2:

Later that day, on the way to someone’s house, we needed to stop at a gas station. After adding some air to the tires, I was about to get into the car, when a man walks by and gives me a hesitant “Shalom.” That was my cue. “Are you Jewish?” “Why yes, but I’m not a good Jew,” he says as he shows me his tattoos.

No worries,” I said, “you’re still Jewish!” Now he became excited, and expressed his amazement at meeting a fellow Jew in the gas station parking lot. We spoke a little about divine providence, and I told him that this would be a perfect time to put on tefillin. He looks at me and says, what, a mitzvah? Tefillin? WOW! No way . . . Right here? Now? But I don’t know how!

It turned out that while he did have a bar mitzvah, it was in a temple, where all they did was have him memorize some Torah and read it, but he had never put on tefillin. So I helped him put on the tefillin, and told him that we’ll recite a short prayer called the Shema. He says, “Shema? You mean Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod, Boruch Shaim . . .” He starts saying the Shema, but soon he said all he remembered, and then we read the rest from the card I have handy. He was very moved, and couldn’t express his thanks and the feeling he had in his heart from doing this mitzvah.

Soon his friend pulled up and he had to leave, but before he left he told us that if he ever encounters anyone who doesn’t believe in divine providence, boy does he have a story for them!

It is incredible to see what water can do.
It is incredible to see what water can do.

South Dakota is under water. Flooding has reached epic proportions. For example, Dakota Dunes, SD, was compulsorily evacuated in advance of record floods, reaching 1096 feet above sea level. Like everyone else, we hightailed it to Sioux City, Iowa. As we drove along, we snapped a picture of major highways that are now accessible only by boat.

Once there, we met with State Senator Dan Lederman. We put a mezuzah up on the door of his home.

Senator Dan Lederman affixing his mezuzah.
Senator Dan Lederman affixing his mezuzah.

A beautiful town indeed.
A beautiful town indeed.

Rabbi Barash of Prague sent us to explore some of the areas surrounding Prague, where we could make contact with some of the 3,000 Jews who live scattered around the Czech Republic. The day’s destination was a town called Karlovy Vary, a spa city situated in western Bohemia, where thousands of tourists and residents of Prague go to visit. It is known for its relaxing atmosphere and therapeutic hot springs. We have heard that rebbes of Chabad visited this spa resort. (Most notable are the visits made by the third and fourth rebbes.)

The moment we got off the bus, we ran into a family visiting from Israel. The ladies asked us for some candles for Shabbat, and we gave them some. We offered the men a chance to put on tefillin, and they were excited to do so.

Hekping our newfound friends with the Shema prayer.
Hekping our newfound friends with the Shema prayer.

Throughout our journey, we met several tourists who were amazed that Chabad sends students around the world for the summer. It seems like the locals are thankful that their city doesn’t go unnoticed, and they appreciate the efforts taken to help keep Judaism alive in the outlying regions of the Czech Republic.

We made a stop at the kosher hotel/restaurant, Lauretta, home to great kosher dining. The owner treated us to a delicious lunch, as well as some personal stories of life in the city. It is amazing how Jews from all over the world meet each other in this corner of Eastern Europe.

In front of the kosher hotel.
In front of the kosher hotel.

After lunch, we made a stop in the Pupp Hotel—believed to be the place where the rebbes of Chabad stayed during their visits.

Toward the evening, we started to make our way to the bus station to go back home. Looking at the time, we realized that we had about 30 minutes to walk all the way back across the city to the bus terminal and get on the bus. Along the way, we continued to meet several tourists from Israel and France. We directed them to the kosher restaurant, dispensed mitzvahs, and even gave directions to spas. Apparently, we were now regarded as natives.

The Pupp Hotel.
The Pupp Hotel.

With ten minutes to go before our bus would leave, we met a Jewish resident of Karlovy Vary—a rarity in the tourist area of the city.

One minute after we arrived at the bus terminal, the bus pulled up, and a line formed. The bus was full, so it was a good thing we had bought tickets beforehand. While on the bus, we reflected back on the day, and how G‑d’s miracles and His divine providence aren’t just confined to the city of Prague, but also its neighboring cities . . . and the world.

Nat shows us a rifle that he made himself. It still works!
Nat shows us a rifle that he made himself. It still works!

We met a fine gentleman named Nat at the home of a Jewish family in Payson, Arizona. Nat was in the military, and for many years he fought for our country. This year he will be honored at the Arizona Jewish Veterans Hall of Fame Society. We continue schmoozing, and Nat tells us that his parents weren’t religious, so he did not have a bar mitzvah and had never put on tefillin—but he would have liked to, if the choice would have been his. We told him that it is never too late, and he did so right then and there at the age of 90.

Raz in tefillin for the first time.
Raz in tefillin for the first time.

Friday, our first real day on our assignment, we were on Main Street in Walnut Creek, going through stores and navigating through tables in search of our Jewish brethren.

As we entered a food court, we noticed two students with their laptops enjoying the weather at one of the tables. We approached them and inquired if they were Jewish. One of them—we will call him Raz—replied, “Yes, I am. Do you speak Hebrew?”

We continued to chat with him and eventually wrapped tefillin on him. Raz said he was born in Israel and came to America at the young age of seven. He has never had a bar mitzvah, so this was his first time doing this special mitzvah. As a direct response, we started singing the familiar tune often sung at Jewish celebrations, “Siman Tov U-Mazal Tov.” And the all the people in the food court came to congratulate Raz and wish him well. As Raz put it smilingly, “Now that was cool. Who has ever had a bar mitzvah on the street? My mom just left ten minutes ago. She would have enjoyed seeing this. I will update that on my Facebook.”

We then continued to Pleasanton for Shabbat, where we replaced the irreplaceable Rabbi Raleigh and Fruma Resnick.

The service on Shabbat morning was great, and the community was warm and welcoming.

After the services, all sat down for a kiddush meal. We joined together in song, and shared Torah thoughts and stories. We hung out together until about five.

As the people were leaving, Dave, one of the regulars at Chabad, said “Rabbis, you passed. You now can open your own branch!” We all had a good laugh.

Sunday morning we moved on to Antioch, with Jewish calendars and other goodies in hand.

We rang the bell of a home on our list. The door was opened and we were welcomed in. Mark invited us to have a seat, and we began to discuss all kinds of topics, including Jewish life and growth in Antioch.

As we were about to leave, we asked Mark if he has ever put on tefillin before. He replied, “No, but I have a pair here.” Mark went to his bedroom and came back with his very own pair of tefillin. “I have never put these on. My grandmother bought them for my bar mitzvah. I now am 62, so do the math . . .”

We opened the bag, and the tefillin were in great condition. With our assistance Mark put on the tefillin, recited the Shema, and even practiced putting them on himself.

At the door Mark commented, “It shouldn’t have taken so long for you guys to come and finally teach me how to put on tefillin. I am sure my grandma is smiling from above. Thank you so much for coming.”

Dancing it up in the park.
Dancing it up in the park.

We always keep our ears and eyes open to find Jewish people wherever we go.

I had just said goodbye to Joel at the car parts store where he works. Instead of waiting in the parking lot for my co-rover, Hirshi, to finish with the surgeon he was visiting at the other end of town, I decided to walk all the way to the hotel. We had already checked out earlier in the morning, but they had called us to let us know that we left a bag there, so I was going to pick up the bag before we would leave Show Low, Arizona.

I thanked Adam, the receptionist, immensely for taking the time to track us down and return our bags to us. He then expressed his astonishment at seeing rabbis in town. I, of course, asked him if perhaps he knew anyone Jewish in town.

“Well,” he starts, “I actually can’t think of any. My grandma was, and my mom did light candles sometimes, but we grew up Christian.”

“Wait one second!” I said. “That means YOU are Jewish.” He was shocked and needed some convincing and explaining . . .

Suddenly Julie popped her head in from the back office and said, “Waaaait one second. Is that really true? That means my fiancé, Ryan, is Jewish!” (Ryan is Adam’s brother.) Unfortunately, both we and Adam had people waiting, and the conversation was cut short. We had left him our contact info so that we could keep in touch, but we heard nothing from him.

On Friday afternoon, on our way to Phoenix for Shabbat, I decided to try calling Adam at the hotel (we didn’t have his personal number). Sure enough, I heard a familiar “Adam speaking” at the other end. My heart jumped for joy at the opportunity to reconnect. He apologized and said he misplaced our card. He really wanted to meet us, put on tefillin, and celebrate a belated bar mitzvah. Could we make the trip? Although we already had a get-together planned for Sunday afternoon in a different city, we decided to drive the four hours back to Show Low.

We left Sunday morning at 7:30 AM from Phoenix, and arrived at the park where Adam had arranged to have his bar mitzvah. He wanted it in the outdoors, to be proud of this occasion.

He was there half an hour early, together with his cousin; he was so excited that he brought along an audience. A real surprise was that his brother, Ryan, was going to join us! Wow, a double bar mitzvah. We did the whole thing. We said l’chaim, sang, danced, and even threw candies at the bar mitzvah boys. Finally, it was time to go. After making some good resolutions for the future, we said goodbye. We had our get-together a two-hour drive away.

We stopped off to fill up with gas, and Hirshi ran into the store for a minute. Here is Hirshi’s account of what happened next:

As I am walking out of the store, from the corner of my eye, I sense someone staring at me. I turn around and meet Jacob. He asks, “Are you a rabbi?” I answer in the affirmative. “I never imagined that I would see a rabbi here in Show Low!” he exclaims. We start a conversation. It turns out that his grandmother (mother’s mother) was a Jewish refugee from Russia. I let him know that he is Jewish. He responds, “But I grew up Christian.” I explain that he has a yiddishe neshamah (Jewish soul), and that he is just as Jewish as Moses. “It’s a miracle that I met you. Just yesterday my relationship broke off, and I’m going through a hard time. I needed someone to talk to, and here I meet you!” I explained to him that everything is divine providence, and the fact is that G‑d wants us to be right here, right now. I told him about the incredible string of events that brought us to Adam and his subsequent bar mitzvah. He asks if he can have one as well. We bring our bar mitzvah bag (tefillin, candies, prayers, etc.) from the car, and we were all ready.

Jacob said Shema with lots of concentration. He is well-versed in the Bible, and was familiar with Shema, but now that he found out that he’s a Jew, the words “Hear O Israel” mean so much more to him.

He then asks us, “Now that I know that I’m Jewish, where do I start?” we talked a bit about doing one mitzvah at a time, and gave him some practical suggestions.

And off we hurried, as we were getting late for our afternoon get-together, and we still had a two-hour drive ahead of us.

All because of a lost bag.

Toasting to the bar mitzvah at the gas station.
Toasting to the bar mitzvah at the gas station.

With a friend we met at the UPS store.
With a friend we met at the UPS store.

Here are some numbers that can give you a little peek into what we have been doing here the past few weeks:

270 people put on tefillin with us (okay, some people may have liked it so much that they came back for more :-)).

2 new mezuzahs installed.

3 classes on Ethics of the Fathers.

3 lectures about the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

4 study sessions on the weekly Torah portion.

1 circumcision (okay, that was not our decision).

Uncountable sets of Shabbat candles distributed.

2 very tired but happy roving rabbis on their way back to Brooklyn.

One of our Torah classes.
One of our Torah classes.
Multimedia presentation on the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Multimedia presentation on the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

I help Robert into tefillin as his son watches proudly.
I help Robert into tefillin as his son watches proudly.

A few days ago I mentioned to Leibel that despite the fact that we’ve met at least three hundred Poles on our travels throughout the Czech Republic, not one of them had been Jewish. Leibel responded by rhetorically asking me, “You know why?” We both looked downward in silence; no more needed to be spoken on the subject . . .

We were stationed by our mitzvah booth in the old Jewish quarter of Prague. As I saw a man and his son walking in our direction, I approached them with a smile. “Shalom, where are you guys from?” I asked. “Poland!” With our prior conversation on my mind, I began to say that we’ve spoken with a lot of people from Poland, but never had we met a Jewish Pole. The man innocently smiled as he turned his hand and pointed towards himself. I lit up with excitement, “Really, you’re Jewish? It’s so great to meet you!” I shook his hand and he returned my energy, as he explained that his mother’s mother had been Jewish.

He went on to say that he wasn’t raised Jewish, and wasn’t really sure if he was even Jewish at all. I quickly reassured him that he is 100 percent Jewish, just as much a Jew as I. He told me his name is Robert, and the conversation turned towards the tefillin that he saw I was holding in my arm. As I explained a little how the tefillin affect us, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, he seemed very interested—as was his son. It turned out, however, that his son is not Jewish.

Before we knew it, Robert was rolling up his sleeve, eager to begin. We put on the tefillin, said Shema together, and spoke about the unity of the Jewish people, who are like one body. We spoke about the seven Noahide mitzvahs incumbent on all mankind, and I gave Robert’s son, Peter, a card with the name of a website that he could visit. Robert walked away with his son, but kept looking back over his shoulder at the tefillin, smiling . . .

Some of the Babads with their new mezuzah.
Some of the Babads with their new mezuzah.

After a long day in the Tri-Cities of Washington State, we were looking forward to meeting the entire Babad family. Upon our arrival at the Babad house, we were warmly greeted by one of the daughters. They really appreciated our visit, and we had a very nice discussion about numerous Judaic concepts. The patriarch of the family, Mr. Babad, happens to be a world-renowned chemist. We were enthralled by his many fascinating stories regarding his experience with the Hanford Project, which pertained to nuclear warfare.

At one point, Mr. Babad looked at us and said that he had never had a bar mitzvah. He had not felt ready to put tefillin with last summer’s Roving Rabbis, but would he was up to doing so now. He was thrilled to hear that by putting tefillin on for the first time, he could become a bar mitzvah (albeit without chopped liver or a brass band).

The issue is that tefillin are worn only during the day. A quick glance at a watch confirmed that it was too late for that day. The family asked us to come back the following day to celebrate the seventy-five-year-old’s bar mitzvah.

As we were getting ready to leave their house, we spoke to them about the amazing mitzvah of having a mezuzah on the front door of the house. With great excitement, the entire family gathered around to watch Mr. Babad say the blessing and place a mezuzah on the doorpost.

The next day we came back to the house to put tefillin on Mr. Babad and his grandson, Joshua. We then sat down to a celebratory lunch that we had prepared.

The S. Monica Pier
The S. Monica Pier

A lot of nice and interesting things happened to us while walking on the boardwalk. Just to mention a few:

Yesterday we met two guys who were sitting and talking, One of the men—who had never put on tefillin in his life—did so for the first time, right then and there. The reason he was in town was to meet his prospective in-laws. Our conversation flowed naturally to the importance of marrying Jewish.

We met a guy who was on his daily jog. We asked him if he would like to put on tefillin, and he readily agreed. He began to cry. When he calmed down, he explained to us that his uncle had just passed on without leaving any heirs. He was a special person who had done much kindness for others all his life. We helped him say the Kaddish memorial prayer for his beloved uncle.

We met a Yom Kippur War veteran who had lost both his legs in the war—which itself is quite humbling. We shared a beautiful story about when a group of wounded Israeli war vets visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After addressing the group, the Rebbe asked to personally greet every one of the heroes. One of the men later went on to relate how the Rebbe thanked him for his sacrifice. It was that simple “thank you” that allowed him to move on and put back together the pieces of his life.

Hillel and Jasa
Hillel and Jasa

We were in Bar, Montenegro. The meeting started like any other. Jasa invited us in, and we spoke for over an hour.

“So how about we put on tefillin?” I asked. He gladly accepted.

After winding the straps around Jasa’s arm and head, I asked Hillel for the siddur (prayerbook) that he always kept in his pocket. To our shoddy luck, this time he had left it in the car.

“Don’t worry,” piped up Jasa, “I have a siddur!” And off he went to another room to bring it. As I turned the pages to the Shema, a faded picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe fell out. After the short prayer and a little prodding, he told us the following story.

After growing up in Serbia, I immigrated to Israel in the 1960s. My first child was a boy, and when he was fourteen years old, he came home one day and told me he was experiencing pain in his leg. I told him it was probably just a small injury from the excessive tennis training he was doing at the time, and it’s nothing to worry about. A few weeks passed, and the pain kept getting worse, until one Friday afternoon he was writhing on the floor in pain. I decided that it was time to take him to the hospital.

After taking x-rays, the doctor came out and told my wife and me that he needed to consult with some professors; we should leave the boy overnight, and in the morning, when we return, he would be able to give us a diagnosis. This news made us very nervous, but what choice did we have? We grudgingly left, hoping for good news in the morning.

“When we arrived in the morning, we were immediately ushered into the doctor’s office. He informed us that they had found a large tumor in my son’s leg, and it was spreading very quickly. The only hope he had to live was if they would amputate the leg. My wife was hysterical. She broke down crying, and right away grabbed the pen and signed the permission form. I said that I needed a few minutes to think about it, and went outside for some air. I decided to call my mother, to hear what she had to advise. After describing the situation to her, she told me, “If G‑d wants, he will live with two legs; do not amputate.” “But the doctor said he will die if we don’t amputate!” “If G‑d wants, he will live with two legs.” I went back in, and, with my mother’s voice ringing in my head, told the doctor we are not amputating.

The doctor thought I was crazy. He was adamant that we must amputate, or my son would die within a few weeks. But after what my mother said, I could not allow myself to give permission. Finally he relented, saying, “He’s your son, it’s your choice. But we still need to do a biopsy.” After the biopsy, they told me it would be better if we transferred my son to a bigger hospital, one with a cancer ward. However, protocol dictated he must stay there at least one week, so we scheduled to move him on Friday.

My whole world seemed to be lost. My son lying on his deathbed . . . my life was meaningless. I was walking around in a daze, couldn’t sleep, eat, or even think. On Tuesday I went to work, and walked around aimlessly. I worked for what was called the “Lishka,” a division of Israeli security. I had a coworker who was a Vizhnitzer chassid. Noticing something was wrong, he asked me what was up. After telling him the whole story, he pulled out this picture of the Rebbe, and jotted a phone number on the back. He explained that it can be hard to get through to the Rebbe, but that our office had a private line to the Rebbe’s office, which we would use to ask for advice and blessings for various operations. He advised that I call and ask for a blessing.

I called the number, and a man with a very soft voice answered “hello.” (It was Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s personal secretary.) I told him the whole story, and asked that the Rebbe should please pray for my son. He answered, “Call me back on Friday with good news,” and hung up the phone. I thought the man was crazy. The doctor said he would be dead in a couple of weeks, and he says call me on Friday with good news, then just hangs up?!

I came to the hospital on Friday, and the doctor said that before we leave we should take another x-ray, so the hospital would have an updated image, as the last one was already a week old. I wheeled my now frail, emaciated son to the x-ray room, and after taking the x-ray, the technician came out and began to scream at me, “You should not make light of such serious matters! Why would you say he has cancer if there is nothing wrong with him?!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I protested in exasperation. “My son has cancer. You can go ask the doctor yourself!” He replied that the x-ray was clean, not a trace of the growth!

We returned to the doctor together, but he would not believe the technician. He went to take the x-ray himself. After seeing the result, he still could not believe it, and insisted on opening my son’s leg to find the growth. Just a week before, the tumor looked like a sun on the x-ray, large and bright, with live stems emanating from it like rays. He opened my son’s leg from the ankle up to the waist, yet found nothing but a small stone with no living cells! The amazed doctor stitched up the leg, and told us the stitches would fall out by themselves when it healed, usually in about two months’ time. Two weeks later all the stitches were already out, and my son was walking normally.

Of course I called the Rebbe’s office right away. The same soft voice answered “hello.” I thanked him and informed him of the miracle that happened. “Todah” (thanks), he replied, and hung up.

Hillel and I were sitting in awe after hearing such a story. As we got up to leave, Jasa said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you how it all started!”

“When my son turned thirteen, I asked this same coworker of mine where I could buy a pair of tefillin for him. He told me he knows a G‑d-fearing scribe in Kfar Chabad, and I should buy the tefillin there. But I was lazy, and instead of shlepping to Kfar Chabad, I went to the shuk (market) in Tel Aviv and bought a pair there. After the above story, I brought the tefillin to the scribe in Kfar Chabad to be checked. The words “. . . in order that your lives and the lives of your children shall be lengthened . . .” were not properly formed, rendering the tefillin invalid.

A wonderful place to be, but is it a good place to be stranded on a Monday?
A wonderful place to be, but is it a good place to be stranded on a Monday?

Did you ever wonder what it would be like if Sunday was not a day off, as it is in most of the world, or if Saturday was not the day of rest, as we Jews celebrate it? Well, you don’t have to imagine too much, because on this island of Bocas del Toro the slow workday is Monday. You might say it’s too bad we weren’t privy to this information in advance, but the truth is that G‑d runs the world and everything is for the best.

We woke up early Monday morning, prayed, and checked out of our hotel room. Making our way over to the ferry terminal so that we could get to our next city on our itinerary, we found out that there are no ferries on Monday—it’s their day of rest! Oh boy, what now? So we decided to spend the time sleuthing for more Jews, and it’s a good thing we did (but that is a post all for itself).

That night, it took more time than anticipated for us to find a water taxi to take us to our new accommodations. “Let’s check one more place,” suggested Lipa, and just as we were about to get into the boat, we heard some women calling us: “Rabbis! Where is Chabad?” We put down our things and went over to them. It turned out that they had just arrived on the island as tourists, and the first thing they set out to look for was Chabad. We told them that we were on our way out, but we did share some unopened kosher meat packages with them. They were so happy. “We haven't had kosher meat—or any meat for that matter—since we began our trip,” they told us. “This means so much to us, thanks.”

We had to be on that island one more day, even if it was just for them. And the next time you have trouble finding a taxi—well, maybe there is a reason for that too.

Showing us pictures of his many descendants.
Showing us pictures of his many descendants.

I now know the limits of a Yaris! We were in Boquete, one of the retirement capitals of the world, driving up a steep, winding, picturesque mountain to visit an 81-year-old Panamanian Jew. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think our Yaris would make it to our destination—not because it’s a bad car, but because the road was so wild. But we did make it to the top of no man’s land, where we were welcomed by a giant reddish fence shaped like a Star of David and a flock of flapping chickens and peacocks!

If I thought the road up to this man’s property was rough, it was nothing compared to the steep winding driveway to his actual house atop this scenic mountain. As we drove to his house, we slowly became more and more aware that we had no way of turning our car around, nor would I possibly be able to back our way out of this crazy driveway.

At the door of the house, a man with greeted us warmly and invited us in. As we sat down, he vividly described to us his religious journey. “Before my bar mitzvah,” he related, “my father, of blessed memory, wanted me to learn Hebrew. But I had a bad experience with my Hebrew teacher. I was so angry, I didn’t have my bar mitzvah until I was eighteen. Even then, I just parroted the words without any meaning.”

Then he pulled out his siddur (prayerbook) and tefillin, showing us with great pride that he could now read any prayer or psalm with ease. “When my father passed away, I took it upon myself to learn the things that would have made him proud. Rabbi Laine (the Chabad rabbi in Panama City) has always been warm and receptive to me and my struggle. I have a lot of admiration for him, and all my kids love him. I am happy that they got a better Jewish education then I did.”

Lipa, who always has wise things to say, shared an appropriate Torah thought, connected to the weekly Torah portion, on the great importance of initiative.

He then showed us pictures around his house of his 29 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. “A lot of them will be rabbis,” he told us.

As much as we wanted to continue this fascinating visit, our phone rang, and it was time to meet our next person. Walking us to the door, this 81-year-old man volunteered to back our car out down the winding path. He got into the driver’s seat, and with great ease backed the car out. He joked that that we should see what he can do with a car during the day, moving forward!

A roving rabbi gives a Torah talk in the Cork synagogue.
A roving rabbi gives a Torah talk in the Cork synagogue.

Jews all over the world fast today to remember the destruction of the holy Temples in Jerusalem. So will the roving rabbis.

I remember when I was a roving rabbi in Ireland. One of the observances of the fast is that we do not wear leather shoes. I had planned to get a pair of slippers, but we did not have a chance to breathe until late in the evening, just before the fast began. By that time, all the shoe stores in Cork, Ireland, were closed, and I began the fast in stockinged feet. (We Americans learn the hard way that in most of the world there are no stores that are open 24 hours, and groceries do not sell shoes; they sell food.)

The next morning I ran out to get a pair of flip-flops. We had planned a quiet day—not wanting to have to move around too much with no food or drink. But one thing led to another, and we ended up spending the entire day out visiting. Just to add to the fun, it was a fine sunny day, and many of our hosts decided that the back yard would be a perfect place to meet. So there we were, chatting in the hot sun without even a drink. I wonder if they thought we were weird for wearing dress pants and slippers and refusing the refreshing beverages proffered. Hey, thank G‑d we were busy.

When we came “home” that night, we set off the smoke alarm in our hotel room with our bachelor cooking, but that is a post for another time.

I also recall how we spent the day in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. At that time we had only one contact in town. He was a non-Jew who occasionally drove down to the Chabad house in Louisiana for a Torah class. We passed a friendly (but hungry) afternoon chatting with him in his house at the end of a dirt road.

The Temple was destroyed, and our nation fragmented, due to senseless hatred. The roving rabbis are doing their part to glue the fragments back together with love. Let us wish them—and our brethren all over the world—an easy and deeply meaningful fast.


Lonya and us in the Mogilev synagogue.
Lonya and us in the Mogilev synagogue.

This is Lonya. He has been the president of local Jewish obshina (community) for the past 5 years.

He is really dedicated to the community and anything that has to do with it. He also takes care of the cemetery. Apparently he does a very good job—so we heard from everyone in town.

The minyan (prayer group) at the synagogue is one of his daily highlights. Three PM in the winter and seven PM in the summer, a bunch of elderly gentlemen gather and pray together—all in Russian. Truly uplifting prayers!

We came there every day of our visit and put on tefillin with everyone in attendance. Afterwards, if someone is observing yahrtzeit (anniversary of a passing) for a loved one, they will raise a glass of shnapps and drink to the memory of the departed.

We gave the obshina a pair of tefillin on the last day, and we taught Lonya how to put them on. He promised to put them on with the other fellows every day.

Others come for their daily fix of java. We come for our daily dose of Torah, never knowing who may approach us. Photo: Rtfagan
Others come for their daily fix of java. We come for our daily dose of Torah, never knowing who may approach us. Photo: Rtfagan

“Say, are you guys from New York?”

We looked up from the Torah texts we had been studying to see a couple of middle-aged gentlemen with closely trimmed beards, who had just walked into the coffee shop on 25th Street South in Fargo, North Dakota. “We see guys like you in the movies; they’re always from New York.”

We responded with a cheerful “Yes” and struck up a conversation. We had begun our day as usual with our post-prayer studies in a local coffee shop, sipping kosher-certified fruit drinks. The routine proved fruitful, as the Lutheran pastor and his friend told us of a Jewish professor at the local university, whom they know.

In this age of information, it usually does not take long to find a way to contact an individual if you know their name and place of employment, and within minutes we had a phone number. We called the professor and set up a meeting for the next day for an early afternoon drink.

The next day, in another coffee shop, this one in Moorhead, Minnesota (the “other half” of Fargo, on the other side of the state line), we sat with the professor as he reminisced about growing up in Manhattan, New York, and spoke of his various travels through the States, ending up at the border of Minnesota and North Dakota.

Topics ranged from “Manhattan then and Manhattan now” to the Baal Shem Tov and the inception of Chassidism and Chabad chassidic philosophy, leading into discussion of prayer, known as the “service of the heart,” and each individual’s developing a unique, personal and interactive relationships with G‑d. It’s fair to say that service of G‑d must by definition revolve around fulfilling the divine commandments, which G‑d had given us as a means to connect to him (mitzvah, the Hebrew word for “commandment,” is linguistically linked to the Aramaic term for connection), and the discussion turned to the mitzvahs of tefillin and mezuzah. But as it does when it is being well spent, the time had flown, and we found ourselves about to run late to another meeting that we had scheduled earlier, so we arranged to meet the next day to take up where we had left off.

The following morning, after packing our personal baggage, Judaica items, books and non-perishable foods into the trunk, we packed the perishable food for the remainder of our five-week trip into the cooler that is the dependable passenger in our back seats (two and a half out of the three back seats, to be precise) for the duration of this trip. We topped it with ice, checked out of the hotel, and headed off to see the professor before our departure to the next city on our trip.

We met at his house and followed him to the university, where he is in the process of moving into a new office. We put up a mezuzah on the doorpost of his new office, and he put on tefillin for the first time since the age of eighteen, reading the Shema in both Hebrew and English.

We spoke some more, and then some more again, before parting ways and promising to keep in touch (which has already been the case, with some late night e-mails as I type up this story).

My meandering path home

After eating lunch at the Chabad-operated kosher restaurant, Shelanu, we decided to set up our Judaism stand for a second round. It had been a good day: we already had helped eighteen men put on tefillin, including four first-timers. We stood outside the Maharal’s synagogue for another forty-five minutes. However, the crowd had thoroughly thinned, and there were no longer any tourists.

We decided to split up: Leibel was heading back to the Chabad House to learn, and I agreed to put away stand and supplies at the restaurant. I only asked that he leave with me his tefillin, just in case . . .

It was nearing 6 o’clock as I headed back. For reasons unknown to me at the time, I decided to take an unusual route.

On my way, I met a fellow named Ari who was in Prague just for the day, on his way home to Berlin. He asked me about the gravesite of the Maharal. They actually charge for entry. I told him that, as a Jew who wants to pray at the gravesite of a tzaddik (righteous man), it was unnecessary to pay, but he would have to go to the Jewish Community Center in order to receive a free admission pass. He didn’t know where the building was, and I told him it was actually closed for the night, and he would have to come back tomorrow. He replied that he was leaving Prague within the next hour. We were stumped. Just then an Israeli couple I had met earlier at our stand approached me to say hello and see how everything was. We explained the situation. The man smiled widely as he reached into his fanny pack and pulled out a ticket! He said he was leaving in the morning and had no further use for the ticket, as he handed it over to Ari.

It was now very close to the closing time of the cemetery, and Ari would have to hurry if he wished to have enough time to say Tehillim (Psalms) there. Ari thanked my friend earnestly as he took off towards the entrance of the graveyard, grinning from ear to ear.

After exchanging a few parting words with Yair (the man from Israel), I gave him some money to give to charity in Israel, thus making him an agent of goodness.

I continued on my way back to Chabad. Less than two doors from the Chabad center, I saw someone wearing athletic gear and a backpack walking opposite me. I felt it appropriate, and I asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” Surprised, he replied, “Yes, I am. Good eye you have.”

After learning his Jewish name—Zev Wolf, it was—I asked him what he was doing in Prague. He told me he is a professional track runner, sponsored by and working for Nike. Nike had sent him and his colleagues to Prague for a meeting, and they were all headed to Sweden the next day for an international competition. I showed him the tefillin I had in my hand, and told him that this was the best way to receive blessings for success. Intrigued, he told me he had never heard of tefillin before, but he was quite interested to hear more now. I showed him toward the Chabad House, which was within arm’s reach, and we walked inside together.

He grew up in a town in Oregon where there were only two other Jews. We started to talk about tefillin, the unity of G‑d, and the G‑dliness that is hidden in this world. Zev was amazed. He told me that he heard of similar concepts, but had always associated them with Eastern philosophies. He was pleasantly surprised to find out that these concepts have their roots in Judaism!

After we put on the tefillin and said Shema together, we exchanged information as I walked him out of the Chabad House and down the block.

Eric also flies a helicopter to save lives. Eric and Eli enjoying a moment aboard a rescue chopper.
Eric also flies a helicopter to save lives. Eric and Eli enjoying a moment aboard a rescue chopper.

The phone rang a few times, but there was no answer. “Here, you try,” my co-rover, Yehuda, said. I took out my phone and began dialing. The rabbi in Phoenix had given us this number, telling us that it was to a Jewish firefighter in Casa Grande, Arizona. Now that we were here, we decided to call and see if perhaps we’d be able to meet with him.

My luck was no better, and I couldn’t get through either. But we weren’t ready to give up yet, and we proceeded to the nearest fire station. After we had explained who we were, the kind captain brought us in and went to his computer to see if he could help us out. “Yup, he’s on duty today, and he’s stationed at firehouse #1.” We thanked him for his help, and off we went, following the directions that he had given us.

We arrived at firehouse #1, rang the doorbell and asked for Eric. “You see that guy backing the fire truck into the garage? That’s Eric,” we were told.

As soon as Eric saw us, a smile broke out across his face and he motioned to us to wait a minute. After he finished parking the engine, he climbed down and came over to greet us. “Wow, two rabbis! I can’t wait to see the expression on the faces of the guys inside when they see this!”

After we introduced ourselves, Eric insisted on giving us a tour of the entire station: the kitchen, dining area, sleeping quarters (if you think a yeshivah dorm room is small, think again!), and of course the various trucks (no, he did not turn on the lights and sirens for us; I think you need to be under twelve for that).

Well now that we had finished our tour of the station, it was time for us to give Eric a “tour” of what we had brought. “When was the last time you put on tefillin?” I asked. Eric replied that it had been quite some time since he had last had the chance. Yehuda proceeded to pull out his tefillin, while I placed a yarmulke (skullcap) on Eric’s head. As the tefillin were being wound around his arm, the firefighter, who doesn’t back away from entering a burning home, got emotional and began to choke up. We said the Shema, and then went on to the next paragraph of the prayer. As we were nearing the end of the section, the quiet was suddenly pierced by the loud sound of the alarm; a call had come in! We quickly unwrapped, and in less than a minute Eric and his crew were gone.

We were left standing alone in the now empty fire station. I looked down at my watch. “Perfect timing,” I remarked, “we have ten minutes to be at our next appointment. Let’s go!”

Hepling the boy born after the Rebbe's blessing into tefillin for the very first time in his life.
Hepling the boy born after the Rebbe's blessing into tefillin for the very first time in his life.

As we were finishing up a conversation with some tourists from Spain, I suddenly glanced over at our table with tefillin and Jewish literature, to find a whole family of four looking curiously at our setup and speaking Russian. I walked over, and with the few Russian words I know, greeted them and found out they were visiting from Russia.

The mother of the family was really the only one who could communicate well in English. She said to me, “your table caught my eye because I remember this man.”

She was pointing to a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (on a Twelve Torah Passages card we had on display). She then continued:

“I saw the Rebbe many years ago, back when he was giving out dollar bills in New York. He gave me one dollar for a much-needed blessing, and then, thank G‑d, not too long after, my son was born. Then I went back a year later, got another dollar from him, and my daughter was born.”

The lady was almost in tears. She had such a warm smile on her face as she introduced me to her two children and her husband.

Finally, she asks me, “Please, you can help me? My son, he has never put on tefillin before. Can you help him put it on for the first time?”

I helped the young man put on tefillin, and the whole family got to share in the joy. The young man said the Shema prayer with such excitement, realizing his connection to his Jewish roots.

It’s such an amazing thing. To be in the old Jewish shtetl in Prague, where tens of thousands of Jews long ago fought for their Judaism with self-sacrifice. And, after the many hardships the Jews of Eastern Europe experienced, we find a young man from Russia, on his family vacation to the Czech Republic, reconnecting to his Jewish soul, and leaving a lasting impression on me, his family, and the old city as a whole.


Lessons from Apollo

The snacks were good, the drinks cool, and the conversation heated.
The snacks were good, the drinks cool, and the conversation heated.

Thursday evening we were invited to a home for a roundtable Torah discussion. We wanted to find a topic that would be interesting for all of the participants—from the most learned scholar to the Jew who knows next to nothing about his heritage.

After tossing around ideas we settled on, “Whose business is it if I choose to sin?”

We drew a lesson that was both timely and very close to home for me. Here is the nugget of wisdom that was a central point of our discussion:

The space shuttle has been in the news lately. After 30 years, it is retiring.

Going back in history, soon after man’s first trip around the moon, Rabbi Zalman Posner (my great-uncle) was a guest on a popular Jewish radio talk show. The discussion focused on why and how Judaism dares to interfere with the private lives of individual human beings. Is it right for the Torah to choose how a person may act, and even punish him for lighting a match on Shabbat or eating unkosher food?

Uncle Zalman had some good points, explaining how the seemingly cruel punishments were very rarely, if ever, carried out.

The following Shabbat, the Rebbe discussed the same issue and pointed out that the answer can be found in the events of the day.

Man had just been around the moon. The astronauts on board had a long list of dos and don’ts. They were told how to sit, which buttons to press, and exactly when to press them. “Now what would happen,” asked the Rebbe, “if one of the fellows on board would choose to smoke a cigarette on board? Is it not his right to smoke if he wants to?” Of course it is out of the question, as doing so would jeopardize the mission and the lives of their fellow travelers. But even more than that, the astronauts are not on board as tourists or as private individuals. They represent their nation and humanity. To paraphrase a famous astronaut, “one misstep for man is a giant misstep for mankind.”

In the same way, each of us is an astronaut on a mission. Or job is to bring the universe to a state of universal perfection. Our actions have universal implications, and we must be aware of this fact and act accordingly.

For a more detailed transcript of the Rebbe’s talk, check out this article on

The topic was a hit, and a long and meaningful conversation ensued.