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Installing a mezuzah on one of the few Jewish shops on the island.
Installing a mezuzah on one of the few Jewish shops on the island.

We arrived in Bonaire at 9 AM and started our day. We put up a mezuzah on the door of a shop, and kept on looking for more contacts.

We decided to try the medical school, which attracts students from all over the world. The students told us that there were two Jewish guys at the school: Jeremy and David.

We found Jeremy right away, and had a wonderful visit. Next project: David.

Driving across the island to the campus where he studies, we got stuck behind a herd of donkeys. (They say that there are more donkeys than people here.) We could not find him. Some people did not know who he was, and one person even knew where he lived but could not recall the street names, so her directions were less than useful. We tried to do what we could . . . but eventually we turned our attention elsewhere.

At 6 o’clock we got a call. David was on the phone. He had heard that we were trying to meet him, and was happy to have us over. He helped us with the directions, and finally we made it!

Arriving at his house, we soon found out that our new Jewish friend comes from none other than Alaska! (He is a fourth-generation Alaskan.) Talk about a change in climate . . .

David had never had a bar mitzvah. After all, he grew up four hundred miles away from the closest synagogue. Eager to remedy the situation, we helped him into tefillin for the first time in his life. A bar mitzvah of an Alaskan Jew in Bonaire! I must say that was a very exciting and emotional time for all three of us.

We blew the shofar, as is customary during the month of Elul, to remind us of the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday. We spoke about joining the Jewish community of Curacao for the High Holidays, and that we would help him with a place to stay.

By that time we had to get to the airport to catch our flight back to Curacao, but we made sure to exchange contact information. After all, it is not often that an Alaskan and a Chabadnik meet on a Caribbean island.

Our “random” meeting at the supermarket.
Our “random” meeting at the supermarket.

We all think we know why we do things.

We drive cars to get from point A to point B, we drink coffee to get some caffeine in our system, we go to the barber shop to get a haircut, and we go to the grocery to buy groceries.

Well, that’s what we thought last Thursday morning when we ran out of minutes on our pay-as-you-go Jamaican cell phone. We had to go to the store to get a refill card, and that’s exactly what we did. But that’s not why we went to the supermarket.

You see, as we were walking around looking out for some essentials, a man approached us. A conversation ensued. Here is a rough transcript:

Our new friend: Hi.

Us: Hi, how are you?

ONF: Fine thank you. What brings you guys to the island?

Us: We came to visit the local Jewish community.

ONF: Oh, nice! I know many Jews here… I actually come from Jews myself, but I’m not Jewish.

Us: Really? Wow! Nice! Was your father Jewish, or was it your mother that was a Jew?

ONF: Neither. My great-grandmother.

Us: From which side?

ONF: My grandmother.

Us: Whose mother?

ONF: My mother.

Us: Well then, let me share with you some news: You are a Jew.

ONF (with a hint of confusion on his face): No, I’m not.

Us: You sure are. If your mother’s mother’s mother was a Jew, then you are 100 percent Jewish. As Jewish as Moses and Sandy Koufax.

ONF: I see . . . That’s interesting . . . Okay, guys, have a nice day. Nice meeting you.

Us: Umm, not so quickly. In fact, you are the reason we came to the supermarket!

ONF (puzzled): Really?! But . . . you didn’t even know I existed?!

At Earl’s home
At Earl’s home

Two days later, after a warm schmooze over some very cold water, we celebrated Earl’s bar mitzvah at his home! It was a very emotional moment.

So remind me, why did we go to the supermarket?

Daddy putting on tefillin is a family experience.
Daddy putting on tefillin is a family experience.

So just before we left Nevada, we had the honor of meeting Nevada congesswoman Shelley Berkley, who has garnered the title around here as “the most pro-Israel member of Congress.” The meeting marked the end of the two-week mini-yeshivah program arranged by Chabad of Southern Nevada. Among other things, we talked about the meaning of the coming Jewish month of Elul.

And a very special prime minister

With our friend, Mike Eman, prime minister of Aruba.
With our friend, Mike Eman, prime minister of Aruba.

Hi,

We are now in the ABC islands, and I want to give you a few updates on our trip.

We were supposed to leave New York last Sunday, but because of the hurricane we were able to leave only on Wednesday. By divine providence, on Monday we found out that one of the seven known Jews in Bonaire is actually in Philadelphia for medical treatment. So we drove out to visit him. We had a long talk. He had wanted some books that would help him cope with the challenges he was going through. Thank G‑d, we were able to help him.

A moment of meaning with just G-d, the Shema and tefillin.
A moment of meaning with just G-d, the Shema and tefillin.

Once we came to Aruba, we had to pack in as much as we could in just one and a half days! (We needed to be in Curacao for Shabbat, as their rabbi had left this past week, and we were to be covering for him.)

We first went to meet the prime minister (who, as you may recall from our last visit, is Jewish). When he heard we are in town, he interrupted his meeting to welcome us! He was full of thanks for the tefillin and matzah that we had sent him from New York. We made up to meet him later that night at his home to install a mezuzah on his door.

The PM installing a mezuzah on his door. Note his wife proudly watching.
The PM installing a mezuzah on his door. Note his wife proudly watching.

After installing the mezuzah, he mentioned that Aruba had just erected a monument to Anne Frank. We talked about some lessons that could be learned from her story.

He gave us a book on Anne Frank, and we gave him a book about the Rebbe and the prime ministers of Israel.

At the new monument to Anne Frank.
At the new monument to Anne Frank.

During the course of the conversation, we learned that it would be his fiftieth birthday the next day. We wished him l’chaim to a year of leadership and growth in his Jewish observance.

Now we are in Curacao, and are planning to go to Bonaire soon--but just for a day.

Having a blast: Mike tries his hand at the shofar.
Having a blast: Mike tries his hand at the shofar.

Sometimes a GPS gets you nowhere.
Sometimes a GPS gets you nowhere.

He is 12 years old and a chess champion. Can you guess who showed whom a thing or two?
He is 12 years old and a chess champion. Can you guess who showed whom a thing or two?

But Meir was able to show him a video of his bar mitzvah.
But Meir was able to show him a video of his bar mitzvah.

Ushering out the Shabbat in Mario’s house.
Ushering out the Shabbat in Mario’s house.

Last-minute planning with Rabbi Shemtov, Chabad representative to Uruguay.
Last-minute planning with Rabbi Shemtov, Chabad representative to Uruguay.

The only known Jew in the entire state of Rio Negro.
The only known Jew in the entire state of Rio Negro.

Having returned from our trip to North Dakota and South Dakota, we had a few moments to write up this experience of ours.

Dubbed “the magical city,” Minot, ND, experienced record-breaking floods in June this year, as the Mouse (Souris) River swelled, breaking its 130-year-old record and displacing more than 11,000 people.

By the time we arrived in late July, much of the water had receded, but we were greeted by the horror of the aftermath of the attack of the “Big Mouse.” As we made our way toward the home of a Jewish professor at Minot State University, we had to resort to old-fashioned navigation, as our GPS navigator conflicted with what we saw. The navigator indicated that we should continue straight along the road, but we were confronted with a large mound of dirt. Whether it had been man-made as a levee to control water flow, or was a natural result of the flood, we weren’t sure, but we were sure that we couldn’t follow the GPS navigator’s instruction.


Weaving our way through the streets of Minot, we passed block after block of houses gutted completely to the shell, with endless piles of debris lining the streets. Arriving at our second dead end, we wondered how a lone abandoned car with one door hanging open landed in the middle of a large empty muddy lot. We continued to work our way through town, encountering more newly formed dead ends, and making numerous U-turns, finally arriving at the house of the professor. His house is in the middle of a block on a severe incline, and he is surely appreciating all those trips up the steep hill. Half a block from his house begins an area of many, many square miles absolutely devastated by the flood.


Glad to finally meet the professor safe and sound, we sat down at his kitchen table, 216 miles from the motel from which we had checked out earlier that day in Grand Forks, ND. We discussed Kabbalah, Chassidism, and the sanctification of this world through studying Torah and performing mitzvahs. Speaking of which, he proceeded to put on tefillin and read the Shema in Hebrew, put up an additional mezuzah on a basement door that did not yet have one, and purchase a number of books on a variety of Judaic topics.

The magnitude of damage caused by the flood meant that there wasn’t a room available for rent within dozens of miles of Minot, and at close to midnight, we filled the car’s gas tank, prayed the evening service in the gas station’s parking lot, and departed towards Fargo, ND, where we would check in to our hotel 233 miles later.


We knew there had to be a reason why this tire broke, and we did not have long to find out.
We knew there had to be a reason why this tire broke, and we did not have long to find out.

“Yisroel, maybe you should go see Iv and Avi while I’m waiting . . .”

Agreeing that it was a good idea, I headed off to see the two Israeli men selling Dead Sea products in the mall. Late the previous night we had noticed that one of our tires had low pressure, but it being well after midnight, we hadn’t found anywhere to pump it up. It’s not for nothing that Rapid City, South Dakota, is not known as “the city that never sleeps.” So this morning, after loading up our car and checking out of a motel for the last time on this 38-day trip, we drove to the tire repair shop we had noticed at the mall while visiting Iv and Avi earlier in the week.

Talking to the Israelis at their pushcart in the mall, I noticed their eyes darting around as they scanned the passersby out of trained habit. Both Avi and Iv had affirmed earlier in the week that their spiritual wellbeing is more important than a few dollars, and that “G‑d will give us our livelihood,” so despite the minor distractions, our conversation continued. As we discussed topics both social and spiritual, we were joined by Ephraim, my co-rover. Having completed the paperwork at the repair shop, it was time to wait for the work to be finished.

The discussion turned to mezuzahs, and one of the salesmen who did not yet have a mezuzah in his apartment was interested in getting one. After bringing out the mezuzahs and discussing the differences between the two kinds of mezuzahs we had brought, the second salesman, who did have a mezuzah on every door in his house, asked, “Are these on parchment?” With our response of “Of course they are; we only have kosher mezuzahs!” he learned that the mezuzahs in his house were all non-kosher—being written on paper. While sorry to disappoint him with the unfortunate news, we were happy to supply kosher replacements.

Try as he might, he could not get the tire road-ready.
Try as he might, he could not get the tire road-ready.

Ephraim headed back to the repair shop and returned several minutes later with a weary smile on his face. “They can’t fix it. We have to go elsewhere to get it done.”

“Let’s hope we get to see the divine providence in this delay,” I replied.

We had over six hundred miles of road to travel to get back to the airport, where our flight back to New York was scheduled to take off less than fifteen hours later.

Walking through the food court on our way out of the mall, a familiar gold flash caught my eye—a chai (Hebrew for “life”) pendant hanging on a chain around a young man’s neck. “Mah nishma?” I asked, assuming that he was Israeli. “What?” replied the young man. He was from New York, had just graduated from college, and was on a road trip with a friend. They had had a car accident right near Mount Rushmore, and had to stay in Rapid City for the week while their car was being repaired. “I pretty much keep kosher,” he said.

As we are on our way back to Brooklyn, we happily unloaded our remaining kosher food into the truck they were driving temporarily while waiting for their repairs to be completed. Having bought supplies for an event in Rapid City that never materialized, we had plenty of kosher food to pass on, and the young man was pleasantly surprised to see the degree of variety of kosher food that is available even in regional and rural USA (more than 50% of the products on the shelves in the United States are certified kosher; one need only keep an eye out).

We discussed the idea of divine providence as taught by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, and the fact that although we do not always recognize the positive in apparently negative occurrences, everything is controlled by the Creator and is inherently good. We told him that we had hoped to experience a positive outcome from the delay, and we all chuckled as we thanked G‑d for the flat tire and for allowing us to see why it had to happen.

With the clock ticking, a flight to catch, and a tire that was still flat more than six hundred miles away from the airport, we exchanged contact information and went to get our car.

Note the “chai” hanging from his neck.
Note the “chai” hanging from his neck.

The Theresienstadt Jewish cemetery.
The Theresienstadt Jewish cemetery.

We went today to visit a town by the name of Terezin (Theresienstadt), located in the Czech Republic. It was a very powerful visit, as this was a former ghetto/concentration camp used by the Nazis (may their names be blotted out) to fool the world into thinking that they were treating the Jews well. Thank G‑d we brought our tefillin with us!

When we first arrived, we headed to the ''small fortress,'' which was used to house prisoners as well as where those deemed enemies were tortured and executed. We saw people from all over the world there, coming to see the monstrosities that had taken place. We were able to speak to many of them about how to keep peace and love in this world. Many of the non-Jews who we saw there were extremely interested in the 7 Noahide laws.

We headed over to the old Jewish ghetto, to see the synagogue and crematorium. As we were heading into the main complex at the cemetery we saw a few men walking out. One of them had a guitar in hand and was singing Hebrew songs. As I said, "Shalom Aleichem," he began to speak to me in Hebrew. After a quick minute of conversation I asked the man with the guitar if he'd like to put on tefillin, affirming a live and positive Judaism in the face of tragedy and death." He responded by telling me that he would love to, but that they were late to catch a bus...

As I wished them success in all of their journeys, I let out a sigh, as I saw the place where they used to burn the bodies of murdered Jews. We looked around and felt a strong emotional wave crashing over our heads. After a half-hour we realized that we needed to head back to the main square to catch the last bus back to Prague. As we reached to center complex, I saw a familiar face sitting on a road-railing. I breezed up to my Israeli friend with a smile, as he began rolling up his sleeve...

The cynical words posted above the entrance to the concentration camp read, "Work makes free."
The cynical words posted above the entrance to the concentration camp read, "Work makes free."

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