It's that time of year again, when pairs of young Lubavitcher students comb the planet searching for souls to ignite. Anchorage, Alaska and Kinshasa, Congo, have fully staffed, year-round Chabad centers; but how about places like Miles City, Montana, which at last count had six Jews in residence?
It's that time of year again, which brings back memories of the summers when a friend and myself would load a rented car with Jewish books and videos, tefillin and mezuzot, canned tuna and matzah, and clock 4000 miles in three weeks meeting and talking with Jews scattered under the big skies of the fourth-largest state in the union. With the memories comes the urge to attempt to communicate the sense we had at the time--and which persists to this day--that we received so much more than we gave on those trips.
"Shalom Gefiltefish!" was the salutation that greeted us upon encountering the smiling face of Mr. B. To our credit, we hardly batted an eye. Hardened by two weeks of searching out Jews in the hamlets and backroads of Montana, in which we've heard just about anything said to and about us, we simply smiled and took our seats.
We spent a very pleasant two hours in a small, homey office on campus talking with Mr. B., a lawyer affiliated with the local university, and his wife, a doctor who was helping out in the office that day. They smiled at our delight upon learning that they were both Jewish--the first such couple after dozens of intermarried couples we had met. Why, they had known each other for months before being aware of the other's religion.
A tour through B.'s home yields signs of mini time-warp, of a man who has not quite outgrown the 60's. The B.'s collect people, the wackier the better. As bearded, black-hatted, 19-year-old "Hassidic missionaries," we filled the bill. We left with an invitation to make use of their basement--just come in (no locked doors in this town), see which rooms are available, and make yourself at home. If we're home, come upstairs to say hello. For the next three years, that basement served as our center of operations whenever we returned to Montana.
On Merkos Shlichut (as these trips to ignite Jewish souls are called), you learn quickly. You learn that cliches do not work. You find that your carefully prepared opening lines and presentations may elicit admiration but nothing more. You discover the extent to which your sincere if clumsy appeals to the yiddishe neshamah penetrate. You come to realize that you are but a spectator to what a Jew is capable of, if only triggered by a word, a memory. You learn the power of the Jewish soul.
I never even tried to figure out what it was that we may have said or done that caused the B's to look at their Jewishness with new eyes. No, they are not fully observant today, and though I can cite others who are, they remain my most inspiring examples from all my years on shlichut. What gratifies and humbles me about these two Jews is their faith in their own power to do something about what they have discovered. We all know the famous statement by Maimonides, that "with a single good deed, a person can tip the scales of his own life, and of the entire world, to the side of good, and bring redemption and salvation to himself and to the entire world." To the B.'s nothing is more natural and obvious.
When their newly gained knowledge brought an affinity and concern for their fellow Jews in the Holy Land, they did something about it. B. flew to New York and secured a $15,000 contribution from a political action foundation for the campaign to elect a pro-Israel senator in his state. When he realized the extent to which Judaism is misunderstood by the man on the street in the state of Montana--he did something about it. He now has a regular schedule of lectures in public and parochial schools.
He now knows much more about his Jewishness than the two words with which he greeted us--the two words which, at the time, constituted all that he knew of anything Jewish. But I suspect they remain his favorite words. To this day, whenever I find my optimism barometer slipping, I dial a number in the 406 area code; and the cheerful "Shalom Gefiltefish!" that comes humming across the wires is music to my soul.