This August, a dozen young men stayed at their yeshiva for anything but a restful vacation.
The rabbinical students, who attend the Yeshivas Lubavitch Manchester during the year, ran a one-on-one learning program during the day, visited Jewish homes in the greater Manchester, England, area in the afternoon and spent the weekends finding Jewish people in the outlying smaller cities and teaching them about Judaism.
Sponsored by L’Chaim-Chabad of Manchester in conjunction with the popular “Roving Rabbis” summer visitation program coordinated by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, the project, stressed participants, leveraged the energy of students to strengthen Torah scholarship and Judaism across a wide swath of England. And although some of the smaller communities had been visited by rabbinical students in previous years, this year, six pairs of students spent a greater amount of time – Thursday nights through Sunday nights – in each locale.
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“We have been going wherever we have heard there are a few Jews,” explained Eli Nochum Block, one of the 12 students who took part in program. “We have visited the smallest of communities, sometimes going to places without any Jewish community.”
The students even discovered Jews in surprising places. In a story reminiscent of the siege of Masada, the city of York’s 150 Jews were wiped out during a Crusader siege in 1190. For centuries, that city was believed to be devoid of any Jewish residents, but Block and another young student, Mendy Bresinger, found 25 of them thanks to the help of a non-Jewish man who took them from house to house.
“Many of those people have intermarried or lost contact with Judaism, but we helped to rekindle the spark,” said Bresinger, originally from Montreal, who added that one of the homes did have a mezuzah on the doorpost. “We explained to them that every single Jew is important and counts, and the reaction we got was very encouraging.”
Block, a native of S. Antonio, Texas, said that he felt privileged to help a 60-year-old man don the prayer boxes known as tefillin for the first time.
“We celebrated his bar mitzvah on the spot,” said Block. “It was very moving.”
The pair also visited Southport and a group of residents not affiliated with the resort town’s local synagogue. They went to the Jewish retirement home and arranged a quorum of 10 men, known in Hebrew as a minyan, for a Sabbath prayer service and community lunch.
Another community in Blackpool had a synagogue, but no rabbi.
“They had Torah scrolls, but they hadn’t been read for many months because there hadn’t been a minyan,” said Bresinger. “But we were able to arrange for 10 men to be present one Saturday, and the Torah was able to be read at last.”
Back in Manchester, Bresinger received word that one of the community’s members had passed away, but they didn’t have the requisite 10 men necessary for the family to say the mourners’ prayer known as Kaddish. The rabbinical student couldn’t find a car on such short notice, but then he came across an Australian visitor who told the yeshiva that he was about to drive to Blackpool to visit his father’s grave.
“We explained our predicament and he had room in his car,” said Bresinger. “So five of us went, and with the five there in Blackpool, we managed to make a minyan for the funeral.”
Rabbinical students visited Jewish families in small towns surrounding Manchester.
While the Roving Rabbis were travelling around greater Manchester, the yeshiva also ran a “Summer Learning Program” for about 50 Jewish men, who came to the Beis Menachem Jewish Community Center to study one-on-one with its students.
Many, like David Goldstein, were just looking to learn something more about Judaism. After weeks of visits from the local yeshiva students, he decided to meet them on their turf and learn “some basic Jewish laws.”
An additional “Lunch and Learn” class offered hot meals and intriguing discussions daily this summer.
Yeshiva student Gershon Klein said that one of his learning partners was a middle-aged Jewish man who had been living for years with the regret that he didn’t know much about his own religion.
“We talked about anything and everything connected to Judaism,” said Klein. “We discussed the issues that make Judaism unique, and, if there were any doubts, we talked about the proof of the existence of G-d.”
Others, like Warren Bergson, possessed a deeper background in Jewish study, but came to learn even more.
A member of the Beis Menachem JCC and synagogue, Bergson enjoyed learning a complicated section of the Talmudic tractate of Pesachim with a student he described as “very, very exceptional.”
Involved with Chabad since he attended a Gan Israel Camp at age 10, the summer learning program has given the lawyer an appetite for more.
“I’m hoping to come to do it more regularly,” said Bergson, 58.
Echoing Bergson’s sentiments, Goldstein remarked that he “will definitely go back.”