It had been a long, tiring day of knocking on doors.
Big Lake, Alaska, is not Brooklyn, N.Y., and out of thousands of houses, just one or two are home to Jewish people. Yet Rabbi Levi Levertov and Rabbi Yisroel Treitel, participants in the vaunted Roving Rabbis program, hopefully approached the next door. Little did they know that they were about to change a life forever.
“There are two guys with yarmulkes outside,” they heard from behind the closed door.
When it was opened by a middle-aged woman, they were told in hushed tones that the house belonged to a man in the final stages of cancer who was not in the position to come to the door.
After exchanging contact information with the woman, whose name was Julia O’Malley-Keyes, they were about to leave when they suddenly found themselves in a conversation with the patient, a tall man with a neat gray goatee who was relaxing on a couch inside the house.
After he heard that they were rabbis in search of fellow Jews, the man, whose name was David O’Malley-Keyes, invited them inside.
Before leaving to live his last weeks in Washington, David displays a Tanya printed in Alaska, as well as a dollar that had been given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
He told them that he had lived most of his 64 years believing his family to be Christian—something he was never comfortable with. It was only recently that a sibling told him that his maternal grandmother had been Jewish, a fact that helped explain why his mother had so many Jewish friends and used Yiddish terms with her children.
Living in Alaska, far from his native city of New Haven, Conn., he had tried to connect to the local Jewish community and explore his roots, but to no avail.
The visiting young men explained that they were there as part of a program that had been championed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to send young rabbis and rabbinical students to Jewish communities large and small all over the globe (and that such roving rabbis had been coming to Alaska since 1970).
The young men gently helped David into tefillin and helped him recite the words of the Shema for the first time in his life.
“G‑d works in unbelievable ways,” he remarked. “We don’t see any Jewish people around here. You came out of the blue!” He would later recall that he felt his hair was standing on end: “There was immensely powerful energy and spirit in the room at that time.”
Then, with tears in his eyes, he said the words of Shema, clearly and confidently affirming his Jewish identity.
“David,” said Julia with wonder in her voice, “you said you wanted something to take with you to the world to come—and here you have it.”
From left: Rabbi Levertov, David and Rabbi Treitel immediately following the impromptu bar mitzvah they celebrated together in Big Lake, Alaska.
The Goal? To Celebrate the Holidays
Knowing that they would soon be leaving Alaska, Levertov and Treitel connected the couple with Rabbi Mendel Greenberg, who co-directs the Mat-Su Jewish Center-Chabad Lubavitch in nearby Wasilla with his wife, Chaya.
Despite his deteriorating health and inability to eat, David asked Julia to help him attend Shabbat dinner at the Greenberg home. Speaking before a crowd of several dozen people, he shared the events that had led to the newfound discovery of his Jewish identity and internal peace. “It’s amazing to consider that out of all the millions of homes in Alaska, they chose to knock on my door at the time I needed it most. As things got worse, I had asked G‑d to send me a sign—and there they were.”
David affixes a mezuzah to his doorpost.
Over the course of the next few weeks, he shared another Shabbat meal with the Greenbergs and put on tefillin with the rabbi, an act that he called his “spiritual gas station.”
During the course of one of their visits (which often resulted in deeply emotional conversations), the discussion turned to the afterlife. In response to his questions, the rabbi told David how important it was for the soul that the body be buried, and not cremated.
“No problem,” said David, who was then planning to fly to Tacoma, Wash., to spend his last few weeks with his daughter. “I’ll call my daughter right now to make sure that we can make arrangements for a Jewish burial in Washington.”
As his condition had deteriorated, he had spoken with family members about how he wished to live long enough to vote in the presidential election. However, his focus had now shifted. “All I want to do is be able to celebrate the High Holidays as a Jew, being at one with G‑d,” he said.
He got his wish.
Rabbi Greenberg called his colleague Rabbi Zalman Heber, who leads Chabad of Pierce County in Tacoma, and filled him in on the situation.
Over the next few weeks, Rabbi Heber worked closely with the family to change from the planned cremation to a proper Jewish funeral.
Surrounded by new friends at Chabad of Pierce County, David was called to the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time that he publically celebrated his place in the Jewish community. As the crowd broke out into joyous song, he cried and danced all at once. He also proudly held a Torah scroll during the blowing of the shofar.
Rabbi Mendel Greenberg, co-director of the Mat-Su Jewish Center–Chabad Lubavitch in nearby Wasilla, met with David as often as possible to chat and put on tefillin.
With his waning strength, he returned to the synagogue for Yom Kippur, the day he so hoped to be able to celebrate for once in his life. At the conclusion of the fast, he danced arm in arm with his fellow worshippers, weeping with emotion.
“He was a very special man,” reflected Rabbi Heber, who visited David almost daily to help him pray in tefillin, a mitzvah he cherished. “He really appreciated his return to Judaism and what it meant for his soul. He soaked it all up and mastered much of Jewish thought in a matter of weeks.”
It was at his bedside that David’s brother also put on tefillin for the first time in his life.
By the time Sukkot arrived, he was no longer able to make it out, though gratefully grasped the lulav and etrog and said the blessings with fervor.
As Rabbi Heber discussed funeral plans with David, he gently asked what message he would like him to share at his funeral. “Tell them,” said David sitting up and looking into the rabbi’s eyes, “that it is never too late to embrace your Judaism and be proud of it.” He had difficulty speaking but managed to say forcefully: “As long as I am alive, I want to be a source for G‑dly light in the world. Tell my story to anyone who wants to hear it, and this will cause me to live on after my death.”
Before the rabbi left, he helped David recite the Shema and Viduy confession, traditionally said at the end of a Jew’s life.
He passed away the following day, less than a week after Simchat Torah, having lived to experience the holiday season as a Jew among Jews and was interred in a Jewish cemetery in Seattle.
David and Rabbi Shneur Zalman Heber of Chabad of Pierce County in Tacoma, Wash., second from right, are flanked by old friends.