“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).