As Chabad rabbis, we have been educated from a young age to maximize every encounter with fellow Jews by enabling them to do a mitzvah.

We boarded our flight to Ukraine, where we are spending several weeks visiting the isolated Jews who live in the Zhitomir vicinity. We quickly noticed a large group of boisterous teenagers also boarding the flight, and we discovered they were heading to Israel on a Birthright trip, with a stop in Moscow on the way.

We waited until we were free to move around the cabin, and approached them, armed with our tefillin.

“Hey guys, you must be really excited about going to Israel for the first time.”

Nods of agreement all around.

“How would you like to put on tefillin now? We can’t think of a better preparation for going to the Holy Land.”

It took some time, and a lot of explaining, but within the hour we had ten teenagers putting on tefillin, six of them for the very first time.

“Guys, this is your bar mitzvah! Congratulations! How appropriate to be celebrating it on your way to Israel!

We could see that most of them seemed quite emotional, the significance of the moment not lost in their teenage universe. One young man in particular related that aside from this being his first time putting on tefillin, it was also the first time in his life that he had prayed, and he was really grateful for that.

“Rabbi,” said another of the bar mitzvah boys, “Thanks so much for giving us this opportunity. What we just did feels really special, and appropriate...”

The two of us returned to our seats on somewhat of a high. Though the demographics of Western Ukraine would be vastly different than this group of teenagers, our common denominator would be the same.

We looked forward to meeting the Ukrainian Jews, and imbuing them with much-needed Jewish pride and spirit. We knew to expect long days, one-star accommodations, perhaps rejection and anti-Semitism. But if our flight there was any indication, the rewards would be infinite as well.