Following several weeks of working with the Jewish population in San Diego, Calif., Shloimy and I made a short detour to Portland, Oregon. One morning, we decided to ride the Portland Aerial Tram, operated by the local medical center, which offers views of downtown Portland and the surrounding mountain range. Although the tram primarily services the hospital staff, it is open to the public, and many tourists take advantage to get a better look at the breathtaking scenery. We disembarked at the last stop to take some photos, when an elderly man approached and greeted us with a loud “Shalom,” and asked a question about the Torah portion of Bereishit.

“Are you Jewish?”

“Of course, what else?” he replied, puzzled.

We quickly discovered that Ariel was well versed in Tanach, the Jewish Bible, and even able to quote many parts from memory. an elderly man approached and greeted us with a loud “Shalom!"We sat down and had an enjoyable conversation. Ariel was smart and witty, and had many interesting and inspiring ideas to share. We spent some time discussing what it means to be Jewish today. He expressed his sadness at his lack of observance.

“I am a bad Jew,” Ariel told us. “If I would only have the courage, I would definitely live like you. I know that is the truth.”

“It’s not all or nothing,” I explained. “A good Jew is not the one who does everything, and a bad Jew is not the one who does little. The good Jew is the one who is constantly moving forward. There are always opportunities to take small steps forward, always good deeds waiting to be done. You are a good Jew because you aren’t satisfied with where you are; you seek growth.”

We talked some more, and asked Ariel if he’d like to put on tefillin.

Phylacteries? Sure!”

Turns out that he had never put on tefillin before in his life! He grew up in Florida, and was hardly exposed to Judaism as a child. I gave him my kippah to wear, and we wrapped the tefillin. He seemed very pleased.

As we wound the tefillin straps around his arm, the next tram arrived. We knew that Ariel would now have an audience. “Be proud of what you are doing, Ariel,” I advised.

“Ha!” he responded. “I am not worried at all. I learned a long time ago that I can’t care about what others think. I am not interested in becoming a slave to their opinions.” To illustrate his point, he turned to the passengers exiting the tram and shouted, “Try this once and change your life!”

“This is your bar mitzvah, Ariel!” we told him. “Celebrate this opportunity. This is a big step. You are growing and moving forward.” He was very touched, and spontaneously enveloped us in a tight embrace. We took photos together of him wearing tefillin, with the beautiful views in the background.

“What are you boys doing here?” Ariel asked us, after the tefillin were put away.

“We actually came just to meet you, and to put on tefillin with you. We came all the way from New York just for that.”

“Is that right? So you believe in divine intervention?”

“Of course,” Shloimy replied. “This is a great example. We came here thinking that we were just going to see the mountains. The truth, however, was that G‑d planned for us to come for reasons far more significant. There is always a deeper purpose and meaning to everything that So you believe in divine intervention? happens. It’s like layers. We can only see the outside layer—our own determination for doing what we choose to do and being where we choose to be. Under that though, lies layer after layer of G‑d’s intentions. We're not always so lucky to discover the hidden purpose. But today, it’s clear to me that we are here to meet you.”

Ariel was amazed.

“There is another purpose here that is quite obvious to me,” I continued. “Before, when all these people exited the tram, some of them were certainly Jewish, and observed how you put on tefillin in public without any shame whatsoever. That can have a very powerful and profound effect. We can only guess how many of those people were just inspired to take a step forward themselves.”

Ariel nodded. Our words had made a deep impact on him.

He took off the kippah I had given him, slowly, almost begrudgingly.

“I wish I had one of these myself,” he said.

I said I would be glad if he kept it, as I had another one with me. He was thrilled. We talked a bit more until the next tram arrived. Ariel had to catch the ride, so he spoke hurriedly, trying to finish his thought.

“You don't need to rush, Ariel. We’ll go down with you. We've completed our purpose here.”

Back in New York, we are in contact with Ariel, mostly via e‑mail.

We just received the following message from him:


You have inspired me to greater study and devotion, and have renewed in me a search for spiritual awareness.

Forever grateful am I.

Toda Raba,