Roving Rabbis

Snippets of Inspiration From our Passover 2018 Roving Rabbis

May 4, 2018 1:12 PM

We emailed all the roving rabbis after the first days of Passover, asking them to share some moments of inspiration from the field. Here is a sampling of their responses from around the world.

Yehuda Blasenstien describes an impromptu bar mitzvah outside a gas station in Carlsbad, California:

“A few days before Passover, we filled up on gas and went inside to buy a drink. A young couple with a baby were buying a lottery ticket and having a small argument about it because the husband wasn’t interested in the purchase. The cashier got involved, telling him that if he would improve his attitude that might increase his chances of winning. Not wanting to miss out on the action, I added my two cents, that perhaps with happiness he can change his fate. When they turned around, I couldn’t resist asking them if they were Jewish. They responded that they were, and in fact they had debated whether they should wish us Chag Sameach. Wow, Divine Providence at work! They gladly accepted the handmade shmurah matzah we offered. When we asked the husband if he would like to put on tefillin, he said that he would, adding that it would be his first time; he had celebrated his bar mitzvah and read from the Torah, but had never actually put on tefillin. At this point, we moved the party outside, and helped our new friend do the mitzvah and say the accompanying prayers with much celebration.”

Also in the Golden State, Mendy Kotlarsky was assisting the Chabad rabbi to San Francisco, Rabbi Gedalya Potash, with his matzah deliveries before Passover. One recipient was not like the others…

“After we handed him the matzah, a middle aged gentleman told us that when he was in his late teens, Communism fell in his native Russia, and his family immigrated to the United States at their first opportunity, initially settling in Cleveland, Ohio. There, they were befriended by a Chabad Rebbetzin, who took care of their spiritual and physical needs, and also urged him to have a brit milah. His mother would not hear of it, but after a couple of years, she warmed to the idea, and he joined the covenant of Israel. We then chatted about Jewish life in San Francisco, when suddenly his face lit up. ‘I remember the Rebbetzin’s name, it was Rebbetzin Kazen. I owe so much to her. Have you ever met her?’ He nearly fell off his chair when I responded that I knew her very well, she is my great-grandmother!”

On the subject of our lineage, Aharon Carlebach also reconnected with his past while stationed in Hannover, Germany:

“It was a privilege to be sent to Hannover this Passover. How inspiring to witness the dedicated work of the Chabad shluchim, Rabbi Binyamin and Mrs. Shternie Wolf and their children. On a personal note, my grandfather, Rabbi Efraim Carlebach, is from Germany, and his family lived there for many generations, where they were well known for being rabbis and philanthropists. My grandfather actually grew up in Lubeck, a town only two hours away from Hannover! His grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, served as chief rabbi there, and during the intermediate days of Passover, I was able to visit the synagogue where he served his community—one of the only synagogues in Germany that is still intact from before the war. I was able to visit the grave of my great-great-grandfather. We also went to Bergen-Belsen, which is only about an hour away from Hannover. It was a very reflective time, faced with so much history, juxtaposed with the present: we had led a beautiful youth Seder for 30 teens. For many of them, it was their first time at a Jewish event, but they had so much excitement and enthusiasm for learning about their heritage. Am Yisrael Chai! The Jewish nation endures!

Levi Deren, who led a Seder for the Jewish community of Shepetovka, Ukraine, expressed a similar sentiment:

“Before the Holocaust, Shepetovka was a thriving Jewish community with thousands of Jews. Now, only 120 Jews live here, and there isn’t much in the way of Jewish life. A full fifty percent of the Jewish population attended our Seder, a mixture of the elderly, middle-aged, and families with children. It was a beautiful evening, and to be honest, we were in awe of these Jewish souls. Their rapt attention when we shared some Chassidic stories, their keen interest in every step of the Seder, their pride when the children stood on the chairs to recite the four questions was visceral and so real, all without the benefit of a Jewish upbringing or education. When it was time to open the door for Elijah, we explained that it was an opportune time to ask for whatever they may need. One by one, they covered their eyes and beseeched G‑d, the minutes ticking by, completely immersed in silent, collective prayer.”

Bill Brought Us the Greatest Gift

May 4, 2018 12:45 PM

The morning after Purim, Rabbi Ari Weingarten of Chabad at Texas State University contacted us with an exciting proposition. Would we be interested in travelling to Lubbock, Texas, for Passover? The hub-city of northwest Texas, home to Texas Tech University, is 350 miles away from any major Jewish community. Its small Jewish population and isolated location checked all the boxes for a Roving Rabbi visit. We jumped at the opportunity.

Our task was to ensure that every Jew in the region would have the opportunity to celebrate Passover, which meantBill expressed his disinterest and hung up making arrangements to host a community Seder. With the guidance of Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff at Chabad Texas Regional Headquarters, and the assistance of Rabbi Dov Mandel of Chabad of Fort-Worth, we began to set things in motion. We reserved the Lubbock Marriott as our Seder venue, placed a kosher food order, and sent a press release to the local paper. In a matter of days, we were in business.

When we began making phone calls and connecting with the local Jews, we gained a better understanding as to how significant this Roving Rabbi visit was for so many. Phone call after phone call, they expressed their appreciation and excitement. The vast majority of the people we reached were overjoyed that two young rabbis would be visiting the city, and eagerly made plans to meet with us or join the Seder. The sense of kinship and warmth that we felt from the Jews of Lubbock was truly remarkable.

Naturally, there were a few exceptions, such as that Wednesday afternoon when we called Bill, an accomplished lawyer. The phone call began with our standard line: “Hi Bill, my name is Naftoli and I’ll be visiting Lubbock ahead of Passover – we’d love if you could join our Seder.” Nonplussed, Bill expressed his disinterest, explained that he is not involved with the local Jewish community, and hung up.

One hour later, Bill called back! “Hi Rabbi, I wanted to apologize for that chilly phone conversation earlier.” This certainly didn’t fit the script! “I’ve never in my life received such a call, and I never thought that living out here, someone would reach out just to offer me an opportunity to celebrate my Judaism.” By way of an explanation, Naftali shared some of the background behind the Roving Rabbis project founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 1943. “The Rebbe taught that no Jew can be left behind. There is no Jew who does not deserve the opportunity to connect with their Judaism.” Bill’s tone had changed completely as he jotted down the details of the community Seder, and he assured us that this was an opportunity he would not miss. Before hanging up, he added that it had been so long since he had a seat at a Seder table that he couldn’t imagine celebrating this year. But our call had stirred something inside of him, and inspired by the Rebbe's love and commitment to every Jew, he eagerly awaited the Seder.

When we arrived in Lubbock several days before Passover, we immediately sprang into action. We spent our time delivering matzah and connecting with local Jews. While we listened and shared, we gained an understanding of their needs, and sought to provide them with Jewish resources not otherwise available.

One of the highlights was our meeting with Bill at his office. Thrilled to see us, Bill invited us to sit. We spent some time together as he reflected on his life as a Jew in Lubbock. We discussed our common Jewish interests and perspectives, and he reminded us of that initial “failed” phone call, again expressing his amazement at the Rebbe who taught that no Jew is too small or too far away to be important.

That week in Lubbock flew by in aHe reflected on his life as a Jew in Lubbock whirlwind of back-to-back meetings and Passover preparations. As the Seder was about to commence in the beautifully set ballroom, Bill walked through the door. “I’ve brought you a surprise gift!” he exclaimed with a beaming smile. It was Jacob, a fellow lawyer who Bill had discovered was also Jewish and invited to join us in what would be Jacob’s first Jewish experience since childhood. In the remaining moments before sundown, Bill and Jacob took the opportunity to put on tefillin for the first time in their lives. Bill’s proud recitation of the Shema while wrapped in tefillin was just the beginning of an amazing evening. There was great energy in the room that night as Jews of all ages and backgrounds celebrated the Passover Seder together. Needless to say, Bill thoroughly enjoyed the Seder, and at some point during the evening we pledged to keep in contact with each other.

Bill was one of the nearly 100 Jews whom we touched and who inspired us during our time in Lubbock. We enjoyed a Passover full of rich experiences that we will cherish for a lifetime. But Bill showed us that no positive effort is for naught, as the Jewish soul is always aflame. And when one Jewish soul calls out to another, you can be sure that the other will call back.