We are working with Rabbi Mendel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway, and he asked us to visit a friend in Ramona, a rural neighborhood about 30 minutes away. We headed out at around noon, and as we drove we noticed the scenery changing, with farms and dirt roads replacing the sleek suburban streets of Poway.

As we attempted to navigate the unfamiliar roads, driving more slowly than usual, we noticed a very elderly gentleman sitting outside his home. Spontaneously, we decided to stop and sit with him for a few minutes before continuing on our way. Since our paths had crossed, it seemed right to make a connection.

As we approached, we realized that he was even older than we had thought—a centenarian at least! “Hello, how are you sir? We are from Chabad.” We introduced ourselves and explained why we were in the area.

The man’s face lit up, and, although it was hard for him to speak, he managed to convey to us that he too was Jewish.

We showed him the tefillin we were carrying and asked, “Did you ever put these on?”

He shook his head no, and we offered, “Can we help you put them on now? Would that be good?” Vigorous nod of approval.

Gently and carefully, we wrapped the tefillin around his arms and head, and recited the blessings in his stead. He couldn’t talk much but tears fell from his face and he squeezed our hands tightly. We explained that this was his bar mitzvah, and again, his body language and facial expression spoke volumes.

Suddenly, the door to the house opened, and the man’s son came out. He was definitely shocked to see us, but to his credit, asked us to stay. He wanted to bring his father inside to rest but he would be happy to talk to us more afterwards.

A few minutes later he reappeared with some cold drinks, and sat down next to us.

He told us that his father is 102 years old, turning 103 in just a couple of weeks, G‑d willing. The family was originally from Hungary but moved to America at the turn of the century, first settling in New York and eventually moving to California, where they stopped practicing their Judaism, which is why he never celebrated his bar mitzvah. Nevertheless, as an adult he contracted tuberculosis, and as part of his recovery he was encouraged to sing, leading him to become a synagogue cantor for over 70 years! The son concluded his remarks by qualifying that his father had always considered himself an atheist.

We thanked him for speaking with us and wished them both well. We were grateful that we still had some time before our scheduled appointment, so we could process all the emotions swirling in our heads. That visceral reaction we had witnessed was clearly the cry of a beautiful Jewish soul that was bound ever so tightly with its Source.