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Then and Now: My Jewish High School Friend Revisited

April 25, 2018 9:19 AM

These pictures are of Jonathan and me. One is from when we were both in high school four years ago, and the other was taken a few days before Passover, when I returned to my hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa, as a roving rabbi, to assist Rabbi and Mrs. Cadaner of Chabad of the Quad Cities.

In my junior year of high school, Jonathan was the only other Jewish boy in my grade. For the most part, we socialized in different circles, but after I attended a Chabad summer camp, CTeen Xtreme, I embraced my Jewish identity and began to view my relationship with Jonathan in a new light. We had been the two Jewish boys who vaguely knew each other and didn't talk much. CTeen made me realize that Divine providence had placed us together.

I mentioned to Jonathan that I'd started putting on tefillin and asked if he’d be interested in doing it with me. Thus began a weekly routine of putting on tefillin together before school. As our awareness of Judaism grew, we translated our Jewish pride into action: getting an aliyah to the Torah, lighting the menorah, wearing tzitzit, putting up a mezuzah, and even wearing a yarmulke to public school.

After high school graduation, our mitzvah moments together seemed to become a thing of the past. I left the state to learn in yeshiva. Jonathan married his high school girlfriend and had a daughter. Phone calls became phone tag, and phone tag dwindled to silence.

My pre-Passover assignment was to distribute handmade shmurah matzah to Jewish people all over town. As I drove the familiar roads, I tried to think of people from my past who would appreciate some matzah, and Jonathan instantly came to mind. I decided to surprise him with a visit. It was great to be together again, and we spent several hours catching up. He's working with his father-in-law and raising a family. I'm continuing my studies to be a rabbi.

As though there'd been no interruption since our high school mitvzot together, he smiled and agreed to put on tefillin again. His wife snapped a picture and when she found an old tefillin photo from high school, edited the two pictures together.

We pledged to stay in touch, agreeing that in today’s virtual world there is really no excuse not to. I hope to be able to continue to share the light of Judaism with Jonathan and others, and that it will be a source of pride to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, who empowered all his followers to be leaders.

A "Chance" Encounter in the Canary Islands

April 25, 2018 8:40 AM
Distributing matzah before the holiday
Distributing matzah before the holiday

We were honored to be hosting the first-ever official Chabad seder in Las Palmas, and the turnout exceeded our expectations. We arrived on Monday, and the next few days were a whirlwind of shopping, cleaning, cooking, and meeting the local Jewish population–approximately 60 in all. Each night 20 people attended, enjoying shmurah matzah, wine, a delicious kosher meal, reciting passages from the haggadah together, and simply basking in the company of their fellow Jews.

Late afternoon on the second day of Passover we strolled through the beautiful streets of Las Palmas, enjoying the seventy-degree weather and the first opportunity to unwind after a very hectic week.

We were scheduled to return home early the next morning, so our walk was not strictly for recreational purposes—it was our last opportunity to try and connect with any local Jews we may not yet have met. We brought along some matzah, just in case.

We passed a large shopping mall and noticed an elderly woman staring at us. She looked both astonished and excited, and beckoned for us to approach.

“I’m Jewish,” she told us. “I’m from Argentina and moved her with my son a few weeks ago.” Her face clouded over. “My daughter passed away suddenly and we needed a fresh start. I just found out today that it’s Passover, so I came here and asked in all the supermarkets if they had matzah. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I was so upset and couldn’t imagine not having matzah on Passover. I walk out of the mall, feeling so sad and missing my daughter terribly. Then, I lift my head, and I see two young rabbis rushing right by me! In Argentina, I had many Jewish friends, but here, I haven’t met any Jews. This is a miracle, G‑d made you appear at this very moment...”

We couldn’t agree with her more, especially when we opened our bags and handed her two boxes of matzah, one for her and one for her son.

This brief encounter perfectly encapsulates our mission—to share the light and joy of Judaism with every Jew, wherever they may be found.

A Spirited Seder in Szczecin

April 12, 2018 3:39 PM

We spent the first days of Passover with the Jews of Szczecin, a Baltic seaport in the northwest corner of Poland. It is a bustling city with approximately 400,000 inhabitants, including some 60 Jews. We quickly discovered that the Jewish community is a very close-knit oneThe Jewish community is a very close-knit one where each member is treasured. Every Shabbat and holiday, they gather at an old apartment that serves as their synagogue, complete with Torah scrolls, Jewish books, and other artifacts from before the war. This apartment served as our headquarters for the duration of our stay.

We landed in Warsaw, where we loaded our rental car with food and other supplies for the Seder before driving six hours to Szczecin. The days preceding the Seder were extremely hectic, compounded by a significant language barrier, but thank G‑d our preparations went smoothly, and we were excited to greet our guests as the sun set on Friday evening and the first Seder night commenced.

The room quickly filled with an eclectic mix of people—children, college students, middle-aged couples, and senior citizens, 30 people with a shared enthusiasm for celebrating their Judaism. Earlier, when we had discussed the Seder with Nikolai, the president of the community, he told us to expect the last person to leave by 10 pm at the latest. In the end, almost everyone lingered past midnight, chatting and enjoying what they called “energia i wibracje,” energy and good vibes.

The highlight of the Seder was the song Ve’hi She'amda:

“And it is this [covenant] that has stood for our forefathers and us. For not just one enemy has stood against us to wipe us out. But in every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.”

Szczecin was once home to 30,000 Jews and dozens of beautiful synagogues and other institutions. Kristallnacht, deportations to Auschwitz, Polish pogroms after the Holocaust, and years of CommunistHe told us to expect the last person to leave by 10pm oppression took a tremendous toll on this community, and some may debate the possibility of Jewish survival in such an environment. As our guests raised their glasses together, joy evident on their faces, it was living proof that the Jews of Szczecin will continue to endure. We took a brief detour from the Haggadah and launched into a spirited rendition of “Am Yisroel Chai,” and the excitement in the room was palpable.

As we cleaned up in the early hours of morning, we reflected on the difference between events in places like the United States, where religious freedom is taken for granted, versus our Seder, held in the shadows of Szczecin’s tragic history and current winds of anti-Semitism. We felt that every mitzvah done here was an act of courage and defiance, and we felt privileged to help facilitate that.

A German Jew in the Spanish Islands

April 12, 2018 11:30 AM

Several weeks before Passover we found out we’d be heading to Palma de Mallorca, home to some 250 Jews. Daniel has been there as part of the Roving Rabbis program before, so he got busy reconnecting with his contacts while I set out to find a suitable venue for the Seder.

Our first preference would have been one of theWe were told that they do not allow parties many hotels that dot the area, but several inquiries yielded the same result—it is against their policy to allow us to serve our own food. Plan B was to rent an airbnb. We left messages on several websites with our requested dates and intended use, asking if they had seating for forty people. Not surprisingly, we were told by each in turn that they do not allow parties on their premises.

Our last resort was to find a catering hall with a kitchen, but that would have been complicated with carrying on Shabbat and all the stringencies of Passover food, so we were still hoping for an airbnb that would be more accommodating when Joseph messaged us. He said that he had reconsidered and we could go ahead with his rental. It was a great relief and we quickly made all the necessary arrangements.

We spent the Shabbat before Passover with Rabbi and Mrs. Dovid Libersohn, Chabad emissaries to Barcelona, who supplied us with everything we would need to make the Seders. On Monday, we flew the short distance to Palma and made our way to the airbnb, laden with suitcases and boxes. Joseph was there to greet us and eyed our supplies warily. “I’m nervous about this party you’re having,” he said after a quick greeting. “This house is a heritage house and everything has to stay perfect.” We reassured him that we would be extremely careful.

“I have to tell you why I agreed.” he continued.We had an unexpected guest at the Seder “I saw that your names are Jewish, and you are hosting dinner for your holiday. My family is German, and I felt that I needed to do something for the Jews.”

We continued chatting and Joseph eventually shared that his maternal grandmother had been Jewish. What an unexpected twist! We told Joseph that he may be German, but he is also a fully-fledged Jew!

We had an unexpected guest at the Seder several nights later, but luckily, we didn't’ have to clear it with management first. Joseph sat with our other guests, thoroughly enjoying himself, participating in the discussions and songs and meeting lots of new friends. Hopefully, he will join them at future Jewish events.


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