Roving Rabbis

At-Risk Teens & Middle-Aged Retirees Seder Together

May 16, 2016 5:13 PM

As you might imagine, the small town of Couer D’alene, Idaho, is no stronghold of religious Jewish observance. Yet it was precisely for that reason that the Thursday before Passover saw us hard at work in the kitchen of a nondescript hotel, preparing all the elements of a traditional Seder for the twenty local people who hadWe were researching chicken soup recipes when the phone rang... chosen to join us. For many, this would be their only annual taste of authentic, communal Judaism, and we wanted everything to be perfect.

We were preparing the charoset, and simultaneously researching chicken soup recipes, when the phone rang. The caller introduced herself as Nancy, director of a boarding school for at-risk teenagers about an hour away. She had heard we were in town, and since there were quite a number of Jewish teens enrolled in the school, she was wondering if we would be able to come down and speak to them about Passover. Of course we agreed, and with little time to spare before the holiday, scheduled our talk for later that afternoon.

We would probably have to pull an all-nighter to finish up in the kitchen, but this was important. We would put together some Passover thoughts and then head over to the school.

Twenty five students had assembled, and we shared the lessons of Passover and the meaning of true freedom. We had been worried about the kind of reception we might get, but they mostly listened attentively and asked some great questions.

Afterwards, we made our way to the director’s office. She thanked us profusely, apologizing for the late notice. “No worries,” we replied, “but we do have a favor to ask of you. We are arranging a Seder tomorrow night in Coeur D’alene, and we think the Jewish students would really like to be there. Is there any way to make that happen?”

Nancy thought for a couple of moments before responding.

“That’s a lovely idea, boys, and I do agree that our students would really enjoy that. But unfortunately, we’re so understaffed on the weekends, I don’t have anyone available to chaperone them...”

There was another woman in the office, Beth, who had greeted us when we arrived at the school. She was a volunteer and had sat with the boys during our speech. “Nancy, I’ll take them.” She turned to us. “Look, these boys are about the same age as our students, and they cared enough to drive an hour each way to spend a little time teaching about the holiday. That was so inspiring to see. I’d be honored to do my part to help our kids have their proper holiday celebration.”

Twenty-four hours later,"I'd be honored to do my part" we were putting the final touches on the Seder table. Beth and eight Jewish teenagers were our first guests, followed by the others, middle-aged to older folk. There was definitely an age gap going on, but we all sat together, and to quote one the participants, “I’ve never had such an amazing Seder experience before.”

We’d like to echo that, and if we would reflect further, perhaps it was from the fulfillment of embracing one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings: to love every Jew as oneself, and to share with them our most precious possession—the Torah and mitzvot.

A "Chance" Encounter with a Professional Chef

May 9, 2016 2:48 PM

The Cairns Pesach Seder is the largest one arranged by Passover Australia, (Seders are also hosted in Coff’s Harbour, Darwin, and Fremantle) with an average of 100 attendees. In previous years, some have made reservations, while others just showed up. A week before Pesach this year, we already had 100 reservations, which we knew would translate into at least 120 guests. While we were thrilled, there was the issue of logistics—we are not professional chefs, and cooking kosher food for 100 had been a massive and complicated operation. Producing a delicious kosher meal for even larger numbers just seemed an almost impossible feat.

We had one contact who works as a chef. We called him, but he told us that he would be busy that week and could only offer one hour of his time.

On Wednesday, with the Seder less than three days away, we still weren’t sure how we would

pull it off. After a home visit in the morning, we made a quick stop at the local supermarket to get the last items needed to begin our cooking the following day. We then raced back to the car—we had another meeting scheduled for twenty minutes later.

As we were about to pull away we realized there was one more crucial item we had forgotten to purchase. I ran back in, and walking down aisle number two, I heard the unmistakable sound of people conversing in Hebrew. I quickly approached the two men, and greeted them with a huge smile and a warm “Shalom Aleichem.” “Aleichem Shalom,” they both replied, hardly concealing their looks of disbelief.

“What are your names? Do you live in Cairns?” I asked.

The younger of the two, a middle-aged man, responded, “My name’s Rachamim, and I’ve been living in Cairns for almost two years now, and I have not met one Jew!”

“What in the world are you, a rabbi, doing in far-off Cairns?” was his next question.

“We came to make a Seder for the Jewish people here, and I am personally inviting

you to join us!”

“Wow!" Rachamim shouted. “G‑d must have sent you at this moment and in this aisle of the store! Literally a minute ago I asked my father (the man standing beside him) what are we going to do for the Seder this year? I don’t know any other Jews here, and I don’t have matzah or anything else for the Seder. And then out of nowhere, you appeared!”

While we were still digesting what had just transpired, Rachamim turned to me and

asked, “Where are you getting all the kosher food from? Who is cooking it for you?”

“We brought it all up from Melbourne and we are cooking it.”

“Do you know how to cook and for so many people?” Rachamim inquired.

"Not really,” I said, “But Hashem will help us out.”

Rachamim broke into a huge smile. “I am a chef! That’s why my father is here with me. He came from Israel for a few months to help me open a restaurant here in Cairns.”

Now it was my turn to be shocked. Before I could regain my composure, Rachamim went on. “I have the whole day off tomorrow. I’d really like to come and help you; I’ll even bring my father along for extra help. Just tell me a time and place and I’ll be there”.

I felt like dancing. "Look, guys! In front of our eyes a miracle has taken place!”

We hugged, shook hands, and exchanged numbers, and I then ran back to the car with the good news. We would be late for our next visit, and I hadn’t bought the item we had thought we needed–but the real reason for our need to return to the store was now apparent.

The following morning, father and son showed up on schedule, and spent the entire day with us in the kitchen, cooking and chatting. They also put on tefilin, which Ari, Rachamim’s father, had not donned in many years.

On Friday evening, the dynamic duo came early to the Seder to make sure that all the food was under control. Thanks to G‑d and his helpers, the Seder was enhanced by the presence of well over 120 Jews, and a delicious, classy meal that garnered many compliments.

At one point during that night, Rachamim quietly shared the following: “You have no idea what I am witnessing now—my father is one of the most secular Jews you have ever met. I have never in my life seen him by any Jewish or Mitzvah related event, and here I saw him put on tefillin for the first time in my life, and now he is sitting, participating and loving every part of the Seder. You have no idea what this Pesach means for me in my life, I will remember this forever!” A pause and a smile, “Next year, make sure to call me a month before Pesach. We will put together a proper menu, order the proper ingredients and together prepare for the 2017 Pesach Seder.”

Meeting Jews Right & Left in Cambodia

May 9, 2016 2:33 PM

Rabbi Bentzion Butman, the Chabad rabbi to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, expanded his Passover activities this year to include the town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s only port city. It’s a popular tourist spot since it features an array of beaches, as well as the port where boats depart to Cambodia’s southern islands.

As the ‘feet on the ground’ in this endeavor, Monday morning saw us loading the car with all the Passover essentials in advance of the four-hour journey from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.

Our first order of business was finding a suitable venue for the Seder. We needed a room that could seat 70, had air conditioning, and was close enough to the port. Our plan was to walk in the direction of the port and stop off at the many hotels and shops, to find a spot for the Seder as well as guests to fill the tables.

Things moved fast. We met Samuel, a Jew from Mexico, only two minutes into our walk. He greeted us warmly and seemed happy with our company. While we were helping him put on tefillin (only his second time), a Jewish girl from France walked by, sized us up, and asked if we knew of a Seder in the area. She had searched online but hadn’t found anything. “So G‑d brought Chabad to you,” we quipped.

Samuel informed us of a Jewish couple who worked down the road. On the way over, we met Alex, a Jewish tourist from Toronto, who had no religious affiliation, but still separated from his group in favor of chatting with us.

Early the next morning, our first stop was a hotel located right on the port. We were hoping it would work for the Seder somehow. We were thrilled when Charles, the Malaysian manager, expressed interest in hosting this religious event, and promised to figure out all the logistics.

That took a huge load off our backs, and we were free to focus on other things, like distributing the many pounds of matzah we had brought. We stepped outside, and found many happy customers. Our only request was that they wait until Passover night to eat the matzah, and share some with the other Jews they would encounter.

That afternoon, we met with David S., who arrived in Sihanoukville in 2014, eager to make Cambodia his new home. At the moment, his connection to G‑d and Judaism was tenuous at best, but when we asked if he’d put on tefillin, he readily agreed. Apparently, that act awoke some dormant part of his soul, and David immediately asked if we could learn with him at his home. A short study session was followed by a more in depth one the following day, when he brought us to his home to learn his book of choice—the Tanya. We then shifted gears and began preparing for the Seder, with David and his friend drafted into kitchen duty.

Friday passed quickly in a whirl of activity, and as the sun set over the port, fifty Jewish souls trickled into the room which had been set up exactly to our specifications, thank G‑d. We sang and rejoiced as one, celebrating our faith, our unity, and the act of leaving Egypt once again, this time in the beach town of Sihanoukville.

Fifty Years Without Matzah

May 2, 2016 4:23 PM

At about 4:40pm on Friday, an hour before the start of Pesach, we arrived at the main hall of the Kolkata Jewish Girls' School building. With the staff helping us set the tables for the Seder, we were ready just as the guests began trickling in.

The women lit the Shabbat and holiday candles, and everyone took their seats. About thirty people—mostly locals, one tourist from the UK, and two American Jews—gathered for the Seder, the first communal one to take place since the the Jewish community in Kolkata was founded some 200 years ago. What a monumental occasion! We introduced ourselves and commenced the evening with the holiday services, the highlight of which was a spirited rendition of the Hallel prayer.

The Seder began as is customary with the first cup of wine, and proceeded at a pleasant pace. When it was time for maggid, we went around the table reading the story of our slavery and redemption from Egypt aloud, with our input of insight and explanation.

When we distributed the hand-made shmurah matzah, the senior community members were overcome with emotion. They had not eaten shmurah matzah since the matzah bakery in the back of the Beth E-l synagogue had last produced matzah, more than fifty years ago!

The festive meal provided the opportunity to learn about some of our guests and schmooze. Beth had lived in a heavily Jewish area in the U.S. until her move to Kolkota in 2011, but for various reasons this was the first Seder she was attending in over twenty years. She thanked us profusely for allowing her to finally celebrate Passover.

After more stories and songs, we concluded the Seder with the heartfelt prayer of "L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim- Next Year in Jerusalem!" We wished the participants a Good Yom Tov and invited everyone to join us again for Shabbat services the next morning, as well as the second Seder.

We were pleasantly surprised when a handful of people showed up early Shabbat morning. Two of them read Hebrew, and the others had fond memories of attending synagogue in their youth, and were so grateful for this rare opportunity to reconnect.

Saturday night, we began our Seder once again with the women lighting the candles, and the smaller, intimate crowd allowed us to lead the Seder with additional explanation and discussion. We sat closer together, and the atmosphere was a relaxed one, with everyone knowing each other from the previous Seder and already familiar with the steps of the evening.

At the conclusion of the Seder, the community thanked us for being there to lead the Pesach festivities- explaining that from the start of the community in the early 1800's until today, Kolkata never had a leading Rabbi, and at this point, with just about 25 members of the community, if they didn’t celebrate communally, they feared that all the traditions would be lost. True to our role as rabbis, we had to have the last word. We told them that we were in awe of their commitment to G‑d, which remained steadfast despite the tremendous challenges of lack of guidance and Jewish leadership.

On that note, we emotionally bade each other farewell, with much renewed spiritual energy on our part and theirs.