Roving Rabbis

Holding Up the Line at the Asian Fish Market

May 19, 2017 3:00 PM

If you follow any Chabad rabbis on social media, you may have noticed the pictures of mile-long receipts and overflowing shopping carts they posted from their pre-Passover grocery trips. At Chabad of Arizona State University, under the leadership of Rabbi and Mrs. Shmuel Tiechtel, there is a designated shopper on staff who buys the many supplies needed to feed the droves of hungry students who attend the weekly Shabbat dinners. Typically, he goes into overdrive in the days preceding Passover, but in March of this year, he received word that his father was very ill, and left town on short notice to be with him.

Large scale shopping like that is not really our forte, but we were there to assist with whatever was needed, so we listened carefully to the detailed instructions and were on our way. Our first stop was at an Asian market to buy the salmon for the Seder meal. Although salmon is a kosher fish, when buying it at a non-kosher store there is the concern that it may have been filleted using the knife and cutting board used for a previous non-kosher order and possibly have some of that residue. The simple solution is to ask for everything to be washed well, verify the cleanliness, and observe the process. We had ordered twenty-three pounds of fish so this took the better part of an hour, especially since we had to explain everything with a significant language barrier. When we were finally ready to pay, we noticed we had missed a text message from Rabbi Teichtel asking us to increase the order to forty pounds. Another customer had been serviced after us, so we had to start with having everything washed down again. This time, we were painfully cognizant of our large audience observing this unusual scene with varying levels of patience, so you can imagine our relief when we were once again checking out 30 minutes later.

“Wow, that’s a lot of fish!” the young man behind us commented. Incidentally, while the other customers were mostly absorbed with their phones, he had been avidly watching the proceedings. “Is it for a party?”

“Yes, it’s for the Passover Seder,” we replied.

“Oh, so it’s for your family?”

“Well, I guess you can say our extended family. We are helping out with the Chabad Seder at Arizona State University.”

“That’s so cool!” He became really excited. “I’m David and I’m Jewish and I live close to campus! I attended Lehigh University for undergrad and I used to go Rabbi Greenberg at the Chabad there all the time. I haven’t been able to find any rabbis since I moved here a few months ago. This must be my lucky day!”

“That’s great! And just in time for the Seder too! Let’s get you all the info and we’ll look forward to seeing you soon!”

We exchanged contact information with David, checked out, and lugged our haul to the car with a spring in our step. It’s such a great feeling when you can see the pieces come together, and even more so when Divine Providence reframes a perceived negative experience into a positive one.

David showed up all smiles to the Seder at Arizona State University and was able to meet the rabbi and the community of more than 100 students who call Chabad home. It was our special treat watching him get acquainted with his new family. During the festive meal, we couldn’t help but chuckle as he vividly described the hapless scene in the Asian market. Thank G‑d for happy endings!

Passover Snippets From Around the World

May 15, 2017 1:47 PM

A few days after Passover, we emailed all of the 622 roving rabbis who had participated in this year’s program, asking them to share a highlight from their Seder. Below are a few responses that we’ve selected—regretfully there isn’t enough space to feature all the inspirational moments!

Mendy Wolff travelled to the historic city of Izmail, Ukraine, located on the Danube River:

At the Seder, there was a 93-year-old man who was hard of hearing because of his advanced age. Nonetheless, he enjoyed the Seder immensely, telling us how much it reminded him of his childhood and his beloved grandfather. As the night drew to a close, he told everyone that he would meet them again next year at the Seder in Jerusalem. I replied that he didn’t have to wait until next year, he is welcome to join us the next morning for services. I didn’t think he would come since I wasn’t sure if he had heard me clearly, and even if he had, it was understandably quite difficult for him to get around. Imagine my surprise when he walked into the synagogue the next morning. Not only that, he actually completed our minyan!

Preparing for the Seder in Izmail, Ukraine
Preparing for the Seder in Izmail, Ukraine

The Danube River flows through 10 European countries, including Hungary. Shraga Orgad assisted Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Raskin with the large community Seder in Budapest:

As night fell, we could see the Danube River glistening though the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Budapest Marriot. Our guests were finding their seats, and there was a buzz of anticipation in the air. Rabbi Shmuel Raskin began the evening with these words. “Dear friends, we are sitting here without fear and about to begin a royal Seder. But we need to stop for a moment and gaze out at the Danube River, at the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ memorial. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered, for the mere crime of being born a Jew, while the world watched and thought that the Nazis would bring about the Final Solution. Yet tonight, here are 600 Jewish men, women, and children, celebrating Passover together on the banks of that very river.” As soon as the Rabbi concluded his remarks, our guests began singing “V’hi Sheamdah.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the room...

On the banks of the Danube River
On the banks of the Danube River

Not only has the Jewish nation survived, we have defied all expectations. Did you know that there is a Jewish community in Reykjavik, Iceland? Naftali Pewzner shares:

What an amazing and uplifting Seder here in Reykjavik! We had an unprecedented 87 Jewish people from all backgrounds and countries coming together to celebrate what we all have in common. Passover commemorates the humble beginning of the Jewish nation, and at our Seder every individual had something to share and bring to the table.

There are approximately 100 Jewish residents in Iceland, as well as an ever-increasing number of Jewish tourists who chose to spend time on this magnificent Nordic island.

While Iceland still lacks proper Jewish infrastructure, the yearly Iceland Seder as part of Chabad’s Roving Rabbis program has been bringing Iceland's Jews together, allowing them to celebrate their heritage and connect with each other in a warm, welcoming setting.

This year we hosted a woman and her daughter for their very first Seder–in fact, their very first Jewish experience. We had just met them earlier that week. Their Jewish mother (grandmother) had immigrated to Iceland from Denmark nearly 50 years ago, and had completely hidden her Judaism. For them to reclaim their heritage, in the presence of so many other local Jews, was a proud and beautiful moment.

While a large percentage of our rabbis do spend Passover in Europe, there was actually a Chabad Seder on every continent aside from Antarctica. Shneur Zalman Eisenberg flew nearly 10,000 miles to Sandton, South Africa.

Our first Seder was big and boisterous, with a crowd of tourists from around the world. The second Seder was smaller and more intimate. We received lots of positive feedback about both nights. Two women joined us for the second night, and unfortunately they had both just recently experienced tragedies—one had lost her husband the other had lost her child. Was the size of our Seder Divine Providence, so that we could really focus on them? At the conclusion of the Seder, one of them told us that she feels that G‑d will help her break free from her challenges. It was apparent that they were both leaving in a much better frame of mind.

Meeting Darwin's Tenacious Jews

May 10, 2017 2:38 PM

Six days before Passover, we touched down in Darwin, armed with our precious cargo of wine, matzah, frozen chicken, and other Seder and Judaic necessities. We only had a few days to make our rounds and visit Darwin’s Jews, so we hit the road first thing Wednesday morning.

Our first stop was at Jordan’s apartment in the heart of Darwin. Having only recently moved to town, we were the first Passover Australia rabbis to meet him, and we hit it off immediately. He is warm and intellectual, and we found ourselves schmoozing like old friends. We shared some Chassidic thoughts, helped him do the mitzvah of tefillin, and put a mezuzah on his door, establishing his new home as a Jewish beacon in the Territories.

Our next appointment was with Robert, an elderly Jew full of great stories and a genuine love of gefilte fish. We spoke with him for a long time, enthralled by tales of his travels around the world. We helped him wrap tefillin, assuaging his protests by reminding him that a Jew is always connected to G‑d, and promised to have lots of gefilte fish at the Seder.

Another notable Darwin encounter was with Dan and Sara, a wonderful Israeli couple who apparently maintain a very busy schedule. After trying their house for the third time, we were just pulling out of the driveway when they returned home. They seemed thrilled to see us and invited us inside. As the sun set, the four of us sat together reminiscing about our Holy Land and what it means to be a proud Jew living thousands of miles away.

On Thursday afternoon we had two visits scheduled—with Lydia and Javier. But then Javier informed us that he was in fact visiting Lydia’s house, so we were able to combine the visit and spend more time with both. When we entered the house, we couldn’t help but notice Hebrew papers scattered all over the table. As it turns out, Javier, a Majorcan Jew with a passion for Judaism, is learning Hebrew with Sagi, Lydia’s 14-year-old son. What an incredible, if incongruent sight—a bona fide Hebrew class in one of the most remote towns in Australia! After settling down on the couch for a good chat, we discovered that Sagi had never had the opportunity to put on tefillin, and so we helped him do the mitzvah and say the blessings, followed by some spirited Chassidic dancing. On our way out, we affixed a mezuzah on the front door, and then headed with Javier to his house, where we recited the afternoon prayers together and also presented him with a brand new mezuzah.

The Seder itself was magical. As night fell, we made kiddush and formally began the seder—the largest one Darwin has yet seen. Our guests included an excitable crew of Israeli backpackers, some American students, and even a couple from Germany. As the 65 Jews sat around the table, reliving the Exodus and attempting to experience personal freedom, a palpable feeling of warmth and Jewish unity spread across the room. We progressed through the haggadah, matzah, maror, and four cups of wine, and all too soon we were singing “L'shanah haba’ah b'Yerushalayim” – “Next year in Jerusalem.” Afterwards, some of the Israelis led the crowd in a boisterous rendition of “Echad Mi Yodea” and “Chad Gadya.”

Our only regret when we returned to Melbourne was that we did not have more time to spend with our Darwin friends. They are a unique and tenacious group of people whose connection to Judaism is truly admirable. It is our hope and prayer that we will be reunited with them in Jerusalem long before next Passover, with the speedy arrival of Moshiach!

Young Backpackers and Elderly Holocaust Survivors Celebrate Passover Together In Romania

May 10, 2017 2:37 PM

In the work we are privileged to do, there isn’t always one outstanding event. Sometimes, there are a series of small, meaningful encounters with our fellow Jews, which we’d like to believe create a ripple effect of good deeds, light, and joy.

We met Sam during our stopover in the Amsterdam airport on the Thursday morning before Passover. I was praying in the lounge when he approached and asked to borrow my tefillin when I was done.He shared that he was Jewish and had celebrated his bar mitzvah back in his hometown of Santa Monica, but it had been quite a while since he’d last done the mitzvah of tefillin. When he saw me, he said, it reminded him of his Jewish roots, and he felt compelled to ask for the opportunity to do the mitzvah as well.

A few hours later, we boarded the plane for our flight to Bucharest. Noting my religious attire, the gentleman next to me introduced himself as a Jewish atheist. He pointed at the wing of the plane and commented, “It’s shaky, isn’t it? But since I believe in science, I know that statistically we are safe.” I replied that whenever I travel I begin with a prayer for a safe journey and therefore I am at ease. I continued to explain that we believe in science as well, since G‑d created the laws of nature, but we do not believe that science can deny the existence of G‑d. I was surprised when he didn’t try to argue, and we spoke about a number of other topics in religion, with a very respectful give and take. As we neared the completion of the flight, he thanked me a number of times for what he described as an elucidating discussion.

We spent the weekend in Bucharest, helping at the Chabad center there, before driving the three hours to Brasov on Sunday night, where we would be leading the community Seder. The community had come together to prepare the Seder, so with the bulk of the work done, we had the luxury of strolling through town in search of Jews who would like to attend our Seder.

It was a beautiful day and the streets were full and bustling. We met a number of people, mostly Israelis, and spoke with them about the upcoming holiday. One of the Israelis agreed to put on tefillin while several of his friends looked on. When he had finished reciting the prayers, we started singing “Am Yisrael Chai,” and his friends joined in, swept into this poignant, powerful moment.

The Seder took place at the synagogue, a magnificent 200-year-old structure, with a diverse crowd. Young Israeli backpackers and elderly survivors of the Holocaust sitting side by side, participating in the 15 steps of the Seder exactly the way their grandparents did. It was a true affirmation of Jewish life, a resounding echo of the earlier “Am Yisroel Chai” in the streets of Brasov.

A Seder for No One?

May 10, 2017 2:03 PM

Although our destination this Pesach was Mancora, Peru, our flight landed at the Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, and our plan was to spend several days there helping the Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Blumenfeld, with a variety of Passover-related activities before travelling to Mancora the day before the Seder. We set up a website to let people know about our Seder which enabled us to track reservations from afar.

Mancora attracts Israeli tourists primarily as a surfing destination, and because the weather had been pretty bad, most people were staying away. On Saturday night, we found out that the two local Jews we had been in contact with in Mancora had decided to leave town for the duration of the storm, leaving us with just one confirmed guest, a Jew who lived in a town 30 minutes north. A Seder for one Jew who would otherwise not attend one is just as important as a Seder for two, ten, or fifty, so we got to work assembling all the Passover necessities, making the conscious decision to think positively about our upcoming experience.

We flew from Lima to Piura, and when we landed we turned on our phones only to discover that Jacob, our only guest, would be unable to attend. The driver we had ordered for the four-hour drive to Mancora had arrived, so we loaded the car up with our many Passover-related parcels, and began the drive to Mancora, unsure if we would be making a Seder for anyone other than ourselves.

The roads were unpaved, it was a steamy 90 degrees in a car with no air conditioning, and we were wedged between the pots, burners, matzah, paper goods, wine, and raw chickens we had brought for the seder.

After stopping twice to refill the air in the tires (a common occurrence in these parts), we finally made it to Mancora at around 5:00pm, leaving us with a mere 24 hours to find guests and prepare for the Seder. We registered at the hostel, schlepped our things inside, and headed out, grabbing the posters with the Seder information we had printed in New York.

We hadn't walked three steps when two Israelis came running towards us, yelling “matzah, matzah!” What a relief—we now had two guests for the Seder! After a brief conversation, they told us that they were planning to leave town the next morning, but since there would be a Seder, they would extend their tickets.

While we were out hanging up our signs, we received word that the people who had previously canceled would be there after all. Things were definitely looking up!

We spent the rest of the night preparing our room in the hostel, which involved lots of cleaning, rearranging, and covering, doing our best to make it kosher for Passover.

The next morning, while we were outside burning the chametz, three more Israelis approached us, and were thrilled to hear that there would be a Seder that evening.

Time was racing by and there was still much to do. Shopping for fresh produce at the market, cooking, setting the table, reviewing the haggadah—there wasn’t a moment to spare. Thank G‑d, everything went smoothly, and we were soon welcoming our guests to our Seder table in the hostel garden.

We were in the midst of reading the haggadah together when we noticed a couple staring at us instead of entering the hostel. “What’s going on?” the woman asked.

Photo taken before the holiday
Photo taken before the holiday

“It’s a Passover Seder,” one of the Israelis replied.

“Passover?! You mean Pesach!” she exclaimed.

They explained that they were both Jewish, knew all about Passover, but didn’t know when it actually started. They had been traveling for a while and were somewhat disconnected from “real life”.

It was a beautiful Seder, with perfect weather, good camaraderie, lots of singing and sharing of Passover insights, and the food was pretty tasty too, if we may say so ourselves.

Looking around at the nine Jewish souls at the table, we almost had to pinch ourselves. It felt like a personal Passover miracle. We hope that our small Seder brought some nachas to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, who was the champion of all Jews, no matter which remote corner of the world they may find themselves.

Finding Inspiration in Byron Bay

May 1, 2017 1:31 PM

In the days before Passover you will witness a similar scene in many Jewish households: a bustle of activity as the entire family comes together to get through the cooking, shopping, and cleaning needed for the holiday.

Thanks to the Roving Rabbi Passover Program, this took place even in the remote city of Byron Bay, Australia. As soon as we arrived, we began preparing for the Seder (at which we expected to host approximately 100 people) and soon all the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of the holiday filled the air.

When we felt that things in the kitchen were progressing nicely, we decided to take a short break and drove into the center of town in search of Jews. We stopped at a falafel shop frequented by Israeli tourists and immediately met Jason and Anne, a Jewish couple visiting from Melbourne.

They found it fascinating that we had traveled so far to facilitate the Seders here, although they couldn’t join since they planned to be back in Melbourne by then.

“Jason, have you put on tefillin recently?” we asked.

“Oh, not since my bar mitzvah, and it’s not happening again anytime soon.”

We were about to concede defeat, but help came from an unlikely source. “You know, it is a mitzvah,” said Anne. “C’mon, just do it.” Much to his credit, Jason promptly rolled up his sleeve, and we helped him with the tefillin and the prayer.

We left the shop with a spring in our step, and as we crossed the street we spotted a young man with long blonde hair staring at us, a huge smile on his face. “G’day boys, what brings you here?” he asked in an unmistakable British accent. We explained that we had come to run the Pesach Seder in Byron. “Pesach! I remember that one!” He introduced himself as Dominic, and told us that he came from a small town in England and had been living in Byron for the past few months. He had fond childhood memories of Passover but couldn’t recall what tefillin were. “I had a bar mitzvah but I don’t think I’ve seen those before.” Still, he quickly agreed to do the mitzvah, and his face beamed with joy as we helped him put them on and danced together in honor of the momentous occasion. We gave him the details of our Seder and promised to be in touch.

Next, we headed towards a hostel known to house Israeli tourists. Walking along the esplanade, we couldn’t help but notice an elderly man seated outside a restaurant. He had a large tattoo of a Star of David on his arm. We approached him and he told us that his name was Michael, and he was indeed Jewish. As the conversation progressed, it became quite clear that Michael had an Orthodox upbringing. “Yes, I was a yeshiva boy just like you guys, but things didn’t work out for me there, and I drifted away from it all.” Michael had become quite emotional. “At least my children are celebrating Passover with Chabad in California. I just can’t bring myself to do it,” he said, tears filling his eyes. We spoke to him at length about the beauty of the Jewish soul, which will always have an everlasting connection with G‑d, no matter what the person may have done. Michael seemed receptive and had many questions for us on this topic.

When we inquired about tefillin, he shuddered. “I don’t think I can do that, it’s too much,” he sighed. After some gentle prodding, Michael agreed, somewhat. “You know what, it would be nice to do a mitzvah, but I’ll only do the hand (tefillin).” He grabbed the tefillin and began expertly wrapping it on his left arm, as if it was just yesterday that he was a yeshiva student. “Thank you so much, boys”, he whispered as he handed us the tefillin, “You can’t imagine what you did for me. I just might fly back to join my kids in California in time for Passover.”

We returned and were greeted by mounds of work to be completed before the Seder (there aren’t any kosher caterers in Byron Bay!). Luckily for us, we had just received all the inspiration we needed to roll up our sleeves and get to work.