Roving Rabbis

Transcending the Language Barrier in Khust, Ukraine

June 21, 2017 1:26 PM

We were assigned to Khust, a small city in Western Ukraine. Khust is close to the burial site of Rabbi Baruch, the father of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, so we felt privileged to spend Passover there. Since there are no working commercial airports in that part of Ukraine, we flew in and out of Budapest. We had some free time before the driver who would take us to Khust was scheduled to arrive, so we headed out to see the sights. Almost immediately, we met a friendly student named Endre, who gives daily guided walking tours of the Jewish quarter. His tour was about to begin, and he graciously invited us to join. We were impressed by his extensive knowledge of Jewish history, and he expressed his interest in learning more about the Talmud and Jewish law. At frequent intervals during the tour, Endre asked that we explain some of the Torah laws to the interested crowd. As the tour was winding down, we discovered that Endre’s mother was Jewish, rendering him Jewish too, which he had always suspected but never confirmed. With his permission, we helped him put on tefillin for the first time in his life, to the hearty applause of the assembled tourists. Before parting ways, we took his contact information and forwarded it to the local Chabad rabbi, who Endre could connect with to further discover his heritage.

That encounter helped put us in a positive state of mind. We were delighted when more than thirty people joined us for the Seder. The fact that not a soul spoke English, Hebrew, or Yiddish didn’t faze us. We had the services of an interpreter, who had helped our colleagues in previous years, but we quickly came to the realization that he only knew five words in English, his favorite phrase being, “Yes, of course!” When we requested that he kindly let the crowd know that it was time to eat more matzah, he replied, “Yes, of course”, and then announced something in Ukrainian. Everyone responded by filling their glasses to the brim and shouting, “L’chaim!” This scene repeated itself quite a few times during the Seder, so it was no surprise that all the wine we had brought was long finished when we were ready to drink the third cup. Luckily, we unearthed some more kosher wine in one of the closets for the slightly tipsy and happy crowd.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that if words are the pen of the heart, song is the pen of the soul. The people of Khust were familiar with a remarkable amount of Jewish songs, including many Chabad melodies. After the conclusion of the seder, most of the crowd lingered to soak in the camaraderie and the holiday atmosphere.

At one point, two young men turned to us and said in a rather commanding voice, “Sing song!”

We responded, “Yes, of course! But which song?”

They thought for a moment. “Benny Friedman. Ivri Anochi!”

When we asked them how they knew that popular new song by the contemporary Chassidic singer, they chuckled and said, “YouTube. Two million views!”

We spent the rest of the evening singing familiar songs together. The language barrier, cultural differences, and age gap had all melted away. It was a celebration of all that unites us: G‑d, our souls, the Torah and mitzvot.

Bringing Light to Bershad, Ukraine

June 12, 2017 6:19 PM

We arrived in Bershad, Ukraine, on Sunday afternoon after a five-hour journey from Zhitomir on unpaved dirt roads. The first thing that struck us was the overwhelming poverty—decaying infrastructure, primitive housing, and an almost tangible sense of hopelessness. These feelings were compounded by our knowledge of Bershad’s Jewish history: tens of thousands of Jewish souls were massacred in the Bershad ghetto during the Holocaust, may G‑d avenge their blood.

After getting acquainted with our dismal surroundings, it was time to move on. We hadn’t come for the sightseeing, or lack thereof; as participants of the Roving Rabbis Program founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, we were entrusted with the mission to spread joy, light, and Judaism.

The next 24 hours passed quickly. We had to kosher the pots and pans we would need, scrub our modest motel room, search for and burn the chametz, and shop and cook for the Seder. Almost before we could catch our breath, we were welcoming our Seder guests at the entrance of the small room we had rented in the center of town. Eleven people joined us. They drank the four cups of wine, enjoyed the handmade matzah, and listened attentively to the story of the Exodus, which clearly resonated with some of the elderly guests. We were assisted by Chaim, the leader of the community, who translated our Yiddish into Russian.

After the conclusion of the formal part of the Seder, our guests chose to stay longer, enjoying the camaraderie and festive atmosphere. We served dessert, fresh fruit, and noticed how a little girl, the only child in attendance, took the fruit and immediately stuffed it into her bag. That sight tugged at our hearts, a vivid reminder of the abject poverty in this region. Quickly, we gave her some more fruit so she could eat some now and take some home. She and her grandmother thanked us repeatedly.

The conversation soon segued into the inspiration behind our visit: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who founded this program to bring Passover Seders to everywhere there are Jews. We shared some stories to demonstrate that the Rebbe genuinely loved and cared for every Jew.

It was clear that our words had deeply impacted the crowd. In a flash of inspiration, we decided to distribute something we had brought—small business cards with a picture of the Rebbe on one side, and information about the Rebbe’s resting place in Queens, New York, on the other. They accepted it reverently, and we even witnessed two teenaged boys fighting over one card. Fortunately, we found one more and everyone left in good spirits.

The next night, we were on our way back to the motel after another beautiful Seder. We were pleasantly surprised to bump into the little girl and her grandmother from the previous night (they had not joined us for this second Seder). They were also excited to see us, and after we exchanged greetings, they presented us with a request. Could we please mention their names at the Rebbe’s resting place in New York, and pray to G‑d to grant them blessings, success, and happiness? Of course, we agreed.

Nearly 21 years after his passing, the Rebbe’s influence is still very much alive. His vision illuminates the darkness of Bershad, reinvigorating the Jews there, and enabling them to feel that the deeper messages of Passover can affect their lives and their future.

Is It 8:30 Yet?

June 12, 2017 5:48 PM
Burning the Chametz in Shostka, Ukraine.
Burning the Chametz in Shostka, Ukraine.

My friend Boris and I recently had the privilege of coordinating the Passover Seders in Shostka, Ukraine, a small town home to only several hundred Jews.

After three flights and ten hours of driving, we arrived two days before Passover. As enticing as a bed seemed at the moment, with the Seder just a day away, we needed to hit the ground running. Fortunately, were both raised by Russian-speaking parents, and were able to communicate effectively with the locals. We dedicated five hours to making the apartment's kitchen kosher for Passover, and then several women from the community arrived to help with the food preparations. We stayed awake well past midnight to ensure that the food for Shostka's Seder would be fresh, plentiful, and kosher for Passover.

We had approximately 40 reservations for the Seder, and with the food situation under control, we spent the next day preparing Passover-related material to share with our guests. Shostka's Jews have little to no knowledge of Judaism, and the intermarriage rate is nearly 95%. The Seder night is really the only time they receive an authentic Jewish experience, and we only had a couple of hours to inspire them. What could we say? What would resonate in their hearts? What would give them the inspiration to carry on until next year?

To add to our stress, accordingly to Jewish law the Seder may begin no earlier than nightfall, which was at 8:30 pm in Shostka. Ukrainian tradition is to eat dinner no later than 6:30, so the Jewish center’s director, Sveta, had called the Seder for 6:00, leaving us with quite the dilemma.

We convinced Sveta to call back all 40 participants and invite them for 7:00 pm, and when we arrived at the Jewish center we saw three beautifully arranged tables with 40 people seated. After putting on tefilin with the men and lighting candles with the women, it was 7:30 pm, and we still had to wait another hour until the Seder could begin. I took the stage, and in my broken Russian began to recount the Passover story from the very beginning, starting with Abraham, the first Jew. I then explained the symbolism of each item on the Seder plate, all the while hoping and praying that my broken Russian would somehow touch their souls. But growing hungrier by the minute, the Jews of Shostka had exhausted every ounce of their patience. Sensing this, I quickly wrapped up my speech with a beautiful story of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, which contained the message that every Jew is a precious gem.

The room was blanketed with a thick silence. I was painfully aware of each set of weary eyes upon me. I checked my watch: 8:00 pm. My mind was racing. What would the Rebbe expect me to do in this situation?

Then it hit me! “Simcha poretz geder - joy breaks through barriers." I suddenly remembered the classic song “Who Knows One?” in Russian. I recalled watching a video of a chassid singing that song to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe responding with tremendous joy.

I started the song slowly. "Ech ti zimlak, ya tibya raskazevayu, ADIN UNAS BOG!" (Why are you a fool? I'll teach you, G-D IS ONE!)

Boris and I continued onto the next stanza, then the third, and so on. Each new stanza infused the room with more and more energy.

As if at the flip of a switch, Shostka's Jewry was alive! Men, women, children, everyone was joining in. "One is G‑d, two are the tablets, three are the fathers, four are the mothers..." By the time we reached the 14th and final stanza, the place was on fire.

We then broke out into dance, celebrating exactly what Pesach is all about. We had just shattered the ultimate barrier. Now I could truly appreciate the adage of the Holy Ba’al Shem Tov: Joy bursts through all barriers.

The electricity in the room was not a result of something that was said, done, or felt. It was coming from the pure joy, expressing the essence of the soul. And between souls, there's clear communication. No language, culture, or any other difference could stand in the way.

After catching my breath, I glanced at my watch: 8:30. The Jews of Shostka were ready to begin their Seder.

Searching for Chametz in Shostka, Ukraine.
Searching for Chametz in Shostka, Ukraine.

Asking the Four Questions for the First Time

June 2, 2017 2:43 PM

A few days before the roving rabbis depart to their assignments around the world, a training session is held in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Typically, there are two seminars, one providing a comprehensive tutorial on all the laws that pertainWe had an impressive 80 people at the Seder to Passover, and the other offering tips and suggestions for leading the Seder effectively. Afterwards, a variety of materials are distributed, including a 100- page handbook which includes everything from shopping lists to Passover recipes to talking points for the Seder. Personally, I found it to be a lifesaver and perused it countless times while arranging the public Seder in beautiful resort town of Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

Fast forward to the Seder night. It had been a whirlwind getting there—travelling, shopping, schlepping, making numerous phone calls and house visits. Thank G‑d, it seemed like our hard work had paid off, and we had an impressive turnout of more than 80 people. The first part of the Seder had proceeded uneventfully, and our guests were enjoying the festive meal we had prepared.

I had brought my trusty handbook along with me to the hall, and since everyone loves a story, I decided to share one. Our crowd consisted of mostly elderly people, so I selected the following story.

The Fifth and Sixth Question

In April 1943, in the Warsaw ghetto, a Jewish family was conducting a Seder in a bunker.

It was the first night of Passover when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out.

A child in the family asked the four questions. And then he continued, “Father, may I ask you a fifth question?”

“Of course,” said the father.

So the boy continued with his fifth question:

"Why is our nation different than all other nations? Why have we been targeted for

abuse and annihilation?"

His father answered, “The Jewish nation began before any other nation had, and it will survive long after the Third Reich is dead. One cannot understand a story if one does not first know the entire story, from beginning to end, and our story is not over yet..."

"Daddy, I have a sixth question. Next year will I be here to ask you these four questions? Will you be here to answer them?"

And the father said, “I’ll be honest with you, my son. I hope yes, but I am not sure. Yet, this, I want you to know: Every Shabbat after reciting the haftarah we say these words: 'You have taken an oath that Israel's flame will never be extinguished.’ So I can promise you that somewhere in the world there will be a Moshele or a Dovid’l, a Chana’le or a Ruchel’e , asking these four questions to their father and mother."

My dear friends, that little boy and his father perished, may the Almighty avenge their blood. But last Passover, at the Seder table, three million Jewish"Next year will I be here to ask you these four questions?" children turned to their fathers and said, “Daddy, I want to ask you the four questions."

My friends, this is why we are all here today. “You have taken an oath that Israel's flame will never be extinguished."

I closed the book and looked around. Everyone was overcome with emotion, but there was one woman who was sobbing quietly. We all waited for her to compose herself, and then she asked if she could share a few words.

“My father was a Holocaust survivor,” she began. “He lost his entire family and suffered unspeakable atrocities. He settled in Spain after the War and didn’t practice his religion at all. In fact, we never even had a Passover Seder, and I never had the opportunity to ask him the four questions. He passed away a few months ago and I am confident that he’s watching me from Heaven right now with tears of joy rolling down his cheeks that his daughter is celebrating Passover and proudly singing the Ma Nishtana together with so many Jews at the Chabad Seder in Palma de Mallorca.”

Who's In That Wacky Camper Van at the Next Gas Pump?

June 2, 2017 2:29 PM

It was an ordinary, grey Friday morning when Andrew pulled up to a nondescript gas station in his small orange car. Everything that day had been so typical, boring even, so when he glanced at the next stand he was quite surprised toHe was Jewish but didn't know what that meant notice the most atypical vehicle in the middle of remote Western Australia. It was big, some sort of caravan, and very colorful. His eyes slowly focused on the large words and pictures displayed on the side of the thing and recognized some words like kosher and tefillin.

Andrew knew he was Jewish but didn't know what that really meant.

Generations ago, Andrew's great-grandparents had immigrated to Australia and settled in Melbourne. Tragedy struck, and his great grandfather, a proud Orthodox Jew, was murdered in the street, an act that was subsequently found to be anti-Semitic. After that incident, his daughter, Andrew's grandmother, rejected the Jewish practices of her youth, determined that her children would never suffer from such hatred. She married a non-Jew and gave birth to Sarah, who in turn married a Catholic man and gave birth to Andrew.

Andrew received a Christian education but had always felt alienated from that way of life. His origins were no secret to him, but he didn't know what being Jewish meant in practical terms.

He eyed the three bearded young men as they worked on filling their tank and sauntered over.

“Shalom,” he said, not realizing the reaction that one word would draw.

The three men stopped, speechless. Andrew started to feel uneasy, he hadn't meant any harm.

“Are you Jewish?” one asked, hardly concealing the excitement in his voice.

What Andrew had not yet realized was that he had chanced upon the nationwide famous Mitzvah Tank operated by Chabad of RARA—Rural and Regional Australia. This time, it was manned by three Melbourne-based rabbinical students during their winter stint in the outback of Western Australia. Their mission? To spread Judaism to the far-flung communities that do not have any established Jewish infrastructure.

Andrew was quickly surrounded by the young men who started peppering him with questions.

“Is your mother Jewish?”

“Have you ever put on tefillin?”

“Have you had a Bar Mitzvah?”

Andrew was pleasantly surprised by the outburst. “Tefillin? I don't know what that is. But you sure seem excited, let's do it!”

Right then and there in that nondescript gas station, Andrew celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with spirited singing and dancing as he put on tefillin for the first time in his life. They also invited him to the Shabbat dinner they would be hosting that evening, and then they parted ways.

Fast forward a few months to the hectic days preceding Passover. A red minivan slowly made its way down a quiet road in Fremantle, while the occupants: Elimelech Backman, Shlomi Naparstek, Menachem Rapoport and Mendel Liberow, four rabbinical students from Melbourne, were searching for a familiar house.

They stopped when they saw a woman, all smiles, waiting for them outside her home. They had arrived.

“Welcome back boys,” she said, “I haven't seen you for a full year!”

Chaya is proud Jewish woman living alone in a small, cozy home in sleepy Fremantle. After emigrating from Israel many years ago, she settled in Fremantle and has been a staunch supporter of Passover Australia activities in Western Australia. Every year she is delighted to host the young rabbis as they make their rounds to homes in the area to discuss the upcoming holiday and distribute Jewish items, like the Passover Australia Mezuzah proudly displayed on her front door.

TheChaya mentioned something interested group made themselves comfortable in the living room and they started chatting with her about life in general and Jewish life in particular. At the conclusion, Chaya mentioned something very interesting.

“You know,” she said, “in the winter when the boys from RARA were here, they made a Shabbat meal in my house for the Jews of Fremantle.”

They nodded; they had heard all about it.

“There was a nice man who showed up. The boys had found him on Friday at some random spot and he had put on tefillin for the first time. He showed up here for the first Shabbat dinner of his life. He knew absolutely nothing of Judaism and he was really impressed.”

Chaya went on to tell them some more about this man named Andrew. She mentioned that although they had not kept in contact, she happened to have his number. She thought that it would be a good idea to reach out to him.

And what a splendid idea that was.

A few hours later, sitting at his home on the beach, Andrew received a phone call from Shlomi.

“Hello, is this Andrew?”

“Yes, who is this?”

“Hi Andrew, I’m here with some of my friends from Melbourne. We’ve come to arrange a Passover Seder for the Jews in the area. We would love to invite you to the Seder and maybe arrange a time to meet later as well.”

“Oh wow! Yes, that would be lovely! Thank you so much!”

Andrew showed up to the Seder and enjoyed himself immensely. But it was the meeting that took place after the holiday at the Chabad center in Perth that was theHe spent more than four hours receiving a personal crash course in Judaism turning point of his life. He spent more than four hours receiving a personal crash course in Judaism. He saw a synagogue and a Torah for the first time, held a siddur and repeated some of the prayers, and was able to ask the rabbinical students any and all the question he had grappled with. When he was shown the tallis, he was excited to share that he once saw someone praying in the airport wrapped in a tallis. He had watched him mesmerized the entire time! That Jewish man never realized what an effect he had on an unknown soul but the experience definitely played a large role in Andrew's newfound interest in his heritage.

As afternoon turned into evening, Andrew was still relishing this long taste of Judaism for his thirsty soul. The next day, Elimelech and Shlomi visited him at his home and continued the discussion, but not before adorning the doorpost with a beautiful new mezuzah.

Three generations after the abandonment of Judaism and two generations of intermarriage, the offspring of that family found his way back to his roots.

Our story ends here but for Andrew it has just begun. It continues with his slow but steady progress, one mitzvah at a time, his enthusiasm in embracing a completely new lifestyle at an adult age awe-inspiring.

Going back to that dreary Friday morning, those young rabbis could never have imagined the quantum growth of that Jewish soul from just one short encounter. This story demonstrates how no encounter is ever typical or insignificant. We only assume so because we have no idea how far a little mitzvah can really go.