Roving Rabbis

Purveyors of Fine Scribal Wares

July 31, 2008 6:00 AM
Old Torahs waiting to be repaired
Old Torahs waiting to be repaired

To my dear and loyal readership,

You have all read about our boys trottin' the globe, totin' books, Tefillin, and Mezuzot. Where do these Judaica supplies come from? Read on and be enlightened:

Hidden in the upper floors of an ordinary looking building on Kingston Ave., in Crown Hights, Brooklyn, is Hasofer, purveyors of Tefillin, Mezuzot and Torahs. Hasofer is a veritable goldmine of Mezuzot (they have thousands in stock) and Torahs (they have dozens of those as well). A team of expert scribes are constantly hard at work, checking the new and repairing the old.

To those in the know, the establishment is known as 'Moshe Klein', after its founder and proprietor whose name is none other than…Rabbi Moshe Klein!

"Now Rooted lifted his feet and went to the Land of the people of the Mezuzot (see Genesis 29:1)."

Each Mezuzah is carefully checked
Each Mezuzah is carefully checked

I was greeted by Zalman Schapiro, a longtime employee, who told me that most groups take a pair of Tefillin and a ten, twenty Mezuzot. The boys take the supplies on consignment with the understanding that they need only pay for whatever they do not bring back from their travels. This arrangement allows them to bring these goods to the people they meet at cost-price.

According to Zalman, the hottest spots are South America, Eastern Europe, and the Far East, where these supplies are not so available. The boys who go to those places very often come back with nary a Mezuzah, and very often they sold the pair of Tefillin as well.

(Maybe another day I'll tell you about the people who supply the books and the other fine folk who make the whole operation tick.)


That's a lot of Mezuzot!
That's a lot of Mezuzot!
Even the scribes like to read RovingRabbis
Even the scribes like to read RovingRabbis

Shalom! Kak Dilah?

July 31, 2008 3:00 AM
Check out the menorah collection!
Check out the menorah collection!

Two weeks into our trip and we have yet to meet a German Jew…

The Russian takeover didn't call for any gunshots, as over two hundred thousand Russians have moved westward, and been placed throughout Germany. Under the Right to Return Policy, finding Jews isn't too difficult; it's the German Jew who is hard to find!

As Yankel and I make our way around Schleswig-Holstein (one of the sixteen German states), visiting many townlets and the Jewish Gemeindes (community centers) therein, we have been amazed at the strong Jewish spirit amongst the Russian Jews, who, with none or very little Jewish education, are still strong in their faith and ardent believers. Many of the people we have met are intermarried, yet they show such love and joy when they have the chance to tell us about their religious grandparents, or when they do Mitzvot, many for their first time.

With great difficulty we manage to talk to them in a mix of Russian, German, Yiddish and English. But the cocktail has its affect and the stories come out! They tell us of life in Russia, of their parents' and Grandparents' lives in the Shtetel (hamlets), of Rebbes and Chassidim, of Chadorim (schools) and M'lamdim (teachers), of Mishpocha (family) and of pogroms.

Even though the communists drained as much practical Yiddishkeit as they could out of the Jews, they couldn't take the Neshoma – the soul of our people – away. And from one generation to the next, the heart of our fellow Jews in Russia was kept alive and pumping through the stories and traditions, through the nourishing knowledge that we are all really a part of something much, much bigger. And so, even though many of the people we meet didn't have the opportunity to keep the law, they definitely have kept the lore. And with a little prodding, the many people we have met begin to recount their memories, their stories, their songs and their traditions.

Say it with flowers!
Say it with flowers!

Oh, do I hear you say Shalom? Yes, of course there are Israelis here – that goes without saying! Only a handful I must say, but Israelis after all. There is Itai, the owner of a successful coffee store chain who came to Germany to study music. Then there is Yaniv, who fell in love with the charming town of Lubeck. Zahava and her son Rahit, the only Jews in their tiny little Mülln, have been here for seventeen years already. Another Israeli woman, Sara, heard about them from an Arab taxi driver in Jerusalem and passed the contact onto us! Talk about G‑d taking care of his people!

High in Huaraz

July 30, 2008 5:00 AM
Mendel and the Mochileros
Mendel and the Mochileros

Welcome to the city of Huaraz (pronounced Waraz)!

We took a seven-hour bus ride to reach this city, nestled in the mountains, 3,090 meters above sea level.

In this town you are either a local or a mochilero (backpacker). While most of the foreigners were climbing mountains, we were busy trekking through the city trying to find a place to lodge. The problem is that July 28 is a grand Fiesta: Peru's Independence Day and all hotels and hostels are booked solid. It took us a hot, long, sticky two hours until we found a resting place – for the right price of course.

Now we had to prepare a Shabbat meal for all of our Israeli mitayalim (Hebrew for mochilero). My partner and I have more experience studying in a yeshiva than working in a kitchen, there is no reason to worry, because G‑d always provides.

Pre-Shabbat prayers
Pre-Shabbat prayers
At 11 AM, a group of four friendly mitayalim set up shop in our place and cooked the whole afternoon away. They made chicken, rice, salad, and then some.

An amazing sixty people showed up for the meal! We sang songs and shared words of inspiration until late into the night.

Another forty-five Jews attended the meal on Shabbat day.

All in all, it was a great Shabbat.

On Sunday, we visited the Israeli hostels and walked around the city. We bumped into many Israelis and had some stimulating conversations about belief in G‑d and other such weighty matters.

As the sun was nearly setting, we popped in the supermarket to buy some much needed water. We met two of our Shabbat friends and offered them the opportunity to lay Tefillin.

"In middle of the street?"

Tefillin in high in the sky
Tefillin in high in the sky


"No, we can't do that."

So we went to his hotel on the other side of town (only 15 minutes of walking) and did our thing.

On our way back, we heard a man tell his friend "Hey, look, two Hasidim!"

After days of Hebrew and Spanish, it sure was refreshing to hear some American English!

Bill (an art director) and Gary (a writer) are both New York Jews. Surprisingly, neither of them had put on Tefillin since their Bar-Mitzvahs.

To report next time from Ica, Peru,

Rafi and Mendel

On Other's Predispositions and Travel

July 30, 2008 4:00 AM

When people enter the S. Petersburg Synagogue, if they're not being herded by the cruise tour-guide, they often approach me on their own. This approach is no ordinary 'Hello, how are you?' or 'Could you please help me?' No. This look is most similar to one an explorer would wear when approaching some newly discovered tribe in the uncharted jungles of the Amazon or Papua, New Guinea.

A typical conversation goes something like this:

Pointing to himself (though in truth I should say herself – due to an unforeseen quirk of chivalry, women are often the first to enter, while the menfolk hold the door open)

"Hi. How are you doing today?"

"We -Americans. Amerikansky. Americans . . . Yes. We no speak Russian – No. English – Yes. Russian – No." -I almost expect someone to raise his hand one day and say 'We come in peace.'

"Yes, I see. I'm from Los Angeles . . . Where are you from?"

"No. We are not from Los Angeles. Los Angeles in California. We – Florida. Florida. Flo-Ree-Dah. Amerikansky."

"No, you see I am from Los Angeles. I was wondering where you were from."

"Well I'll be jiggered! I thought you spoke English rather well!"

More meaningful Conversation ensues...

The average Jew traveling Europe sees dozens and dozens of cathedrals and the like; often in places which he knows were formerly centers of Jewish life. There is something missing . . . he misses his own heritage.

The other day, for example, three families entered through the sweeping Moorish arches of the synagogue. One was affiliated with Chabad in D.C., while the other two were self described Reformed and secular Jews respectively (I told them that labels were for supermarkets, not for Jews).

As I showed them around the synagogue, I asked one of the husbands – we'll call him Ira (not that his name was Ira but I have yet to meet an Ira who isn't Jewish) –if he wanted to put on Tefillin. He demurred.

As the tour progressed, I asked another member of the group if he wanted to put on Tefillin. Though this individual was nervous, as he had never done so before, he agreed to go ahead and do the Petersburg Tefillin Express (as I have since dubbed the experience of putting on Tefillin here). After the third man, who as mention supported Chabad, got in on the deal, Ira decided to put on Tefillin as well . . . it was a truly moving experience.


July 30, 2008 3:00 AM

Tuesday morning while parading through the mall ('parading' is a word I use for hanging around in Chassidic attire – a surefire invitation for curious people to approach us), we met quite a few people.

First was the security guard who for years had wanted to know what those tassels were and finally summoned up the courage to ask. We told him that they were Tzitzis.

The next guy we met was an Israeli fellow, who owns a few kiosks in the mall. He said he doesn't leave his house in the morning without first putting on his Tefillin. That was definitely nice to hear.

Then we turned down the next corridor and saw a young man on his way out of the mall. He stared at us, we stared at him, and then we all broke out in smiles. We walked outside and sat down in the shade. He told us his life's story, well a short version of it anyway. He was born in New York, moved to Israel as a teen, joined the army a few years later and moved back to the states when he got out. Apparently, there aren't too many black hatted Chassidim walking around Riverside because we were the first obviously Jewish people he saw since he left Israel. He decided to put on Tefillin for the first time since his Bar-Mitzvah, but for this we had to go back inside. He wanted everyone in the mall to see him proudly wearing the Tefillin and saying the Shema.

We sat down and soaked in the hustle and bustle of the busy mall. As we were leaving, a girl came over to us and said, "excuse me, are you Jewish?" For a second I was shocked! Hey, that's my line, copyrighted by Chabad!? Then she continued, telling us that she lives in Riverside, and that there is no Judaism here for her or her boyfriend. She needed to do something to feel Jewish; she just couldn't find that Jewish spark. Well, what better Jewish spark than the flame of the candles Friday night? So, after explaining what the candles were, how and when to light them, she made a resolution right then and there to light candles every Friday night. She also accepted our invitation for her and her boyfriend to join us for Shabbat.

We Scare the Elk Off the Lawn

July 29, 2008 3:00 AM

Normally, we give out Shabbat candles and help people lay Tefillin. Yesterday we were unwitting park rangers.

Here is how it happened:

We took a trip to Estes Park CO. Perched in the Rockies, the small town has a lot of tourists and a few Jews.

Seven in the afternoon, we arrived at a house and discovered that a whole flock of elk were casually sitting on the lawn. For those of you who have yet to meet an elk, they are the size of a horse and have huge antlers.

I decided that I'm not going to leave the car, but my partner drove up the driveway and slowly proceeded to open the car door and inch toward the front door of the house. He rang the door bell. An elderly couple answered the door and they started talking.

I was still in the car and I started to feel a little left out, so I mustered up my courage and gingerly made my way toward the house, coming within three feet of the beasts. When I moved too fast, they started running in all directions and I almost fainted!

When I got to the door, I heard the man scolding my partner, "These are dangerous animals…" We started talking. One of the things he told us was that he and his wife were afraid of the elk and had been stuck inside the house all day. We did them a really big favor by coming and scaring away the elk!

On the way back, my co-rover remarked that this episode reminded him of the following aphorism of the Baal Shem Tov:

"A soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years just in order to do a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one."


July 29, 2008 2:00 AM
Our bar-turned-Chabad-house
Our bar-turned-Chabad-house

Where we are…

It has almost been a week since we arrived in Aiga Napa, Cyprus. Located near the border of Turkish controlled Cyprus, Aiga Napa is a resort town famous for its pristine beaches. In recent years, apart from being a family holiday destination, it has become a 'party capital.' As of late, it has become especially popular with Israeli youth, who come here before beginning their army service.

What we do…

The past few years, Rabbi and Mrs. Zevi Raskin, of Chabad of Larnaca, have been operating a summer Chabad house here. The Chabad house serves as a home away from home, with free internet to contact home and cheap kosher food, as well as a chance to lay Teffilin, study Torah, or just hang with us – the Chabad rabbinical students.

What has been happening…

During the day, we go to hotels and youth hostels where the Israeli kids stay. We offer the guys a chance to lay Tefillin and give the gals candles for Shabbat. Usually, after meeting us, some of them come over to the Chabad house to hang out with us. We have made tons of new friends and exchanged contact info with dozens of Israeli teens. These past few weeks have seen over a thousand kids pass through our doors!

Isser New, Yehuda Freidman, Dovid Losh & Avremi Raksin

Two Tales of Tefillin

In Which I Meet Old friends and Make New Ones

July 29, 2008 1:00 AM
Me and Mr. M from LA
Me and Mr. M from LA

The other day, a group of Farsi-speaking Jews came to the synagogue. Living in Los Angeles, I am rather familiar with Persian Jews and their various customs. In fact, I used to spend time visiting Persian merchants in LA's fashion district on a weekly basis, laying Tefillin with them. Thus fortified, I called the group over for little inspiration and spirituality.

Soon Shmuli and I had them all putting on Tefillin . . . Nothing out of the ordinary in the day's work of a Roving Rabbi. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I noticed a familiar face – one of my close friends from Downtown LA!

Playing it cool, as it were, I waved to him, as if it was one of our weekly meetings in LA. He did a double take, his eyes almost popping out, and teared up with emotion.

One can not describe the joy and surprise of traveling half way around the world, only to see the face of a longtime acquaintance!

Now that is a lot to drink!
Now that is a lot to drink!
That evening, Chief Rabbi Pewzner recommended that we stroll around the city and visit the hotels, in order to locate various other vacationing members of the Tribe.

As we walked down one of main thoroughfares, passing the acclaimed Mariinsky Theatre, we stopped briefly in a 24 hour convenience store to pick up a calling card (Called Hallo Mama, it costs 150 Rubles and gives rates to call Palestine[sic], but not Israel). Besides calling cards, they sold fruit, bread and a sickening amount of alcohol . . . including these 3 liter bottles of beer (yuck!)

In the Astoria, one of Petersburg's nicest hotels, we met a lovely Jewish couple from Denver resting in the hotel's lounge after a long day touring the city.

Joining them, we spoke for a while about various topics of interest -Jewish history in Russia and S. Peterburg, the Holocaust, life in Colorado and the discovery of natural gas off the coast of Haifa.

Late night sunshine Tefillin
Late night sunshine Tefillin
Before Petersburg, they had been in Lithuania, where Colly, the husband, had roots. We spoke about the community there, what was, what could have been and the recent blossoming Jewish life after the Holocaust and Communism . . . Concluding that we needed to do something practical, I suggested putting on tefillin.

It was already 9:50 in the evening, but with the sun shining outside, it hardly could be called night.

Walking through the streets in the eerie evening light, everything took on a surreal, dreamlike state. My senses told me that I was tired from a long day's work . . . but it just seemed too bright outside. Perhaps, to some small extent I hope, things were just a little bit brighter due to our work.

The synagogue
The synagogue

Wolf's Story

July 28, 2008

Today was a day like no other. Most days are like that. Anyway, enough chit-chat. It was looking like today would be a wash-out when we pulled up the drive of a posh elder-living facility this afternoon. All the people we had previously seen were either sleeping or not interested, which is always a bit of a let-down. Nevertheless, adjusted our ties and prepared to enter the domicile of our next host. Not that he knew that he'd be our host, but he found out about it pretty quickly.

We introduced ourselves to the elderly man, his wife, and their grandchild, a 15 year old named David who laughed at my jokes and is therefore assured of eternal paradise. In what seemed like no time at all we were discussing Wolf's (for that is his name) life story. All the details are his, so no griping, okay?

Wolf was born in a Polish town, population of 35,000, on the border with Germany, in 1923. His father wore a Shtreimel (fur trimmed hat worn by many Chassidim) and was a Chassid of the local Rebbe, whose Tish (literally a table but actually meaning inspirational gathering) they would regularly attend. Wolf remembers going half day to the local Jewish Polish school and half day to the Cheder (literally a room but actually meaning Jewish religious school). The Poles and Jews went to separate schools for two reasons: In Poland, kids had to attend school six days a week. The local non-Jews would send their kids every day but Sunday, while the Jews sent their kids on all days but Shabbat. In order to avoid problems, they had separate schools. The second reason is that no Polish peasant would allow a 'dirty Jewish kid' in his kid's school.

In 1938, when Wolf was 15, the Germans kicked all foreign-born Jews out of Germany. All these Jews were thoroughly Germanized, and it came as a big shock to them. These Jews had originally left Poland ten or twenty years before in order to find a better life, and they had done so in Germany. Even though they had become German citizens, the Nazis decided to deport them. They were brought to the border on a Thursday, and put outside German territory. The Polish Government didn't want to accept them, as they were officially German citizens. The Germans had stripped them of their citizenship, so they weren't citizens of anywhere.

The local Rebbe managed to bribe the guards to allow the Jews through, but the only time they could do it was on Shabbat. All the townspeople went to the border, with their horses and wagons, and brought their fellow Jews to the town, though they had to go outside the Eruv (enclosure in which one may transport certain objects on Shabbos), as Wolf noted. Once everyone came back safely, there arrived the additional problem of food, as no one had prepared for the guests. Back in the day, everyone used to make Cholent in their homes and then bring it to the baker's oven to cook until Shabbat afternoon. The Rebbe announced that all the Cholent was now owned by the community, and would be distributed to the refugees. The townspeople went home and ate herring and crackers.

It was a beautiful town, with two Synagogues, several Batei Medrash (study halls), a kosher butcher and baker; life was good. In 1939 the Nazis marched in and destroyed everything. The local Poles lined up outside, and when they saw a Jewish family being lead away from a house, they came in and occupied it. Wolf was in concentration camps for six years. One day, in 1942 or '43, he saw a whole group of Chassidim come to the camp with their Rebbe. They all had long peyos (side locks) and kapotes (black coats), as he once had. They turned to their Rebbe as they were being lead to the gas-chambers, and asked him, "What can we do now to save ourselves?" Before, he had always had the answers yo their questiond; now, he had nothing to tell them.

In the camps, they were worked from dawn to nightfall, and the religious Jews had no time to pray in the morning. They would put on their Tefillin while they were walking to the work sites, and pray by heart. This was of course extremely dangerous, as it was illegal to possess any sort of religious article. Once a guard saw one of the prisoners putting on Tefillin, and he walked over, thinking they were some sort of bomb. When he saw what they were he smacked the prisoner in the face, and the Tefillin fell down to the ground, ruined.

After Yom Kippur one year, one of the Chassidim in the camp was desperate to do Kiddush Levana (sanctification of the moon). Everyone else in his barracks told him that he was mad, because if you left the barracks at night then you would be shot. He could not be dissuaded and jumped through a window, as the door was locked. He went to the fence to try and see the moon, and the guard shot him.

There weren't only Jews in the camps; many criminals were sent there, including some German ones. Even though these criminals were in concentration camps, they still felt that they had some power, and they were just as happy to kill Jews as were the guards.

After the war, a British chaplain gave Wolf a pair of Tefillin. Later he made his way to Sweden. In 1947 he came back home, to his town, but everything was desolate, as he had left it. The sites of the Shuls were still in ruins, and Poles inhabited all the Jewish houses. Wolf realized that there was no more life in Poland; the whole country was simply a cemetery for the Jewish dead.

While he was in the camps, Wolf prayed many times for Moshiach to come. After the war they told him he was lucky that he had survived. He said "No, the others were lucky. They died."

Where was G‑d in the camps? Where was G‑d during the entire 2,000 years of Jewish suffering? It's not my job to answer those questions, because no human, no matter how great, can answer them.

Stormed In

July 27, 2008

It had been pouring rain all day.

It was already 7:30pm. We were just leaving a home after a two hour long visit. They live about 2 miles off the highway, down a dirt road; far far off the beaten track. They had warned us to drive slowly since the rain had probably reduced the road to mud during the course of our visit.

We had planned to spend the night 20 miles away in Show Low, so that we would be able to start our day bright and early. We had already called Priceline to reserve a hotel there.

It was lightening and pouring rain. Even though I was going slower than 5 miles an hour, the car was slipping and turning in all directions. I was sweating buckets in spite of the air-conditioning. To make matters worse, there was a truck behind me glaring his high beams, and I had no cell phone service. We were both praying under our breath. I don't know if I should post this (relax mom) but the rain got even more fierce and the car slipped, turning a full 180!

After a half hour, we made it to the highway. We calmed a bit, thanked G‑d and decided that we would spend the night here, even though we would end up driving during precious daytime hours.

We pulled up to the closest motel and I dashed inside to check in. Before I could open my mouth the lady sitting at the desk says "A JEW, WE NEVER SEE JEWS AROUND HERE!" Taken aback, I asked her if there was a problem. She said "no, there's no problem 'cause I'm Jewish too." She told me that hers was the only Jewish family in town (or so she thought). We made up to meet her parents and siblings in the morning.

They were so excited to see us! Her father put on tefillin for the first time in many years. They asked us for the contact information of the other Jews in town so that they could get to know each other.

Clearly someone up there had a plan for us.

Raphi & Ari
Snowflake, Arizona


July 25, 2008

Part of our job in Northern Colorado is to cover for the rabbi who is out of town.

Monday morning, a guy named Scott calls and asks for the rabbi. I explain that the rabbi is out of town and ask if we can help.

He tells me that he has some issues he needed to discuss. He can't come today (Monday) and wanted to see us tomorrow (Tuesday). We were a little hesitant because we were scheduled to go to a city nearby called Loveland and didn't plan on being in town. We told him that he can call us in the morning and we would schedule a time to meet nonetheless.

The next morning, he called us and told us he wouldn't be able to make it. In response to our suggestion that we go meet him, he told us he actually lives in Loveland.

Wow pretty cool!

We scheduled an appointment with him for four in the afternoon. When we arrived, we were surprised to be greeted by a person sporting a beard who we thought was either homeless or a hidden Chassid. After chatting for a few minutes we learned that he was not Jewish but did want money. We explained to him nicely that we would not be able to be of great help, and advised him to call the rabbi in a few weeks.


We were a little disappointed to say the least.

As we were leaving, a middle aged guy walks past us and mutters under his breath something to the affect of "you guys are here too!" We asked him if he was Jewish. "With a name like David Klein what do you think!?" (That is not his real name but you get the point.) Turns out he is a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.

We went over to his apartment and talked for a while.

His only previous experience in a synagogue was being told by a rabbi in Maryland that he was not eligible to participate in services since he was not a member of his temple.

Well he was pretty turned off, joined a Lutheran church and has been going ever since.

To make a long story short, David put on teffilin for his first time in his life at 48 years old! Now, that's what I call divine providence!

Yay Chabad.org

July 25, 2008

My good buddy, Mendy Goodman is currently roving in Romania. Now that you mention it, it's even cooler to write roaming in Romania…

He does not have internet access, so he was unable to post on the blog. (It's okay Mendy, I'm still your friend.) He did, however, call me on the phone to tell me something which made my day. At the moment I am floating somewhere above my desk in euphoric jubilation.

He is currently in a town called Arad. There are two young guys there who are the pillars of the tiny, mostly elderly, Jewish community. One of them is especially well versed in Judaism and Chassidic thought. He even studies Tanya daily! My buddy asked him where he got his Jewish education.

His response was…Chabad.org!

He had been googling for an online Chumash with Rashi, bumped into Chabad.org/bible and has been hooked ever since.

Three cheers for the home team!

Shabbat Shalom!


Finding Gilberto

July 25, 2008
Gilberto and me next to his new Mezuzah
Gilberto and me next to his new Mezuzah

In 1934 Yissachar Heller of Frankfurt, Germany met his friends at the neighborhood park for an afternoon of leisure. He was refused entry. His friends wandered off, embarrassed and unsure. The local policeman gave no explanation, just repeated himself over and over again. It was only after much pressure that he finally said it was because Yissachar was a Jew.

The young Mr. Heller immediately went to the shipping office to book passage. He did not care which language they spoke or the clothes they wore – he wanted a destination as far away from Germany as possible. The ship left the next day to Rio De Janeiro.

We knew that Gilberto Heller, an elderly wheelchair-bound Jew lived in the poussada (a Brazilian blend of a Motel Six and a B&B) near the beach, which he owned and managed. Bahia has hundreds of beaches and thousands of poussadas. We did not have much hope of meeting this man. His very name was mysterious; soft 'g's and muffled 'l's, rolling 'r's and long 'o's. We had heard of him from a young Jewish woman we had met, whose name we got from the local nightclub baron.

The concierge (read the local yokel who knows no more than the name of his hotel and whereabouts of the nearest pub) of our hotel actually had heard of such an individual living in Praiah Do Mundai, a beach four kilometers or so north of the town center. There is just one northbound bus that stops at all the beaches – we had merely to look out for the beach sign that is invariably half-fallen, mud-splattered and hidden by overgrown palm trees. We alighted at the said beach and started looking for Gilberto. The first poussada knew no English, the second poussada knew no Gilberto, and the third poussada directed us down an unpaved road toward another cluster of motels. Once, twice and thrice we were met with blank stares and apologetic shrugs. It was fourth time lucky when we walked up a long wooden ramp and were greeted by Gilberto himself.

He was of broken body but strong of spirit. His eyes sparkled with youth, despite his white hair and aged face. He laughed loud and often and maneuvered himself like any able bodied man. His wasted legs were no obstacle to him living life to its fullest. He apologized for his almost flawless English and we apologized for our mostly flawed Portuguese.

The conversation raced from our family histories (his – German and Portuguese, mine –German, Australian, Polish and Russian. Our grandfathers never met.) to our favorite music (his – The Beatles, mine – nothing) to our thoughts on German restitution (his – take what you can, mine – forgiveness can't be bought) to the importance of Tefillin (we both agreed). He drank thirstily of the words of Torah that we offered him and could not have been happier when he affixed a Mezuzah to his door.

The Hellers had traveled long and far; from the old world to the new; from streets that echoed the footsteps of the Chasam Sofer and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to dirt roads that softly echo the slap of thongs; from a center of Yiddishkeit to a stop on the Roving Rabbis itinerary, and still the Jewish pride did not die.

In the City of the Czars

July 24, 2008
The Great Synagogue of Petersurg
The Great Synagogue of Petersurg

I'm back in Russia, for the first time. An odd statement, I'm sure, but I can think of none better to describe what it's like to be here.

Most people, and you know who you are, seem to think I've been to Russia before. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, local Russian immigrants used to think I was Russian. An elderly lady from Odessa once asked me if I was practicing my English...which was surprising, as I didn't know a word of Russian at the time. But I digress.

People seem so convinced that I lived in Russia, because for a considerable amount of time, I lived around Russia – in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, all places associated with Russia (the latter two having large Russian speaking populations)...After that year in Eastern Europe, I left with a kasket (Russian style peaked cap) from Poland and a smattering of Russian from Lithuania, but having never stepped foot in Russia proper. I was thus more then intrigued when I was offered the chance to help out with the influx of summer tourists visiting the city of S. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, formerly S. Petersburg).

Nothing says Russia like borsht and potatoes
Nothing says Russia like borsht and potatoes

Which is why I'm back in Russia for the first time. On one hand everything feels very familiar, on the other everything is new.

Who ever says Communism is gone has never crossed the Russian border… My passport, admittedly well used, did have room for a few more stamps (ok, two, but that should have been enough to enter and exit a country), but a Russian Visa requires two empty pages. Thus off I went to Boro Park, where for the delightful fee of $60 for the additional pages, and $150 for a three day rush, my travel agent arranged the additional pages. When it was returned, my passport came decked out in a leather passport cover (they're all the rage in Lithuania), and a travel kit which includes a sleep mask, ear plugs and one of those fancy blow up neck pillows. I'm still debating if they were worth the cost.

The view from above
The view from above

All of this seemed like more then enough to enter the country, but upon reaching passport control, I was asked to fill out a "Migration Card", in duplicate, which wanted such details as my given name(s), birth date (in day/month/year format), purpose of visit and patronymic...which got me worried...I don't think I have a patronymic.

In any event, I managed to get through the border and was greeted by the sights and smells of the City of White Nights.

Roving in Monroeville

July 24, 2008

Our travels across Western Pennsylvania took us along the coast of gorgeous Lake Erie; making our way south to many shtetlach (Yiddish for small towns) with little or no Jewish infrastructure.

Rolling into Monroeville, Pennsylvania, we scouted out the land to see where we were most likely to make contact with local Jews.

Pulling up at the only address we had received from last year's visitors, we parked the car and discovered that our GPS had mislead us and the house we were looking for was a block or two farther up the road. In much need of the exercise after the long drive, we decide to walk rather than get back into the car.

On the way up, we ran into (figuratively speaking) a nice looking couple going for an afternoon jog. After politely interrupting their jog with a casual good afternoon and a wave, we proceed to ask them if they happened to know any Jewish people living in the area. "Sure, there are families here, there and there" they pointed to the three houses closest to us. "There's also Mike at the end of the block, and the family across the street from him is also Jewish." In response to our thanks they replied "Well we know them all because we are Jewish ourselves."

We asked him "Have you ever put on Tefillin before?"

He replied "Nope, I know what they are but I never actually put them on…"

We asked "How 'bout a quick Bar Mitzvah right here?"

His wife replied "your grandfather used to do it every day!"

And that is how Monroeville had its first outdoor Bar Mitzvah (we think).

The Rain in Connecticut Falls Mainly on Us

July 24, 2008

Telling a story is not as easy as it sometimes appears. Which details are important, and which are extraneous?

The subway system in New York, for example, is a wondrous thing. It's truly marvelous when you consider a metal tube hurtling down a tunnel deep beneath the earth. The AC generally works too, which makes the whole thing even more marvelous. There is a large article on Wikipedia dedicated to the NY subway system, and there are many websites whose whole raison d'être is this wonder of America. Nevertheless, when I write that I took the subway somewhere, I don't devote two paragraphs to the experience. I took a subway. I survived the experience. Go me.

I bring up this important topic because of today's experience.

The first time I wrote about visiting elderly people, and their reactions, it was nice. The second time was more of the same. The third? Well, we won't go there. My point is that today was more of the same. Yes, it was very nice. We put Tefillin on one man, and visited with several more people, bringing hope and inspiration to the teeming millions of Northwest Connecticut. Nevertheless, it wasn't exactly scintillating work. There were no brilliant lines, no ripping repartee, no incredible shocks to the nervous system.

Oh yes, it rained heavily today. Our visibility was, for a time, obscured. We also ate dinner at Chaim's Deli in Waterbury, CT.

By the way, in case you're interested, I got a corned-beef sandwich with mustard, fries, and a peach Snapple. What did I write earlier about not recording extraneous details?

So now that I've written a post about nothing, I think I'll wind this one up with a short anecdote. If I can think of one. Which I can't. Unfortunately, this means that your blog reading experience will end a bit earlier than was previously planned. The good news is that I can go to sleep that much faster.

Out and About

July 23, 2008 1:00 AM

Today was a good day. I'm sure you're all thrilled to know that.

This morning we drove up to Sharon, CT, and dropped off a "Think Jewish" by a sleeping patient in the hospital there.

Yossi and I went to visit a patient (yes, I remember his name, and yes, I won't be writing it here; there's a thing called privacy, you know) in the ICU, and turns out we had to talk to his nurse before gaining admittance. The reason for our little chat is that it was recently (this morning) confirmed that he has an antibiotic-resistant virus, MRSA, and we'd therefore have to take a couple of precautions while visiting. We had to wear hospital gowns and latex gloves, and we weren't supposed to touch him, which meant that unfortunately we couldn't put on Tefillin with him.

Nevertheless, we had a very nice visit. He's in the hospital for emphysema, which was caused by 45 years of smoking. He told us, "I remember a Lucky Strike commercial from my childhood that went, 'If you have any respiratory problems, smoke Lucky Strikes.' No one knew back then." In fact, he's pretty young; a Vietnam veteran as it turns out. I remember receiving an email that went through all the things that kids did back in the day, and how most of them grew up and lived happy lives. While that's true, it's also true that people did a lot of things back then which literally shortened their lifetimes. It's also scary to think that we're also probably doing things nowadays which have a lot of negative potential down the road.

After talking about health we got onto his family, including his twelve year old son's upcoming Bar-Mitzvah, and his fervent desire to be able to attend. When you've been hanging around seniors for a week, you begin to understand how very important family is; without them, we're lost.

This point was made very clear by our next host, a sweet old lady in Bantam, whose husband has only recently passed away. She smiled our whole meeting, except when she said, "I miss him." I'm just 21, and I really don't know how to respond. I'm not sure that any amount of training can teach you how to help someone deal with the loss of a loved one. Until you've crossed the bridge yourself, how can you help others make their way over? I translated kaddish for her, and explained the Jewish concepts of life, death, and resurrection.

Our next hostess was another kindly old woman in Morris, who started our conversation by observing that, "I'm a product of a mixed marriage." Yossi and I looked at each other, not quite knowing what would come next, when she continued, "My mother was a Litvak (Lithuanian Jew), my father a Galicianer (Jew hailing from Galicia)." They came to America well before the war, and her family has been living here in the US ever since.

Tonight we went to a boarding school near here, where there's a Chassidic boy studying; I shall not elaborate, because again, privacy is important. I told him every thought I could remember on this week's Torah portion, Mattos, and several that I couldn't. Altogether, a fun and educational time was had by all.

And that, friends, was another day. Will the next one bring joy, gladness, song, jubilation, and slurpees at 7/11, or are we doomed to eating dry crackers with margarine? Only time will tell, so come back soon! Yippee! Hooray! (Yeah, I'm just a wee bit tired.)

Wondering and Wandering

July 23, 2008 12:30 AM

Unlike our fellow rovers, who stay at faceless motels, we get five star accommodations with a lovely couple who are locally known as the unofficial Chabad emissaries to Saginaw, MI.

After getting my free adjustment at the local Jewish chiropractor, we proceeded to get utterly lost (apparently a common occurrence in Saginaw, and even more common in Midland – one of our later stops). Eventually we found our way to the home of a Jewish lady…who turned out to be a Christian and retained us for what felt like eternity (that's how long she said we would burn) trying her best to evangelize us.

A few meetings later, we came to a house where the dad and daughter greeted us enthusiastically, bidding us sit at the dining room and serving up some much appreciated water. Well anyway, we ended up talking for an hour and a half...about Judaism. We had a stimulating and lively conversation about belief, and I got to wondering, why is it that while the Christians accuse us of not believing in the messiah, the Jews ask us how come we do?!



July 23, 2008 12:30 AM

We pulled into Yuma (the sunniest place on earth) Sunday evening, and headed straight to the home of an elderly couple with whom we had scheduled an appointment. Our predecessors had left us a note telling us that the man was under the influence of a messianic church. After already having one not so positive experience with such a person, we were a bit apprehensive about visiting him.

It turns out that his non-Jewish wife was doing most of the talking, as he had sustained three strokes in the previous six months. After some small talk, he agreed to put on Tefillin. It took great effort on his part, but he succeeded in reciting the blessing as well as Shema and baruch shem.

He seemed very moved by the experience (at 87, this was the first time since his bar mitzva), although he couldn't verbally express his feelings. Before leaving, we told him, "Don't forget, you are a Jew, and nobody can take that away from you." His eyes moistened with tears.

It seems that his entire experience with messianism was just an outward response to missionary pressure. On the inside his Jewish soul was still alive and well.

Eli Phillips and Yoel Wolf
Southwest Arizona

Nursing Homes, Ties and Mendel

July 22, 2008

I am happy to report that the first couple days here in Connecticut have gone very well. Yossi Beenstock and I spent most of our time visiting old-age homes, which was actually pretty cool. Most of the people were happy to see us, even if we only stayed for a few minutes. We must have visited twelve or thirteen of these homes, which was A. tiring, and B. enlightening.

Sometimes it's difficult to think of things to say; after all, many of these people are in their eighties and nineties. At other times, the conversation flows, and you really feel like you're connecting. Another nice thing is that whenever we left a home, the other seniors gathered around the one we had met and wanted to know who we were and why we had come. I guess that most of these people simply don't get visited very often.

At one of the places we encountered a woman who wasn't particularly interested in the Torah thought I was saying. Mind you, it wasn't anything deep, just a cute and positive thingie about the 17th of Tammuz. Anyway, as I was wrapping up with her, a woman wheeled herself over and asked if she could listen in. I told her that of course she could, and was she Jewish? She answered me, in Yiddish, "Ich bin a Shiksa with a Yiddishe Hartz", "I'm a non-Jewish woman with a Jewish heart." Then she asked us how we would know when the messiah had arrived. She then proceeded to try to convince me that the messiah had already come two thousand years ago. I politely disagreed. We parted on amicable terms; I agreed to believe what I believe, and she agreed to believe what she believes. Still, it was nice to be at the receiving end for a change.

This afternoon we went to the Waterbury hospital and I put Tefillin on a guy who can't speak with his mouth; it didn't matter, because his eyes spoke louder than words ever could. Funny, you read a sentence like that, and think, "Man, Chanan is being trite and illogical, eh?" Funny thing is, it's the truth. He really did communicate with his eyes.

After that we stopped at a local mall and picked up a tie each from Burlington Coat Factory. I got a hot sky-blue number, while Yossi went for a more staid English-school style (as he put it) clothing accessory. Mine isn't quite as shocking and classy as my famous orange and pink ties, but it worked on the short notice provided.

With our brand new ties resting comfortably in a plastic bag in the back seat we attempted to navigate Waterbury traffic; it only took us half an hour to go two miles, which made us very nearly late for an appointment with a guy in Torrington. His Hebrew name is Mendel, if that's any help. The building his contracting company is housed in has glorious exposed brick walls and polished yet aged wood floors. In case anyone wants to build me a house, make sure there's lots of exposed brick and wood floors. Thanks.

Anyway, turns out he's a really nice guy, and we sat and talked for a while. We talked about the usual things: why we're on Merkos Shlichus, Yeshivas we've been to, the local Jewish community, his family, our families, how Chabad dates, when we're gonna date, etc. At the end he put on Tefillin, which was a great end to the day.

And that, friends, was that.

Musings of a Soon-To-Be Rover

July 21, 2008 2:00 AM

Hey folks, this is Rabbi Chanan Maister, and I'm writing to you from beautiful Crown Heights, Brooklyn, preparing to travel to Northwest Connecticut with my friend and co-RovingRabbi Yossi Beenstock. We're looking forward to finding Jews and bringing them closer to their father in heaven. This is an awesome responsibility, and we certainly hope that we can come through with shining colors.

As we approach the three weeks and the anniversary of the destruction of the Holy Temple, we're reminded that the reason for this time of sadness is the lack of love among Jews. The only way to remedy the problem of our continued exile is with added love, and hopefully Yossi and I can bring our redemption a little closer.

Sometimes it seems that in life we're always preparing. Preparation is undoubtedly a wonderful thing, and I would probably accomplish a lot more if I ever had time to do it. Since my last summer's trip, I've learned and matured in many ways. At least once a week I'd think, "Hey, if I had only done X or Y when I was in Kansas...."

But that year of preparation is over. Now it's the real deal. Am I excited? As we say in Minnesota, you betcha!

A year ago I really didn't know what to expect when I went out. This year, of course, I know what to expect. In fact, when I discussed blogging about this with a friend, he said, "Why bother going out at all? You can just make it up from the comfort of your home. It's all pretty standardized anyway, right?" I laughed, but I had to tell him that this wasn't quite true. Who would ever think to meet a guy dressed like the High Priest standing in a parking lot in Sedalia, Missouri? That's the only example I can think of at this moment, but it just goes to show you that truth is several times stranger than fiction could ever possibly imagine.

Is this really about having cool stories to tell my friends? Of course not. It's about bringing Jews closer to their traditions, which is where all that preparation comes into play. The only way you can give to other people is if you have something yourself. Preparation doesn't only involve buying books, maps, and food. Preparation means changing yourself, making yourself a vessel for the wisdom of the ages.

After writing the above, I'm feeling rather pretentious and snotty. The truth is that I'm just a student, just a guy, hoping to make a difference in someone's life.

What I can say is that I hope that my trip will in some way make the world just a little bit better. Every Mitzva we do, every Mitzva we try and help others do brings us closer to the final Redemption. Who knows, maybe I won't even have to go out?

The Borsht Belt Just Got a Little Looser

July 21, 2008

After arriving in Monticello, we spent a day with Rabbi Chanowitz, who, together with his wife, directs Chabad of Monticello. He showed us around town, and discussed some upcoming events which we will be promoting, as well as the material we will be distributing.

Monticello is a town (actually considered a village) with 900 full-time Jews, and over 5,000 summer Jews who vacation in bungalow colonies. Around half of the summer Jews are Orthodox Brooklynites.

Packed with the summer edition of Think Jewish (a Chabad.org print publication), Jewish books, Shabbos candles, tefillin and mezuzot, we set out.

Our first stop seemed to be a bungalow colony like all others. But, we were in for a real surprise: the lingua franca of the elderly, secular residents was…Yiddish! Mostly from Europe, they found commonality with each other (and us!), in Mamaloshen (Yiddish for 'mother tongue'), a sense of kinship and Jewish identity.

The ladies eagerly accepted our Shabbos candle kits. The cute matchbox "to match" made a good conversation opener and will hopefully be used for many Friday nights to come.

Here are some vignettes from their stories:

"…As World War II was drawing nearer, my husband was summoned to report to an office. He was aked to fill out a long form. Among other details, he was asked to record our religion. He wrote an ambiguous answer; hoping that our Jewishness would go undetected. I told him "you go right back there and tell them that we are proud Jews!"..."

"…After the Holocaust, I made my way to Brooklyn and settled in Crown Heights. I got a job in Albany Bakery for 32 years and used to cut the lekach honey cake which the Rebbe would distribute before Yom Kippur. I received two dollar bills from him twenty years ago and cherish them until today..."

"…We lived in the East New York section of Brooklyn and went to Rabbi J.J. Hecht's shul. Although he was an ardent supported of strict Orthodoxy, he would often say "This shul is open for all." We really loved his typical Lubavitch openness. We loved his speeches on Shabbos and wish that there would have been some way to record them …"

Some proofs of how small the world actually is:

One of the ladies has a grandchild who will be studying in SUNY Albany, where, my co-rover Efraim's brother runs the Chabad Student Center. Small world indeed!

On Friday afternoon, Mrs. Chanowitz asked me to look up someone who came to the Shul last year. (He comes once a year and she remembers each time!) Boy was I in for a surprise; it turnes out that we went to public school together in Brooklyn and may have even been in the same class!

Stay tuned for the next few day's adventures,

Shlomo Leib

Report from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

July 20, 2008

Wednesday, July 16th I arrived in Rio, joining my partner who had already arrived the night before. We spent the day resting up and putting together a plan of action.

Thursday, July 17th was our first day at work so we got to work in Leblon, a beautiful town near Rio De Janeiro, going down the main street from store to store, and to some offices too, looking for Jews.

As we were walking down the street, a passer by said Mazal Tov to us, so we asked him if he was Jewish, to which he replied no but that his mother is. We informed him that if his mother is Jewish, so is he.

We then proceeded to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah right there in the middle of the street and gave him Shabbat candles for his mother.

That evening we went to the Copacabana neighborhood to do some home visits. We spent a couple of hours talking to one family and an hour with another person.

And that was our first day on the job...

Old People

July 18, 2008
Moshe Loebenstein and Agatha
Moshe Loebenstein and Agatha

She spoke neither English nor Hebrew, I spoke neither Hungarian nor Portuguese—and yet we laughed and cried together. Agatha survived Auschwitz as a young teen and then in the tumultuous years that followed wandered through Europe bereft of a family or youth. She was not of a religious family or community and wed a Hungarian Catholic. She respected his bunny rabbits and swimming sessions and he respected her religion, knowing that his children would be full fledged members of the Jewish people. They even entertained thoughts of moving to Israel but were scared of the impending War of Independence. They were looking for somewhere safe and quiet, and there is nowhere quieter than Sta Cruz Cambrario, Bahia.

We visited her and her son at their home down a narrow cobblestoned street, with few streetlights and the air of old Europe (I know I have never been there but I've read enough books). She is bowed and white-haired, wrinkled and aged, but the joy of seeing two Chassidic Jews lit up her tired eyes and put a spring in her step. She dug deep into the reservoir of her memory and brought out the few Yiddish words she probably heard in her childhood wandering around the shuls of Budapest. The table was set with her finest silver and Judaica, and the offer of food was on her lips before we even entered the room.

She was a true Yiddishe Mama, soaking in nachas from her son who conversed with us in English—she not understanding the conversation yet following it with her eyes. She smiled when we laughed and grew solemn when we did. The shuffle of her slippered feet down the hall reminded me of the tens of grandmothers I know making the trek to the kitchen to bring food and drinks for her guests. Water and Coke was on offer as was fresh fruit cut with a new knife.

Slowly her confidence grew and with many a hand gesture, a cholent (she of the barley and no meat variety, mine with a few potatoes and some lamb thrown in) of words, and ever so expressive eyes we heard of her times in the camps, of the pain of never seeing her parents again and of the joy of being reunited with her sister.

I looked at yellowed photographs and tattered certificates. We went through the memorial book of her decimated town and commemorated the arbitrary yahrzteit given, which was this week. I saw faded pictures of her in Hungary, digital snaps of her in Sao Paulo, and photos of her in Israel, at the kotel, with her grandchildren, and we smiled through our tears.

Report from Coastal Carolina

July 17, 2008

We landed in North Carolina last Thursday night and the next morning we were off!

Coastal Carolina is full, and I mean full, of young Israelis working the season on the coast. They can also be found all over the major malls selling various items, ranging from toys to Dead Sea creams, out of booths.

We started near the beach, where our clientele works mainly in beachwear stores.

We walked into one store and noticed one of the young Israeli salesmen gaping at us with a shocked expression on his face.

We approached him, wished him a "Shabbat Shalom", and asked him if he would like to put on tefillin.

He told us that he arrived from Israel a week ago and had just finished telling his friend how depressed he was because this would be the first Friday in a long time that he would not be visited by the "Chabadnikim" (Hebrew for Chabad people) who would lay Tefillin with him every week…And there we were!

Another great story...

We had left a mall after a very productive visit with some Dead Sea peddlers, when we suddenly realized that we had absolutely no idea where the car was. Having no choice, we started going up and down the rows looking for our vehicle.

All of a sudden we heard "Shalom Aleichem... you must be from Chabad! Let me ask you a question: My three children are religious. They would like to visit me but need to have kosher food. Where can I get some?"

We of course gave him directions to the closest store which sold kosher food and became good friends.

And guess what, as soon as we parted ways, I immediately recalled where we had parked the car!

Go figure. G‑d made us forget where the car was, just so we could help someone in need!

Good Shabbos!

Shmulie and Tzvi Hirsh

Of Cranes, Births and Deaths

July 16, 2008 6:00 AM

If cranes are the sign of a growing city, then surely `Coming Soon´ is the sign of an embryonic one. The visual litter along Slavador highways is something terrible; billboards and flags, leaflets and banner-bearing bums assault the eye the entire length of major roads. They shriek New Developement! They yell of office blocks and resort towns. The names of these new locales plug the Anglo attraction shamelessly. One can live the high life in ´Manhattan Square´, seize the opportunity for a holiday house at ´CarpeDiem´ or enter a brave, new world at `Alphaville´.

These developments are still mere dreams, nothing more than one or two suited salespersons, a model miniature and deforested land. Where giant tualangs once grew, scaffolding now reaches for the sky. The course of the mighty Amazon's tributaries now plots future highways and parkways. The ground lies bare, bald, ugly.

Bahia is famed for ´The Interior´ — the impregnable barrier guarding the riches of the Amazon. Once the bane of explorers and prospectors, it now lies violated, ripped asunder. Instead of vines as thick as a man's thigh and poison tipped spears, now one must be wary of tangled electricity cables and pesticide. The all powerful dollar has conquered the final frontier: Bahia is the largest producer of soybeans, a major source of corn and a top ten international supplier of wheat. In a shockingly uneven exchange she no longer produces pau rosa (used in Chanel 05) or the Spix's Macaw, cannot host the Amazon River Dolphin nor feed the Phrynomedusa fimbriata.

Enjoy the view from `GreenAppleAcres´!

From Ham to Hamentashen

July 16, 2008 4:00 AM

Truth is stranger than fiction…

Before starting my tour in California this week, I spent the past Shabbat in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Over Shabbat, I got to know a Jew from LA by the name of Avraham Reiss.

Avraham, it turns out, was a student in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva over 50 years ago, back when the Yeshiva was on the corner of Bedford Ave. and Dean Street in Brooklyn.

In the early 50s, Avraham spent a summer knocking on doors in Upstate New York. His itinerary included Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. On Tishah B'Av (a fast day when we mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem), he and his friend knocked on the door of a home of a Jewish family. From the doorway, they were able to see the family seated around the table eating ham sandwiches. They were invited in and sat with the family for a few hours speaking about all kinds of things ranging from sports to politics to Torah.

The inspiration of their encounter lead the family to find out more about their Jewish heritage. Today the father is a rabbi of an Orthodox shul, and all of the kids are living fully Jewish lives.

With that inspiration in mind, Riverside California, here I come!

Chaim Litvin

Serendipity in the Sky

July 15, 2008

Our flight to Shanghai began with a stopover in Atlanta. Due to unusually long lines, we were running so late that after being whisked through the second half of the ticket line, as well as the security check, we still managed to come huffing and puffing just in time to come face to facer with an important looking personage guarding the closed gate.

A quick inquiry revealed that we had misheard the announcement and that our flight didn't even start boarding yet. Good? Bad, because we had a squeaky tight connection waiting for us in Atlanta. You can imagine that we were on Shpilkes (antsy pants) the entire flight. It didn't help when the pilot got on the PA and announced in his soothing voice that we were expected to land in Atlanta at 10:10am, 15 minutes after our flight to china was supposed to have taken off.

G‑d helped and we landed earlier then expected - 5 minutes before the flight to Shanghai was due to depart. We asked the flight attendant to ask everyone to let us off first and we started running like Meshugoyim (crazy people) from one end of the airport to the other. We got to the gate breathless, and were greeted by two smiling Chinese flight attendants, who notified us that the whole plane was waiting for us – Our first experience with Oriental hospitality.

Thus began our 15 hour flight.

Now this is where it gets interesting. About an hour into the flight a man came over to us and introduced himself. It turned out he's a Jewish son of Holocaust survivors who had settled in Alabama. He grew up knowing very little about Judaism. He told us that when he saw us being ushered onto the plane he was really happy to have our captive attention for the next fifteen hours. Obviously, we were very happy to meet him as well and immediately did what every Lubavitcher worth his salt would do – we offered to help him put on Tefillin. I plopped my Yarmulke on his head and started to wrap him up for the first time since his Bar Mitzvah 50 years ago. Afterward, he tearfully asked if he could keep my kippah. He wore it for the rest of the flight and onto his taxi in Shanghai.

After landing in China, we hugged emotionally and went our separate ways.

This story taught me two lessons:

A. You never know why certain things happen. I mean we were very annoyed that the delay in our flight caused us to run around the airport like nuts. But if we would have come to the gate on time and boarded with everyone else, who knows if this man would have seen us?

B. Always bring along a spare Yarmulke.

Yechiel Kalmenson for my co-rover Shmulik Glitzenshtein, who types better in Hebrew

From Maggot Cheese to Muslim Extremists

July 14, 2008

We arrived in Sardinia, Italy, late Wednesday night, July 9th.

This wonderful island is famous for its "casu marzu" – literally translated as "rotten cheese." More commonly known as "maggot-cheese", it is a large chunk of decomposed, moldy goat cheese ingested with "piophila casei" – or "cheese flies". These feisty insects can jump six inches into the air, prompting some people to wear glasses while eating their cheese. We didn't taste this delicious delicacy. Aside from it not being kosher, it has also recently become illegal due to the health hazards involved.

Our search for Jews started early Thursday morning. While back in New York, some time with Google had yielded the email address and phone number of an Israeli medical student named Gabi, in the city of Sassari. Back in New York, I emailed him that we would be coming to Sardinia.

Thursday afternoon, we drove the 160 mile drive to Sassari to meet Gabi. Strangely, instead of giving us his home address, he asked us to meet him on the corner of Via Roma and Piazza Italy, a populated area in the center of town. Together, we schmoozed into the night and invited him to bring two other Israeli students to our hotel for Friday night Shabbat prayers and dinner.

Although, the food was simple (bachelor cooking), the Shabbat meal was wonderful. We sat around until 1am sharing personal stories; it was as if we knew each other for years.

As the meal came to a close, Gabi told us that he had a confession to make. He told us that he had originally thought that we were terrorists targeting the Jewish students. "When you emailed, I called the Jewish Community of Milan and they did not know who you were. To me, it seemed a more likely scenario for terrorist to target Israelis then for Chabad to invest so much just to visit a few Jews in a small island off Italy. I had told you to meet me in public place so I was able to scout you out from afar and evaluate if you're safe or not." He smilingly informed us that we had indeed passed the test with flying colors and asked us to thank Chabad headquarters for sending us.

Corned Beef in Prague

July 13, 2008

Hi all,

We just arrived in Prague a few days ago. Over a million tourists pass through the old quarter a year, checking out the crooked streets which gave birth to Franz Kafka and the Golem.

During the day we man a booth in the old Jewish quarter; laying Tefillin and schmoozing with the tourists. People often mistake us for tour guides and pepper us with questions. Eventually I'll have all the answers figured out…

The city is flooded with tourists from all over the world. Standing on the street you can hear a dozen or so languages. I'm picking up on languages and improvising my Yiddish in order to communicate with the Germans. My buddy uses his poor Russian to converse with the Czech speakers.

The other day, some guy comes over to me sweating buckets '' Where is the Chabad restaurant? I've been walking around the block five times!'' he says in a southern drawl.

I give him directions and ask him if he'd like to put on Tefillin.

''What's that?''

"Are you Jewish?"


I started laughing and ask him why he needs the Chabad restaurant.

''What do you mean, where else can I get good kosher food?!"

During lunch break, I went to the restaurant and lo and behold my friend, who is in the process of imbibing a classic corn beef deli sandwich, gives me two thumbs up.

Never Too Late for a Barmy in Balmy Florida

July 11, 2008

We arrived in West Lake Worth, Florida this Wednesday, at the behest of my brother, Rabbi Bentzion Singer, who will soon be a full-time Chabad-Lubavitch representative in the area.

After two days on the job, we have already managed to celebrate two belated Bar Mitzvahs; George laid Tefillin for his first time at the ripe age of 87, while Hal, who had also never put on Tefillin before meeting us, is a mere youngster at 35.

My co-rover, Shaya Schtroks, is reminded of the words of the Talmud "One who dons Tefillen even once in his life, is guaranteed a portion in the world to come."

Shabbat Shalom,

Mendy Singer

Increase the Greece!

July 10, 2008 4:59 PM

Hey everyone,

We've just landed in Athens, Greece, after a long tumultuous flight, including a stopover in Munich, during which we whipped out our Tefillin and prayed Shacharit in the airport terminal. It felt kind of odd davening in the Munich, the former capitol of the Nazi party, creepy and victorious all at once.

We were greeted in Athens by Rabbi Mendel Hendel, Chabad-Lubavitch representative to Greece. He briefed us on the situation of the tiny Jewish communities scattered throughout Greece. Together, we mapped out a very ambitious plan to reach out to as many communities as humanly possible. Our itinerary so far includes twelve (!) cities, visiting just about every breathing Jewish Greek. If a city has even one Jewish person whom we can meet, the trek will be well worth it!

Today, we started out by gathering all of the necessary supplies for our trip. We went to pick up our rented car, whose mileage dial will be pushed up to the tune of a few thousand kilometers. And let me tell you, if you think that New Yorkers are crazy drivers, you ain't never seen a Greek behind the wheel!

Tomorrow morning, at the crack of dawn, we set out on a 500 km trip to a Jewish camp somewhere up north. It will be a great opportunity to get to know many of the Jewish youth from all over Greece. I hope they will be as happy to see us as we will be to see them…

That's all for now folks,

Chesky Klein and Avremi Gitler

And They're Off!

July 9, 2008

Ever wondered how to get kosher food in India, or what it feels like to be a Jew in blood-soaked Poland?

Every summer, hundreds of Chabad rabbinical students and newly minted rabbis fan out across the globe, visiting Jews and Jewish communities worldwide. They come equipped with Tefillin, Mezuzot, and Jewish books, all liberally sprinkled with love.

This program, founded over sixty years ago by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, has brought Jewish awareness and joy to Jews all over.

A number of these roving rabbis will be sending us real time updates on their adventures. They will offer us an inside view of their travels, travails, impressions, and improvisations. Check this blog regularly for a rare insight into what the world looks like from under the black felt brim of the Chassidic fedora.

Hold on to your hat and sit back in your front row seat as one of the greatest Jewish stories ever told unfolds before your very eyes!

Shabbat Shalom!