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Fishing For Jews

July 29, 2010
With Alberto, a friend of ours.
With Alberto, a friend of ours.

Towards the end of a day full of meetings and excitement, we decided to go at the Port of Genoa, a huge tourist attraction with a world-famous aquarium, hoping to bump into some Jews.

After walking back and forth on the seaside walkway, and meeting two Jewish couples from France who were surprised and amazed to see us, I was ready to call it a day. But Yossi said, "Just one more time and then we go." Too exhausted to argue, I accompanied him on another stroll around the port. We decided to sit down on a bench and give our weary feet a rest.

As we sat there chatting about the events of the day, an old man approached and asked us if we minded being so dressed up in the heat—referring to our trademark black hats and suit jackets.

Not missing a beat, Yossi asked our new friend, Giorgio, if he was Jewish. He replied that he was not. In response to our query whether he was related to any Jewish people, he told us that that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, and her name was Clelia Morgantini-Bellatalla.

We told him that Judaism is matrilineal, and that means that he is Jewish, as Jewish as Moses, King David and the president of the tempio (synagogue).

Right then and there, for the first time in his life, Giorgio donned tefillin and recited the Shema.

Thank G‑d for the hats and jackets we always wear—even in the summertime heat!

Helping Giorgio with the Shema for the first time in his life.
Helping Giorgio with the Shema for the first time in his life.

Pita and Tragedy

July 28, 2010 10:15 AM
A freshly-baked taste of home for the ill-fated air-force group from Israel.
A freshly-baked taste of home for the ill-fated air-force group from Israel.

I am sure you've heard what happened here in Romania. There was a group from the Israeli air force participating in a joint exercise with the Romanian military when their helicopter crashed.

I don't know any more info than you can get online. We have been doing everything in our power to assist the Israelis, both before and after the tragedy struck. We even baked them kosher pita in a village near Bucharest.

The Chabad representative here, Rabbi Deutsch, has been occupied with every aspect of this terrible story.

There are a lot of Israeli tourists as well as businesspeople here. They are all deeply affected and extremely moved. The sense of unity is palpable. People feel stricken, saddened, and strangely proud at the same time. We just met an Israeli woman on the street. She came right over and shared her feelings with us. I have goose bumps...

Koshering the oven.
Koshering the oven.

Signs from G‑d (in ASL)

July 26, 2010 1:56 PM
Isser Lubecki (left) and Joshua Soudakoff (right), ready to reach out to Rochester's deaf community.
Isser Lubecki (left) and Joshua Soudakoff (right), ready to reach out to Rochester's deaf community.

Sometimes G‑d just has a plan of His own.

Isser and I woke up today in Toronto, from where we were to take a bus to Rochester, where we would serve as RovingRabbis to the sizeable deaf community that resides there. (The largest program for deaf university students is at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology): the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.)

We are especially geared to connect with the Jewish deaf community because we are deaf ourselves and communicate in American Sign Language (ASL).

Our bus to Rochester would be leaving from the "Toronto Coach Terminal," according to our vaguely-worded ticket. But where exactly was this? After a brief debate, we decided to set out with our luggage in tow to the closest bus line that would take us downtown. The bus station had to be there somewhere, after all.

As soon as we left our hosts' house, we saw a familiar sight. As Divine providence would have it, we happened upon our rosh yeshivah (yeshiva dean), who promptly offered to find a driver to take us downtown in his van (he was occupied with something else at the time).

Great. We're half-way there now.

As he turned the corner, he suddenly saw the driver he had in mind.

The would-be driver was busy, too.

Half-way there? More like half-way back.

The clock was ticking. We had little more than an hour to catch our noon departure. And if we had to depend on Toronto's faithful public transportation system, I doubt we would have made it in time. It requires a several-bus connection to get us there.

But as G‑d would have it, a taxi cab was sitting in front of our van, having just dropped off its passengers (it's not a common sight to see taxi cabs in this residential part of town).

Seizing the moment, we asked the cab driver how much it would cost to take us downtown.

"Just twenty," grumbled the driver.

And that's how we found ourselves at the bus terminal about twenty minutes later, with plenty of time to spare.

In just a small space of time (five minutes, actually!) we had two potential rides and one actual driver. It's not often that something like that actually happens, and we're grateful that we were able to start off on the right foot with ease.

The Rebbe spoke many times about the importance of a good beginning. For example, Chassidic teachings stress conducting oneself properly in the beginning of the year, thus setting the entire year off to a good start.

We sure feel that we are on to a good start as well and hope to keep you posted.

Married for 71 years!

July 26, 2010
With Mr. Joe Cohen, from whom we learned so much.
With Mr. Joe Cohen, from whom we learned so much.

World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the post-war prosperity, the jet age, the Kennedy assassination, the Six Day War, the birth of space exploration, the Yom Kippur War—Mr. Cohen lived through them all. His store was even burnt down after the MLK assassination! Well past his hundredth birthday, bli ayin harah, he has seen a lot. And now he met the RovingRabbis (us) too.

What a treat it was for us to spend time with Mr. and Mrs. Cohen, people who experienced so much in their rich, long lives. May they live to 120!

My Worries Are Assuaged

July 25, 2010
Our first miracle.
Our first miracle.

We finally got the call to start heading towards Rabbi Tamarin's office. We had just finished our job as counselors in Camp Gan Israel in Zarichany, Ukraine (which serves Jewish children from all over Belarus and Ukraine), and we were about to set out to find Jewish people in little Ukrainian villages, most of whom have little or no Jewish affiliation. Based in Zhitomir, Rabbi Tamarin directs Chabad's activities in the small, scattered Ukrainian villages.

I was starting to have second thoughts about the whole Roving Rabbis thing. Going to some far-flung Ukrainian village to try and find random people whom I had never met before, talking to them about a heritage that they hardly know, in a language that I can hardly speak, wasn't really as appealing as it had first seemed. But I kept on telling myself not to worry; there were thousands of guys who have done this over the years and that G‑d will be guiding me every second of the way. Those thoughts helped a little. But the doubts were still there.

The taxis came to bring our group to the rabbi's office. I got into the last taxi, but there wasn't enough room for all of us. No one was interested in getting out and waiting for another cab. We had been waiting around for a few hours, and we all just wanted to hit the road. So I got out and offered to wait for another cab to come. Mendel, my co-Rover, joined me and we found another taxi.

I sat next to the driver. It was a typical Ukrainian taxi: Decorated with Christian pictures and icons, the engine was making its fair share of noise, and there obviously was no air conditioning.

Bored, I struck up a conversation with our Ukrainian driver. I asked him a bunch of random questions. He was really nice. He even showed me how to spell "steering wheel" in my little Russian learning pad.

Then he told me that he has a cousin who lives in Israel.

His car didn't look like it belonged to your typical Jewish boy, and there are also many non-Jewish Russians and Ukrainians who move to Israel. I asked him if he was Jewish. I honestly didn't think that he was, but I figured that it could not hurt to ask.

He told me that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, but he considers himself Christian. My heart jumped a beat. This was truly hashgachah pratit (Divine providence). In my broken Russian, I told him that because his mother was Jewish he is Jewish, and regardless of what type of necklace he wears or what sort of pictures he pastes on his dashboard, he is a Jew with a Jewish soul.

I asked him if he wanted to put on tefillin. He was game but didn't know what it was. When we arrived at our destination, I wrapped him up in tefillin and we said Shema together. It was his first time doing the wrap and he really appreciated it. I pointed out the synagogue across the street and told him to drop by soon to find out more about his heritage. He said that he would definitely check it out.

While I was wrapping tefillin on this awesome Jew, I was thinking about how incredible it truly was that we met and how he was putting on tefillin for the first time in his life. At first glance, we had bumped into him because there was no room in a taxi. But really, it was because the G‑d was with us, guiding our every step.

When it was my turn to meet Rabbi Tamarin to discuss the details of our upcoming travels, all the original doubts had disappeared. I was focused and ready to ker a velt (Yiddish for "turn over a world," an expression the Rebbe used in his call to Chassidim to do all in their power to prepare the world for Moshiach)!

Thank G‑d, we have been on the road for a while now and we are seeing much success.

A Deal Is Struck and I Say "No" to Smoking

July 23, 2010

We got into our car, hoping for respite from the Arizona heat, but none was forthcoming. The air conditioning vents were blowing hot air. While I sat there feeling like I was going to faint, Hillel got on the phone and started calling the people we hadn't been able to reach the night before, seeing if someone would be available for a meeting.

It wasn't long before he got though to an older man living in Lake Havasu City who said that he could meet with us right away. We plugged his address into the GPS and were off.

We arrived at an oldish-looking trailer home, wondering if we had possibly made a mistake. Seeing no other house in sight, we forged onward and knocked on the door. We were welcomed warmly and soon sat down to talk.

We found out that our host had once been a very wealthy man and had lost it all to a divorce. He was remarkably upbeat. He told us he's moving to Mexico in a few months because of a job waiting for him there. He told us that G‑d had sent us to him.

We offered him the opportunity to don tefillin. He went to his room and pulled out his own pair. We spoke about the importance of putting them on every day and he said he'd consider it.

He gave us good advice about making goals and posting them in visible places. "Do you smoke?" he then asked us. We told him that we don't. "If there's anything I can leave you with, it's that you should never smoke." I said I would take upon myself never to smoke for the rest of my life as long as he would wear tefillin. A deal was struck, and he committed to putting them on every day. Unlike most deals, where each party does something for the other's sake, here we would each be doing something for our own good. I will keep my body healthy, and he will keep his soul in fine condition. Following his own advice, he posted a note on his desktop screen with a reminder to put on tefillin. We gave him a mezuzah to grace his door for the remainder of his time in Arizona, and he said he'll put it up in his new house in Mexico.

It took forever to say goodbye because the small encounter had left us feeling so attached.


July 22, 2010
Bikes parked next to one of Amsterdam's famous canals.
Bikes parked next to one of Amsterdam's famous canals.

The RovingRabbis have been known to rove in rented cars, donated cars, busses, taxis, scooters, airplanes, feet, and perhaps even gondolas. But we, the RovingRabbis to Amsterdam, use bikes.

Amsterdam is full of bikes. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there are over 500,000 bicycles in this city of under 800,000 souls. In Rome do as the Romans, and in Amsterdam do as the Amsterdammers. So we rented ourselves bikes.

We now zip all around Amsterdam on our stainless-steel steeds. We cycle to synagogues and meetings in local style.

Biking has incredible advantages. It is cheap, clean, eco-friendly, and there are bike lanes and bike parking lots all over the city. One disadvantage, however, is that bikes do precious little to protect their riders from the rain.

The other day, just as we were just about to bike over to meet a gentleman named Zephania, the skies opened up, and the thirsty canals of Amsterdam drank up heaven's bounty. But what were we to do? As we stood there wondering what to do next, a friendly Israeli named David pulled up to say hello. After getting to know each other, he offered to take us to Zephania's in his car.

Thank G‑d Amsterdam has almost as many Israelis as bikes!

Fusing Souls in Suffern

July 21, 2010

After three amazing weeks in Suffern, NY, and the surrounding areas, we wanted to finish off our assignment and bring closure to what had been a very powerful experience for us and the people we had gotten to know.

In light of the Nine Days, when we mourn the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed as a result of disunity among Jews, we decided to bring people together in a celebration of Jewish unity. So we called a farbrengen (informal Chassidic gathering). Luckily, Suffern is near Monsey, so we had no problem getting kosher food.

Our guest list included businesspeople, yeshiva students, and others. We tried to keep it small and personal. We told some stories, taught some niggunim (Chassidic melodies) and spoke about ahavat Yisrael. We all had a good time. For most people, it was their first time participating in a farbrengen, and everyone was anxious to hold another one soon.

Maybe you should hold one also?

The ingredients are simple. Here is what you need to host your own:

  • Some kosher food and drink.
  • Good friends.
  • Some time cleared from your schedule to focus on G‑d, Judaism and each other.
  • A couple of traditional Jewish melodies to sing together.

Optional ingredient:

  • Some stories and thoughts prepared in advance. (Or you can just let things flow if you prefer.)

So long from Suffern,
Adam Epstein and Mechel Gancz

A Series of Unlikely Events

...and how they brought the most wonderful results

July 19, 2010 12:00 PM
Our adventures took place right across the street from the historic courthouse in Prescott, AZ.
Our adventures took place right across the street from the historic courthouse in Prescott, AZ.

After making numerous calls the night before and not succeeding in arranging any meetings, we drew up a list of homes that we would visit, hoping that someone would be home. There was no one home at the first three houses that we visited, and Hillel and I were starting to feel a little down.

At the fourth house, we met an older Jewish man and his great-grandchild. Hillel shared some Jewish stories with the kid, and I had a fascinating conversation with the elder. After such a fine time, we left feeling much better.

We got back into our car, I turned the key in the ignition, and it didn't start. Twice, three times...nothing. I went into a nearby shop to ask for a jump. There was a friendly lady working there. She gave me cables but was not able to leave the store to give us a jump.

So I took the cables and went looking for someone to help us out, and a man leaving the parking lot graciously offered his services. As I was hooking up the cables, he chatted with Hillel. Would you believe it? His wife's grandfather is the man whom we had just met!

He was there with his son, a boy who had always been upset that he had never been "bar-mitzvahed." So he donned tefillin right then and there, and we held an impromptu bar-mitzvah as I got our car rolling again.

In the presence of these beautiful rock formations, anything seems possible—even probable.
In the presence of these beautiful rock formations, anything seems possible—even probable.

Next, we went to a shop which we knew was of Jewish ownership. We found the owner and started shmoozing. At first, he was kind of cold, suspicious of our motives, telling us that "Jews do not send missionaries." But, as the conversation continued, we became friends. At the end of our visit, we asked him if he would like to put on tefillin and say some Jewish prayers.

So we went upstairs where he would be able concentrate on his prayers. After saying the Shema, he said his own prayer. He spoke from his heart. He prayed for more opportunities to pray while wearing tefillin. Then he made a silent prayer.

After removing the tefillin, he asked if he could buy a pair for himself. Clearly, he was in an emotional mood. We were happy to put him on the phone with a scribe in New York, and he was soon the proud owner of his own pair of kosher tefillin, to be delivered by airmail.

A few hours later, he called to tell us that a miracle had just happened to him. Almost immediately after we had left, the silent prayer which he had made had been answered.

Patrick Grandson of Yetta

July 18, 2010 12:28 PM
The exquisite splendor of the Irish countryside is rivaled only be the beauty of the souls whom we encounter there.
The exquisite splendor of the Irish countryside is rivaled only be the beauty of the souls whom we encounter there.

Spending the last three weeks traveling across Ireland, we've come to realize that in this part of the world you don't just bump into Jewish people by chance. Our meetings usually come about by working off a list, which has been compiled over the last 18 years, or by the occasional reference of one Jew to the next.

Such was not the case yesterday.

After finishing a very lovely visit with a local Jewish professor and his family (a story for itself, maybe another time...), we were looking for a decent bed & breakfast to pull over to and spend the night.

On our second attempt, as we were getting out of the car to check out the accommodations (take it from a guy with experience: never trust the online ratings!), a middle-aged man pushing a stroller passed by. After a slight hesitation, he stopped and asked us if we were Jewish. When we answered in the affirmative, he asked us a very peculiar question that we would have never expected: "Is Yetta Rubinstein a Jewish name?" After telling him that it most definitely was, he proceeded to tell us this most interesting tale.

Patrick grew up in an Irish family on the countryside and had a troubled childhood. He left home at a fairly early age and tried to put his past behind him. Only a few years ago, he found out that he was actually adopted as a baby. As one can imagine, it was a huge shock, and although it helped him understand a lot of the things going on inside of him, it was a very difficult reality to accept. It created an intense desire to "find out who [he] was" and where he actually came from. The few facts that he stumbled upon were that his maternal grandmother's name was Yetta Rubinstein and his mother had given him up for adoption in London. For the past couple of years, his only connection to his biological family was the lone name: Yetta Rubinstein. That's where the trail ran cold.

That is until yesterday.

We stood there in front of the bed & breakfast and watched as the realization slowly sunk into Patrick that he is a full-fledged member of the Jewish faith. He continued to tell us how recently he's been going through a very tough time and was putting a lot of thought into the possibility of some sort of Jewish connection. We spoke for about 15 minutes, giving (and receiving) inspiration. We offered him some literature and words of encouragement, and then, on that street corner in Cork, Patrick did something for his thirsty soul. With his child watching from the stroller, Patrick rolled up his sleeve, covered his head with a kippah, wrapped tefillin on his arm and forehead, and said the Shema for the first time in his life. He spoke loud and clear, and yet trembling with a flow of emotion pouring out from his soul.

As we watched him walk off over the hill with his child, we knew that we had just experienced the hand of G‑d leading our steps. Although our role was now over, for Patrick, grandson of Yetta, the story had just begun.

Patrick donning tefillin as his baby watches.
Patrick donning tefillin as his baby watches.

Planting Saplings in the Shadow of the Holocaust

July 15, 2010 2:58 PM
Two brothers recite the Shema together.
Two brothers recite the Shema together.

Wherever a Jew treads in Europe, he is aware of the Holocaust. It is inescapable. The rail tracks, over which high-speed trains transport tourists and commuters, once carried cattle-cars of suffocating and starving Jews. The lush, green tranquility of the forests belies the horrifying secrets of the past, the mass graves of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis.

The once-proud Jewish community of Dubrovnik has been decimated, and virtually all that is left is the beautiful old synagogue. Built over 600 years ago, the synagogue has seen its walls filled with Spanish refugees of the Inquisition, its children gathering in prayer in response to a nefarious blood libel in 1623, and countless other ups and downs of the Jewish Diaspora. More recently, it was damaged during the racially-charged war that tore through the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, leaving genocide and destruction in its wake.

This ancient tome, found in the Dubrovnik library, tells the story of a harrowing 17th-Century blood libel.
This ancient tome, found in the Dubrovnik library, tells the story of a harrowing 17th-Century blood libel.

Yesterday, we met a Holocaust survivor from Israel. He survived Auschwitz and made a home for himself in the Holy Land. Today we met a woman from New Jersey whose business card identifies her as a "Holocaust music recitalist and educator." And then we met a girl who had just finished an emotion-laden tour of four Nazi concentration camps.

But here—especially here—we see life. We meet Jewish people from all over the world. People who are proud of their heritage. Alive. They read the Shema with passion and feeling. The Jews we meet from all over the world paint a picture of a vibrant Judaism. We have outlived the inquisitors, the Nazis and the others, and we are here to tell the tale!

With a group of Jewish kids in the ancient synagogue.
With a group of Jewish kids in the ancient synagogue.

Our Long Shabbat

July 14, 2010 1:29 PM
Our portable "office" on the streets of Zhmerynka.
Our portable "office" on the streets of Zhmerynka.

Last Friday, we stood for hours in the tiny kitchen of the local synagogue. With the few kosher ingredients available in this part of the world, we did our best to prepare a Shabbat meal. We were told to cook for fertzig menschen (Yiddish for "forty people"), so we peeled 10 lbs of potatoes and prepared many other tasty dishes.

Later that afternoon, to our dismay, we exited the kitchen to see only 25 people gathered. That's a nice number, but it's just over half of what we had anticipated, so we pitied our sweat-drenched bodies and skinless fingers.

Nonetheless, we smiled, donned tefillin with those who wanted, and distributed Shabbat candles to the women. We then sat down together and ate, drank, and made merry. Of course, some Torah food for thought was served as well. We discussed the importance of kosher. To our joy, a decision was made that the food at all synagogue events would be strictly kosher.

After most people had left, the president of the community suggested that we return tomorrow to host another get-together, as not to let the food go to waste. "Now, now," we thought, "walking over an hour both ways is not something to sneeze at. But can we say no to people who want to learn about Judaism and celebrate Shabbat?" After a brief discussion, we decided to return the following day.

The next afternoon, we began our hike to the synagogue. Hike, not walk. The average road in Ukraine seems to have last seen a work crew 75 years ago. Our friend, Dmitri, acted as our guide. After just 45 minutes of off-road experience, we came to the synagogue feeling like we had won the World Cup. Greeting us were fifteen local Jews who were very happy to see that we arrived whole in body and spirit. To our satisfaction, most of the guests had healthy appetites, and they finished all the potatoes.

When the last participant had left, we were faced with a dilemma: Stay until that evening when Shabbat ends, or return by foot to our hotel? We decided to leave for the hotel. We convinced Dmitri and ourselves that we knew the way home ourselves, and off we went into the sunset.

Lost in conversation as we were walking, we were suddenly interrupted by a man who introduced himself as Matyash, told us that he was extremely glad to see us, and invited us to his home. We followed him into his self-built house and met with his three guests who "happened" to be Jewish. They were recovering drug-addicts and were thrilled to talk to us.

Before we knew it, we were seated at a table laden with all types of delicious-smelling food. The fact that we did not eat naturally guided our conversation to the kosher laws. During the course of our conversation, one of the guests started singing a song by the famous Chassidic singer, Mordechai ben David. We were shocked. What are the chances that a non-religious person in Zhmerynka would know of Mordechai ben David? To our amazement, Matyash was also well-versed in Mordechai ben David's hits. (In fact, with the conclusion of Shabbat Mordechai ben David's deep, powerful voice made its way from the stereo player to our astounded ears.)

The amazing part is that, contrary to our assumption, Matyash wasn't Jewish, but he was still a great fan of Mordechai's.

As the afternoon wore on it began raining, confining us to this home, just in case we had thoughts of leaving.

At the end of our rainy day, we realized that not everything is meant to go according to plan—our plan, that is.

This photo of Moshe Chaim (one of the guests), ourselves and Matyash was taken on Sunday.
This photo of Moshe Chaim (one of the guests), ourselves and Matyash was taken on Sunday.

Shabbat on an Island

July 13, 2010 12:42 PM
As the sun set over Bermuda, we welcomed the Shabbat Queen with song and prayer.
As the sun set over Bermuda, we welcomed the Shabbat Queen with song and prayer.

Between installing a mezuzah on the door of an older Jewish woman, visiting the local Jewish cemetery, and helping a couple plan for the impending birth of a baby, we somehow managed to prepare for Shabbat.

Island time is more than just a time zone; it is a way of life. We called Shabbat services for 6:30, but people began rolling in around 7:00 pm.

When around 20 or so people had gathered, all of the women lit Shabbat candles. We then sang together some familiar Jewish songs. It was incredible to see how the mood changed and the group became family, an extended Jewish family from all over the world.

After singing and clapping our way through the Friday night services, we settled down to a delicious meal. Going around the table, everyone had a chance to share a Jewish memory that they cherish. Games, Torah thoughts, and stories kept everyone laughing and singing until after 11:00 pm!

One especially moving moment was when one of the ladies at the table told everyone that this was her first authentic traditional Jewish experience. She was born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father and had been raised as a devout Catholic in England. With smiles and tears, we welcomed her home.

And then we walked over two hours to our hotel room

We Become Tour Guides

July 12, 2010 4:02 PM
The cool and shadowy interior of the Esnoga can only be lit by kindling hundreds of candles.
The cool and shadowy interior of the Esnoga can only be lit by kindling hundreds of candles.

We just arrived in Amsterdam and things are off to a great start.

We started out at the Portuguese Synagogue, a beautiful, old 17th-century edifice, which was once the center of a thriving community of Jewish people who had come to Amsterdam from Spain via Portugal. Built in the Sepharadic tradition, the pews face the center of the cavernous old synagogue (known in Ladino as the Esnoga). This is different from the Eastern European tradition, where the benches face the front.

Tourists come from all over the world to see this beautiful piece of Jewish history, and services are still held here. We are told that, in true Sepharadic tradition, prayers and announcements are still made in the traditional Judao-Spanish vernacular.

Later, outside the Jewish Historical Museum—which is housed in what was once the Ashkenazi synagogue—we met Faroukh, a Jewish man who lives in a smaller city in Holland. We also met a family of Jewish tourists from Miami.

Throughout the day, we found that we were constantly being approached by Jewish tourists, who assumed that we must know everything Jewish in Holland. We have only been here for one day, but we are getting better at it. We are now able to direct people to the synagogues, museums, and kosher restaurants with relative confidence.

There are many Israelis who live and work in this area. We have some of their contact information and hope to get in touch with them during the next few weeks.

In the afternoon, we took part in Minchah services in the Esnoga, with a large group from Israel in attendance.

All in all, we had a tiring but accomplishing day. The weather is nice and the people are even nicer. So we have much to look forward to ahead.

Surrounded by a courtyard, local tradition has it that some elements of the design of the Esnoga mirror the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.
Surrounded by a courtyard, local tradition has it that some elements of the design of the Esnoga mirror the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.

In the Shadow of Ancient Towers

July 11, 2010 2:50 PM
The famous Narragansett Towers today.
The famous Narragansett Towers today.
What they looked like once upon a time.
What they looked like once upon a time.

Much of our work is centered in Narragansett, Rhode Island, a small town that occupies a narrow strip of land running along the eastern bank of the Pettaquamscutt River. It is about 30 minutes from the Chabad House in Warwick, where we sleep. There is no Chabad House yet in Narragansett. Many people come from all over to vacation and enjoy the beaches of Narragansett.

The most famous attraction in town are the Narragansett Towers which overlook the water at the entrance of the town. The towers were built in 1883. Despite many natural disasters, they still stand strong today. In fact, they are now considered national landmarks.

Here what a sample day of ours looks like:

After prayers and breakfast, we drive over to Narragansett, where we meet Jewish people in touristy areas, stores, etc.

We also visit some families at home. Often, we bring along homemade challah for Shabbat. People are very excited to see us and just cannot believe that we travel so far just to give them a special Shabbat treat!

We distribute mezuzahs, tefillin, Shabbat candles and other Jewish essentials to many of the people we meet. As time goes on, our pack is getting lighter and lighter, and mezuzahs and Shabbat candles find homes all over Narragansett.

At night, when we get back to Warwick, we study Torah with some members of the local Jewish community.

We give these delicious challahs out to the people we meet.
We give these delicious challahs out to the people we meet.

My How Things Change...

July 8, 2010 2:14 PM
This photograph was snapped of early group about to depart for rural America.
This photograph was snapped of early group about to depart for rural America.

The Roving Rabbis have been roving for a very long time. In fact both my grandfathers participated in the program in the '40s and '50s.

In those days, each pair consisted of an American-born student and one fresh immigrant from Europe, a survivor of the Holocaust or Stalin's brutal regime. As most Jews spoke Yiddish, they had no problem communicating with the people they met. But having an English speaker made it much easier to get around.

One of my grandfathers recalls spending his nights on the hard pews of a synagogue in rural Connecticut, only to be awoken every morning by the transplanted shtetle Jews who would come early in the morning to recite Psalms before dawn. After a few hours of restless sleep, they would travel from farm to farm encouraging the European-Jewish farmers to send their children to Jewish schools.

Another memory is of sitting down in the back of a bus in the Deep South. The two New Yorkers had just settled into their seats when the driver slammed on the brakes and shouted "either y'all get to the front of the bus or you get off!" Segregation was a foreign concept to them.

My other grandfather took the local train (known as the "milk train") from New York to Pittsburgh over the course of a few weeks, stopping in every town. He once told me about meeting Dr. Philip Birnbaum who was then in the final steps of producing what was to become the standard prayerbook of thousands of English-speaking Jews. His new work, which featured a clearly-set Hebrew text and modern English translations, would be a classic, known as "The Birnbaum."

Gone are the days of hard benches, segregation (thank G‑d!), and milk trains. But the heart and soul of the program remain the same: Jewish people connecting to other Jewish people.


A Sordid Tale

July 7, 2010 4:47 PM
Chana and Nechama (from Mexico) read the Shema with their grandma as their grandfather puts on tefillin.
Chana and Nechama (from Mexico) read the Shema with their grandma as their grandfather puts on tefillin.

We were supposed to fly with our suitcases from New York to Zagreb on Tuesday and arrive on Wednesday.

We arrived two hours before the flight, checked in our baggage and headed toward the gate. Upon our arrival, we heard, "Passenger Karasik and passenger Andrusier, please come to the desk." "Wow," I thought smugly, "we have not even left the ground, and people are already looking for us!" Turns out that we were getting bumped, and would go on the next flight…24 hours later. "The good news," the uniformed Croat behind the counter beamed at me, "is that your bags will be in Croatia waiting for you."

When we finally arrived on Thursday, we enquired about our bags, only to discover that they were in Prague and would arrive that afternoon. Not too bad, except that we had 25 lbs of frozen meat, which we were planning on eating and serving to our Shabbat guests, packed in our suitcases. Mental images of our suitcase sitting on a hot tarmac under a merciless sun flitted through my mind.

With nowhere to go except forward, bolstered by promises that our bags would be flown to Dubrovnik and would be ready for pickup on Friday morning, we travelled from Zagreb to Dubrovnik without our bags, hoping that the weather would be kind to our hotdogs and chicken.

Friday came and went and still no sign of our bags. "Oh," we were assured, "it will be delivered to your hotel on Saturday."

Shabbat morning our phone was ringing non-stop, but we do not talk on the phone on the Shabbat, so we still had no idea where our stuff was.

On Sunday, we called and were told "your bags are here, but you cannot bring meat into the country. Come and get it if you want."

As soon as we came to the airport, we knew that our meat was toast. The entire airport reeked with the stench of rotting flesh. Unsure of how to dispose of the forbidden meat, the customs officials told us that we could take our meat "just this once."


So we paraded out of the airport with a reeking suitcase and dumped the meat in the nearest trashcan. Rafi's clothing stink like rotten flesh, but it is nice to have something to change into.

In other news, we are very busy here. It is high tourist season, and we meeting Jewish people from all over the globe. We are currently trying to get as many people as we can to celebrate Shabbat with us. We will not have any chicken to serve, but at least we will have a story to tell…

Lots to do and not much to eat,


This gentleman from France was so touched by the experience of praying in tefillin that he decided to attend services every week when he comes back home.
This gentleman from France was so touched by the experience of praying in tefillin that he decided to attend services every week when he comes back home.

Two Guys Dressed Like Abraham Lincoln

July 6, 2010 1:13 PM
Zalman with our flashy orange car.
Zalman with our flashy orange car.

Our travels in the area around Jacksonville bring us to many interesting places. Most of the Jews we meet have two things in common: They are sure they are the "only" Jews in the area, and have very little Jewish affiliation and knowledge. The welcome is all-in-all very pleasant. Most are intrigued at the sight of two Chassidic Jews at their doorstep and are interested in hearing more about their heritage.

Last week, we spent some time in Green Cove Springs, a place where - we are told - the KKK once had strong influence and power. We exhausted our list of contacts, save two.

This week we are concentrating on towns a few miles away, but we decided to go back to the two remaining addresses. At our first destination, the woman who opened the door introduced herself as a definitely-not-Jewish Lutheran. She kindly offered to take any literature we had, but clearly had no interest in them. Flattered by the offer, yet confident in our ability to find trash cans elsewhere, we declined and politely said our goodbyes.

The second house is on a dirt trail close to Black Creek, a rather-large body of water to be termed a creek. As we pull up to the house in our flashy orange car, a man driving by in a pickup truck slowed down to survey the scene. With a look of what appeared to be snobbish disapproval, he continues down the street. Unperturbed (or at least pretending to be), we walk up to the house. Nobody is home, except for the dog, who is staring at us curiously through the glass. Leaving a note at the door, we head back to our car.

The engine is already running, the air conditioner blasting refreshing respite from the balmy Floridian weather, and we're about to drive off. Suddenly, a car pulls into the driveway.

A man jumps out and stops to talk to us.

Justin and his small child live in his parents' home. His father is not Jewish, and his mother doesn't really consider herself Jewish, but her mother, who is Jewish, sometimes attends synagogue. Of course, that makes Justin 100% Jewish. While he considers himself a member of the tribe, Justin never had a bar mitzvah, and he agrees to put on tefillin for the first time in his life.

As we conclude the Shema, Justin excuses himself and tells us that he left his child with someone at the creek. "I only came," he explains, "because this man came over to me at the creek and told me, 'some guys dressed up like Abraham Lincoln pulled up at your house in a bright orange car, and you may want to check them out.' As soon as I saw the Hebrew writing on your bumper sticker, I knew who you were."

Amazed as we were at the turn of events, we reminded him and ourselves how everything is orchestrated by G‑d. We came just as the pickup truck passed by, and the stranger’s suspicion turned out to be the means to an end: setting the scene for a Jew to do a mitzvah for the very first time.

Shmery (who does not much resemble old Abe) with one of our new friends.
Shmery (who does not much resemble old Abe) with one of our new friends.

G-d Is Our GPS

July 5, 2010 12:58 PM
We gave these delicious challahs to our new friends in honor of Shabbat.
We gave these delicious challahs to our new friends in honor of Shabbat.

Although we are based in Suffern, NY, we spent a few days in the nearby towns of Hillburn, Sloatsburg, and Tuxedo.

People told us that there are few if any Jews living in those parts, but we decided to try our best. After meeting a few Jews in stores and other places of business, we went searching some of the homes in Hillburn where we had old contacts, but it seems that almost everyone had moved away.

This past Friday, we decided to find a certain manufacturing plant that belonged to a Jewish person. But the address we had didn't even show up on our GPS!

After driving up and down the same highway a few times, we found a little unnamed road and bridge. We followed it for a while, but the only thing we found was an old landfill and recycling plant, which actually had some Jewish employees.

Happy but not satisfied, we were determined to find the manufacturing plant. Just before crossing the bridge, we turned onto a little side road, and there was the plant! But it turned out the owner wasn't around.

We drove over this bridge and eventually found our way.
We drove over this bridge and eventually found our way.

As we walked back to the car, we noticed a small, rocky, unpaved road off to the side.

Intrigued, we decided to see where it would take us. We saw some old country homes. One of them had a mail box with a Jewish-sounding name on it. We knocked on the door and were greeted by a woman who told us that she was born Jewish, but she was put in foster care at a young age and had never learned much about her Jewish heritage or been part of synagogue. All she knew was that her children needed to marry Jewish.

The only thing Jewish that she remembered from her childhood was lighting Shabbat candles as a young girl. We gave her some candles to light that night. Then we asked if she knew what a mezuzah was, and she said that she did. So we asked if she would like one for her door and she willingly agreed.

Later, we came by and gave a large challah for her and her family to enjoy that night after lighting the candles.

Adam & Mechi

Proudly affixing a new mezuah on her front door.
Proudly affixing a new mezuah on her front door.

Jews in Trinity?

July 2, 2010 11:42 AM
Reciting the Shema, a prayer that proclaims the oneness of G-d, with a Jew from Trinity.
Reciting the Shema, a prayer that proclaims the oneness of G-d, with a Jew from Trinity.

When we were first told that we would be spending our summer in Trinity, FL, we thought it was a joke. After all, how many Jews could there be in a place with a name like that? It would be like searching for sea lions in the Sahara desert!

And the truth is that once we arrived, things did not look much more promising. People kept on telling us, "Y'all gotta know, this is the Bible Belt. There ain't no Jews around here."

But we've discovered that nothing can be further from the truth. As our first week comes to a close, we have discovered close to 50 Jewish people here, and we believe that there are many more whom we will meet in the next few weeks. People—Jews and non-Jews—have been welcoming and kind. Some of the Jews we met in their homes, and we found others in their businesses, and they are Jewish and they live in Trinity.

Shabbat Shalom!

Our Day in Essen, Germany

July 1, 2010 12:10 PM
Helping Boris affix a mezuzah on his door.
Helping Boris affix a mezuzah on his door.

Having some time on our hands, we decided to go to the local synagogue, which only has weekly Friday night services and bi-monthly Shabbat morning prayers. Since we didn't have the contact info of the president of the community (known in Hebrew as the Rosh Hakahal), we hoped to find him there as well.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a number of Jewish folks working in and visiting the building, which also serves as the JCC. We helped seven men (ages 25-65) put on tefillin. For five of them it was their first time. All are involved with the local Jewish community but had never been given to opportunity to put on tefillin! We gladly took down the contact info of all those whom we met, and hope to visit them at home to help them affix mezuzahs to their doors.

And we finally did have a nice meeting with the Rosh Hakahal, who was very warm, welcoming and helpful.

Wrapping tefillin on an elderly gentleman in the JCC.
Wrapping tefillin on an elderly gentleman in the JCC.

We finished off the day with going to the home of Boris, one of the men we met at the synagogue today. A Jew in his early 60s, he remembers watching his zeide (grandfather), a religious Jew who wore a full beard, wrap tefillin each morning. Unfortunately, since his zeide passed away when he was very young, he didn't have much more exposure to Judaism. After he proudly affixed his new mezuzah to his doorpost, we said l'chaim together, spoke about the Torah and mitzvahs, explained a bit about the Rebbe and Chabad, gave him two Jewish books as a present, and even had a little tentzel (Yiddish term for traditional Chassidic dance) in his living room.

With Boris in his home.
With Boris in his home.

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