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An Orchard Bar Mitzvah for Stanley

July 31, 2013

It was already late afternoon in the Rio Grande Valley when we were told of a Jew living in rural Mission, Texas.

Stanley Jacobson was his name and he was located a short 25 minutes away. We contacted Stanley and asked if we could come by for a short visit. Stanley was delighted to hear from us and invited us to his orchard where he was out working.

We arrived at Stanley's 40-acre orange-and-grapefruit orchard just as the sun was setting. We found Stanley working on some of his farming equipment and we introduced ourselves. Being that it was just minutes to sunset we asked if he would like to do the mitzvah of tefillin.

Stanley agreed, on condition that we guide him through the process as he was unfamiliar. As we soon discovered, Stanley had not had a bar mitzvah. We promptly turned the evening into an orchard-themed outdoor bar mitzvah and Stanley put on tefillin for the first time in his life. Afterwards he brought out a small music box he had in his work shed which played a Jewish tune, and we danced in celebration of the bar mitzvah.

Our new-found friend gave us a quick tour of the orchard, complete with some fresh ripe grapefruit, which we enjoyed together.

No bar mitzvah is complete without refreshments and L'chaim, and we insisted Stanley come along with us to celebrate this special occasion. We toasted L'chaim and Stanley committed to continue doing mitzvahs, including putting on tefillin again in the near future.

Six Teenagers Celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs on an Airplane

July 29, 2013 2:58 PM

As Chabad rabbis, we have been educated from a young age to maximize every encounter with fellow Jews by enabling them to do a mitzvah.

We boarded our flight to Ukraine, where we are spending several weeks visiting the isolated Jews who live in the Zhitomir vicinity. We quickly noticed a large group of boisterous teenagers also boarding the flight, and we discovered they were heading to Israel on a Birthright trip, with a stop in Moscow on the way.

We waited until we were free to move around the cabin, and approached them, armed with our tefillin.

“Hey guys, you must be really excited about going to Israel for the first time.”

Nods of agreement all around.

“How would you like to put on tefillin now? We can’t think of a better preparation for going to the Holy Land.”

It took some time, and a lot of explaining, but within the hour we had ten teenagers putting on tefillin, six of them for the very first time.

“Guys, this is your bar mitzvah! Congratulations! How appropriate to be celebrating it on your way to Israel!

We could see that most of them seemed quite emotional, the significance of the moment not lost in their teenage universe. One young man in particular related that aside from this being his first time putting on tefillin, it was also the first time in his life that he had prayed, and he was really grateful for that.

“Rabbi,” said another of the bar mitzvah boys, “Thanks so much for giving us this opportunity. What we just did feels really special, and appropriate...”

The two of us returned to our seats on somewhat of a high. Though the demographics of Western Ukraine would be vastly different than this group of teenagers, our common denominator would be the same.

We looked forward to meeting the Ukrainian Jews, and imbuing them with much-needed Jewish pride and spirit. We knew to expect long days, one-star accommodations, perhaps rejection and anti-Semitism. But if our flight there was any indication, the rewards would be infinite as well.

Uniting Jewish Strangers

July 26, 2013

My friend Meir and I landed in Panama City about two weeks ago. Rabbi Mendy Karniel, the local Chabad Rabbi, had arranged for us to stay with a good friend of his, Nir S. We arrived at his beautiful apartment, put down our suitcases, and accepted Nir’s invitation to join him on the balcony. It felt good to stretch our legs after the long flight, and take in the serene ocean view.

“So, where in Israel are you from?” Nir asked conversationally.

“I’m from KiryatWe didn’t know her address, or the name of her hotel Malachi,” Meir offered.

“I’m from Kfar Chabad, do you know anyone from there?”

“Yes! I do have a friend there, do you know Mordechai Rivkin?”

I could hardly believe my ears. “He’s my father!”

It turns out that Nir and my father go back many years. They met each other through their respective businesses, but over time have become quite close. As soon as dawn broke in Israel, my father was awakened by a phone call from Nir, marveling over the fact that in remote Panama City, a world away from Kfar Chabad, the son of Mordechai Rivkin was his houseguest!

We felt that we were off to an auspicious start.

The next day, we received our marching orders: a list with the contact information of the Jews of Panama. We decided to start with Miriam, who lived and ran a small hotel in a village near Coronado, about two hours away. There was a slight technicality: we didn’t know her address, or the name of her hotel! Meir suggested that we make some inquiries at the local fire station. Our Spanish is not great, and they didn’t speak any English, but somehow, they were able to direct us to Miriam’s home. We knew we had found the right address when a large photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe greeted us from the foyer. Miriam welcomed us warmly, and we sat with her for a while, mostly listening to her fascinating life story.

“Miriam, are there any other Jews in this village?”

“No.” She was emphatic. “I know everyone around here. No other Jews except for us.”

We weren’t going to take her word for it, especially since we had several more leads to investigate. Sure enough, David, the first person we called, was Jewish, andAre there any other Jews in this village? ecstatic to meet us! We set up an appointment for that afternoon.

Using our handy GPS, our trip to David in the nearby village went without a hitch.

We had a wonderful visit with him and his wife, Esther, schmoozing, discussing some Jewish concepts, and hearing about life in Panama. As we were preparing to leave, we mentioned in passing that we had spent some time with Miriam.

“What?” David and Esther were shocked. “There is another Jewish family nearby? We were sure we were the only Jews for miles around.”

“Are you going back to Miriam now? Would it be alright if we join you? We must see her with our own eyes!”

We were happy to oblige, and even happier to witness David, Esther, and Miriam greet each other like long lost relatives. Their unadulterated joy in being in the company of other Jews was a sight Meir and I will carry for a long time. We've kept in touch with them, and last we heard, they are planning a grand Shabbat together in Miriam’s hotel...

Roving Food Trucks

July 23, 2013 11:04 AM

Although food trucks have been around since the turn of the century, they have become a worldwide phenomenon in the past few years. Chabad has jumped on the bandwagon as well, and more specifically, Chabad-Lubavitch of South London Campuses. During the school year, it serves kosher delicacies to starving students, and in the summertime, it does a brisk business catering to the needs of tourists, mostly during the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. I came during that busy time to assist Rabbi Dovid Cohen, co-director of the local Chabad House, in manning the food truck.

Some of our clientele were affiliated Jews, and were glad that our presence at the Championships allowed them to nourish their souls as well their bodies. We also had many non-Jews stop by, eager to sample kosher fare. And then there was Jacob and Michael.

When Jacob ordered his food in a heavy Polish accent, we were sure he wasn't Jewish. As he was paying, he threw out a comment that his mother looked just like us. “Was she Jewish?” we asked.

“Yes, but I’m not really Jewish.”

“Jacob, let me tell you something—you are as Jewish as Moses. Did you ever have a bar mitzvah?”

“No, I told you, I’m not really Jewish.”


I pulled out my ever-present tefillin. “How do you feel about having a bar mitzvah right now?”

Within two minutes, Jacob was wearing tefillin and repeating the prayers. Afterwards, we danced with him in the streets to celebrate this important milestone in his life. Jacob confided that growing up in Communist Poland had left him with a permanent fear of expressing his Judaism, a feeling he could not shake even after his move to London.

Michael, a distinguished elderly gentleman, approached us with a broad smile. “I’m happy to see other Jews,” he told us. “And by the way, I hope the food is good.”

When I pulled out the tefillin, he looked perplexed. “I just started learning more about being Jewish. I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”

We gave Michael the brief explanation of tefillin, and bar mitzvah. “How do you feel about having your bar mitzvah today?”

“I would love that, rabbis. Thank you.”

After Michael was wrapped in tefillin, we showed him the prayers that we would recite together. We were floored when Michael began reading the Hebrew words on his own. In his desire to learn more about his Jewish heritage, he had taught himself Hebrew.

A Russian Bar Mitzvah in the Heart of Nepal

July 17, 2013 11:30 AM

Have you ever had the opportunity to visit a third-world country? A place where poverty and unrest are rampant, and basic conveniences like electricity and running water are scarce?

My friend and I are spending the summer as roving rabbis in Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest and most underdeveloped countries. We are based in the heart of Nepal—the Kathmandu Chabad House—which serves as a welcoming home to all. Already we have met Israeli backpackers looking for guidance, American Jews in search of kosher food and tefillin, and a group of teens who were eager to learn about the beauty of their heritage.

A few days ago, during a rare lull in Chabad House activities, we went out to the “My name is Boris, but you can call me MordechaiThamel shopping district, hoping to encounter a Jewish tourist or two. Making our way through the narrow, teeming streets, we pegged a gentleman as a possible candidate.

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” we asked.

The man was about to turn a corner. “Yes,” he replied with a heavy Russian accent. “My name is Boris, but you can call me Mordechai.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, trained us to reach out to every Jew, because one Jew doing one mitzvah can make a world of difference. Using the little bit of Russian I have picked up over the years, I invited Boris to walk with us back to the Chabad House. Ten minutes later, Boris was seated in the living room, enjoying a cup of tea and the homey atmosphere. “Boris, would you like to put on tefillin?”

“I don’t know what that is!”

Boris looked at us quizzically. “What did you say? I don’t know what that is!”

After a lot of explaining on our part, he agreed. We helped him put on tefillin, said the prayers together word by word, and Mordechai had his bar mitzvah at the age of thirty-four. We broke out the schnapps and celebrated the occasion with chassidic singing and dancing.

Mordechai was extremely moved by his bar mitzvah. So much so, that he is traveling to Israel next month, where he plans to buy his of own pair of tefillin to don each morning.

Expect the Unexpected

July 10, 2013 3:06 PM

Roving rabbis, from Bangkok to Brooklyn, know to always expect the unexpected.

We are stationed in the bustling college town of Madison, Wisconsin, where we assist the local Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin to reach out to the Jewish population.

We’d spent the better part of the day visiting various businesses and stores, and planned to utilize the evening hours to visit some of our contacts in their homes.

When we pulled up to the address we’d been given for Sarah Z., she immediately came out of her home, her agitation obvious. “Who are you and what do you want from me?” she nearly yelled.

We knew we were treading delicate waters.

“Hi Sarah, we are travelling Chabad rabbis, and we heard you could use a visit.”

As soon as she heard the word rabbi, her face lit up. “G‑d, your heard me!” Sarah exclaimed, looking heavenward. She graciously invited us inside, and made sure we were comfortable. Quickly, she began pouring out her tale of woe. She was struggling with many issues, and was under constant stress. When she saw us approaching her home, she had thought we were part of a recent spate of missionaries. She couldn't believe that we were actually rabbis who had come to visit her simply because she was a Jew! The evening passed quickly in a wonderful discussion of Judaism and its applications to modern life. We proposed putting a mezuzah on her front door, and Sarah was more than amenable. We also left her with a supply of Shabbat candles.

Sarah saw us to the door nearly four hours after she had almost chased us away. It was past ten p.m., too late to meet anyone else that night. But as Sarah cheerfully waved goodbye, standing near her new mezuzah, we felt satisfied with the evening’s accomplishments.

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