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Vietnamese Jews

August 30, 2009 2:51 PM
Rabbi Hartman leads morning prayers at the Chabad House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Rabbi Hartman leads morning prayers at the Chabad House in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our month-long trip visiting Jews scattered across Vietnam started in Ho Chi Minh City, a city with a growing Jewish community and its own Chabad House. Formerly known as Saigon, the city is home to 150 Jews and is also a hub for businesspeople and travelers.

In the Chabad House, we constantly heard incredulous visitors exclaiming how much the admire Rabbi and Mrs. Hartman who serve the needs of every Jew in this remote corner of the world. Even we, who thought we knew what this is all about, were blown away!

We headed to central Vietnam to visit Barry, formerly of Illinois, however now a long-time resident of Nha Trang on the central coast of Vietnam. In the tuna export business, he told us that, living in Vietnam, what he missed most was the great taste of pastrami on rye. Unfortunately we were unable to sustain his physical appetite, but spiritually he was left more than satisfied.

An ancient bridge in Hoi An.
An ancient bridge in Hoi An.

The small town of Hoi An is smack in the middle of the country. Haya, originally from Haifa, was thrilled to welcome us to her humble abode and was very excited to affix a mezuzah to her doorpost. Living in such a remote town, she eagerly stocked up on the Jewish books we had available and decided that she would begin to read from the book of Psalms daily.

In Danang, an hour's drive from Hoi An, Alan was glad to meet us and talk about his Jewish heritage. A Vietnam War veteran from Chicago, he came back to Vietnam on a war veterans healing tour. There, he saw a different side of the country and fell in love with the place. Following our lead, Alan took upon himself to find more Jews living in his city. Sure enough, just a few days later he called to tell us that he had found a fellow member of the tribe.

With one of our new friends.
With one of our new friends.

A Towering Lesson

August 28, 2009 11:37 AM

Jews are in scarcer supply in Hanoi than in most other places I have been. Consequently, to walk into the head office of Baran Vietnam was truly a gust of fresh air: we were delighted to find ourselves in a boardroom with five Israelis conversing in animated Hebrew, with Israeli coffee on the table and Hebrew posters on the wall. They were equally glad to see us, and we spent a pleasant hour conversing about life in Vietnam, Judaism and our common acquaintances.

During our conversation, Mendy voices the question which has been floating around the back of my head: "What is Baran?" He asks. One of the men, Nir, indicates toward a replica telecommunication tower sitting in the corner of the boardroom. "We do communication systems. We design, build and maintain telecom networks, including towers like that one."

I must admit I find the model tower quite impressive. "Do you have branches outside Vietnam?" Mendy asked.

"Of course! We're an international company based in Israel with branches all around the world," he told us.

"Almost like Chabad," Mendy said with a smile.

One of the others cracks a joke. "Yes, we're just like Chabad, only we're profitable."

We all laugh. "Actually, it's very similar to Chabad," I say, "you have offices all over the world to build a network, and this network allows people to connect to wherever they need. By setting up "telecom towers" near any Jew around the world, Chabad gives Jews access to their spiritual needs."

Everybody likes the comparison, but the truth is that this is not what it is all about. I realize as we continue our work that Chabad is not about simply setting up the network, but about making the call as well. Many people have a cellphone in their pocket, but don't take the time to connect to their loved ones; to step back for a moment from life's distractions and connect to those dear to them. Many do take the initiative, but some need a phone call, a loved one to ring them and remind them of what is most important in life.

We could simply set up "towers" i.e. Chabad Houses around the world, put a big welcome sign at the front, and be satisfied with that. But the Chabad mission is to be lamplighters, to go and visit Jews wherever they might be, and give them that call, to remind them that our Father in Heaven wants to hear from them.

We Answer Her Prayers

August 26, 2009

In the course of our travels in the South London-Surrey area, we got a lead on some contacts in a city in Surrey, South England, about equidistant between London and the coast, and arranged an appointment for 6:00 on Thursday evening.

Due to our unfamiliarity with the drive, we head off on the somewhere-close-to-an-hour trek from Wimbledon at 3pm. Arriving there quite early, we decide to look up some other contacts in the area.

Off we go to our first contact, in a place called Witley. As you may already know, they haven't yet discovered house numbers in some places in England, and have house names instead! The only information we were provided was a house name and postcode, but postcodes in the UK are quite precise, and armed with a GPS (or Sat-Nav in the UK), we can get absolutely anywhere! Or so we thought.

After spending a half hour driving up and down narrow roads, squinting at the tiny house names on mailboxes, and asking every form of life if they've ever heard of 'Doverhouse' (which of course, nobody has), we give up.

Our next contact, Dena, lives about twenty minutes away. Now, with a postcode and a street name plus a house number, it'll be a piece of cake to find! Our erstwhile GPS (the cheapest one in the store), however, has other plans. It refuses to admit that a place called 'Landley Close' exists. Unless, of course, we would like to drive 5 hours to the north of England, where the GPS manages to find lots of Landley Closes. Unwilling to take 'no' for an answer (and even more unwilling to sit still in a car for three hours), we call a friend to help us find the road on our good ol' friend, Google Maps.

As we pull into Landley Close, which incidentally does exist, the entire road stops to stare. This is not the nicest area to live. With a prayer on our lips, we leave the car unattended and head to the house. It is noticeable that a mezuzah once graced the door frame of this home. Hoping against hope that Dena hasn't moved, we knock on the door.

The door is opened by a teen-aged boy. Behind him, in the house, there seems to be a party going on. "Is Dena here?" we ask. "She's sleeping," is the reply. "Are you also Jewish?" "I am," he replies, "but not them" (pointing behind him). "Wait one second, I'll go and wake her up." The people in the house seem quite surprised at our presence.

Shortly, Dena comes down. She invites us to sit down and reveals her heartbreaking story.

Dena was born in Israel and brought up in Toronto. She married a non-Jewish man, settled in England, and had three children with him; two boys and a girl. She managed to circumcise her younger son, but not the older one. A few years back, they split up.

Lately, her daughter had a severe spinal injury, and through a miracle is not paralyzed. Her son has just come home from school with lower-than-expected grades, jeopardizing his ability to get into university. To top it all off, she is feeling very sick.

We talk to her for a while, amongst other things promising to help her arrange a brit for her son.

Her elder son puts on tefillin for the first time in his life. She cries shamelessly as she stands by and watches. The energy of the moment is intense. Her other son follows suit. Finally, we conclude the ceremony with putting up a new mezuzah; her previous one having been defaced by some 'friendly' neighbors. We explain that in areas where there is concern for theft, one may install the mezuzah on the inside of the door frame.

As we turn to leave, Dena holds us back. There is something she wishes to share with us. She stands on the doorstep; we stand outside. "I want you to know," she says in a tear-choked voice, "that there is a G‑d, one who answers our prayers. Three hours ago, when I went to sleep, I had many worries on my head. I prayed to G‑d, begging him to send me some help. Three hours later, you knocked at my door." We say our goodbyes, and the door closes behind us.

As we get into our (still intact!) car, our feelings are bittersweet. Bitter for Dena and many others like her. How much longer must people endure such pain and suffering? But sweet with the knowledge that Someone up there listens, and the gratification to have had the merit of carrying the answer to her prayers. Soon, very soon, our collective prayers will be answered and we'll be freed from this long and painful exile.

Hope and faith fortified, we head off to our next meeting.

Editor's note: Some details have been modified to protect confidentiality.

Fringe Benefits

August 20, 2009 4:02 PM
This pic of downtown Fort Wayne just typifies Middle America.
This pic of downtown Fort Wayne just typifies Middle America.

The rabbi of the Conservative congregation in Fort Wayne was very excited to hear that we were visiting his town, and invited us to take over his regular Tuesday night class. (They are now learning the Laws of Teshuvah by Maimonides.)

There were a number of attendees at the class (including the rabbi), and my co-rover, Sholom Ber, gave a brilliant class discussing some of the mystical aspects of teshuvah.

After the class, people lingered to hear about our experiences traveling all around rural Indiana. After hearing some of our more colorful stories, one of the people told the following story:

"I walk around with my kipah and tzitzit wherever I go. One day, I was at an event with a few friends. Suddenly, a pickup truck drove toward us, and an elderly man with a walker was helped out of the cab.

“He looked at me, walked straight over, grabed my tzitzit, kissed them and cried, "This is the first time in sixty years that I saw these. You remind me of my father who wore them in Europe!" He kissed the tzitzit again, and let go of them reverently.”

The Things You Find in Ukraine...

August 18, 2009 7:31 AM
Helping an elederly Jew affix a mezuzah on his door. Note the box of matzah.
Helping an elederly Jew affix a mezuzah on his door. Note the box of matzah.

Our Russian-built horseless carriage has just returned us from a road trip through Belapolya, Charevka, Putyivil, Shostka, Yampol, Seredina-Buda, Kralivets and Altinivka.

Many interesting things happened, including, but not limited to, a 93 year old man putting tefillin on for the first time in 80 years, meeting a little Gorsky Jew living in a hut in a one-street shtetl, getting our documents thoroughly checked at a police station in the Russian-border town of Seredina-Buda (by no one less than the chief of police), and finding ten Jews living there too.

Near the end of our journey, we stopped off at the home of a woman in Kralivets. We spoke for a while, said a little l'chaim, and ate apples from her garden. She then told us that she had a Torah, and asked if we wanted to see it.

Now you see, whenever anyone in this country tells you that they have a Torah, they most likely mean a book with Hebrew writing in it. But we weren't rushing anywhere so we told her that we would love to see it.

This picture showing wolves attacking a deer was drawn at the height of the Holocaust.
This picture showing wolves attacking a deer was drawn at the height of the Holocaust.

She went into her house, and came back with a wrapped up scroll. We unwrapped it and laid it out on the table. It was a detailed sketch of a deer being attacked by wolves. In the corner was a signature and a date in 1943. We flipped it over. It was an entire section of a Torah scroll, the writing as legible as if it had just been written.

The old woman explained that a young man had found a drawing in a frame amongst the possessions of his grandmother, and had given it to her when he discovered the Jewish writing on the other side.

"Here," she told us, "take it with you."

We looked a little closer at the letters that some scribe had written long ago:

"Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt... you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget."

We wrapped up the scroll, got into the car, and went on to our next stop so that we would be able to put tefillin on with the villagers there before sundown.

The letters are as clear as if they were just writtten.
The letters are as clear as if they were just writtten.

Good Folks

August 16, 2009 5:05 PM
Installing a mezuzah on the front door.
Installing a mezuzah on the front door.

We met the P. Family in their lovely home. Although Mr. P. is not Jewish, he is very accepting of his Venezuelan-Jewish wife and kids and encourages them to explore and grow in their Judaism.

The kids are very nice, and lapped up whatever we shared with them. We spoke about every Jewish topic under the sun: the month of Elul, Jewish education, bar-mitzvahs and Jewish camps. We helped the older boy don tefillin and install a mezuzah on the front door.

The boys were especially interested in attending Jewish summer camps the coming summer and we told them that we would, G‑d willing, help them find good ones.

Mrs. P. told us that her oldest daughter studies in Atlanta and was thrilled when we told her how to get in touch with the Chabad center there. The kids were also very happy to find out about Chabad's website just for Jewish kids.

By the time we got back to our lodgings, we already had an email from Mrs. P. thanking us for the visit and telling us how wonderful the kids' website is.

All in a Day's Work...

August 16, 2009 4:58 PM

Check out time at our motel was at 11:00am and our first appointment for the day was scheduled for two hours later. We decided to spend our extra time in the mall. As we were pulling into the parking lot, the lady we were going to meet called to tell us that she would not make it, so we had plenty of time until our next appointment which was not until 3:00pm.

We found some good deals in a men's clothing store. At the checkout, the salesperson asked me to verify my zip code. When I gave my Brooklyn code, the guy behind the counter told us that he too was from New York!

"You see," he said, "I am originally from Westchester County, just north of NYC. But when we moved to Mississippi, we lost contact with the Jewish community. My sister and I live together here, and it was just the other day that we were discussing how we missed having a connection to our Jewish heritage."

He asked his boss for a lunch break and we went out to the parking lot together where he put on tefillin for the first time in his life. We gave him some literature and passed on a pair of Shabbat candles for his sister.

We still had time before our meeting, so we drove there to make sure that we would be able to find the house and zipped into a gas station to use the restroom and purchase some mayo to add to our salad-and-wraps lunch.

As we walked in, a voice called out, "Shalom! The bathroom is in the rear." I thanked the owner of the voice for her help and told her that I also needed some mayo. She replied, "I am not even hassidic and I know that mayo is not kosher!"

After I got the mayo from the shelf, I showed her the symbol on the jar attesting to its kosher status. We then got into a conversation all about being Jewish in Mississippi.

By the time we got out of the gas station, we had to rush to make it to our 3 o'clock appointment. There we met an elderly gentleman who told us all about his colorful and interesting life and purchased a mezuzah for his door.

Texan Maccabis

August 14, 2009 1:40 PM

Last year, some Roving Rabbis reported that they attended the Maccabi games in S. Diego. It seems to have become an annual tradition. Here is a brief update we just got from S. Antonio:

At the behest of Rabbi Rabbi Chaim Block of Chabad of Southern Texas, from Monday morning through Thursday afternoon we have been hard at work at the Maccabi games, where hundreds of Jewish athletes from all across the country come to compete.

Here are some stats:

We helped 490 young men put on tefillin, 70 of them for the very first time in their lives! We gave 100 young ladies Shabbat candle sets, which they will hopefully use tonight wherever they may be.

We received great feedback from the athletes and their families. Most walked away from our booth saying, "I feel so good now!"

I Am Behind You Brother

August 13, 2009 10:12 PM

The car begins to rumble as we leave the paved life and venture onto the dirt roads of rural Vermont. As we lose our GPS signal, we hope the signs will guide us. A right, a left, a hill, a bridge, finally we reach our long awaited destination. We switch vehicles for a golf cart and weave in and out of the 13 acre fruit-tree nursery. The mountainous terrain, the quiet serenity, the delectable fresh picked berries, all gave rise to the reason why the Baal Shem Tov wanted Jews to leave the crowed congested cities and earn a living working the land. Such a peaceful atmosphere, constantly aware of G‑d's wonders, leads one to a feeling of enhanced spirituality.

Near the end of our tour, our host, a truly special person, takes us to a quiet corner. He looks towards us with a serious countenance and describes his troubles with his business on Shabbat. Being in the fruit-tree nursery business, where most customers are local householders, Saturday is prime time. As they grew in their Judaism, He and his wife wanted to have a proper Shabbat; a Shabbat full of quality family time, pleasant meals and restful afternoons. Coupled with that, they both knew how closing their nursery could damage, even kill, their much invested business. With a heavy, but determined and trustful heart, they decided to close their business for one trial Shabbat. After a few moments of reflection, he turns with a smile, "That whole first Shabbat, I was worried. Right after Shabbat I checked my messages. I got an order for over five thousand dollars. G‑d said, 'I am behind you, brother.'"

As our visit came to an end, We were impressed with such a trust and belief in G‑d. Us, two young yeshiva boys, never had such a challenge of risking our families' livelihood for the sake of Shabbat observance. But this experience fortified our hearts with the knowledge that G‑d truly looks after those who follow in His ways.

From Morristown to Galicia

August 12, 2009 1:14 PM

Some of the old streets here are still paved with cobblestone, horse and wagons on the country roads is not a rare sight, and most of the houses are kept in the same style and with the same decorations as has been for hundreds of years. This is the province of Ternopol in Ukraine, the eastern part of the historical region of Galica. Jews have lived in this region since the Middle Ages when the Polish rulers allowed them to settle here. Chassidism spread rapidly throughout entire Galicia from the neighboring region of Podolye, to the south-east. For centuries before the Holocaust, Ternopol had been a vibrant Jewish community of hundreds of thousands with dozens of synagogues and several famous learning centers. As a result of the Holocaust and fifty years of communist rule, however, there have remained only a hundred or so Jews in the entire province. We came to Ternopol from Yeshiva Tiferes Bachurim of Morristown, NJ, to meet with as many of those Jews as possible, reconnect them with their heritage and to help them maintain a connection with the Chabad rabbi in Zhitomir responsible for the small communities in Western Ukraine, Rabbi Nochum Tamarin.

Soon after our arrival we began visiting the local Jews in the capital city of Ternopol. Throughout our journey visiting Jews in different parts of the city we noticed that some have maintained some Jewish identity and knowledge either from childhood or by learning about it from parents of grandparents. For example, we met an old lady who lost her entire family in the Holocaust when she was a teenager. Since then until recent years she had had no connection with any religious Jews, but nonetheless, she told us, that she starts every morning with the Modeh Ani prayer and every Friday she lights candles like her mother taught her. She also told us that she remembers how her father could not afford a shtreiml (traditional chassidic fur Shabbat hat) and used to say, "I wonder if I will ever be able to afford one."

One of our functions in Ternopol was to organize simple Shabbat-day meals for as many of the local Jews as possible. We rented a small hall in a hotel downtown and served the food available to us. Our first Shabbat we had plenty of food that we brought from Kiev and Zhitomir, hence we were able to give out such things as chocolates and cookies. For challah, we used matzahs. For our second and last Shabbat, as we ran out of all of the food we had brought with us and the only kosher food available in town was fruit, pickles, and some canned fish. We ended up mostly serving a lot of fruit and made it into some sort of a fruit-Shabbat—and it worked out quite well! Both of the Shabbats everything went very nicely: we said a few words about the weekly Torah portion and Judaism in general, and answered some questions. Everyone seemed to like it and many expressed gratitude. For some this was the first Shabbat meal in their lives.

The lion's share of our stay in Ternopol consisted of traveling to all the towns and villages of the province where Jews are known to reside.

In the village of Horoshova we found a true treasure. Twelve Jews: an older lady with two daughters, each with a large family. Most of the children in both families are either teenagers or young adults. We put tefillin on three of the brothers for the first time and spent some time discussing Judaism with one of the families. Later we wrote down all their contact information and passed it on to Rabbi Tamarin at the end of our trip.

At the conclusion of our trip, on our way back, we visited the resting place of the Baal Shem Tov in Mezhibozh, a very special experience.

Overall, we feel that our trip was a success as we did come in contact with quite a few Jews from the Ternopol province. Most importantly we found many interested youths, which was one of our main objectives. We hope that with G‑d's help our small contribution to the development of Jewish life in Ternopol will bear plentiful fruit that will bring all the Jews of Ternopol and all the Jewish people to true and speedy Redemption!

The Baal Shem Tov's synagogue
The Baal Shem Tov's synagogue

Oblivious to the Obvious

August 11, 2009 5:05 PM
Check-in counter at Singapore en-route to Jakarta.
Check-in counter at Singapore en-route to Jakarta.

Aircraft maintenance has Yehuda and me delayed for a few hours at Jakarta's Soekarno Hatta International Airport, as we await departure for Bali. Grounded passengers look gloomy as they lounge on oversized surfboards and grumble. They have been forced to replace adrenaline-rushed calls for "surf's up" with anxious anticipation for "gear's up."

We both would rather not be inconvenienced by spending half a day in an under-construction terminal.. That said, our experience over these past few weeks has taught us to consider a bump in the road as more of a hill to be climbed for a scenic view. Judaism teaches that everything happens for a reason. All that G‑d does, He does for a purpose. When faced with a challenge or disruption, the Jew declares that "this too is for the good."

Our visit to Indonesia, a republic which does not officially recognize Judaism, is in recognition of the inestimable value of every Jew. It is this awareness of every Jew's untold worth, and his or her indispensability, that enhanced our past Shabbat. Ever the fantasists, Yehuda and I were planning for the service and festive meal to be held at our hotel in a central area of the bustling metropolis. It would be convenient and simple. We would gather the Jews and hire a function room at our comfortable lodgings to host our guests for what we hoped would be an unforgettable Shabbat.

Man devises and G‑d compromises. To include a Jewess who would otherwise not have been able to attend, we scrambled to find a new venue that was closer to her home. Thankfully everything was moving along smoothly, except for our efforts to find appropriate accommodations where we could stay agreeably and safely for the weekend. Left with no practical alternatives, we booked a room at an establishment about thirty minutes from where the Shabbat dinner would be hosted.

The function was inspirational. Graced by a multinational group, the table was filled with delicious food, and pounded by palms beating to the tunes of traditional Jewish melodies. Despite maneuvering through unfriendly terrain and faces on the half-hour trudge back to our hotel, the change of location proved worthwhile. Every single Jew is worth it.

For the rest of Shabbat, the two of us studied, joked, and carped over the lack of an alternative hotel. We theorized on what truly motivated us to move the party across town to accommodate one Jew. As the close of Shabbat came, so did a lesson in the Almighty's mysterious ways.

As we had scheduled, I headed down to meet a friend in the lobby an hour after Shabbat. However, Yehuda was running late. As my colleague got off the elevator and approached us, our friend accidentally referred to Yehuda as "Rabbi," despite our efforts to keep a low profile in the Islamic nation. However, it was not accidental as much as providential. Immediately, two men turned to us and happily broke protocol by identifying themselves as our fellow brethren. It turned out that our Shabbat plans were altered so that we would connect with three more Jews.

The purpose for the unpleasant holdup in our trip may not yet be apparent to us, or it may never be. Perhaps it is just for me to have the time to share a simple story of the magnificence of divine providence.

The Gentle Soldier

August 10, 2009

Anschul was born to an Orthodox immigrant family in New York. He was always a gentle and loving soul. At the age of 18 he was not overlooked by the U.S. draft, and he was sent overseas to Europe to fight in World War II.

In his words, he has seen open miracles that have allowed him to live and prevented him from hurting anyone else. Before he was drafted, he had helped out in a print shop that belonged to a hospital. When the military saw that he worked in a hospital, they mistakenly thought he had a medical background and assigned him to a medic squad.

Later, right before D-Day, he found himself on a ship close to Normandy Beach. At the last minute he was whisked away to an army hospital because he was a medic. He feels that this saved him from death on the beaches of Normandy.

One time, when in Germany, he went walking to town alone. When he returned, his buddies berated him for endangering himself. They did not know that his fluency in Yiddish allowed him to communicate with the natives.

During his entire military career, he would go to services on Friday night whenever he was stationed near a Jewish community. However, after his discharge, he became less connected to his religion. This created a rift between him and his family.

When we came in to his home, he told us this was the most monumental moment in his life since his time in the military. Never before had a rabbi walked into his house—and now he got two at once!

He showed us his collection of fascinating old photos, and then he said he wanted to show us something he hadn't used in over 70 years. Like a young boy, he bounced to his closet and pulled out the old tallit and tefillin he had worn at his bar mitzvah. Despite all he has been through, he always kept them with him.

Today, at age 86, he is healthy and strong, and after reminiscing about his miraculous and riveting life, he put on tefillin and reconnected to the distant days of his youth.

Anschul's tallit and tefillin from his bar mitzvah.
Anschul's tallit and tefillin from his bar mitzvah.

Out and About Aruba

August 9, 2009 12:00 PM
With some new friends from Venezuela.
With some new friends from Venezuela.

Our first stop of the day was a store called "La-Maderna," owned by a Jewish man named Benjy. He is quite religious, and at times our conversation turned emotional.

Our next visit was to Gad, from Diamond International. We spoke for a while, helped him put on tefillin, and scheduled a repeat visit for tomorrow.

We then paid a visit to the Jewish proprietor of a cigar shop. She is an elderly lady who is totally unaffiliated, and was impressed with our open style of connecting to all kinds of Jews. We had a very nice discussion about how G‑d expects each of us to serve Him to the best of our abilities. She took upon herself the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles every Friday evening before sunset.

We then headed over to the "La-Linda Clothing Store" and met the owner. He said that he needed some time to get ready to put on tefillin, and asked us to come back tomorrow to show him the ropes (or should we say straps?).

Finally, we made it to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Albert, who both anxiously await the "Annual Chabad Visit." Mrs. Albert told us that the second she heard we were in town, she advised the security guard in advance to make sure to let us in! While enjoying a cool kosher drink (bought just for us), we discussed their family, community, and the possibility of moving to Israel. We sold them a couple of Jewish books which we had schlepped with us, and put up two mezuzahs on their doors. Mr. Albert took us outside to show us the fruit trees that he has growing in his backyard (one of them which was planted from Israeli seeds) and we ended up lingering there for hours! At long last, we said goodbye, with plans for another visit before we leave the island.

Our planned adventures for tomorrow include: visiting David who does imports, Martha from the Israeli Consulate, Shea who owns a large mall, and a candidate for president of Aruba.

Emergency in India

August 7, 2009 12:24 PM
Missing for over two weeks.
Missing for over two weeks.

When I signed up I was hoping for and expecting hard work, but I never realized how intense my assignment would end up being.

Here is how it all began: As you may have read, an Israeli went missing two week ago, and this is what has happened since…

Sunday – There was a dead body abandoned on the side of a road and we went to see if it was the missing Israeli. It wasn't. We then spent the rest of the day running through the streets making announcements and trying to garner interest, information and search volunteers.

Monday – Recruiting dozens of people to join search parties. My partner Yehuda and I split up on the searches so I am alone now.

Tuesday – Recruiting, dealing with international press, and fundraising.

Wednesday – Waiting for Israeli backpackers-turned-rescue-workers to show up (which is an adventure for itself), traversing cow jammed roads at 60 miles per hour going up to the mountains, and hiking in the dark.

Thursday – Getting up at 5 am, hiking across cliffs, crossing a treacherous river on a rickety log. After a five hour hike, we arrived at a town consisting of four guest houses, and to top it all off I was fasting (today, is the Ninth of Av when we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem). Broke my fast on mangoes, hard boiled eggs, and warm Coke.

Friday – After a sleepless night, I went on a ten hour hike, combing a mangrove forest (mangroves drop their seed so densely that combing through one mile took us five hours!) with a stray dog who decided to adopt me. I ate lunch with my feet dangling over a cliff. Got back and immersed myself in a hot spring full of people and sulfur to prepare for Shabbat, established a Chabad House in Khare-Ghanga, and prepared its first Shabbat meal (we are going to have mangoes, hard boiled eggs, and the challahs that Yehuda kindly sent me).

Shabbat –Someone stole my pants (welcome to India) so I celebrated Shabbat in my PJs. I walked the search team until as far as I was permitted to walk on Shabbat, and as they toiled getting up the mountain I encouraged them and sang for them (I have a pretty loud voice so the residents of Khare-Ghanga got to enjoy it too!). I spent the rest of Shabbat wondering if mangoes and hardboiled eggs is what I'll eat for the rest of my life.

Sunday – I marched with a group back down the mountain and, due to some bad directions, we got completely lost and landed ourselves on "holy" ground, got chased off because we were wearing shoes, and ended up climbing up a cliff. Our taxis didn't show up so we walked a large part of way.

Monday – Recruiting, recruiting and cow milking.

Tuesday - Running a Chabad House can be tough, but with Yehuda off helping with the searches, it's gotten particularly hard. Incidentally, the kosher restaurant is packed for the first time in weeks, so I'm running around taking orders.

Wednesday – The trail is starting to get cold and people want to give up, but we just found a possibility of a lead.

Thursday – Recruiting can start growing on you. Whenever I meet an Israeli I automatically ask, "So are you coming on the searches? Oh, and by the way did you put on tefillin today?"

Friday – I woke up with the daunting realization that I'll be running the Shabbat meal and entertaining 200 guests tonight all by myself! Hopefully, by the time Shabbat is over, I'll have recruited them all to join the search effort…

An incident which kind of sums it all up: One of the guest house owners asked if the lost person is a celebrity. We told him that he wasn't. He asked why we were searching for him, and one of the Israelis answered, "All Jews are family."

I hope to have good news soon. In the meantime, please pray for the safe return of Ami-Chai ben Devorah.

Leading a search party over the mountains.
Leading a search party over the mountains.

Steve's Story

August 6, 2009 1:52 PM
Steve in tefillin for the very first time in his life.
Steve in tefillin for the very first time in his life.

Steve grew up attending church and celebrating Christian holidays. But he felt that he never really fit in. For some reason, the worship seemed foreign and hollow. But everyone went to church in Jacksonville, MS, so he did too.

One day, his mother told him something he never knew: she and her entire family were Jewish. "By extension," she explained, "that means that you are Jewish as well!"

Excited with this new revelation, Steve began searching the internet trying to learn what Judaism was all about. He also took to visiting the local temple. Many of his google searches took him to Chabad.org. One day, he decided to take advantage of the Ask the Rabbi service to make sure that he was really a bona fide Jew in spite of his father's not being Jewish and the fact that he grew up going to church.

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar, of Chabad.org, and Steve became good friends. Yisroel suggested that since we would be in town, Steve should take advantage of the opportunity to meet with us in person, so that we could answer some of his many questions about his new-found faith.

We met Steve, his parents, and a friend. They proudly displayed Steve's grandma's ketubah and other evidence of their Jewish background. Our conversation ranged from why Jews wear tzitizit to the meaning of Jewish identity and the rudimentary concepts of Chassidic philosophy.

With regret, our meeting ended all too soon as we left for our next appointment.

Arrival in Aruba

August 6, 2009 10:19 AM

Sholom and I settled into our seats for a quiet flight. Between us sat a man whom we both initially thought was of Italian descent. A few minutes into the flight, he removed a Russian periodical from his handbag. I inquired if he was perhaps Jewish, and sure enough, we caught a live one! We spent the rest of our flight chatting and enjoying each other's company. Between finding our luggage and arranging a car, we helped him wrap tefillin (see pic.) and exchanged contact information. He was overjoyed to receive an invitation to our Shabbat service.

After such a grand beginning, we quickly unpacked in our hotel room, bought some basic food, and headed out to meet Yaakov Attas, the Jewish community president, to introduce ourselves and exchange contacts. We were expecting an easy drive, not anticipating any adventure. The problem was that our GPS had yet to realize that we had left Brooklyn. So we resorted to the old-fashioned method of asking around. Driving around town cluelessly, we asked three people unsuccessfully for directions, and what luck, on our fourth try we met a Jew! Our new friend is from Queens, NY, and he was shocked to see two yeshiva students here in Aruba. He quickly became the fifth member of our growing Shabbat minyan. But still no directions!

Moving along, we met a local who finally informed us that it would be quite difficult to find the address that we were looking for on our own. So he offered to bike ahead, and we followed in the car (pretty cool!). On the way, we happened to pass the Conservative Temple and noticed the rabbi's car, so we set up a time to meet with him at 11 o'clock tomorrow morning. We also scheduled a time tomorrow to visit with Yaakov.

Very fulfilling day today, and looking forward to more to come...

Shtetl Jaunts

August 4, 2009 1:00 AM

And so it has come to pass that we are back in the land of our forefathers, the land of the shtetl, the place where our ancestors played the fiddle and struggled to survive.

We took the scenic route from Sumy to Kanatop, setting off into the Ukrainian countryside in search of Jews whom no one knows of, Jews living in villages whose names you and I will neither be able to pronounce nor remember. When I say village, my friend, I do not mean Hoboken. The villages that we passed through have neither roads nor telephones but do have many chickens, and all the water comes from wells. They are places where people speak a strange hybrid of Ukrainian and Russian, and where Ivan the Village Drunkard is a real person.

All that is missing from the storybooks we read as children are the Jews. They either were killed or they fled to the bigger cities years ago. And our job is to find the few that are left.

Most of the peasants that we met did not have much information for us. But somehow, after passing through one village festival, getting stuck on a seemingly endless dirt road and presenting a villager with a Laffy Taffy, we got the name of one lone Jew and we planned to visit him on the return trip.

When we finally arrived in Kanatop on Sunday night, we held a beautiful farbrengen with the Kanatop community. In the morning, we held services. For anyone who has never heard of Kanatop, listen to me. If you ever want to meet a group of goodhearted, warm Jews, go to Kanatop. Don't just take it from me. Ask anyone who has been there.

Well, on our way back to Sumy, we stopped again in a village to follow the lead that a peasant woman had given us. We had just pulled up in front of a little hut when we were greeted by a rather rude Ukrainian woman. She was the ex-wife of the Jew we sought, and told us to leave him alone because he is a bad man. In any case, it was getting rather late, so we thanked her and told her that we'd be back later in the week. We're going to drop by there again on Wednesday, G‑d willing.

What more is there to tell? Ah, yes, when we got back to our apartment, we accidentally entered the wrong code to turn the alarm system off and had to explain that to two machine-gun wielding Ukrainian security personnel.

Buchenwald Defeated

August 4, 2009 12:01 AM

We visited Max (Moshe Dovid) in his New Jersey home. After a pleasant conversation, we asked him if he ever put on tefillin. He responded, "I used to wear them every day in my youth, but now it has been sixty years that I have not done this mitzvah. Let me tell you why:

"During the Holocaust, I was a prisoner in the Buchenwald concentration camp. One day, a man in my barrack showed us that he had gotten hold of a pair of tefillin. He had gotten them from a German worker in the camp who had told him that they had belonged to a Jewish person whom he had hidden in his home until he went to buy groceries and was never seen again.

"This Jew shared the tefillin with all of us in the barrack. We used to wait in line to put them on, whisper a few prayers and pass them on to the next man in line.

"One day, while owner of the tefillin was wearing them, a Nazi guard entered the barrack. When he saw the Jew praying, he became furious, pulled the tefillin off the Jew's head and tossed them into the fireplace. As soon as the guard walked out, the Jew stuck his hand into the fire and rescued his beloved tefillin. After he had brushed them off and put them back on his head, the guard re-entered. He threw them back into the fire, and hit the hapless Jew with the butt of his riffle until he passed out and died.

"After witnessing such a story," concluded Max, "I could not bring myself to put on tefillin again."

We told him that it seemed to us that the greatest victory Max could ever have over the Nazi guards would be to demonstrate that in spite of what he had been through, he is still able to put on tefillin.

And he did.

From the Borsht Belt to the Bible Belt

August 3, 2009 2:47 PM
Good times and fond memories melt away the age difference.
Good times and fond memories melt away the age difference.

As you may have read, my friends Shlomo Leib Goldman and Tom Yahel, whilst roving in Upstate New York, met a man whose mother lives in an old age home in Jacksonville, FL. They told him that they would pass on her information to me, since I would be roving in the Jacksonville region.

Now we are here in Jacksonville and decided to go to visit her.

Upon entering the home, two nice old ladies stopped us and asked who we were. They were a lot of fun to speak to. One gave us her bingo winnings to pass on to charity and harangued the other to do the same. (It is hard to convince people that we are truly not collecting money). She then asked us if we were part of Chabad, and told us that Chabad rabbis helped her when her husband passed away and that her daughter is very involved with Chabad in California. They also told us that many of the women in this home go to Shabbat services and light Shabbat candles together.

We then passed by the cafeteria, from where we heard various people telling each other, "The chassidim have come." We went inside and found the woman we were looking for, the mother of the man our friends had met in New York. When I mentioned that I had also spent time in Monticello, ladies from all corners of the room started screaming that they too were from Monticello. One told us that her father was very religious and the pride of the synagogue.

I told them that last Sukkot I had interned in Monticello's Landfield Avenue Synagogue where Rabbi Chanowitz is the rabbi. One lady said, "We were big donors there, one room is named after me, and my husband's name is on the wall." She then told me that her son still lives there and has since become disconnected from the community. Now, I guess this time we will be giving our friends up north someone to visit!

As you can see, we had a blast!
As you can see, we had a blast!

Our Uneventful Day

August 2, 2009 12:05 PM
Daniel, Gail and her new mezuzah.
Daniel, Gail and her new mezuzah.

Trilogy is a new housing development in Redmond, WA. Our first day there was great. We helped several people affix mezuzahs to their doors, put on tefillin, and sign up for over-the-phone study with JNet.org.

The next day, we returned with high hopes, but G‑d had something else in store for us. We spent over four hours trudging from door to door without meeting a single Jew. Tired and worn out, we decided to go to a nearby Starbucks (of which there is no shortage of in Washington :-)) and study some Torah.

We then decided to visit one more street, where we had four possible contacts, and call it a day. So we drove all the way to the edge of the development to a street called Marley Drive. Finally, at the last house on the drive (which was also the last address we had planned on visiting), a woman answered the door. She told us that while she is Jewish, she does not observe any Judaism and bade us farewell.

As we were backing out of the driveway feeling down about our uneventful day, she came running out towards us saying, "Wait a minute, I really do want to speak to you guys! Can you come tomorrow morning? I need to go out at nine thirty, so if you come at nine o'clock I will have a half hour for you."

We returned the next morning, and we had an amazing time together. Our half-hour appointment with Gail turned into an hour and a half of deep discussion, sometimes cheerful, sometimes intense and emotional. At the end, we gave her a pair of Shabbat candles and helped her sign up for weekly alerts from Chabad.org so that she would remember when to light them.

Gail also purchased a mezuzah for her front door so that next time some rabbis come roving over they will know that they came to the right place!

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