Roving Rabbis

A Wood-carved Rabbi

August 24, 2012 2:30 PM
Joseph's workshop.
Joseph's workshop.

Yesterday we visited Forsbacka, 190 km north of Stockholm. There is only one known Jewish inhabitant there, but past experiences have proven that it’s quality over quantity. Our time in Forsbacka was no exception.

We had called Joseph several days earlier, so he was expecting us. We made our way to his home, where we were warmly welcomed. Noticing our Tefillin, Joseph told us that three years ago he bought his own pair, and has been waking up at five a.m. every day to put them on and say the blessings.

We told Joseph about ourselves, and he told us about his childhood in Vienna, Austria, and how his youth came to an abrupt end when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. At the tender age of six Joseph was sent to the concentration camps, where he witnessed the deaths of his entire family before being rescued by the Swedish Red Cross. “That’s how I came to live in Sweden,” he explained. “Thank G‑d, I have a good life here.”

Joseph asked if we could join him outside for a moment. He led us to a shed which he had set up as a woodworking workshop. We admired the various intricate carvings that lined the walls. “I have a surprise for you, “Joseph said, beaming. He presented us with a carving of a Rabbi, complete with a hat, beard, and fringes. “I created this after I met Rabbi Namdar (Chabad Rabbi in Gothenburg).”

It was time to wrap up our visit. In the month of Elul, preceding Rosh Hashana, it is customary to blow the Shofar daily. We explained to Joseph how the Shofar reminds us of G‑d's special and loving relationship with every Jew. As we blew the shofar for him, Joseph, the spirited survivor, had tears in his eyes.

We promised Joseph that though we would soon be heading back to New York, we would stay in touch. In a place so isolated from Judaism, Joseph can use some support and encouragement. And in our day-to-day lives, we can use the inspiration from this beautiful testimony to the power of the Jewish soul.

Shabbat Shalom on Tuesday

August 22, 2012 9:00 AM

Rroving rabbis, travelling the world in the heat of summer, certainly attract attention in their black and white rabbinic attire. Amongst the colorful inhabitants of Oahu, Hawaii, our conservative clothing is even more conspicuous. In fact, on one of our downtown excursions in search of a Jewish businessman, one local told us, "You two aren't from here. You need to get some Aloha shirts!"

But standing out is our preferred method, and it has paid off. That same day, while walking on a busy street, we heard a shout of "Shabbat Shalom." We turned around to see a man give us a smile, and briskly walk by. We hurried to catch up with him and he told us he’d just left his office for a brief errand and happened to see us. We sat down with him on a small ledge, introduced ourselves, and explained that we were visiting Oahu to help Jews learn more about their heritage. At first he seemed hesitant, but it only took a few moments until he warmed up.

During the course of the conversation, we mentioned a Jewish idea that really sparked his interest. He wanted to learn more, but had to go back to work, so we set a date for a Torah class the following week. One discussion has led to the next, and we've been in contact ever since.

Divine providence placed us in the same place at the same moment. And our traditional garb allowed our new friend to make the initial connection.

Miriam Bat Yosef

August 21, 2012 9:00 AM

While in Bangalore we were privileged to perform the mitzvah of chessed shel emet, kindness to the deceased, which is considered particularly meritorious because the recipient can never thank or repay the giver.

We learned about Miriam, who had arrived in India over 30 years ago and became one of Guru Sathya Sai Baba’s ten million followers. Over the years, she reached the guru’s inner circle and lost all connection with her Jewish roots. Less than two years ago, Rabbi Rivkin, Chabad rabbi to Bangalore, made her acquaintance.

She was already quite elderly and living in a nursing home. She had made it very clear in her will that she wished to be cremated after her passing, according to the traditions of the ashram, but after many long discussions with Rabbi Rivkin, Miriam’s feelings for her Jewish heritage began to re-emerge. She changed her will, stating her desire to have a Jewish burial in the old Jewish cemetery of Bangalore. A short time later, in December of 2010, Miriam passed away. The small local Jewish community participated in her funeral, and she was given a proper Jewish burial.

Soheil, a Muslim gravestone maker, was commissioned to create the tombstone for Miriam’s grave. Though more than a year had passed since her death, the gravestone was still not ready. We were asked to see to it that the gravestone be erected as part of the mitzvah of honoring and remembering the deceased.

We tried contacting Soheil numerous times without success. We were finally able to reach him five days before our scheduled departure. He told us that he had been sent an email with the gravestone details, but it was in Hebrew, and he was not able to open it. If we wanted the gravestone created, he told us, we would need to make a CD with the file, and he would be able to work with that.

We quickly arranged for the local office-supplies store to create and deliver the CD to Solheil who managed to have the gravestone ready by our last day in India. So, on our way to the airport we stopped at the cemetery, a historic part of the Jewish presence in Bangalore, founded in 1904. It is a partitioned section in the front of the Muslim cemetery, with some 50 Jewish plots.

Praying at Miriam's grave.
Praying at Miriam's grave.

We directed the workers to Miriam’s plot. While setting the stone, one of the workers turned to us.
"Mother?" he asked.
"No." we answered.
"Jewish family," we replied, and at that moment we truly felt the powerful bond the Jewish nation shares.

When the stone was in place, we recited Psalms, and then intoned Kel maleh rachamim – the prayer for the soul of the departed.

May the soul of Miriam bat Yosef be bound in the bond of eternal life.

Printing the Tanya in Manitou Springs

August 20, 2012 4:17 PM

We returned today from Manitou Springs, Colorado, a popular tourist destination best known for its scenic landscapes, cool mountain air, healing mineral springs, and hiking trails. Located at an altitude of 6,412 feet above sea level, it lies at the base of Pikes Peak, the most visited mountain in the United States. During our time there, we got to meet some of the locals, an eclectic mix of people to say the least. There are the artists who run the many art galleries that dot the town, the bearded Harley Davidson bikers, and the owners of a coffee shop named Mateh (tribe), who claim to descend from the ten lost tribes. We actually felt quite at home with our black hats, coats, and beards.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, encouraged his followers to print copies of the Tanya in remote locations where Jewish people live. Manitou Springs is home to a handful of Jews, so we decided to print a Tanya there. We asked our newfound friends for their participation, and their enthusiasm for this project was remarkable. We printed half of the Tanya at the home of a B., a local Jewish businessman, and the rest at a store on the main street of town, owned by A., a native Israeli. Both felt extremely privileged to be included in the printing of this landmark Chassidic work.

Later that week, the picturesque town of Manitou Springs held its first ever Tanya class. It took place in the home of another Jewish resident, with the attendance of several local Jews. We used the freshly printed sheets, and focused on chapter 32, which talks about the love one must have for every Jew.

Tanya class in Manitou Springs
Tanya class in Manitou Springs

At the conclusion of the class, H., owner of a souvenir shop, asked if he could say a few words.

“Friends, you've known me for years,” he began. “To you I seem happy-go-lucky, living my dream life in this great place. What you can't see, however, are the questions and doubts that plague me constantly. What I learned tonight,” he pointed at the sheets, “has resolved so many of my issues. I finally feel at peace.”

Yiddish in Borås

August 19, 2012 9:00 AM

Sweden is known around the world for being democratic, safe, and clean, with beautiful nature and rich wildlife. In our travels around the country, we have seen deep forests and mountainous terrain, as well as farmland and white sandy beaches. The beauty of our surroundings, however, pales in comparison to the beauty of the souls we have had the privilege of meeting.

Mrs. Weltman lives in the city of Boras where there is a small Jewish community. Nevertheless, we were somewhat taken aback when she welcomed us warmly in fluent Yiddish. We sat down and Mrs. Weltman, whose youthful personality belies her age, shared some old Yiddish jokes with us.

Feeling quite at home, we heard our our host describe what brought her to Sweden. Mrs. Weltman turned somber and told us she had been born in Lodz, Poland, and lived an idyllic life for the first few years, surrounded by her loving, close-knit family. When the Nazis invaded Lodz in 1939, life as she knew it came to an end. She suffered unspeakable horrors in the ensuing years, but survived, along with a small handful of relatives. After the war, they faced the monumental task of carving a new life for themselves. She ended up in Sweden, and has lived there quietly for more than sixty years. The only family she has now is her son and daughter. Thankfully, they both call Sweden home.

"I am so happy to see you," she exclaimed, in Yiddish. "You remind me of my childhood, of my father, my brothers."

Mrs. Weltman phoned her son, who lives nearby, urging him to come and meet us. A dutiful son, he came immediately. We introduced ourselves to him, and explained the purpose of our travels. Of course, we asked him if he would like to put on tefillin.

"I haven't put on tefillin since my Bar Mitzvah many years ago," he said. "But since you came especially to visit us, I will put on tefillin today."

We helped him do the mitzvah, an experience which visibly moved him. He closed his eyes, and prayed for himself and his family.

We stayed a while longer, teaching some Torah concepts to our captive audience.

As we headed to our next appointment, we felt newly invigorated by our encounter with this unassuming heroine.

One Jewish Family

August 17, 2012 8:00 AM

Tartagal, a city in the province of Salta, Argentina, is approximately 2000 km from the capital, Buenos Aires. Fortunately, we found ourselves in the Jujuy Province, a mere 230 km from Tartagal, and our plan was to travel there and visit the only Jewish family in a very non-Jewish city.

It was a 12 hour round trip by bus, but the smiling faces that greeted us made every minute worthwhile. Four years ago, Chabad rabbis had visited this family for the first time, and since then, they wait all year for their summertime guests.

We spent nine hours together. We talked about the Torah, taught the sons the Hebrew alphabet, and spoke about Mitzvahs.

We explained to the older son that as one of the only Jewish residents in the city, he has the responsibility and privilege of bringing G‑dliness to the entire Tartagal. He asked what we thought he should do, and we suggested he join the Jnet program. He was thrilled with the idea and we were able to connect him with a Spanish-speaking study partner.

Last we heard, they plan on learning Torah together for an hour every week.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, often reminded us of the Torah's promise, that when you plant and sow, things will grow.

We are humbled to be his emissaries.

A Change in Schedule

August 16, 2012 3:15 PM

We arrived in Poznan (formerly Posen) mid-afternoon, and we had scheduled a meeting with a community activist who was going to put us in touch with more Jews in the area.

When our meeting was pushed off an hour, we decided to explore the city. In its heyday Posen was home to a rich and vibrant Jewish community, including the outstanding scholar and authority on Jewish law, Rabbi Akiva Eiger. We strolled through the city trying to picture what it would have looked like then.

Half an hour into our walk, we noticed a man waving enthusiastically to us from his storefront. We went inside and greeted the gentleman and his wife, both of whom wore crosses around their necks. The store turned out to be a painting gallery, and the couple spoke English, so we had a nice chat.

On our way out, we asked them if they knew any local Jews. To our astonishment, the wife said, “Actually, I am Jewish!” We turned back around, sat down, and discussed Judaism, the importance of Jewish education for children, and mitzvahs they could start doing. We also put them in contact with the Chabad rabbi in Warsaw, Rabbi Shalom Stambler.

We bade them farewell and headed to our appointment, marveling at the divine providence we just encountered. Clearly, G‑d was orchestrating our schedule…

Connor's Bar Mitzvah

August 15, 2012
Connor's Bar Mitzvah
Connor's Bar Mitzvah

Middleton, a town in south-eastern County Cork, Ireland, is famous as the headquarters of the Jameson Whiskey Distillery.

It is also home to Julie, an American expat, who lives alone with her son Connor, 14. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Julie's family belonged to a Reform temple, but since her move to Ireland years ago, she has not participated in anything Jewish.

When we initially made contact with Julie, she told us that she had been wanting to give Connor a Bar Mitzvah for a while, but had never managed to do so. She asked if there was anything we could do. We offered to put on tefillin with him, say the blessings, and speak about the significance of a Bar Mitzvah. It would be a basic, no-frills, Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

Later that week, Julie and Connor, whose Hebrew name we learned was Chaim, arrived at our hotel for an intimate Bar Mitzvah celebration in the hotel lobby. While we wrapped Connor in Tefillin, Julie was taking photos and videos, beaming with Jewish motherly pride.

What's a Bar Mitzvah without presents? We gave Chaim/Connor an illustrated Scroll of Esther, and we gave Julie the book Think Jewish by Rabbi Zalman Posner.

It was not your typical Bar Mitzvah. No reception. No theme. No party planner. No entertainment. But in a sleepy town in Ireland, without fanfare, a Jewish boy became aware of his rightful place in the Jewish nation.

Small World Indeed

August 14, 2012

While stationed in Bangalore, India, we decided to head north to Hyderabad and visit an Israeli family living there.

Before setting out, we searched online for any other Jews living in the area. We were excited to come across J., and we sent her a message explaining that we would be visiting, and were interested in getting together with her.

Our time in Hyderabad was wonderful. We put on tefillin with our Israeli friend, had a lovely conversation with his family, and even had some time left to enjoy the historical city.

We were anxious to hear back from J., but with no internet connection, we had to wait until the evening to check if she had responded.

When we returned to our lodgings we saw an enthusiastic response with her contact details, and a warm invitation for us to visit.

It was already late at night and we had a morning flight the next day, so we weren't sure if we would be able to meet, but we resolved to try.

We called at nine the next morning, and she graciously invited us over. We told her that we were in quite a hurry to catch our flight, but since she was only a five minute drive away, we would stop by on our way to the airport.

We got into a taxi, and attempted to give the driver directions, but it was not easy with our lack of communication. We called J., and in no time her security guard and the driver were talking in rapid Hindu.

We finally arrived. She invited us in, offered us drinks, and we started talking. We all know the saying "It's a small world," but sometimes you have to travel all the way to India to really experience that. While discussing her Jewish upbringing in the States, it turned out that J. was born and bred in Natick, MA, the very town where my partner, Mendel Fogelman, lives with his family as emissaries of the Rebbe! What a fascinating display of divine providence! We had traveled 15 hours and across 10 time zones, only to meet a Jew from our own backyard.

Towards the end of our visit, we discussed the importance of lighting the Shabbat candles, which she agreed to do, starting this Shabbat.

With no time to spare, we said our goodbyes and dashed off to the airport, thankful to have met such wonderful people.

Tefillin for the Tankist

August 13, 2012 10:26 AM

We called a local Jewish gentleman and asked if we could come over and meet with him. He immediately agreed and we headed over. Unfortunately, finding his building was not as easy! We roamed the streets of Kamentz Podolksi for almost two hours, asking just about everyone we passed how to find his address. Finally we succeeded and sat down with our host, Avraham Itzik, who is 90 years old.

We offered to put on tefillin with him, and Avraham Itzik was overjoyed at the opportunity. He told us that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done it.

When we mentioned that we were visiting from America, our host became teary and told us that during World War II he was a tankist for the Russian army. When he was discharged he learned that his entire family, except for one brother, had perished. This brother immigrated to America shortly thereafter, and Avraham Itzik stayed behind in Kamenetz Podolski rebuilding his life amongst the ashes. Our mention of America brought back memories of his brother, who is no longer alive, as well as the rest of his family who were taken well before their time.

We tried to encourage him, telling him that his bravery during the war undoubtedly saved countless lives. We explained that our ultimate revenge against the Nazis is keeping our Jewish pride alive, and doing mitzvahs – like the tefillin he just put on - which will bring the final redemption, and reunite us with our loved ones.

Avraham Itzik nodded, and smiled through his tears.

An Outpouring in the Wilderness

August 13, 2012 10:11 AM

Although we are meeting precious Jewish souls on a daily basis, there are those who stand out; whose stories beg to be told.

Meet Yoram, an Israeli, who has lived in Ireland for 26 years and established himself as a prominent Celtic artist.

Walking into his studio in the humble town of Castleblaney, we were greeted by a vast array of quite non-Jewish looking sculptures. "Lo taaseh l'chah pesel-- You shall not make for yourself a graven image1," he said with a grin as he welcomed us in. "I know about that. But I know very well who I am; I'm not worried about them," he said, pointing to the sculptures. Among them we noticed a plaque inscribed with Hebrew prayer for prosperity.

Unfortunately for Yoram, business has recently slowed. Although he has been visited by Chabad rabbis in the past, the current lull in activity allowed us the luxury of an in depth conversation.

Yoram told us how he ended up living in Ireland (he married an Irish woman he met on a kibbutz in Israel) and his rise to fame in the Irish art community. Understandably, not all the locals took his intrusion into their own area of expertise very well. Nevertheless, with his talent and ambition he has found much success.

In the middle of our conversation, as if on cue, Yoram's father phoned from Israel. "Shalom Abba!" he said. "I have two rabbis here who have come to visit me, and we're going to put on tefillin together!" His father, an active member of a Jerusalem synagogue, sounded very pleased, his pride palpable over the speakerphone.

When Yoram was ready to put on tefillin he proudly procured his own beautifully-made pair, given to him by his father. But when we removed their plastic coverings, Yoram appeared shocked. "Why are you taking those off?" he asked. When we explained that wearing tefillin with their covers is questionable according to Jewish law, he told us that he had mistakenly done so for a three month period last year, during which he experienced terrible luck in business. Now enlightened, he put them on with enthusiasm.

While reading the Shema, Yoram's voice began to change noticeably. Then, as he said the words, "V'lo taturu acharei l'vavchem--You shall not stray after your heart2," the floodgates opened and he sobbed. After several moments he recomposed himself and concluded, thanking us for our understanding.

He invited us to take some photos with him, but only in the next room, "Away from the forbidden images."

A short while after our visit, we received an email from Yoram: (Translated from Hebrew)

Hi Rabbis Dovid and Osher,

Thank you very much for your visit. You have done a great Mitzvah sitting with me; I was very excited to sit with Jews like myself. I suddenly realized how important it is that there are Jews who care about me. I'm in Ireland 26 years now and never felt so close to Judaism. I cried with excitement. I hope I will be okay and that G‑d forgives me.

When I put the Tefillin on, I felt as if the heavens had opened and G‑d heard me and my prayers. You did a big Mitzvah on that day, and I hope G‑d will reward you as such.

I put on Tefillin every morning, and it uplifts me, I feel Jewish and am happy with my lot.

You literally saved a Jewish soul—such a good, important thing—which I will never forget.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Shalom and next year in Jerusalem,

Yoram and family

These are precious words, written by a precious soul in the Irish wilderness. How profoundly inspiring it is to witness such an outpouring.


Number 15:39

Meeting Kimmo

August 9, 2012 11:05 AM

At the Deaf Nation World Expo (an international convention for over 30,000 deaf people) last week, I met a fellow from Finland: Kimmo L.

I noticed him as soon as he approached our booth. Tall and thin with overflowing hair, he did not strike me as Jewish, but when he began to share his story, it became clear that I was quite wrong.

"I am one of three Jewish deaf people in the entire country of Finland," he explained in American Sign Language (yes, there are different sign languages for different countries). "When I was eight, my mother told me I was Jewish, and ever since then I have been interested in the religion." And interested he was. He told me that he had taken courses in biblical and modern Hebrew at his university, in an attempt to learn more about his people and their language.

So right then and there I offered to help him put on tefillin. His reaction was quite touching. “Absolutely!” he said, “I have studied the meaning of tefillin for a while now, and when I visited Israel other people offered to help me put them on, but I always said no. I never felt comfortable, because of the language barrier. They didn't know sign language, and I felt awkward speaking with them. But you - a deaf person - are the perfect person for the job! For you, I am absolutely going to put on tefillin.” And with that, he rolled up his sleeve.

You see, there is a bond that deaf people share. It breaks through barriers, extends past boundaries, and binds people together. And when these deaf people are also Jewish, the bond is even stronger. Kimmo may hail from exotic Finland and I from America, but as I wrapped the straps of the tefillin, we both felt how important it is to be able to relate to your fellow Jew on a personal level. He had said no to many enthusiastic tefillin-wrappers before me, but when we were able to identify with each other, he finally got his opportunity to say yes.

Through Kimmo, I discovered that to really impact a fellow Jew you have to communicate in his or her language. And a language does not necessarily refer to a language of words; it can also mean a language of understanding.

Posing With the Doorbell

August 6, 2012 1:42 PM

We’d spent all day doing house visits without much success. It was late, we were tired, and we decided to call it quits for the day. We like to take pictures with the wonderful, diverse people we meet, and seeing as we hadn’t met anyone that day, we opted for a comic picture alongside a closed, randomly chosen door. As we posed, we accidentally rang the doorbell and a friendly looking woman opened the door and said, “Have you rabbis come to tefillin on my husband and son? Great! Come on in!”

Our “joke” turned out to be the best part of our day, especially when the father told us that he was going to start putting on tefillin each day before work. Clearly, our ringing that doorbell was no accident after all.

"A Little" Jewish

August 6, 2012 1:38 PM

Trekking around Clematis Street, we met many good people, but none of them were Jewish. We decided to head back to our parked car for some cold water before regrouping. Just before we got there, we came across a man who looked undeniably Jewish. We asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” and he answered, “a little.” What a Jewish answer!

The man, Dovid, owns a kosher ice cream store in the area. He invited us into his air conditioned store and we helped him put a mezuzah on the door.