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A “Chance” Meeting in Portland

August 29, 2013 2:50 PM

Following several weeks of working with the Jewish population in San Diego, Calif., Shloimy and I made a short detour to Portland, Oregon. One morning, we decided to ride the Portland Aerial Tram, operated by the local medical center, which offers views of downtown Portland and the surrounding mountain range. Although the tram primarily services the hospital staff, it is open to the public, and many tourists take advantage to get a better look at the breathtaking scenery. We disembarked at the last stop to take some photos, when an elderly man approached and greeted us with a loud “Shalom,” and asked a question about the Torah portion of Bereishit.

“Are you Jewish?”

“Of course, what else?” he replied, puzzled.

We quickly discovered that Ariel was well versed in Tanach, the Jewish Bible, and even able to quote many parts from memory. an elderly man approached and greeted us with a loud “Shalom!"We sat down and had an enjoyable conversation. Ariel was smart and witty, and had many interesting and inspiring ideas to share. We spent some time discussing what it means to be Jewish today. He expressed his sadness at his lack of observance.

“I am a bad Jew,” Ariel told us. “If I would only have the courage, I would definitely live like you. I know that is the truth.”

“It’s not all or nothing,” I explained. “A good Jew is not the one who does everything, and a bad Jew is not the one who does little. The good Jew is the one who is constantly moving forward. There are always opportunities to take small steps forward, always good deeds waiting to be done. You are a good Jew because you aren’t satisfied with where you are; you seek growth.”

We talked some more, and asked Ariel if he’d like to put on tefillin.

Phylacteries? Sure!”

Turns out that he had never put on tefillin before in his life! He grew up in Florida, and was hardly exposed to Judaism as a child. I gave him my kippah to wear, and we wrapped the tefillin. He seemed very pleased.

As we wound the tefillin straps around his arm, the next tram arrived. We knew that Ariel would now have an audience. “Be proud of what you are doing, Ariel,” I advised.

“Ha!” he responded. “I am not worried at all. I learned a long time ago that I can’t care about what others think. I am not interested in becoming a slave to their opinions.” To illustrate his point, he turned to the passengers exiting the tram and shouted, “Try this once and change your life!”

“This is your bar mitzvah, Ariel!” we told him. “Celebrate this opportunity. This is a big step. You are growing and moving forward.” He was very touched, and spontaneously enveloped us in a tight embrace. We took photos together of him wearing tefillin, with the beautiful views in the background.

“What are you boys doing here?” Ariel asked us, after the tefillin were put away.

“We actually came just to meet you, and to put on tefillin with you. We came all the way from New York just for that.”

“Is that right? So you believe in divine intervention?”

“Of course,” Shloimy replied. “This is a great example. We came here thinking that we were just going to see the mountains. The truth, however, was that G‑d planned for us to come for reasons far more significant. There is always a deeper purpose and meaning to everything that So you believe in divine intervention? happens. It’s like layers. We can only see the outside layer—our own determination for doing what we choose to do and being where we choose to be. Under that though, lies layer after layer of G‑d’s intentions. We're not always so lucky to discover the hidden purpose. But today, it’s clear to me that we are here to meet you.”

Ariel was amazed.

“There is another purpose here that is quite obvious to me,” I continued. “Before, when all these people exited the tram, some of them were certainly Jewish, and observed how you put on tefillin in public without any shame whatsoever. That can have a very powerful and profound effect. We can only guess how many of those people were just inspired to take a step forward themselves.”

Ariel nodded. Our words had made a deep impact on him.

He took off the kippah I had given him, slowly, almost begrudgingly.

“I wish I had one of these myself,” he said.

I said I would be glad if he kept it, as I had another one with me. He was thrilled. We talked a bit more until the next tram arrived. Ariel had to catch the ride, so he spoke hurriedly, trying to finish his thought.

“You don't need to rush, Ariel. We’ll go down with you. We've completed our purpose here.”

Back in New York, we are in contact with Ariel, mostly via e‑mail.

We just received the following message from him:


You have inspired me to greater study and devotion, and have renewed in me a search for spiritual awareness.

Forever grateful am I.

Toda Raba,


Tefillin for Igor

August 20, 2013

It’s not easy for a teen to earn money in Ulyanovsk, Russia. With most families barely scraping by, allowance is an unheard of concept. Summer jobs, tutoring, or babysitting are opportunities rarely available to Ulyanovsk’s youth.

Despite these odds, a determined group of Jewish teenagers worked and strategized throughout the endlessly cold winter months in Ulyanovsk. Their hard work paid off and they successfully raisedSummer jobs, tutoring, or babysitting are opportunities rarely available to Ulyanovsk’s youth the necessary funds to attend a travelling summer camp, arranged by the local Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Yossi Marozov.

We knew these kids from our previous summers in Ulyanovsk, and were excited to be spending more time with them. Also, we hoped that the fun, relaxed atmosphere, combined with being away from home, would help instill a love for Judaism in these teens, at this formative time in their lives.

A few days into camp, we concluded that Igor S. was by far our toughest nut to crack. We learned that he had spoken to Rabbi Marozov beforehand, demanding that this trip not be religious in any way. Sadly, 15-year-old Igor considered himself Christian, and he told the rabbi that he does not participate in any religious activities, only Jewish outings and social opportunities. “Tefillin, that is one thing I will never do.” He insisted.

The trip was going well, even beyond our expectations. We spent several days exploring St. Petersberg, a highlight of which was the prison where the first Chabad leader, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was incarcerated for 53 days. The campers were having a great time, and we were working overtime to present Judaism in non-threatening and joyful ways. We were constantly singing Russian Jewish songs, and as the days went by, ourWe were working overtime to present Judaism in non-threatening and joyful ways campers started joining in, their Jewish pride on fire.

Last Friday, we were taking a break from travelling to prepare for Shabbat. We were setting the long tables for dinner, when Stephan came over to us, and asked if he could put on tefillin. Of course, we were delighted at his request, and we helped him get wrapped up right away.

Igor was sitting across the room, watching the scene. As we finished with Stephan, he approached us, with tears in his eyes.

Dovid, can I have a chance to put on tefillin as well?”

For a long moment, words failed us, until Igor’s sniffling brought us back to reality.

“Yes, you can, Igor. Yes, you can.”

As we helped Igor put on tefillin for the first time in his life, we were reminded once again of the incredible power of the Jewish soul, a piece of G‑d that us mortals can never underestimate, nor limit its infinite potency.

Multiple Mezuzahs in Ireland

August 18, 2013

Ireland is a beautiful country, which we are getting to know very well as we traverse its length and breadth in search of Jewish inhabitants.

Yesterday, we were en route to Kilkenny, a 90-mile trip, to meet Vered, one of our contacts. Halfway into our trip, we debated making a quick stop in New Ross, to drop off some Jewish materials at Rosalind’s home. We were somewhat crunched for time, but decided it would be best to visit Rosalind then. Sara, Rosalind’s daughter, welcomed us warmly. Rosalind was there as well, and we had a lovely conversation. She told us how the family settled in Ireland. Her grandfather was leaving Europe by boat, with dreams of settling in America, specifically New York. When the boat stopped in Cork, Ireland, he thought he heard New York, and as they say, the rest is history. G‑d runs the world. Sara, his great-granddaughter, the third generation born and bred in Ireland, maintains aWhen the boat stopped in Cork, Ireland, he thought he heard New York proud Jewish identity.

“Rosalind, can we put a mezuzah on your front door?”

“Sure, that would be really nice.”

Rosalind and Sara watched with great interest as we said the blessing and affixed the Mezuzah.

“Sara, how about we put a Mezuzah on the door of your apartment, too?”

“That’s a nice thought, rabbis. But I’m afraid that people will see it and ask me questions about Judaism that I won’t be able to answer.”

“Don’t worry, we have plenty of books with us that can teach you all about Judaism.”

She perused our selection and bought two books. We also directed her to Chabad.org, where we knew she would find a wealth of information.

We had thought this little detour would only take five minutes, not two hours! But we couldn't complain—two homes with new mezuzahs in New Ross, Ireland was a wonderful thing. We continued on to Vered, hoping that she wouldn't be too upset at our tardiness.

Thank G‑d, she was happy to see us, and grateful that we had made the long drive just to spend time with her. We discussed many topics in Judaism, especially Ahavat Yisroel—loving one’s fellow Jew. By divine providence, Vered had Jewish guests—a couple she knew from her Israeli army days, who visiting from Raanana, Israel. The husband was flabbergasted that Chabad had caught up with him in Kilkenny, Ireland, and told us that although he is not religious, he couldn't refuse our offer of tefillin. Vered had already made sure that most of her doors had mezuzahs, but realized while we were there that two doors had been neglected.He was flabbergasted that Chabad had caught up with him in Kilkenny, Ireland We were quickly able to remedy the situation.

It was approaching evening, so we said our goodbyes, and headed to the car, which served as our office as well. We had to make some phone calls to map out the next day. We called David first. “Rabbi, no need to wait for tomorrow. Why don’t you come over now?”

By the time we found David’s home, it was 8:30 pm. David is originally from Israel, and was thrilled at the prospect of being able to talk freely about his Jewish heritage. Since sundown is past 9 pm here at the moment, he was able to put on tefillin as well. We spoke and philosophized together until the wee hours of the morning.

Before we left, in keeping with the theme of the day, we asked David if he would like a mezuzah on his door. “Yes, certainly. Thank you, rabbis. I would love that.”

David’s home was the fourth to be graced with a mezuzah, a proud symbol of Jewish identity.

It was now time to go to our hotel, and gather our strength for another day’s work.

Spanning the Generations in Kolomyia, Ukraine

August 15, 2013

Shmuel Greenberg, 91, is one of the few Jewish residents of Kolomyia, Ukraine. Before the War, the city was a vibrant Jewish hub, with 50,000 Jews and over 35 synagogues. Sadly, only one synagogue has survived, and finding a minyan (prayer quorum) is usually difficult.

Life in Kolomyia, like many post-Communist countries, is not simple by any means. Shmuel is incredibly tenacious, and when we arrived at his apartment he greeted us with a huge smile. We asked Shmuel if he wanted to put on tefillin and he agreed immediately, thanking us profusely for the opportunity—his first in 60 years.

Afterwards, we all sat down in his living room, and he told us his life story, in Yiddish—the language of his childhood. Shmuel had served in the Red Army during WWII, and he recounted the scenes he had witnessed with great emotion. When he returned from his tour of duty, he learned that his entire family had been wiped out by the Nazis. Shmuel soldiered on, settled in Kolomyia, and raised a family.

We asked him where his family isHis entire family had been wiped out by the Nazis today, and he told us that he has one daughter in Kolomyia, but they have grown distant over the years. He wasn't sure where she lived. He said we could find her in the market, where she has a meat shop.

Excited at the prospect of meeting another Jew, we rushed to the market as soon as we bade Shmuel farewell. As we were approaching the meat shop, the daughter quickly closed the shutters and invited us inside. Unlike her father, she didn’t speak Yiddish, so it was more difficult to converse. We gave her Shabbat candles, and asked if it would be possible to meet her husband. She was very amenable, and gave us her home address.

We headed there straightaway, but after knocking for several minutes, we figured nobody was home. Since our plan was to leave Kolomyia that afternoon, we returned to our apartment to pack and prepare. On the way out, we decided to swing by the house once more. They were all home this time—the daughter, her husband, and their grandchildren, two boys and a girl, visiting from Moscow. Everyone was in good spirits, and we sat around the table, talking about our trip and Jewish life. We asked the older grandson, Shmuel's great-grandson, if he had celebrated his bar mitzvah, and he told us he hadn’t.

We took out our tefillin, explained briefly what tefillin and bar mitzvah are, helped him put them on, and congratulated him on reaching such an important Jewish milestone. We also offered the grandfather a chance to do the mitzvah, which he accepted good-naturedly.

The grandchildren were very excited by all the action, and arranged for their parents in Moscow to watch via Skype.The grandchildren were very excited by all the action They couldn't believe that rabbis from America had come to visit them, in Kolomyia of all places! Their wonder grew when we began singing some Russian Jewish songs. The children were thirsty to learn about their heritage, and we tried to share some of the main elements of Judaism, as much as we were able before we had to hit the road.

We are in the process of arranging for the grandchildren to further their Jewish education at the Gan Yisroel overnight camp in Ukraine. And we look forward to reporting this to Shmuel, and bringing him some nachas from the newest branch of his family tree.

Two Bar Mitzvahs - both with 89-Year-Old Men

August 13, 2013

Our first meeting in Kingman, Arizona, was with Jack, an elderly man who greeted us with sparkling eyes and a warm handshake. He invited us inside, and told us that he had moved to Kingman just two years prior. Unfortunately, his wife was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, and currently in a local nursing facility. He had been an active member of his temple in Florida, and was quite disappointed that the small synagogue in Kingman had dissolved before his arrival.

“I beg of you,” he said, “please think about moving here after your ordination. I’m 89 years old, I don’t know how much longer I have, but there has to be something for all the Jews in this town who have no connection to Judaism. I must do what I can now to help this community.”

We told him we would consider his offer, and sat with him for the next two hours, hearing his life story, including his war experiences as a World War II veteran. When we asked him ifI must do what I can now to help this community he would like to put on tefillin, he quickly agreed, but added that he would need our help since he had never done it before.

We took out our tefillin, explained the process, and helped Jack put them on. He repeated the prayers after us, word for word.

“Boys, I had a grand party at my bar mitzvah in New York many years ago. But I never put on tefillin like I remember my Zaide doing every morning,” Jack said, wiping his eyes.

What a special moment, 76 years in the making! We commemorated it by taking pictures, singing, and dancing until it was time to drive to our next appointment.

Burt had been visited by our colleagues for many years already, but despite their many entreaties, had never agreed to put on tefillin. We had tried calling him numerous times, without reaching him. So our plan was to knock on his door, and hope for the best.

To our relief, he came to the door almost as soon as we knocked.

“How are you today, Burt?”

“Actually, today is the best day of my life!”

“Why is that?” we asked curiously.

He responded that he had been convinced that he had been forgotten about, since during past summers, he had always received a visit or two from the rabbis. And here we were, just showing up on his doorstep!

After sitting us down on the couch, he got straight to the point. "What can our meeting today do to enhance your life?”

We smiled, and he knew what was coming. "Aside for me putting on tefillin, that is."

We told him that just the fact that we are able to visit another Jew in a place like Kingman was an amazing experience for us. But if he would put on tefillin, that would make it even more special.

"I serve G‑d my way. I don't need or believe in any rituals. I don't serve Judaism, I serve G‑d. I don't need to walk into a synagogue; I have G‑d in my heart at all times." Burt had his response down pat.

We explained to Burt that he is correct, and we all have to make a resting place for G‑d in our hearts, but the way toWe could tell that he was quite impressed with our persistence do that is primarily through fulfilling G‑d’s commandments. And part of that is to use a special tool that G‑d has given us to signify our bond with Him—tefillin.

After that, Burt changed the subject several times, but we could tell that he was quite impressed with our persistence. He tried arguing further that at 89 years old, he is content with his way of serving G‑d, and we are just brainwashed into thinking that there is one specific way.

He then offered us a deal which was sure to push us off.

“Get me a hot kosher corned beef on rye, with coleslaw on top, and I’ll put on tefillin.”

“Burt, that’s impossible. Listen, Burt, you say you believe in G‑d. Then you must believe in his commandments as well.”

“Tefillin isn't one of the ten commandments,” he countered.

We told him it’s in the Torah.

“I’m a professional speaker and author. I've read everything I have been given to read. Being that I’ve never read the Torah, I cannot verify your argument.”

Burt was sure he would win this round. “If you return here with an English Torah, I will put on tefillin,” he said with finality.

My friend and I could hardly believe our ears. We exchanged glances, my friend ran out of the house, and returned, placing a beautiful translated chumash on the table.

Burt gasped and said, "I'm a man of my word. Let's do this."

It was high time for Burt's bar mitzvah. We carefully explained the procedure, helped him wrap the tefillin, and translated the prayers line by line.

Burt choked up during the final words. "You know, you boys are really lucky. My father never gave me the opportunity to study in yeshiva, and in truth, I would have really liked to."

On that note, we danced together with Burt, chassidic style, sang a boisterous “Siman tov mazal tov," and took lots of pictures.

Driving back to our motel, we reflected on how truly fortunate we were, to be able to facilitate two bar mitzvahs in as many hours, with both men at the advanced age of 89 years old. It is all a credit to the incredible vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, who cared so deeply for every Jew—young, old, and everybody in between.

Snapshots of our Time in Kauai

August 11, 2013


One of our more memorable meetings was with Aja, a professor of Eastern Metaphysics at the local university.

"I think that we must eradicate the ego. Do you guys believe in that?"

In the ensuing discussion, the words of Prof. Aja were clearly reminiscent of chassidism and kabbalah, the foundations of our Chabad education.


Andre wanted to teach us how to surf.

We wanted to teach him Torah.


So we invited Andre the Surfer, who had never experienced Shabbat in his life, to stay with us for the entire Shabbat.

Over the course of the weekend, Andre learned a lot about Judaism, and boy did we learn about the Hawaiian lifestyle and the so-called “surf religion.”

When we accompanied Andre to the surf shop, lo and behold, the store manager was also Jewish, and accepted our offer to put on tefillin!


When we handed a Shabbat candle kit to Karen on Friday, we explained that since Kauai is the one of westernmost Jewish community in the world, she would be one of the last women to welcome the Shabbat. Karen was moved to tears when she learned that her Shabbat candles would be wrapping up the millions of candles and the accompanying prayers of Jewish women worldwide.


Our colleagues who visited Kauai last summer bumped into Rob on the side of the road.

This year, we met him at a local coffee shop. After chatting for a while, we helped him put on tefillin and left him with a stash of Jewish books.


We visited Bob, a doctor who runs the local hospice. He was very happy to see us, since some of his patients are Jewish, and he feels that they need spiritual support. So we put him in touch with the local Chabad rabbi, who will certainly be a fantastic resource in Bob’s growth both as a doctor and a Jew.


"I quit my job as an oceanographer because my fellow scientists didn't believe in G‑d," Ram told us. His strong belief in G‑d is unshakable; admirable. He told us that he is a frequent visitor to Chabad.org, his desire to learn more about his heritage insatiable.


When we visited Tal, a native Israeli, he had just moved into a new house.

"Come in, guys! Let's make a Chanukat HaBayit! (new home dedication)"

Luckily, Meir had brought his guitar and a Kauai style Chanukat HaBayit was soon underway. Tal invited us back for a full-fledged farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) on motzei Shabbat.


"Can I see what a pair of tefillin looks like?"

"Sure, why?"

"Because neither my husband nor my son have ever put them on."

After four hours of deep conversation about life and Judaism, David and Jack both had their unofficial bar mitzvahs, with Elisa kvelling besides them.


“So, what is the Jewish position for meditation?"

"Um, well, you look inside the siddur and move back and forth."

Darci, like many of her fellow Hawaiian Jews, leads a lifestyle emphasizing yoga and Eastern meditations.

She was thrilled to discover how much chassidism has to offer.


Rob is a lawyer, certainly not the average occupation around here.

He has vivid memories of his childhood in Brooklyn, where he lived blocks away from Lubavitch World Headquarters.

Each year, he eagerly anticipates the visit of the roving rabbis, and the chance to revisit his youth.

Goodbye Hawaii

It’s hard to believe that this coming Shabbat will be our last one here on the island. G‑d willing, we will be hosting a crowd of tourists and locals.

We’ve been fortunate to make so many warm connections here, and we look forward to continuing the relationships in the weeks and months to come.

For now, Aloha!

You Are Jewish!

August 7, 2013

We were browsing the aisles of a supermarket in Lake Havasu, Arizona, in search of some kosher snacks. We had plans to visit the Jews in many of the cities in the Arizona desert, including Yuma, Kingman, and Casa Grande, and needed some food for the road.

“Hey, looks like you guys shop like pros!” A friendly-looking middle-aged gentleman said to us.

“Thanks, are you Jewish by any chance?”

“No,” he chuckled. “But oftentimes I wish I was. I really do love the Jewish nation, and I appreciate the fact that our country holds them and their land in such high regard.”

Our newfound friend was about to continue on his way, when he turned around and added. “But I do have some Jewish blood in me.”

We quickly asked him to explain.

“I am a quarter Jewish.”

Our hearts racing, we inquired which side of the family. His mother’s side, he replied. And upon further probing, he revealed that his maternal grandmother has been fully, completely Jewish.

We stood there in utter shock, speechless. After what seemed like an eternity, Nachum blurted out, “You know, not only do you wish you were Jewish, you really are Jewish. And not only do you love the Jewish nation, but you love your own nation.”

He was stunned.

“You see,” I continued, “the Jewish religion is passed through the mother. That means that you are one hundred percent Jewish, with one hundred percent Jewish blood.”

It started to sink in. As he stood there trying to absorb this life-altering news, we gently asked him if he knew what a bar mitzvah was. He nodded. We coaxed him to follow us outside, where he would be able to have a bar mitzvah that very day.

We retrieved the tefillin from our car, and explained what we were about to do. We helped him wrap the tefillin, and had him repeat the prayers after us. We sang “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov,” snapped lots of pictures, and had an impromptu bar mitzvah dance in the parking lot.

It was time to wrap things up. We wrote down his contact information, gave him our business card, and promised to stay in touch.

We were heading back inside to finish our shopping, when he said something that is still ringing in our ears. “My mom, she just died,” his voice choked up. “And I know it was her who sent you to find me.”

Helping Carlos Find Fellow Jews

August 5, 2013 11:55 AM

On Monday, my friend Chaim and I arrived in Vina Del Mar, Chile.

Immediately, we were struck by two things: the frigid temperatures—a real change of pace from the heat wave we’d just left in New York, and the absolute beauty of our surroundings.

Vina Del Mar is known as The Garden City, and with its lush parks, abundant palm trees, and blooming flowers, it certainly lives up to that name. The city also boasts large stretches of white sand beaches backed by mountains. But unlike your typical tourist, we had no plans to visit the attractions, or spend leisurely hours taking in the views. We would only be spending a short time here before continuing on to our next assignment, so finding every Jew in Vina was our top priority.

We grabbed our tefillin and other paraphernalia, and headed to Avenida Valparaíso, the main shopping strip.

The proprietors of the first eight shops we walked into were all pleasant, but decidedly non-Jewish.

Chabad rabbis are nothing if not persistent. We tried a nondescript jewelry store next. As soon as we entered, the elderly owner stared at us, his eyes bulging. Granted, we were quite a sight, with our black hats, suits and beards, but since we had not received such a reaction at our previous stops, we hoped we were on to something.

Without much preamble, we asked him. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” he replied swiftly. “I’m Carlos, and like you, I am Jewish!”

We took out our tefillin. “Carlos, how about we put on tefillin together today?”

Carlos was more than accommodating. As he was saying the Shema prayer, while wrapped in the tefillin, he burst into heavy sobs. It was several long moments until he was able to compose himself. We gently helped him take off the tefillin, and then waited until he was ready to talk.

“It’s been 70 years now since my bar mitzvah. That was the only time in my life that I've ever put on tefillin. Who would have thought that I would merit another chance, especially since I've settled here, in a place with so few Jews...”

We spent the next hour in warm conversation with Carlos, as he shared details of his Jewish background, and Jewish life in Chile, past and current.

"Carlos, we have a mezuzah for you, can we hang it on the door of your shop? You will get Divine protection, and it will signify the proud Jew that you are!”

Needless to say, he readily agreed, and we affixed the M\mezuzah under his watchful eye.

“We have to go now, Carlos. We are going to try to find some other Jews. Now that you have a mezuzah on your door, every Jew who walks by will know that you are a fellow Jew. And, G‑d willing, you will get a chance to put on tefillin again in the very near future!

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