Roving Rabbis

Bar Mitzvah on Lunch Break? No Problem!

August 27, 2014 1:23 PM

Roving rabbis can trek thousands of miles to visit one Jew in an isolated village in the mountains of Asia, or they can be stationed close to home, in a city with multitudes of Jews and a vibrant Jewish infrastructure. Though the circumstances vary greatly, we have a singular mission: bringing the light of Judaism to those we come in contact with, and encouraging them to utilize the power of a mitzvah to make this world a better place.

My friend and I fit squarely in the latter category—we are spending our summer in Miami, Florida. We’ve met many Jews in their homes and offices, as well as on the street, offering them all an authentic Jewish experience.

Just yesterday we drove by a large furniture store and decided to inquire within if there were any Jewish employees. There were not. We continued on to another store, spent several moments there, and then passed the furniture store again on our way back to the car. One of the employees, Mike, was outside on his lunch break, and since he had been on the phone earlier we figured we would try our luck.

“Hi sir, are you Jewish by any chance?”

“Oh, my mom is. But I grew up in Mississippi and I never really learned what being a Jew is about.”

Pressed for time, we gave him a quick overview. “You know, Mike,” we added, “Judaism places a large emphasis on action. Every mitzvah we do binds us to G‑d. Did you ever have the opportunity to put on tefillin?”

“No, we really weren’t Jewish. I never even had a bar mitzvah.”

“Well, how about we do it right now? How does a lunch-break bar mitzvah sound?”

“Great, let’s do it!” He was as enthusiastic as we were.

We helped him put on the tefillin, said the accompanying blessings together word by word, and snapped some pictures. Mike was very moved and we promised him that this was only the beginning—we would see him again and help him delve deeper into his heritage.

A few hours later, we received the following email:

Dear Daniel and Mendel,
I just wanted to thank you both so very much for giving me the bar mitzvah I have dreamed about one day having. It was such a moving experience and I feel truly blessed to have been extended the kindness you both offered me today. My mother loved the photo and became teary when I shared it with her and my experience earlier today.
I can't begin to thank you both enough.
Mike R.

An Impromptu Russian Bar Mitzvah in Michigan

August 27, 2014 1:05 PM

In many ways, a roving rabbi is like a travelling salesman, going door to door peddling his wares—tefillin, Shabbat candles, a mezuzah, or Jewish books. At times, people will open their doors and invite us into their lives, but it’s also common for our knocks to go unanswered, or even rejected. Nevertheless, like any good salesman, we are eternally optimistic. With G‑d's help, success can be just around the corner.

It was a beautiful Sunday in the quiet town of Midland, Michigan. Since noon we had been knocking on doors, working off a list given to us by a nearby Chabad rabbi. Most of the people were not home, and the others were not interested in what we had to offer. Still, we persevered. It was 8:00p.m. and we had finally reached our last house for the day. A man opened the door, and greeted us with a distinctly Russian accent.

“Hi, we are rabbinical students, and we spend our summer visiting Jewish people. Is this a Jewish home by any chance?”

“Yes, we are Jewish,” came the terse reply.

We started chatting, hoping that he would invite us inside. Not likely, we quickly realized. He seemed to be planted firmly in the doorway. During the course of the conversation, we discovered that his name was Alex, and that he had three sons, ages 21, 13, and 7.

“Did your son have a bar mitzvah this year?”

“No, we never got along with the local reform temple, and the other temple is 45 minutes away.”

“Well, you know the main part of a bar mitzvah is the tefillin. If you’d like, we can make your son a Bar Mitzvah right here.”

Alex seemed ambivalent. “Let me ask my wife,” he said finally, and closed the door.

While we were waiting, a car pulled up, and a couple with two little children piled out and entered the home.

This didn’t bode well for our case—with company over, the chances of anybody putting on tefillin was even less likely.

After a few moments, Alex came out with his wife and teenaged son. “Okay, my wife wants you to do it.”

We started talking about a bar mitzvah, G‑d, and tefillin. At this point, the entire family and their company had joined us on the porch. The bar mitzvah boy, Marc, seemed thrilled with all the attention, while his younger brother wanted to know if he would get to put on tefillin too. We explained that he could when he turned 13, and handed them both kippahs, which they wore proudly. We helped Marc wrap the tefillin around his arm and head and say the blessings. Alex went into the house, and in true Russian tradition, emerged with a bottle of vodka. He poured some for all of us, and we made a L’chaim—a toast, to the bar mitzvah boy. “Wow, this must be the luckiest day of my life!” Alex exclaimed, quite a contrast from his earlier wary demeanor.

We were getting ready to wrap things up when Alex pointed at his guest, Arkady, and informed us that he is Jewish as well. “Did you ever have a bar mitzvah?” we asked. He hadn’t, and immediately agreed to. The families watched proudly, and Alex poured some more vodka to mark the occasion.

Dusk was falling when we finally bade them farewell. Alex was beaming from ear to ear. He bequeathed us a full bottle of vodka and thanked us profusely. And with the gift of hindsight, the rest of the day fell into place. All those prior disappointments were in fact Divine Providence, so that we could be there for Marc and Arkady to celebrate their bar mitzvahs at last.

A New Jew in Peru

August 7, 2014 9:30 PM

It was near evening on our second to last day in Peru.

We'd spent the past three weeks travelling the country, visiting the cities of Ica, Huaraz, and Lima. While we sought out the local Peruvian Jews, our main clientele were the multitudes of Israeli backpackers who spend their post-army vacation trekking through South America. We arranged Shabbat meals, helped them put on tefillin, and spent many hours in deep discussion of Jewish philosophy. Our trip coincided with Operation Protective Edge, so we prayed together for their families and friends back home.

We were exhausted. We'd spent the day stopping at all the hostels around Lima where the Israelis congregate, and had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of them. We briefly debated heading back to our hotel before deciding to make a short detour at the local mall, hoping to find another few Jews there. But after strolling around for a while without bumping into anyone Jewish, we agreed that it was time to call it a day. We were approaching the exit when we heard someone call out “Shalom!” At first, we assumed it was a Peruvian, as many of them have picked up some key Hebrew terms from the steady streams of Israeli tourists. We turned around, and saw a gentleman who was clearly foreign, sitting on a bench with his wife and daughter. We greeted them and learned that Dave was from England, visiting family in Peru. “Are you Jewish, Dave?”

“No, I’m not.” We chatted for a bit longer. “You know, part of my family is Jewish, but it was something they kept hidden for a long time.”

“Which part, Dave?”

“My mother’s mother.”

“Dave, you are Jewish! You are a Jew like the two of us, as Jewish as Moses...”

As you might expect, this life-changing revelation left Dave stunned and speechless, but we also got the sense that he was comfortable with the fact that he was a Jew. Perhaps he had subconsciously known all along?

After waiting a few moments for it to settle in, we broached the topic of the Jewish rite of passage-the bar mitzvah.

“Dave, now that you know you’re Jewish, how do you feel about having a Bar Mitzvah? We can’t put on tefillin at night, but if you’d like, we can come visit sometime tomorrow.”

“Sure, that sounds great. In fact, I am leaving tomorrow, so morning would be best.”

The bar mitzvah was a resounding success. We began by explaining some of the basic tenets of Judaism and tefillin. We discussed the concept of Divine Providence—how we chose to go to that mall, that he called out Shalom without knowing he was Jewish—it was all predestined by G‑d so that he could discover his Jewishness. Then, the culmination—we helped Dave with the Tefillin and the accompanying prayers. His joy at was palpable and quite contagious! Before parting ways we exchanged contact information and promised Dave that we would help him find a rabbi back home in England, so that he could continue to explore the beauty of his heritage.

Printing the Tanya in Trinidad

August 3, 2014 4:00 PM

In 1978, the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched a campaign to print the Tanya in every major city and location around the world. The founder of Chassidus, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that when the “wellsprings of chassidic teaching” reach the farthestmost areas, Moshiach will be ready to come. The Rebbe explained that the printing of Tanya in a place has a tremendous impact on that place, bringing increased spiritual awareness to the people living there.

We are spending our summer in French Guiana, Suriname, and Trinidad, servicing the Jews—locals and tourists—in those countries. While formulating our itinerary, we were asked to arrange to have the Tanya printed in Trinidad. This would mark a major milestone in the Rebbe’s Tanya printing campaign, since Trinidad would be the final country in the Western Hemisphere to have the Tanya printed within its borders.

When we arrived in Trinidad, we headed straight to a printing shop in Port of Spain, arriving as they were opening their doors for the day. We explained the initiative to the owners, and they felt privileged to be part of it, but they wanted to know why Trinidad was last! Since we were printing over 100 copies, we were told to return at 4 PM.

We hadn’t slept much the night before, and the thought of catching a few hours of sleep in our hotel room seemed quite tempting. But we had a mission—the Rebbe had advised that when the Tanya is printed in a country, the local Jews should learn from it. We needed to find some Jews to learn the freshly printed Tanya, which was no easy task in Trinidad, a large country with very few native Jews. Our colleagues who had been to Trinidad in the past had always contacted Barbara, who serves in the Israeli embassy, and she had helped them locate her handful of Jewish acquaintances. As luck would have it, our phone calls and e‑mails to Barbara went unanswered, so we were on our own. All we had to work with was a list of several names, without any contact information. The only address we had was for the clinic of a Jewish doctor, some 40 minutes away.

We approached the receptionist. “Hi, do you have an appointment?”

“Yes, we would like to see Dr. Mason.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Dr. Mason returned to the States three years ago.”

We felt quite foolish as we thanked her and made our way to the parking lot. Why had we schlepped all the way without verifying our information? It would have been wiser to stay in the hotel and get some much-needed rest. And how would we find a Jew to learn the Tanya with? Lost in thought, we were surprised when a woman driving a white BMW screeched to a halt inches away from us. “Are you rabbis?” she called out, a look of shock on her face.

It was our turn to be shocked. “Yes, we are!”

“My name is Francesca. I am a Jewish woman living in Trinidad. I was just reading the news on my phone, and saw what is happening in Israel. I started thinking about G‑d and the Jewish people, and then I looked up from my phone, and I see a sight rarely seen in Trinidad—two Jewish rabbis! G‑d must have been listening to my thoughts!”

Struck by the clear display of divine providence, we exchanged phone numbers and made up to meet at her home later that evening. There we met her teenaged daughter, and learned some of their family history. Francesca’s mother emigrated to Trinidad after the Holocaust, one of only three survivors from a large religious family. She vowed to never have anything to do with G‑d again, but Francesca always knew she was Jewish.

After some more conversation, we took out the Trinidad Tanya and explained its significance. They quickly agreed to study some of it together. We talked about bringing more light to the world, especially during these moments of darkness and confusion, and Francesca and her daughter resolved to begin lighting Shabbat candles starting that Friday night. We gave them a book about the Rebbe, and Francesca gave us the contact information of a another Jew living in Trinidad.

“I can’t believe that G‑d sent you at the exact moment that I was thinking about the Jewish people,” she kept repeating. On our part, we marveled at the tremendous divine providence we had witnessed, the circumstances that had lined up exactly, enabling us to fulfill our mission in its entirety. We hope that our efforts brought the world one step closer to the final redemption!