Roving Rabbis

Mining the Shenandoah Valley

August 19, 2015 10:51 AM

The past week has been action-packed! We roamed the streets of Harrisonburg, Virginia, popping into offices, law firms, coffee shops, banks, and shopping malls. Finding Jews is a difficult task, but we have seen Divine Providence at work—meeting random people in random places who have connected us to many Jews, thank G‑d!

We met a nice non-Jewish man, who introduced us to the superintendent of the public school system in Harrisonburg, a Jew originally from Brooklyn, and we set up a meeting with him.

Another guy we encountered in a motorcycle shop told us about a Jewish family who own a car dealership in town. That was a home run! We met the father first, and talked with him for two hours about his Jewish experience. He shared some amazing stories. We put on tefillin with him, his first time since his bar mitzvah. A few days later, we got to know the rest of the family, spending several hours at their home. They spoke about life in Harrisonburg, and we told them about our journey to Chabad, and the power of the Jewish soul. One of the sons even agreed to put on tefillin for the first time in his life!

We also met a local Jewish radio talk-show host, who actually grew up in an Orthodox enclave in Queens, New York, and attended yeshivas throughout his childhood. Although he is no longer affiliates with that community, he always takes off work for the Jewish holidays. Our meeting brought back fond memories from his past. He put on tefillin for the first time in years and gave some charity—two small acts, two giant steps...

We came across another Jew in the quaint town of Staunton, VA. He was the director of a unique camera museum, which documents the history of camera development via original cameras from the 1800’s and 1900’s on display. He was thrilled to give us the grand tour, and graciously agreed to give some charity.

Also in Staunton, we met a Jew who is the co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), and Professor of Shakespeare and Performance and founder of the masters program at the local university. He was happy to chat with us about growing up as a Sephardic Jew in Alabama.

On schedule for this week—an appointment with the head of the School Board who is also a professor at James Madison University. He's very well connected and influential in the Jewish community, as well as the voice of education in Harrisonburg.

When we arrived in the Shenandoah Valley, we were fully aware that finding Jews would be like mining diamonds in the rough. Two weeks in, we are humbled and gratified that as the Rebbe’s emissaries, it often feels that we are merely serving as conduits. May these mitzvot that we merited to facilitate, performed with the utmost sincerity, tip the scales to reveal a world of eternal good!

Mr. Y Refuses to Put on Tefillin

August 18, 2015

Working in Miami Beach, Florida, is a very different experience to those of our colleagues, who are currently in places like Abuja, Nigeria; Mumbai, India; Guayaquil, Ecuador; and Hanoi, Vietnam, to name just a few. While we don’t have to overcome the challenges (or excitement) of unfamiliar territory, lack of communication, and subpar accommodations, our days are quite similar–searching for Jews, helping them wrap tefillin or light Shabbat candles, teaching some Torah, and offering spirituality and a positive Jewish experience. And when a connection is achieved and we see souls on fire, it’s priceless in every language.

A few weeks ago, we were pleasantly surprised to be granted a meeting with Mr. Y, a prestigious attorney and real estate developer here in Miami. He graciously welcomed us into his office, and we spent an hour together. He shared some vignettes from his long and colorful career, and we shared some chassidic teachings. Before our time was up, we took our tefillin out of our bag.

“Sorry, boys, not today.” Mr. Y. cut straight to the chase. “I know exactly what those are. Last time I put them on was 25 or 30 years ago.”

Though we can’t claim to be seasoned lawyers, we did have a fair share of negotiating under our belts.

“Mr. Y., would you please reconsider? It will only take a few moments.”

“Maybe another time. Thanks so much for coming.” He shook our hands warmly as we bade each other farewell. Although he hadn’t donned tefillin, it was apparent that he had really enjoyed our company, and we were grateful for that.

Yesterday, we attended a farbrengen, a chassidic gathering, hosted at one of the local Chabad centers. We immediately spotted Mark, a lawyer who practices together with Mr. Y. We had met him and several of his Jewish colleagues that same day, and they had all agreed to put on tefillin.

“Hey boys, nu, did you get Mr. Y. to do tefillin?”

“No, unfortunately he refused.”

Mark gave us a loaded look. “Listen, you have to pay him one more visit before you leave. I think he wants to do it, he just needs that push. We’ve all been trying for years, and nothing, but I think if anyone can do it, it would be you guys.”

Well, after hearing that, we really didn’t have any other option then to stop by Mr. Y.’s office the next morning! "We're sorry we don't have a meeting scheduled, Mr. Y., but we're leaving town and wanted to say goodbye."

Luckily, he liked us, and invited us to sit. We started chatting, and the minutes passed quickly. After about an hour, we felt that the time was ripe.

“Mr Y., we’re heading back to New York tomorrow. Would you do us a huge favor…?”

Mr. Y. smiled. “You want me to put on tefillin, right? You know what, I’ll do it!”

“Great!” We quickly pulled out our tefillin before he could change his mind. Mr. Y. was duly wrapped, and from the wistful look on his face we could tell that it dredged up pleasant memories, perhaps of a simpler time in his life?

“Boys, thank you!” Mr. Y. cleared his throat. “That was really good.” Long pause.

“I think I am going to start wearing my tefillin again.”

“Mr. Y., can you commit to putting on tefillin every day?”

“You got me, boys. Yes, I will make that commitment!”

That magical moment was culminated by affixing a mezuzah to the door of his office. We parted like old friends, bear hugs included.

Mr. Y., L’chaim! May you always cherish that commitment. As we continue with our work, you will serve as our inspiration!

Q&A: A Snapshot of American Jewry From Two Young Rabbis’ Five-Week Road Trip

Who they met during a coast-to-coast assignment, what they accomplished, how they were inspired

August 17, 2015 5:04 PM
Rabbi Zushi Rivkin and Rabbi Mendy Wilschanski just completed a five-week assignment in which they visited Jewish communities and individuals from South Florida to Southern California.
Rabbi Zushi Rivkin and Rabbi Mendy Wilschanski just completed a five-week assignment in which they visited Jewish communities and individuals from South Florida to Southern California.

Rabbi Zushi Rivkin, 25, and Rabbi Mendy Wilschanski, 24, just completed a five-week assignment in which they visited Jewish communities and individuals from South Florida to Southern California. As part of Chabad’s Merkos Shlichus “Roving Rabbis” program, they shared the beauty of Judaism wherever they went—helping men and boys wrap tefillin, handing out Shabbat candles to women and girls, hanging mezuzahs, answering all sorts of Jewish-related questions and offering Torah study.

During the time they spent on the road, the two met a total of 192 Jewish people from state to state.

Rivkin shares some of their experiences and newfound inspiration from the trip.

Q: You’ve met many, many Jewish people with a variety of backgrounds. What is it that unites them all?

A: If there is one common thread that we found, I’d say it is the genuine desire that everyone had to come closer to G‑d, each one in his or her own way. We suggested to those we met to add one mitzvah to their lives, and not one person told us that they weren’t interested. Some affixed mezuzahs to their doors. Others took it upon themselves to study Torah. Still others lit Shabbat candles. Everyone seemed to do something, and they seemed genuinely happy to do so.

Q: In most places you went, you had very few contacts to start out with initially. How did you manage to connect to local Jewish people?

A: As anyone who has ever participated in the “Roving Rabbis” program can tell you, this is a business where you very clearly see G‑d’s hand in everything you do.

A woman in Rio Rancho, N.M., burned a CD of Jewish music for their travels.
A woman in Rio Rancho, N.M., burned a CD of Jewish music for their travels.

For example, even before we started out, we went to a printer in Florida to make magnetic signs to attach to the sides of our car. It turned out that the owner was Jewish, as was the graphic designer and the girlfriend of one of the guys behind the counter. Of course, we had our tefillin and Shabbat candles ready—and that was even before we started.

Another amazing example was in Pratt, Kan., which has a population of 6,835. We stopped to change drivers, pulling over in the lot of a furniture store call Aaron’s. It’s a national chain, but we didn’t know that. We wondered if Aaron was perhaps Jewish and went in to find out.

Of course, Aaron was not there; he may never have stepped foot in that store. But we did meet a Jewish person behind the counter. He was originally from Alaska and going through a very difficult time in his life. He introduced us to his cousin, the only other Jew in town. They had been looking for a synagogue (there is none there); instead, we brought the synagogue to them.

Armed with a box of vital items for those they met: tefillin, kipahs, mezuzahs, books and more.
Armed with a box of vital items for those they met: tefillin, kipahs, mezuzahs, books and more.

Q: Who left particularly deep impressions on you?

A: Every individual made an impression. But here are a few who stood out.

In New Mexico, we met a woman with significant medical expenses who lives pension check to pension check. She told us that she wanted to improve her prayer experience and learn what each section of the prayers mean. At the end of our visit, we showed her that we had book called My Prayer that does a superb job at explaining the meaning of each one. She wanted to buy it, but asked that we wait until her next check was deposited, casually mentioning that she would need to go a month without meat in order to do so, but that it would be worth it. Of course, we just gave it to her.

There are so many others ... like the man who does his Jewish learning via computer. He showed us the tiny sukkah he built in his yard, using the guidelines he had read online.

A selfie in one of the many hotel rooms they stayed along the way, with their makeshift kosher breakfast.
A selfie in one of the many hotel rooms they stayed along the way, with their makeshift kosher breakfast.

And people were so very kind. For example, we dropped off some clothes at the cleaners prior to the nine days before the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av. We mentioned to the lady behind the counter who we were, what we were doing, and that Jews do not launder clothing during that time. When we returned, she said that she had told another customer about us, and he graciously paid half our bill. We were blown away by that. At the same time, they learned something about the holiday.

Another act of kindness that was very touching came from a woman who met us together with her 95-year-old father at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Rio Rancho, N.M. After we talked about various Jewish subjects, she handed us a CD she had burned for us in advance. “I know you guys drive a lot,” she said. “So I made you this CD of nice Jewish music.” It was wonderful to hear that she enjoyed such music at home.

As for us, as we drove through Kansas—which is flatter than flat—you can be sure we made good use of that CD.

Q: Where did you celebrate Shabbat, and with whom did you celebrate?

A: Our first Shabbat was in Harbor Beach, Fla., where our friend Rabbi Eliezer Perlstein recently opened a new Chabad center. In fact, the Shabbat we celebrated there was the first time he offered Saturday-morning services to the community.

The next week, we were way west in Shreveport, La., where there is a core of inspired young people who really make a difference in the local community. After a whole week of meeting people, we felt we were able to host Shabbat there. On Friday morning, after studying and praying, we drove to Dallas to pick up a complete catered Shabbat meal. There was couple who had just moved to town three weeks beforehand. They told us the first Shabbat there, they cried as they sat among the boxes. The next week, they hosted their parents who were visiting, and it was a bit better. They could not believe that their third Shabbat was among so many of their fellow Jews. It was beautiful!

Shabbat following that was in Kansas City, where we were able to be near an established congregation (Chabad has been there since 1970), since Sunday was the fast of 9 Av, Tisha B’Av.

Helping put up a new mezuzah for this very active Jewish member in 4S Ranch, an unincorporated community of San Diego County. His former one disappeared.
Helping put up a new mezuzah for this very active Jewish member in 4S Ranch, an unincorporated community of San Diego County. His former one disappeared.

The fourth week we were in Albuquerque, N.M., where our friend Rabbi Buzzy Ajzenszmidt hosts a large Shabbat meal following services. It turns out that he went out of town for Shabbat, so we stepped in for him. It was really nice to see that some of the people we had visited during that week attended the Shabbat services and meal, and seemed to really enjoy it. In fact, one man there gave us the good news that he had already ordered mezuzahs for his home as we’d discussed.

Our last Shabbat was in Poway, Calif. In a sense, it was our quietest one. We celebrated it with our friend, Rabbi Mendy Goldstein and his wife, Shterna, who recently joined his parents in running the local Chabad. It was a really nice way to cap off what had been five weeks of nonstop travel and talk.

Q: As you traveled across America and had the chance to absorb the landscape, what are some memorable sights that you encountered?

A: Probably the most beautiful were the breathtaking rock formations in the deserts of New Mexico. In fact, we took a few hours to enjoy the Grand Canyon in neighboring Arizona and actually spoke with a Jewish park ranger who was happy to put on tefillin.

A child puts coins in a tzedakah box, which the young rabbis explained to him and his siblings that their change turns into food or something else that a person really needs.
A child puts coins in a tzedakah box, which the young rabbis explained to him and his siblings that their change turns into food or something else that a person really needs.

Another uniquely American experience was driving along Route 66, the iconic road that connects Chicago with the West Coast before the creation of the Interstate. There is something charming about the old diners and rusting cars that you pass along the way. One interesting stretch of the road was covered with rumble strips. If you drive exactly 45 miles per hour, your car plays “America the Beautiful” as an incentive for people to slow down—an alternative to getting a ticket if you go too fast.

It worked, causing us to slow down and listen to the music. It really drives home the adage that you can accomplish more with honey than with vinegar.

Q: Was it challenging to find kosher food during your travels, aside from the hot meals eaten on Shabbat?

A: We ate a lot of tuna wraps, rice cakes, guacamole and other foods that stay well outside of a fridge. And we brought packs of kosher gum and mints with us from New York to keep us busy while driving.

You’d be surprised by how many things you can get at large retail stores or even a local shop. Of course, every once in a while eating like this causes cravings for a warm meal. Many times the closest we would have to that would be using a coffee-maker in a hotel room to add hot water to instant soups, or coffee or tea.

Q: You mention some other surprises in terms of meeting people—people, perhaps, you didn’t expect? What is a lasting message there?

A: So many people inspired us. But what we didn’t expect was the reaction we got from children of the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries we met along the way. They have the strength and inspiration to be different, to be unique, in places where there aren’t so many other kids like themselves. They set a Jewish example.

And that’s what we hope we helped impart—be yourself, be Jewish, be proud. That message comes from the very young and reaches those of every age.

This tiny sukkah was built by a Jewish man in Wichita, Kan., made using guidelines he found online.
This tiny sukkah was built by a Jewish man in Wichita, Kan., made using guidelines he found online.
A table set for Shabbat in Albuquerque, N.M., where the two men actually stepped in to run services.
A table set for Shabbat in Albuquerque, N.M., where the two men actually stepped in to run services.
Wrapping tefillin with a park ranger from the Grand Canyon.
Wrapping tefillin with a park ranger from the Grand Canyon.

The 11th Hour

August 17, 2015 4:12 PM

We arrived in Sibiu late at night. We had included it in our itinerary because it has a tiny Jewish population, who could undoubtedly use some encouragement. Also, it is one of the tourism capitals of Romania, and we were pretty confident that we would find some Jewish tourists. We checked into a hotel, and headed for bed with a sense of excitement and anticipation.

Our day began with a visit to the local synagogue, built circa 1900. We met some of the Jewish community members there, and spoke with them for a while. We told them that although their community is so small, all Jews are family and they should consider themselves parts of a whole, 15 million strong!

It was noon when we left the synagogue for our next stop, the town square, a popular local attraction. We walked around for three hours and met lots of people, but none of them were Jewish. At that point, we moved on to another part of town, but it seemed like we were having an off day. It was now 4 pm. “Let’s go back to the town square,” I told Yudi. “We need to meet at least one more Jew today!”

We spent another four hours pounding the pavement of the town square, to no avail. Dusk was falling, and it was time to call it a day.

“Mendy, let’s go to the supermarket now, and see if they have any kosher food we can pick up. You never know,” Yudi added, “we might bump into someone on the way to the car.”

The walk to the car was uneventful. We scavenged the supermarket for some kosher items, and then headed for the checkout line with quite a respectable loot. “Hi there, are you Chabad?” A middle-aged Israeli man greeted us in Hebrew! Abandoning our cart, we gave him our full attention, while keeping an eye on the clock—there were only a few minutes left to put on tefillin before nightfall. “I saw you guys walk into the store, and I told my wife—look, Chabadniks! We just had to chase you down. We followed you into the store, but you kept walking further in, and we kept running after you! Finally, we caught up with you here! Oh, I’m Itai,” he concluded with a warm smile, “and this is my wife Orly.”

“We can’t tell you how thrilled we are to meet you, Itai and Orly. In fact, this is the reason why we came to Sibiu. Itai, would you like to do the mitzvah of tefillin now? We’ve got two minutes to sundown.”

Before you could say “Tel Aviv,” Itai was proudly wearing tefillin. We then headed outside together, chatting like family. We no longer felt alone amongst the throngs of people, and we felt privileged to have witnessed G‑d’s Hand once again, this time in the form of the eleventh hour tefillin.

A Stranded Israeli Ship Brings Us Shabbat Guests

August 17, 2015 3:24 PM

Four weeks ago, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which also marked our first time in a third world country. Immediately, we were struck by the sounds, sights, and smells that assailed our senses. Everything is different here, and unfortunately the poverty is as rampant as the rickshaw drivers crowding the narrow streets.

The Ben Thanh Night Market is popular with tourists and locals alike, as the evening hours offer somewhat of a respite from the heat and humidity. We headed there in search of Jewish tourists, and fifteen minutes in, a group of people greeted us with “Shalom!” We started talking with them, and eventually inquired if they were Jewish. Experience has taught us that shalom doesn’t necessarily mean so. “No, we’re not, it’s a long story. We are travelling on a ship run by an Israeli shipping company. We had some mechanical trouble, so we stopped here to repair the ship.”

“Is there anybody Jewish on board?” we asked.

“Yes, of course! The captain and some of the crew are Jewish.”

We pulled out our business cards. “Would you do us a big favor? Here’s our card, can you give it to all the Jews, and let them know that they are welcome to join us for Shabbat dinner? All the information is on the card.”

They agreed, and we thanked them profusely.

That Friday night, we were at the Chabad House, about to begin Shabbat dinner with several guests around the table. A middle-aged man walked in, looking around to gather his bearings. We rushed over to greet him.

“Shabbat Shalom, welcome!”

He smiled. “Hi, Shabbat Shalom. I’m Yair, from Tel Aviv. Listen, it’s hard to believe I’m here. I work for a shipping company, and we were heading somewhere else, nowhere near Vietnam! Then, our ship started malfunctioning, so we had to stop and get it fixed. It took longer than expected, and some of the crew started exploring. One night, they came back and told me that they met two rabbis in the marketplace. They gave me your card and told me that I was invited for Shabbat. Well, our ship is still having trouble, so here I am!”

We quickly got him settled, and recited the Kiddush, which was followed by a delicious meal, and lots of singing interspersed with words of Torah. It was close to midnight when people started filing out the door, uplifted and rejuvenated by the Shabbat experience.

Yair approached us and shook our hands. “Thanks so much, boys. With this situation and all, I would never expect to have a regular Shabbat with food and songs just like home. Chabad is great!”

Tefillin: Public or Private?

August 6, 2015 10:06 PM

When we approach someone with our tefillin, it’s hard to predict the response we’ll get. Sometimes, the person who seems interested in spirituality will refuse but the one sporting tattoos and piercings will readily agree. Over the years, we’ve learned to keep an open mind, a friendly smile, and most importantly, a very thick skin.

Last Friday, we set up a makeshift tefillin stand in a large shopping mall in Bucharest, Romania, which we were told attracted many Israeli tourists. It wasn’t long before we had our first “customer”, an outgoing Israeli named Dan. “Every Friday, the Chabad boys visit me and I put on tefillin,” he shared. “When they came last week, I told them I would be travelling to Romania, and would have to miss this Friday tradition. I was wrong! I walk into the mall and meet you guys right away, and now I won’t have to miss a Friday!”

Ofer was hesitant at first, but with a little persuasion he changed his mind. “You know, in Israel I never let anyone put tefillin on me. I’m not sure why, but it’s different here. And now that I did it, I see that it’s really not so bad.”

Tal greeted us with a huge smile. “Wow, Chabad is everywhere!” He wrapped the tefillin eagerly. We can usually count on meeting people like him, who instantly color the experience with their enthusiasm and positivity.

Earlier in the week we travelled to Bran, a tiny village about three hours from Bucharest, and worked our way through a crowded outdoor market. We spotted a Jewish gentleman and asked if he wanted to put on tefillin. He felt uncomfortable doing so in such a public setting and politely declined.

A while later, we came across a group of people performing in a play, including an Israeli. He agreed to put on tefillin, provided we all stepped off to the side. As we helped him wrap the straps around his arms and head and say the blessings, his cast members were making quite a commotion, snapping photos and shooting questions. It was quite a scene! When the crowd dispersed, we were surprised to find the fellow we had met when we first entered the market approaching us. “Where are the tefillin?” he asked. “I would like to do this mitzvah as well.” Clearly, G‑d arranged for him to witness the Israeli putting on tefillin proudly, which evidently made a deep impression on him, so much so that he turned the tables on us!

That’s the end of our Romanian tefillin tales for now. We’ve got more towns to visit during the next few weeks, and we look forward to more adventures.

Record-Smashing Shabbat Dinner in Berlin a ‘Giant Display of Jewish Pride’

Rabbinical students pitch in as 2,322 attend Friday-night meal

August 4, 2015 4:37 PM

As 2,322 Jewish men and women gathered around tables Friday night for what has officially been declared by the Guinness World Records to be the largest Shabbat meal on record, Shneur Volfman says he and his fellow Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students were on a mission: to make sure that each attendee had a meaningful Shabbat experience.

“There was much more than meets the eye,” reports the native of Oak Park, Mich., who studies at Chabad schools in the United Kingdom. “Even giving out kipahs. It may seem simple, but when you realize how many people there were, you see it’s a big deal.”

The meal was preceded by prayer services. Speaking to some of the worshippers, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, rabbi of the Berlin Jewish community and the head of Chabad of Berlin, shared the significance of that particular Shabbat.

“This Shabbat is the Shabbat of Nachamu, which means ‘comfort,’ ” said the rabbi to the crowd. “Following the destruction of the Temple on the ninth of Av, we now rise up and G‑d comforts us. It is also the 15th of Av, the day the decree that the Jews wander in the desert came to an end and one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar. From the terrible suffering comes joy and comfort.

“Of course, this is truest in Berlin,” he continued. “Just decades ago, this was the source of horrors beyond imagination. Yet in this very same city, thousands of young Jews can gather to celebrate, fraternize and explore their heritage.”

‘A Beautiful Scene’

Once everyone (or almost everyone) was seated their tables and had broken bread, Volfman says he and the other rabbinical students—part of the Merkos Shlichus “Roving Rabbis” program—were encouraged to fan out into the crowds to sing, dance and engage the athletes in Jewish conversation.

“The crowd was much too big to be centrally conducted,” states Teichtal, “but through song and dance, we were able to coalesce into one giant display of Jewish pride.”

“It was a beautiful scene,” reports Volfman. “Some people were celebrating Shabbat for the very first time and others had celebrated for every week of their lives, but everyone was talking, laughing, sharing and singing.”

Many of the songs were from a special booklet produced by Chabad of Berlin that had both Hebrew, German and English versions of some popular Shabbat melodies, in addition to the “Grace After Meals.”

The Shabbat meal was part of the 2015 European Maccabi Games, which run through Wednesday. The meal was the project of Alon Meyer, president of Maccabi in Germany, and Robby Rjber, its vice president.

Throughout the week, Chabad students have been operating two tefillin and information booths—one of them at the stadium where the games are being played, the same site where Hitler sought to bar Jewish athletes and other minorities from the 1936 Olympic Games.