Roving Rabbis

No Place Too Far

August 31, 2016 5:46 PM

It was our second day in Palma de Mallorca, capital of Mallorca, one of the Spanish islands in the Mediterranean. It is a popular tourist destination, with the perfect combination of history, culture, and nature, but for us it was another stop in our whirlwind trip through Spain, with visits to the cities of Menorca, Girona, Valencia, Marbella, Seville, and Toledo. We had mapped out our itinerary together with Rabbi Dovid Libersohn, Chabad rabbi to Barcelona, and with a mere few days in each city, every waking moment was dedicated to our mission: to find the Jewish people living in these isolated places, and offer them assistance with any of their Jewish needs, as well as a listening ear and our unconditional friendship, as per the directives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who, in 1943, created the Rabbinical Student Visitation Program.

Our first appointment of the day was with Sara, an elderly woman whose contact information was passed along to us by students who had visited previously. The visit went well and before we left she gave us some names and phone numbers of fellow Jews in the neighborhood. Thrilled, we phoned the contacts she had given us immediately after leaving her apartment. The first person we got through to was a woman named Aliza, and after a short conversation we agreed to meet at her home later that afternoon.

Aliza and her husband David greeted us with characteristic Spanish warmth, inviting us to make ourselves comfortable and plying us with fruit and drink. We began talking about Judaism—they told us about the miniscule local Jewish community, consisting of only 15 families. There is a small synagogue which opens only on Friday nights, with services led by the president in lieu of a rabbi. Though the couple tried their utmost, they were aware that it was difficult to observe all the mitzvot in a place like Palma, and since neither of them had the benefit of a Jewish education, they were uncertain of how to proceed in their journey to greater observance.

In the middle of the conversation, Aliza picked up Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Every Life, by Chassidic author Laibl Wolf. She flipped to the center of the book, pointing to a picture. “Do you know who this rabbi is?”

We were shocked! There we were, sitting in the living room of a Jewish couple in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, a place almost completely bereft of Judaism, and we were asked to identify a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and the founder of the roving rabbi program!

“Aliza,” we said, “That is Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He is the reason we are here right now, visiting you and her husband!” We tried to explain the Rebbe’s impact on Chabad and Jew worldwide, stopping when we noticed tears streaming down Aliza’s face.

“As you know,” she began, her words slow and measured, “it’s quite difficult to be Jewish in Palma, and how much more so to be an observant Jew. There’s really no infrastructure or support system or rabbis or anything...it all has to come from within. About a month ago, I started feeling uninspired, lethargic, and just stuck in a spiritual rut. A week ago, I began praying to G‑d for something in my life to change. Then, early this morning, when I awoke and felt so despondent, I was drawn to this book, and specifically to the picture I just showed you. ‘Please help me, please send someone to inspire me,’ I begged the rabbi in the picture. And just a few hours later, there are followers of that great Rabbi in my home in Mallorca, to teach me more about Judaism and how to live as a Jew.”

Inspiration 20 Years In the Making

August 31, 2016 5:29 PM

Sunday, December 10, 1989

At 770 Eastern Parkway, Lubavitch World Headquarters, the weekly “Sunday Dollars” was well underway. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, would stand for hours in a small room adjacent to his office as thousands of men, women, and children filed past to receive his blessing and a dollar to be distributed to charity. Many used this opportunity to seek the Rebbe’s wise counsel.

Cantor Joseph Malovany of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York City brought his family to the Rebbe that day. After introducing his wife and son to the Rebbe, he added that he has another son who is autistic and living in a Jewish institution in England, and “needs a blessing and G‑d’s help.” The Rebbe handed Cantor Malovany a dollar to be given to charity on his son’s behalf, and told him: “If someone is autistic, it doesn't mean that they don't relate to anyone. They might not relate well to people, but to G‑d they relate as well as everyone else, and even more—while they’re not busy with people, they’re busy with G‑d. Place a charity box in his room. This will benefit him, and he'll remind his visitors that they must give charity."

Cantor Malovany informed the Rebbe that they had plans to visit their son soon and would do as requested, and left this encounter with the Rebbe—which lasted under two minutes—with a complete shift in his perception and attitude.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

We are in the midst of a month-long roving rabbi stint in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Northridge, assisting Rabbi Eli and Mrs. Tzippy Rivkin of Chabad of Northridge. That Sunday, we had scheduled a home visit with Bob, per Rabbi Rivkin’s suggestion.

Bob greeted us warmly, and we sat down on his living room sofa to chat. We told him a little bit about ourselves and Chabad, and then gave him the floor—after years of listening to people, it’s clear when someone needs to share.

Bob began by telling us that 20 years ago, he had been “a lot more religious,” attending synagogue every Shabbat. Then, his two young children were diagnosed with autism, and the Jewish day school they attended was unable to properly service them. With no recourse, he enrolled them in public school. Without a solid Jewish infrastructure in their lives, coupled with some resentment for what they perceived as a lack of acceptance and support from the Jewish community, the family slowly pared down their involvement.

As Bob was talking about his challenges with his children, the Rebbe’s encounter with Cantor Malovany came to mind. It is available as a YouTube clip, courtesy of JEM—Jewish Educational Media. We decided to pull it up on our phones and show it to Bob.

Bob was mesmerized, and became quite emotional when he heard the Rebbe’s novel approach to children with autism. We showed him a few similar clips and discussed how the Rebbe loved every Jew unconditionally and urged his followers to do the same. That was the inspiration behind the founding of the Friendship Circle, Chabad's organization for children with special needs, which currently has 79 branches worldwide, including one quite close to Northridge! We forwarded their contact information to Bob, who promised to call first thing on Monday.

When we said our goodbyes to Bob, it was like he was a different man than the one who had welcomed us in an hour prior. He was standing taller, his eyes were shining, his faith in humanity had been restored. Once again, an encounter with the Rebbe had made an immeasurable impact.

Harry, the Harley-Rider

August 31, 2016 5:15 PM

It was one of those days—long, tiring, unsatisfying. We had been on the road since early morning, visiting several homes and offices in Alamogordo, New Mexico, but we were consistently finding that either people weren’t home, or we had the wrong addresses. And it seemed that those who were home, at the correct address, went running for cover at the sight of two rabbinical students!

So, we decided to take a short break to recharge.

As you might expect, there aren’t many kosher options in Alamogordo, so we headed to Albertson’s, a local supermarket. In the parking lot, we noticed a man mounted on his Harley, and for some inexplicable reason decided to ask him if he was Jewish. Imagine our surprise when he replied that he was—in fact he was raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side!

It was almost time for our next appointment, and we wanted to offer our new friend, Harry, the opportunity to do a mitzvah. We retrieved our tefillin from the car. Harry knew exactly what they were and graciously agreed to our request. We continued chatting for a bit longer and asked if we could visit him at his home later that evening, to spend some more time with him. Once again, Harry agreed.

On a high that no amount of caffeine or sugar could have generated, we drove off to our next meeting, which went smoothly, thank G‑d.

When we arrived at his home later that evening, Harry greeted us like old friends, and we sat out on his patio for quite a while. Then, with his permission, we began checking his mezuzahs, beginning with the one at the entrance to his home. Except there wasn’t really much to examine—the case was completely empty! This scene repeated itself as we took down all the mezuzahs inside his home. Luckily, our roving rabbi toolbox is stocked with kosher, brand new mezuzahs, and we quickly affixed a scroll in each case under Harry’s close and at times emotional supervision.

When the last mezuzah scroll was securely in place, Harry wiped his eyes and loudly cleared his throat.

“Boys,” he began. “This morning I woke up, and although the sun was shining brightly, for me, it was dark. My wife and I are both struggling with recently diagnosed medical conditions. I always considered myself a strong person—I am a master in Krav Maga and work as a security contractor. But lately, I’ve been feeling weak, depressed, hopeless, and today, these feelings reached a peak and I was terrified that I was at a breaking point. Then, you approached me with such genuine friendship, and more than that, helped me put on tefillin and put up these mezuzahs. It seems like you boys are a Divine beacon of light and hope.” Harry offered us a shy smile. “Thank you for lighting up my day and allowing me to reconnect to what is true, my Jewish identity. Please, let’s keep in touch!”

Meeting Holocaust Survivors in Germany

August 18, 2016 1:04 PM

Over the past few weeks, we have travelled across Germany, visiting the cities of Worms, Darmstadt, Mainz, Michelstadt, Speyer, Limburg, and Heidelberg, to name a few. It has been both a wonderful and heavy experience. We were constantly cognizant that we were walking on soil that has been drenched with Jewish blood, yet we strolled the streets in Chassidic garb, on a mission to spread Judaism and bolster the spirits of the German Jews, which we considered our personal proclamation of “Am Yisrael chai”—“the Jewish nation endures.”

We were fortunate to meet many Jewish people, including a large number of Holocaust survivors, and we treasured the opportunity to spend time with these elderly people who have suffered so much. A particularly memorable experience took place just a few days ago, in the centrally located town of Kassel.

We had just concluded a home visit with a contact from previous years, when we noticed an elderly woman staring at us through the window of her apartment, wide-eyed.

“Do you speak Yiddish?” she asked us (in Yiddish). When we replied in the affirmative, she called her husband, visibly excited. “We haven’t spoken Yiddish in fifty years!” she exclaimed.

They introduced themselves as Hershel and Anna, and invited us inside, understandably with a small amount of reservation—we most certainly were not their typical guests.

Still, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room, and before long Hershel was sharing his life story. He told us that at 90 years old he is the oldest Jew in Kassel, born in Warsaw, in 1926, the third of five boys. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew and has fond memories of attending cheder with his brothers. In the late 1930’s, as the Nazi movement was tightening its grip on Europe, Hershel’s father moved the family to Russia, where they remained for the duration of the War. When the dust had settled, they returned, this time to Kassel. Hershel was amongst the lucky ones; his entire immediate family survived, although his two older brothers have since passed on. The younger two moved to the Israeli port town of Haifa many years ago, and Hershel seldom sees them.

There was a lull in the conversation, and Hershel seemed lost in thought. We took out our tefillin and he considered our offer for a few moments before agreeing. “When was the last time that you wore tefilin, Hershel?”

“It’s my first time,” he replied, adding that his older brothers had celebrated their bar mitzvahs, but he had turned thirteen during the War. We carefully wrapped the straps around his arms and head, and began reciting the blessing, intending for Hershel to repeat it: “Baruch…” but Herschel needed no help from us. “Baruch Atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’haniach tefillin,” he enunciated. He had remembered the blessing he had learned in cheder and heard from his brothers nearly 80 years ago!

After that, the atmosphere was noticeably lighter. We suggested we affix a mezuzah on the front door and he agreed. Hershel showed us a Jewish video he had and in general seemed more relaxed. We were gratified to see that we were leaving them in a better state of mind than when we had arrived, and wished them lots of health and happiness in the years to come.

As we continued with our day, our conversation kept returning to Hershel’s bar mitzvah. There were many elements of Divine Providence to this story, but what struck us most was how Hershel had perfectly remembered the blessing. It didn’t seem possible that a small schoolchild could retain that, especially after experiencing so much pain and trauma. The only explanation is that those pure words, along with the Torah he had studied, had been engraved upon his heart and soul, waiting all these years for the opportunity to mark his bar mitzvah by performing the sacred mitzvah of tefillin.

Celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of the Deputy Chief of Mission, Political and Public Affairs

August 15, 2016 2:09 PM

Cambodia’s Jewish community has been faithfully served since Rabbi Bentzion and Mrs. Mashie Butman arrived on the scene in 2009. Currently, they are abroad, providing themselves and their six young children some much needed time family time, and we are here attempting to fill their very large shoes. Last week, we received a phone call from the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Mr. Yuwal Waks, whose official title is ‘Deputy Chief of Mission, Political and Public Affairs’ (which means that he is second in command at the embassy), had some business in Phnom Penh, and was interested in visiting the Chabad House. Of course, we responded that we would be thrilled to host Mr. Waks, and immediately got to work on the logistics.

In anticipation of our important guest, we spent most of the morning preparing—making sure the rooms were tidy and presentable, and overseeing the lunch that the Cambodian chefs in the Chabad restaurant were whipping up. We were excited but also apprehensive—this visitor was in a different league from our typical easygoing Sabra backpacker!

But as soon as we met Mr. Waks we relaxed. He was easygoing, soft-spoken, and respectful. We began with a grand tour of the 8-story building which houses a synagogue, preschool, restaurant, social hall, offices, mikvah, and more. Our visitor was extremely impressed with the building and the full gamut of Jewish amenities the Butmans provide to Cambodia’s Jewish community of locals and tourists.

Over lunch (which thankfully turned out delicious!) we had a spirited discussion about some Jewish and Chassidic philosophical concepts. At one point, Mr. Waks mentioned that he had grown up on a secular kibbutz, and had never had the opportunity to put on tefillin. “I would like to do so, would that be possible?” he inquired.

Chabad boys are trained from a young age to help others with mitzvahs, including tefillin, and we log countless hours in that pursuit. We almost always are the ones doing the asking, so being approached like this made for a rare and happy occasion.

About an hour later, after we had finished lunch and our conversation, we brought out our tefillin and explained the process to Mr. Waks, who had about a dozen questions for us about every detail, until he was wrapped up, and turned quiet, introspective. We gave him time to pray and when he was ready we removed the tefillin and celebrated together.

“This is your Bar-Mitzvah, mazal tov!” we toasted L’chaim in honor of the occasion.

We’re quite certain that when Yuval Waks turned thirteen, back on the kibbutz under the hot Israeli sun, he could never have dreamed that the day would come when he would celebrate his Bar Mitzvah nearly 5000 miles away at the Jewish hub of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In Hanoi, Young Rabbis Find Surprising Connections

A summer searching for Jews on the streets and in the marketplaces of Vietnam’s capital

August 15, 2016 1:34 PM
Hanoi has been the locale this summer for rabbinical students Mendy Tubul and Berel Dubinsky, who have scoured the capital of Vietnam, often on moped, looking for Jewish residents and tourists, and offering them services, kosher food and sometimes, just their company. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Hanoi has been the locale this summer for rabbinical students Mendy Tubul and Berel Dubinsky, who have scoured the capital of Vietnam, often on moped, looking for Jewish residents and tourists, and offering them services, kosher food and sometimes, just their company. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Forty Jewish people from around the world sat around a table not too long ago in Hanoi, celebrating Shabbat together.

“Almost everyone discovered that they had a previous connection to someone else there,” reports Mendy Tubul, a senior student at the Chabad yeshivah in Antwerp. “One woman had stayed at the home of the parents of another person at the table. There were some teens who knew the granddaughter of an elderly couple there. There was a fellow who lives a five-minute walk from my parents in Paris.”

He and fellow rabbinical student Berel Dubinsky have reported similar instances across the capital of Vietnam, where they have been working this summer to bring services and amenities to Jewish residents and tourists. They temporarily replaced Rabbi Levi and Mushky Laine, permanent Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to Hanoi, in this city of more than 7.7 million people.

During their time over the past four weeks, they note that “G‑d has literally been guiding our steps.”

For example, a group of British Jews had been worried about where they would celebrate Shabbat. In a dark, underground area in the city’s much-frequented Old Quarter, they met the two rabbinical students who had been trying unsuccessfully to find an Uber to take them home after a fruitless-seeming search for Jewish tourists.

It was during one of those walks that Tubul and Dubinsky also caught the attention of a Canadian mother and son. Spotting the bearded young men in kipahs and with tzitzits, the son called out “Shalom!” from the rickshaw he had been riding in with his mother. Soon, he found himself wrapping tefillin.

Another encounter took place in a mechanic’s shop, where Dubinsky had taken his moped—along with bicycles, the transportation of choice in Hanoi—for repair. Trusting his sixth sense for finding members of the tribe, Dubinsky called out “Israelis?” and was rewarded with yet another connection.

‘Feeling Blessed’

Prayer was part of the “chanukat habayit” ceremony for American Joseph Berman, who recently moved to Hanoi.
Prayer was part of the “chanukat habayit” ceremony for American Joseph Berman, who recently moved to Hanoi.

This summer, some 300 Chabad rabbinic interns have fanned out to hundreds of locations all over the world as part of the annual Merkos Shlichus “Roving Rabbis” program. Each year, they leave New York City and go to places near and far to bring Jewish services to residents and travelers. They hold daily prayer services and offer tefillin, host Shabbat dinners—for many, access to kosher food they don’t get during the year—and answer questions about Judaism and related issues.

In addition to combing the streets for tourists and staffing the Chabad center, the duo reports that they have been able to help some Jewish people affix mezuzahs in their homes. For example, American ex-pat Joseph Berman, who moved to Vietnam this summer, was gratified to host a mini chanukat habayit (“home dedication”) ceremony that included the installation of a new mezuzah and words of Torah in his new apartment.

He plans to pray regularly with the tallit he brought from home and hopes to procure a pair of tefillin to complete the set.

“Thank you so much, Chabad,” he posted on Facebook (noting that he was “feeling blessed”). “This small act meant more to me than you’ll ever know.”

The word “Shalom!” called out from a rickshaw alerted Dubinsky, left, that there was a Jewish person inside, who got out and put on tefillin.
The word “Shalom!” called out from a rickshaw alerted Dubinsky, left, that there was a Jewish person inside, who got out and put on tefillin.
The duo spent significant time searching Hanoi’s teeming markets for Jewish people. Here, Dubinsky talks with another Jewish man.
The duo spent significant time searching Hanoi’s teeming markets for Jewish people. Here, Dubinsky talks with another Jewish man.
The Trang Tien Plaza building in Hanoi, a popular a shopping center in downtown. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Trang Tien Plaza building in Hanoi, a popular a shopping center in downtown. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)