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What a Summer it Was!

Or Was it?

September 7, 2008
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky prepares students for their assignment
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky prepares students for their assignment

The last of the rovers have come to roost. After spending weeks on the road, finding Jews and adventure all over the place, the boys are now ensconced on the benches of their respective Yeshivas. As they open their Talmuds and settle into their daily routines of prayer and study, it is hard to imagine that just a few weeks ago these same young men were hoofing it all over the world. They seem much more at home in this world of Aramaic texts and mystical Chassidic teachings.

But wait, they are not all back.

Although the summer may be ending, and the leaves will soon begin to turn, their adventures and meetings live on. They continue to inspire the countless people whom they have encountered throughout their wanderings.

The little boy remembers them every time he reaches up to kiss the mezuzah on his bedroom door. On Friday evening, the young woman thinks of them as she covers her eyes after lighting the candles they gave her. The elderly couple fondly remembers the bright young men who listened so attentively to their stories of bygone years.

And the rabbis are thinking of them as well.

They will continue to keep in touch. Emails, holiday packages, and letters ensure that the friendships created this summer will continue to grow and thrive.

And at the Chabad headquarters, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky and his devoted staff are already working on the High Holidays, Passover, and other trips throughout the year. And of course, they are laying the groundwork for next summer.

Then, a new cadre of idealistic young men will pack maps, Tefillin, and kosher salami and hit the road…



In the old synagogue of Cork, Ireland
In the old synagogue of Cork, Ireland

Out of the Depths

September 5, 2008 11:00 AM
We plot out our adventures
We plot out our adventures

330 Sarandi St.

The house seems too small to merit a house number. We knock on the door and are greeted by a tired woman who looks about seventy-five. The afternoon sun envelopes her in a haze, accentuating her washed out features.

She introduces herself as Manuel's mother. "You're looking for Manuel? He's still sleeping."

After telling her who we are and what we came for, we tell her all about Shabbat candles and what a great mitzvah it is to light them every Friday evening.

We see a man in the back of the house, walking towards us. With a sleepy face, Manuel invites us to come inside and have a shmooz. A few minutes into the conversation, we realize that he's no happy fellow. Ever since his business shut down thirteen years ago, he has been destitute. His family life isn't too much better. For the past seven years he lives with his elderly mother.

He tells us he's so depressed that he doesn't know why he's still alive. He's not even sure if G‑d exists. But one thing he knows is that he's a Jew. Not that he ever did anything for it or knows what it really means.

We ask him if he has put on Tefillin before. He says he hasn't. He's not even sure he knows what Tefillin are. We ask him if wants to put them on, "It's a mitzvah, a good deed, you know."

He argues that there's no point in putting them on if he doesn't feel it. We compromise; he will put them on but won't say any prayers.

We roll up his sleeve, tighten the strap around his arm, and start saying "baruch…atah…." Manuel echoes our words in stilted Hebrew. He's very moved.

After removing the Tefillin, he goes to the back of the house and comes back with an old coin in his hand. It's a coin from 1905 which he received from his father and is therefore very dear to him. He's giving it to us. We give him the book Towards a Meaningful Life, hoping that it'll give him motivation to go on.

We turn to the old woman and ask her if her son has a Jewish name.

"Of course he does! By his brit, we gave him the name Menachem. His full name is Menachem Mendel."

Our new friends
Our new friends

In Tefillin for the 1st Time!

September 5, 2008 9:00 AM

Behind Bars

September 4, 2008

Today, we spent our day visiting inmates in the Davis Correctional Facility, in Holdenville, OK. We were buzzed through an endless maze of massive barbed wire gates by several guards with rifles and dogs.

After signing in, going through a strict security check (Good thing the warden knew what Tefillin were and instructed security not to make us unseal them!), and leaving our personal belongings at the front gate, we were met by the chaplain who gave us a rundown on the spiritual situation of the inmates.

We were assigned a room where we gathered all of the Jews. We spoke for hours about the high holidays, repentance, and starting the year afresh. We put on Tefillin with everyone in the room, blew the shofar in preparation for Rosh Hashana, and everyone had an opportunity to share an inspirational thought and/or story. Before leaving, there was some serious soul searching as everyone chose an area where they would improve during the coming year.

Following this visit, we had a meeting with the chaplain, the food service manager, and the warden, to discuss the various requests and requirements of the Jewish inmates. We were shown around the kosher kitchen and inspected the food products and their kosher certifications.

We also discussed the calendar and the various practices and services to be conducted over the coming High Holiday period. We exchanged information and planned to be in touch to do whatever we could for the Jewish guests of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Of Progress, Drivers, and Meatballs

September 3, 2008

The other day, there was a convention near Suzhou, a city about seventy-five kilometers from Shanghai. When some Israeli conventioneers asked Chabad if we could bring over some kosher food, we didn't wait for another invitation.

First thing in the morning, we went to the Chabad house in Shanghai and picked up enough kosher food to feed an army. Before you can say 'shalom' in Chinese (which is actually very hard if you are an American, but that's a whole 'nuther story), we were on our way.

Shanghai is a modern city…
Shanghai is a modern city…

Now, the trip from Shanghai to Suzhou is supposed to take around two hours, but we had a Chinese driver, and although I am digressing from the subject at hand, I should tell you something about Chinese drivers: You know how people say that New Yorker see the traffic laws as mere suggestions for beginners? Well, Chinese drivers don't see the traffic laws at all. There are no rules. Lane markings, traffic lights, crosswalks, sidewalks, all these things don't exist! In fact, a guy I met in the synagogue told me that he feels like reciting the hagomel (thanksgiving) prayer, every time he crosses the street.

Back to our story. We got into the car with our driver and tons of kosher food and headed out towards Suzhou.

The drive was very interesting. It was my first time leaving Shanghai, and the contrast was striking.

Shanghai is a very modern city (as long as you ignore the ground level and only look at the third story and higher). Everywhere you look, there are beautiful high-rise projects, impressive bridges, and awe-inspiring skyscrapers. In fact, right now they are in middle of building a skyscraper that will stand over three hundred floors high. (In contrast, the twin towers were only one hundred and ten floors high).

…as long as you ignore the ground level
…as long as you ignore the ground level

But as soon as you leave the city and get into the provincial areas, you travel about two thousand years into the past. I thought that I knew third world. After all, I've been to rural Poland. But this is different. I mean, at least in Poland, they had telegraph poles strung up, reminding you that there is something called technology!

Here, the sole indicator of progress is the occasional sparkling industrial park with a huge parking lot full of bikes. It was one of those industrial areas that we pulled into. Hey, I thought we were supposed to be delivering to a resort!

We were lost. Now the problem here is that no-one knows directions, since they have never been more than fifteen miles away from home. Finally, we asked a policeman who actually knew what he was talking about.

Fifteen minutes later, we got to the resort, a beautiful place on the Yangcheng Lake.

We immediately grabbed the boxes of food and started bringing them in. On the way, I felt that one of the boxes was damp, but I didn't pay attention to it. That is until I put the box down and noticed that my pants had helped themselves to some of the sauce from the meatballs (rather much of it). Basically, it wasn't very pretty.

I excused myself for a moment and went to the bathroom. When I came out, my pants were more or less black, but one of the towels was an interesting shade of red. I guess it will give the maid something to puzzle about.

Anyway, we stuck around a bit, helped some of the Jewish delegates put on Tefillin, and before long we were on our way home.

Sweat, Bikes, and Providence

September 2, 2008

When the Chabad rabbi in Vinnitsa, Ukraine arranged a weekend retreat for the Jews of his town, it was only natural that Shmuel and I came along. We envisioned a relaxing weekend of teaching, discussion, and rest. Boy, did we have something else in store for us!

Late Thursday night, over eighty people, on two charter buses, left Vinnitsa. We headed eastward to the Carpathian Mountain Range near the Hungarian border.

For many, this would be their first taste of Shabbat and an introduction to the beauty of Jewish life.

On the way, we passed by Mezhibuzh where the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, is buried. We stopped for some brief prayers and continued on our way.

Early Friday morning, we arrived at our hotel. We were bemused to discover that our hotel room had only one bed in it. The apologetic hotel staff exchanged our room for VIP suite #1 which had not two, but four beds! Well, the more the merrier. After lugging our luggage into our new room, we joined our fellow weekenders for breakfast.

After breakfast, we were scheduled to go on a tour of Vizhnitz, a town which was once the seat of one of the largest Chassidic dynasties. Just as we were about to hop onto the shuttle, a bellboy told us that there had been a mistake; they needed VIP #1 for a family of four, and we would move to VIP #2 which had only two beds. At this point, we were getting kind of tired of being VIPs!

After lugging our luggage (again!), and finally figuring out how to work the Ukrainian lock on our door, we dashed out to catch the buses leaving to Vizhnitz.

As we ran outside, we were able to make out the back of the last hotel shuttle, as it sped away down the mountain toward the waiting buses. We ran after it, but to no avail.

Just then, we noticed a few bikes and decided to bike down the steep mountain, hoping to catch the buses on the bottom.

After a moment's hesitation, we zipped off, careering down the mountain trail.

Suddenly, I noticed that Shmuel had ridden past me and was going fast ahead. He did not hear my calls for him to slow down. So I sped up after him, flew down a few roads, and suddenly, he disappeared, leaving me wondering where he went. Eventually, I gave up looking for him, and started the trip back up to the hotel alone. A good way up the mountain, I saw him crouching over a broken bike.

Shmuel looked up and exclaimed, "Why on earth did you bike off like that? I was behind you the whole time!" From his vantage point, he had watched as the buses rolled off to Vizhnitz, while I was wandering on side roads looking for him.

So there we were, ten kilometers from Vizhnitz with a broken bike. We decided to forage onward. A few words of broken Russian and some hand motions later, a kindly peasant helped us fix the bike.

After an hour of hard riding, we were in Vizhnitz.

All we had to do now was look for two big buses full of Jews, but alas there was none to be had. After wandering around for a bit, we borrowed a phone, called the rabbi, and found out that the group had already returned to the hotel.

We were very hungry, thirsty, tired, hot, and exhausted. I was feeling a bit down. At that point, Shmuel reminded me that we are Roving Rabbis and that odd things are supposed to happen to us. If we are here, it is for a reason. Heartened, I suggested that we go to the center of town to see what fate had in store for us.

We found two old men sitting on a bench and asked them if they were Jewish. They responded by pointing at a crowd standing a block away. As we approached on our bikes, the crowd of over fifteen people gawked at us with shock written all over their faces. Eventually, they broke out into smiles and began to speak excitedly in a babble of Hebrew, Yiddish, and English.

Turned out that they were taking part of a Yiddish convention marking the centennial of some event.

They were absolutely floored to see two flesh and blood Chassidim in the historic Chassidic town of Vizhnitz.

Shmuel put on Tefillin with a Jewish professor, while I found a nice boy from Jerusalem who excitedly laid Tefillin for the fist time since his Bar Mitzvah.

Two of the participants were from New Jersey and friends of my uncle who is a Chabad rabbi there.

What a small world it is!

With that invigorating experience behind us, we began the two-and-a-half hike/bike back up to the top of the mountain where we had an exciting Shabbat waiting for us.

Where Cows Outnumber People Five to One

September 1, 2008
Morning prayers at the synagogue
Morning prayers at the synagogue

Paysandu, Uruguay: A city where the amount of Jews equals that of its cyber cafés (about 150).

We are greeted warmly by the president emeritus of the community, Mr. Mario Fremd, who helps us out with the addresses of local Jewish people.

Hard at work in the kitchen
Hard at work in the kitchen

He tells us that the community has an old synagogue which is only used twice a year, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Right then and there, we make a decision. We will stay for Shabbat and help arrange a Minyan for Friday night services, followed by a Kiddush and Shabbat meal.

Phone calls to Montevideo, and arrangements begin.

We start making our rounds, inviting people to come and take part in this historic event.

"Don't forget," we tell them, "tomorrow night, 7 o'clock at the sinagoga, followed by chicken soup." How do you say gefilte fish in Spanish? Coming from New York, it is hard for us to believe that people don't know these staples of Jewish culture.

We shop, cook (oh no!) and do everything else to prepare. For how many? We'll just have to wait and see...

By Friday night, we're all set up (don't ask how) and twelve people arrive.

The northernmost point of Uruguay
The northernmost point of Uruguay

We pray and sing like never before. Before we know it, we are all clapping, stomping, and whirling around the ancient sanctuary. This is a moment we wouldn't have given up for anything!

After the last of the prayers, we chant the Kiddush and sit down to a sumptuous meal, of gefilte fish garnished with tomatoes, followed by some much-appreciated, delicious meat, home cooked in Montevideo (thank you, Mrs. Shemtov).

Everyone gets a chance to speak a little about themselves and about their Jewish experience.

By the time the meal is over, the decision is made to gather for services every month, no matter the turnout.

We agree that it's a good beginning, and assure them that it won't be long before they see the fruits of their efforts.

We say goodbye to Paysandu... and hello to Salto, a city with just twelve Jews.

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