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The Tenth Man

September 12, 2013

Typically, a bar mitzvah is when a young Jewish boy puts on tefillin for the first time. Family and friends gather for a celebratory reception in honor of his thirteenth birthday. The festivities culminate on Shabbat, when the young man is called up to the Torah for the first time.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is certainly not home to your average Jewish community. But this summer, we were privy to just such a chain of events. The guest of honor, however, was no fresh-faced adolescent. Instead, meet Michael—an idealistic middle-aged American gentleman.

Michael has lived in the Far East for a number of years, and is currently based in Japan, where he The guest of honor was no fresh-faced adolescentworks for the U.S. Army, training soldiers in karate and other forms of self-defense. He is also involved in a variety of humanitarian causes, including arranging the adoption of Cambodian children from impoverished homes. Although adoption still hasn’t been legalized in Cambodia, it is slated to become legal in several months’ time. Meanwhile, Michael coordinates with the local orphanages, determining which children will be adopted, and taking care of the mountains of paperwork that will need to be filled out. In terms of Judaism, Michael he has been in touch with the chaplain at the army base in Japan, but sadly there hasn’t been much Jewish programming available to him.

One Thursday evening, Michael called us at the Chabad center in Cambodia. He sounded very interested in the services we had to offer, and we were thrilled to hear from him, especially since nine people had already committed to coming to our Shabbat morning minyan (prayer quorum). We asked him if we he would be able to join us as number ten. “With pleasure, rabbis,” Michael agreed, to our great delight.

Friday morning, the Chabad center doorbell rang at 9:15 a.m., and in strolled Michael.

Oops, clearly there’d been a miscommunication.

“Michael, we are so sorry for the misunderstanding! We thought we asked you to come tomorrow, on We are so sorry for the misunderstanding!Shabbat,” we said.

Fortunately, Michael didn’t seem fazed in the least.

“No worries, I’ll come back tomorrow. Same time?”

“Yes, perfect. But Michael, now that you’re already here, perhaps you would like to put on tefillin?” we asked.

“Sure. I’ve seen those before; never put them on, though. There’s a first for everything, right?”

So, we helped Michael put on the tefillin and say the prayer.

We could tell he was deeply moved.

That night, Shabbat evening, Michael joined us for services and Shabbat dinner, where the 30 or so participants toasted l’chaim and wished him mazal tov. Joyous singing and dancing followed well into the night.

As promised, the next morning at precisely 9:45 a.m., Michael arrived at the Chabad center just in time to complete our Shabbat morning minyan. He had the opportunity to be called up to the Torah, after which all present once again broke out in spontaneous song.

Michael was so inspired by his bar mitzvah weekend that he came to see us three times during the following week, before returning to Japan on Wednesday.

A Powerful Video Clip

September 10, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, JEM released a powerful clip in their “My Encounter” series. Mr. Elliot Lasky, born to an observant Jewish family, relates how he got caught up in the upheaval of the ’60s, abandoned his Judaism, joined the Rolling Stones on their concert tour, and contem­plated a lifestyle of Zen Buddhism. Faced with more questions than answers, he contacted a Chabad rabbi he knew, who suggested he visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe. On a frigid January afternoon in 1973, Mr. Lasky approached the Rebbe on the steps of Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn. All across Sweden, people were incredibly touchedHe describes how the Rebbe locked eyes with him and resolved his deepest questions about G‑d and the Jewish people. The Rebbe then asked that Mr. Lasky once again start wearing tefillin daily. Two months later he heeded the Rebbe’s request, taking the first of many steps back to his roots.

We’ve been roving rabbis for several years, and this summer we decided to show this clip to the people we visited. All across Sweden, people were incredibly touched, many to tears. Yet its deepest impact by far was on Sam, a 22-year-old guitarist from Gothenburg.

We invited Sam and a few of his friends to join us for a barbecue and Torah class. Afterwards, we showed them the video clip. We could see that Sam was watching intently, really taking it all in. After his friends left, Sam turned to us. “I also have my questions. How do I ask them? How do I turn to the Rebbe?”

“There are still ways to relate to the Rebbe today, Sam,” we told him. “You can write a letter to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe will certainly find a way to answer you. We are here only because of the Rebbe and his tremendous concern for every Jew. Wherever you will go in the world, you will find someone appointed by the Rebbe to take care of your spiritual needs, whatever they may be.”

Sam nodded in agreement. “Then I would like to write a letter to the Rebbe. I will gather my thoughts, and write the letter before Rosh Hashanah.”

Several nights later we were in our hotel room, packing for our return to New York the following day, when Sam called us, asking if we had some time to talk. Half an hour later, we were all comfortably ensconced in the hotel lobby.

Berel, Leibel,” Sam I can’t get that video out of my mindbegan, clearing his throat. “I can’t get that video out of my mind. The way the Rebbe answered him, allayed his concerns, turned his life around . . . it’s just incredible. I feel like the Rebbe was talking to me as well. I am also part of the music world, and now I feel like I too must make a change in my life. I’ve been debating what that could be. But the Rebbe suggested tefillin. So, if the Rebbe thought tefillin was a good idea for Mr. Lasky, that’s what I’m going to do. Starting tomorrow, I will put on tefillin each morning.”

Today’s technology allows us to keep up with everyone we meet on our travels, even when we’re “back at the base.” Every day at precisely 8:30 a.m. Swedish time we receive a text from Sam, informing us that he has just put on tefillin. He has also made known his plans to travel to the Ohel, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s resting place, where he can read his letter to the Rebbe in person.

Traffic Delay from Heaven

September 9, 2013

We pulled out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, right on schedule for our 3:30 p.m. meeting with a reporter from the Vicksburg Post, who was due to interview us at a local coffee shop. For no particular reason we’d chosen Highway 61 Café, a little shop with a hip touch, and the unofficial meeting place of local townsmen.

Strangely, the usually clear highway became cluttered with traffic due to an accident, and we realized we were inevitably going to be late for our appointment. We were able to minimize the delay to a mere 20 minutes, and at 3:50, after apologizing for our tardiness, we sat down with the journalist and her young assistant.

The café is owned by Daniel and his wife, Leslie. Daniel approached the table, greeted us cheerfully and chatted for a few minutes. We discovered that his wife was Jewish, but unfortunately she was out of the town for the day.

We settled in and began answering the reporter’s questions. She was interviewing two chassidic rabbis for the first time in her life, and we spoke very candidly. When the formal questions were finished, we continued talking, and the journalist told us that to the best of her knowledge, the man sitting at the table behind us was Jewish too.

Ellis, as we came to know him, spoke Yiddish fluently, just like in the old country. A jolly conversation ensued, and soon we had the whole shop looking on in pleasant surprise as an elderly and rather sad Ellis spoke Yiddish fluently, just like in the old countryman (his wife had passed just a month before) reconnected with his Jewish roots, speaking in his mother tongue, and sharing sweet memories of his childhood in a world so distant from our own.

If the story were to end here, it would already be more than enough for one day. But Ellis wasn’t sitting alone, and the man he was sipping coffee with became our next unexpected friend.

Bob, it turns out, is also Jewish. And Bob and Ellis meet consistently every Thursday at Highway 61 Café, where they chat over mugs of hot coffee. We sang a few traditional Jewish songs and old Yiddish melodies with our newfound friends, and listened as they shared tidbits of their lives with us.

Suddenly, we understood why the usually clear highways were clogged, making us 20 minutes later to our appointment. Had we been on time, we might never have met! Our interview was scheduled for 3:30 p.m., but Ellis and Bob meet up only at 4:30 p.m. We could have easily been finished and out the door before they ever entered the café.

Ellis shared with us that he hasn’t spoken Yiddish with anyone in over forty years, but thanks to our unexpected—but obviously divinely planned—meeting, his neshamah was reignited. We feel so fortunate to have been the messengers.

Three Cancelled Appointments and a Satisfying Conclusion

September 3, 2013

Since 1986, Rabbi Mendel Katzman and his family have been the Chabad emissaries to the state of Nebraska. My friend Avremel and I were fortunate enough to spend several weeks this summer assisting them, reaching out to the Jews in Omaha, Norfolk, Kearney and Lincoln.

We had already made the hour’s drive from Omaha to Lincoln once, and met some of the nice Jews who live in the state’s capital. In the interim we had made some more phone calls, and scheduled appointments with other Jewish residents of Lincoln. Excited at the prospect of We called ahead to confirm the day’s appointmentsconnecting with these Jews, we headed out bright and early. Without any traffic to contend with, we reached our destination in record time.

We called ahead to confirm the day’s appointments. Jason answered right away, but told us that he was absolutely swamped. He apologized profusely: there was just no way he would have time to meet us. We got David’s voicemail message stating that he was currently out of town. Sam’s phone went straight to voicemail as well.

Our first reaction was disappointment, especially since they had all seemed so welcoming during the initial conversations. But my friend and I have been involved in Chabad work since our early teens, and experience has taught us that when one door closes, another usually opens.

We decided to drive around in search of an area with lots of people, where we felt there was bound to be a Jew or two. Almost immediately we passed a strip mall and, grabbing our tefillin, we ambled from store to store, inquiring if anyone inside was Jewish. No luck in the first few stores, but it wasn’t long before we met Elon, the Israeli manager of a shoe shop. He greeted us warmly, and mentioned that many years ago he lived in Texas and was in contact with the Chabad rabbi there.

We offered tefillin, which he politely declined. Still, it was apparent that Elon was happy to have met us and to connect on some level with his Jewish identity. We took down his contact information, and made our way to the next store. No Jews, it seemed, but the staff was very interested in hearing about the Seven Noahide Laws. A customer walked in during the animated discussion.

“Are you Jewish?’ we asked, hopefully.

“No, but I do have some Jewish background. My mother was raised Christian, but her Elon was happy to have met us and to connect on some level with his Jewish identitymother was Jewish, died young, and my grandfather remarried. My mom doesn’t consider herself Jewish at all.”

“Listen, you don’t have some Jewish background. You are Jewish—as Jewish as the two of us!”

This gentleman, who introduced himself as Jeremiah, was visibly moved and excited by this life-altering discovery.

“Jeremiah, would you like to do you first mitzvah, now that you know you’re a Jew? These are tefillin, and a Jewish man puts them on every weekday to remind himself of his connection to G‑d.”

Despite the fact that Jeremiah had never seen tefillin before, he agreed without skipping a beat. We helped him put them on and say the blessings. We gave him his first Jewish books: a siddur, and a Tanya that had actually just been printed in Kearney. After exchanging contact information, we wished him well and returned to our car, satisfied with the way our day turned out.

It no longer mattered that our prior commitments hadn’t panned out. Now it was clear as day that this all had been orchestrated from Above, so that one more Jewish soul would be able to discover the beauty of his heritage.

And for further confirmation, in our e‑mail exchanges with Jeremiah, he keeps thanking us, and writes how this encounter has changed his life on every single level.

A Jewish Pastor in Argentina

September 1, 2013

It had been a fruitful but exhausting day in Posadas, Argentina, a small city on the Argentina-Paraguay border. While Posadas is modern and well developed in many respects, its Jewish infrastructure is virtually nonexistent. In fact, the closest Jewish institution is the Chabad House in Buenos Aires, a twelve-hour drive away.

Like many places on earth, however, Posadas is home to a small number of Jews. We had spent all day getting to know these Jews—at their shops, homes and businesses, and random tourists as well. Most welcomed us warmly, and we were happy to be able to share some nuggets of Judaism with them.

Our appointments for the day—and our time in Posadas—complete, we stood in the street to hail a cab, anxious to get back to our hotel. We had to pack and sleep for a few hours before our early morning flight. We waited, five minutes quickly turning into fifteen, then twenty, then thirty. Occasionally a cab would drive by, already occupied.

“Let’s try waiting around the corner,” Shloimi suggested. We were walking past a small grocery when a couple emerged and immediately motioned us over. The husband introduced himself as Eduardo, an evangelical pastor, and started sharing his life story. “I am half Jewish,” he told us. “My mother was Jewish.”

“You are not half Jewish, Eduardo; you are as Jewish as Moses! You were born a Jew, and you are a Jew forever, no matter what—even if you are a pastor.”

We explained that as a Jew, he has the exclusive privilege of fulfilling G‑d’s commandments—the mitzvahs. “In fact, you can have a chance to do a mitzvah right now,” we continued, showing him our tefillin.

He eyed the tefillin, looking torn. “If my wife agrees, then I will put them on,” Eduardo decided.

We told her that when a Jew wears tefillin, it is a tangible expression of his bond with G‑d, our Creator. Before we could delve further, she said, “Go ahead. I think you should do it.”

So, 60-odd years since his bar mitzvah, Eduardo was finally able to put on tefillin. The magnitude of the moment was not lost on him, despite his present occupation. As we were winding the tefillin straps around his arm, the dam burst, and Eduardo started sobbing. We waited quietly until he was ready to talk.

“Please, do you have any Jewish books with you?” Eduardo implored. “I need to learn more about what it means to be a Jew.”

“Certainly. We’ll give you whatever we have.”

He had one last request. “Can I correspond with the two of you, and ask you my questions from time to time?”

Of course, we were more than happy to accommodate him. We exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch. We were bidding Eduardo farewell when a vacant taxi materialized, exactly on schedule.

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