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Meeting Jews in Small Florida Towns

September 22, 2015 2:10 PM

Being a roving rabbi is not for the faint of heart.

As we traversed the cities of Palm Harbor, Clearwater, and Safety Harbor, we went door to door seeking Jews who would welcome some Judaism into their lives. It was tough going at first—we received many automatic “not interested” replies, and people who wouldn’t even open their doors, as well as the ones who listened politely but didn’t have the time. And then, inevitably, we meet the ones who seem to have been waiting for a pair of Chassidic boys to knock on their doors and share some Torah, mitzvoth and Jewish pride.

This time it was our new friend, Joe, who was eager for a chat and the opportunity to put on tefillin for the first time ever.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, always taught that one good deed leads to another. Thank G‑d, after meeting Joe, things proceeded at a record-setting pace. In just 11 days, we were privileged to coordinate 9 bar mitzvahs, have an additional 20 men do the mitzvah of tefillin, install new mezuzot on several doors, and distribute many Shabbat candle packets. The small towns became enveloped in hurricane of good deeds!

Max, a local lawyer in his 60’s, felt unusual feelings beginning to stir several weeks prior to our visit. He wanted to learn more about his Jewish heritage, so he decided to email the Chabad rabbi in a nearby neighborhood. Then, in an incredible display of Divine Providence we showed up at his office, unannounced but very much invited!

The next day, Max sent us the following message:

"What nice young men! They listened more then they spoke, as my situation, like most I’m sure, was a little unique. No pressure, just helpful encouragement. Helping me to put on tefillin for the first time and saying the blessing with me was inspiring. Thanks again. I’ll be reaching out to the rabbi."

Gabriel wasn’t so keen on the tefillin thing, but was excited when we broached the concept of mezuzah. With his new mezuzah securely in place, we spoke with him for close to an hour, and planned to meet again the following week. After explaining the deeper meaning behind tefillin, Gabriel quickly wanted in, and was deeply moved by the whole process, thanking us for helping him pray “such a meaningful prayer.” He promised that he would find a way to get more involved in Judaism going forward.

Abe, 95 years old, was delighted to meet us, and readily agreed to affix a new mezuzah on his front door.

Zach, a young teen, was outside playing basketball when we stopped by his home.

“Hey, how’s it going? Are you Jewish by any chance?”

From a distance, we hear a response: “Yes, why?”

We told Zach and his father who we were, schmoozed for a bit, and then asked if they’d like to put on tefillin.

“Nah, I’m good. Never done it before. Why don’t you do it with Zach?”

“Dave, you know if you put them on now, it’s like you’re having your Bar Mitzvah. How does that sound?”

“Hey Dad, that’s really cool.” Zach chimed in. “You should definitely do that!”

It took some convincing, but Dave eventually agreed, and we helped him wrap the straps around his arms and head and recite the accompanying Shema prayer. He was having some trouble with the Hebrew words, so Zach quietly approached and helped his father finish the prayer word for word, the Shema ingrained in him from his Hebrew School days.

Did we mention that being a roving rabbi is not for the faint of heart? But it is the most rewarding thing we could do with our summer.

The 10th Man for Our Minyan

September 2, 2015 5:54 PM

On a Wednesday afternoon, a couple of weeks after our arrival in Kauai, we received a phone call from Moshe, an Israeli businessman visiting the island. We learned that he had come for an unhappy reason—to pay his respects at the grave of his older brother, whose yahrzeit was approaching. Would we be able to join him at the cemetery to recite the kaddish prayer and some chapters of mishnayot? Of course, we immediately agreed and took down the necessary information.

The next day, we met Moshe at the cemetery. He was glad to see us, but he had some bad news to share. He had just received word that another brother had passed away in Israel. He would have to sit shiva, and he would need a minyan for the kaddish. Since he hardly knew anyone in Kauai, he asked for our assistance in arranging one. Poor Moshe! We promised we would do our best to make it happen.

After a brief discussion, Aaron and I decided that we would aim to have the minyan take place on Sunday morning. We grabbed our invaluable contact list, and began making phone calls. It was slow going—we either had to leave messages, or the person had other plans, but we kept at it. Shabbat was approaching and we still didn’t have our minyan locked in. We worked the phones until close to sunset.

On Shabbat afternoon, we stopped by Moshe’s hotel room to keep him company. We reassured him that the minyan would take place, although inwardly we weren’t feeling all that confident.

The moment Shabbat ended, we continued inviting people to please join the shiva minyan, resorting to emails when the hour grew late.

Sunday morning arrived and people began to show up. We began wrapping tefillin with those who weren't familiar with the mitzvah, and helped them navigate the morning prayers. The turnout was better than we expected, but we only counted nine men. As Chassidic Jews, we are taught “think good and it we be good.” We decided to start the prayers, and G‑d willing, the tenth man would appear.

The clock ticked away as we prayed. We sang and chanted all the prayers aloud, giving the tenth man some time to arrive. Shortly before the final prayers, the door swung open, and in walked a Jewish gentleman from a nearby neighborhood! It seemed like the room resounded with a collective sigh of relief—the minyan was now complete. Moshe gave us a huge smile and stood up, grateful for the opportunity to recite the kaddish prayer to honor the memory his dear brother.

Afterwards, we enjoyed some wonderful conversations with the crowd, making sure to include some pertinent Torah thoughts.

Our efforts to help one Jew allowed us to touch 14 beautiful Jewish souls, who may otherwise not have had the opportunity to put on tefillin, and become acquainted with other Jews living on the island.

To our family and friends, many of them Chabad emissaries around the globe, this is an ordinary story, all in a day’s work. But for the friends we made that day, it was an amazing insight into our heritage, a hands-on display of the love and unity for a Jewish brother visiting Kauai.

"We Thought We Were the Only Jews Here..."

September 1, 2015 10:03 PM

After an unsuccessful couple of hours trying to locate Jewish people in Vaudreuil-Dorion, a small off-island suburb of Montreal, we decided to head back to the city for evening prayers and dinner.

As we made our way out of the development, Berel yelled, "Mezuzah! I see a mezuzah! We parked in the driveway, I grabbed the bag with our paraphernalia, and we ran up the steps and rang the bell. It would be fair to say that our hearts were racing as we waited for someone to open the door!

After a few seconds, a woman appeared, a surprised look on her face. We quickly explained where we were from and what we were doing at her doorstep. She smiled, and warmly invited us inside.

"I don't really understand. There are no other Jews here in Vaudreuil-Dorion. What could you be doing here?"

We told her that we came to this city for that express reason—there are many people who think that they are the only Jews living in these parts. To her delight, we informed her that there are actually a few other Jewish families within a short drive from her house!

Reassured, the woman introduced herself as Rima, and shared a bit of her history. She and her husband were born in Russia, immigrated to Israel with their extended families, and lived there for a while. Unfortunately, her mother was killed in a suicide bombing during the intifada, and it grew too painful to remain in Israel, so they moved to Vaudreuil-Dorion a few years back.

“It's really tough and lonely out here with no Jewish people around,” Rima concluded, her voice heavy, “and the hardest part is that there’s no way to educate my young boys about their heritage."

“Listen, Rima, we have good news for you! There's a Chabad house ten minutes away in St. Lazare, and they would love for you to get involved! There are programs for you, for your boys, a synagogue!"

Needless to say, she was ecstatic.

Blowing the shofar for Rima and her children
Blowing the shofar for Rima and her children

We asked Rima if she would like to hear the shofar. She happily obliged, calling her boys from the living room to listen as well. We gave her Shabbat candles, and made up that we would return the next day to give her some more information, and try to meet her husband.

When we arrived at her house at the agreed upon time, Rima and her husband were waiting for us, and we were grateful that he was just as happy as his wife with our presence.

"Would you like to put on tefillin? we asked.

“Yes, of course, but I don't know how. My father never had the opportunity to put them on, and this would be my first time."

"Okay, so this will be your Bar Mitzvah.”

“But I’m not 13 anymore!” he responded.

“It’s never too late.” We helped him wrap the strap around his arms and head, while his wife and children took pictures of this monumental occasion.

With the tefillin still on, we blew the shofar, a combination that left him visibly moved.

Oh, and we had some exciting news to share!

"Just yesterday, we met another Russian-Israeli family, and they would love to meet you!"

"They already reached out to us!” Rima replied. “It’s so wonderful!”

We spent another half hour together, enjoying each other’s company, with the children especially loving every moment.

When it was time to go, we left them with some brochures from the Chabad house, contact information for Rabbi Nachum Labkowski, Chabad Rabbi to St. Lazare, and an invitation to join him and his family for Shabbat dinner.

We’ve since heard that they’ve gone, and a connection was established. Looks like it’s going to be a sweet New Year!

Born in Auschwitz 71 Years Ago

September 1, 2015 9:41 PM

This summer, we marked a rite of passage amongst Chabad rabbinical students—our first experience as roving rabbis. We were assigned to Budapest, Hungary, and its surrounding towns, where we helped Jews don tefillin, affix mezuzahs, light the Shabbat candles, and celebrate the joy of Judaism in places which have borne witness to so much anti-Semitism and persecution. We received a warm reception most of the time, and we hope that we gave these precious Jews some inspiration and Jewish pride.

They say that every person has a story, and as we chatted and got to know the Jews of Hungary, we heard many such tales. However, there is one extraordinary encounter that we feel deserves special mention.

It was Thursday evening, a few days after our arrival in Budapest, when the local Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Glitsenstein, finalized the arrangements for our travels around Hungary. Our first stop would be Miskolc, a large city two hours north. The trip was uneventful, and we settled into a hotel room for the night. On Friday morning, we rose early, recited the morning prayers, ate some breakfast, and proceeded to the car, clutching our list of contacts from Rabbi Glitsenstein.

The first address was for Mr. and Mrs. Gyorgi Faludi. They graciously welcomed us into their home, and although we didn’t really have a common language, their warmth and appreciation spoke volumes. It was clear that they wanted us to spend time with them, so we made ourselves comfortable and decided to take our cues from them. Photo albums were brought out, pictures of departed parents and grandparents were shown, and slowly, we were able to piece together Mr. Faludi’s background. Mr. Faludi was actually born in Auschwitz, one of only two infant survivors of the infamous death camp. His mother delivered him on the day of liberation with the assistance of a Russian doctor, and was so severely malnourished she was unable to nurse him. The mother of the other baby, Mrs. Vera Bein, was somehow able to feed both children, and the two women left Auschwitz together, wandering through the war-torn region for months before Gyorgi’s mother reached her hometown, Miskolc, where she rebuilt a life for herself and her family.

Gyorgi shared his background simply, without fanfare, but we were struck by the enormity of it all. The stoic man sitting beside us had miraculously thrived, despite the most unlikely odds, and when we expressed our amazement, he dismissed it with a smile.

“Gyorgi, would you like to put on tefillin?”we inquired gently. We showed him our pair, and from the blank look on his face it was apparent that he had never seen them before. “Bar Mitzvah?” Gyorgi shook his head, no.

We gesticulated, would it be alright if we help him don tefillin? Gyorgi smiled widely in affirmation.

Over the years, we’ve helped countless Jews wrap tefillin, some of them for the first time, decades after they turned thirteen. Nothing could compare to the awe we felt as we helped Gyorgi—he was born in Auschwitz, he is 71 years old, had little prior exposure to Judaism, and still, he agreed to our request without a moment’s hesitation—his beautiful, powerful Jewish soul unmasked in all its glory.

The visit culminated with a new mezuzah on the front door, Shabbat candles for Mrs. Faludi, and a Hungarian Jewish book for them to share. We left with the contact information for their son, and renewed motivation to connect more Jews to their roots.

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