Roving Rabbis

Shabbat Services in Monkey Coffee

September 29, 2016 3:44 PM

On the northern coastline of Peru lies the small beach town of Mancora—a surfing and party destination which has become popular with Israeli backpackers in recent years. Our colleagues who visited in August 2015 hosted 20 Israelis at their Friday night dinner, and this past Passover saw 30 guests at the Chabad-sponsored Seder. When we arrived in Peru this summer and met with Rabbi Shneur Blumenfeld, Chabad emissary to Lima for close to 30 years, we planned a weekend trip to Mancora to share the light of Shabbat and Judaism with our Israeli brethren.

There was plenty of work to do in Lima, but before long, our Shabbat in Mancora was approaching, and so we reached out to our only contact, an Israeli named Kobi who lives and runs a tourism-based company there. His reply was terse and direct. “It’s an empty season, there are no waves; I haven’t seen any Israelis at all recently. I don’t think you should come.”

That definitely put a damper on our plans, but our tickets were already booked and we resolved to give it our best shot. We gathered up lots of food and supplies, courtesy of the restaurant and bakery at Chabad of Lima, and headed out.

After an incredibly scenic trip, we entered Mancora, and scouted for suitable accommodations. As is typical in a developing country, it took several hours until that was sorted out, and it was already late Thursday afternoon by the time we were ready to deal with the project at hand. We had posted a Facebook message about the Shabbat dinner, and hadn’t yet received any replies. We elected to ignore that and headed outside. If we wandered around long enough, we were bound to find some elusive Israelis.

Three hours later, after walking from one end of town to the other, we only had aching feet to show for our efforts. Things weren’t looking good—perhaps this was all a mistake? We were stewing in these negative thoughts when we suddenly heard voices behind us calling “shalom” in that distinctive Israeli accent. We were ecstatic to meet three Jews, and they were excited about joining us for Shabbat dinner! We exchanged contact information and promised to keep them posted about the details.

Next, we headed to the hostel where Israeli backpackers tend to stay, Loki Hostel, and left a sign at the front desk advertising the Shabbat dinner.

Our last stop of the evening was a visit with Koby at his home. Koby is a warm Jew who is strongly connected to his heritage despite living in a place where Jewish infrastructure is virtually non-existent. In the past, he had hosted the Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders. As luck would have it, though, he was leaving town the next morning, so his house was no longer an option.

Friday morning, we made our way to Loki Hostel again, and had a chat with the manager. She was a big fan of Jews, she told us, and would happily allow us to use the property. The downside was that with all the partying going on there, we didn’t feel that the atmosphere would be conducive to a Shabbat dinner. We thanked her for her generosity, and said we would look elsewhere before accepting her offer.

What now? We only had a few more hours to find a place, and we also had to allow some time to make the Shabbat preparations. We decided to inquire at the other hostels nearby, hoping that we would find something quieter, or better yet, a rooftop in town.

An hour later, we were right back at square one. As we walked back to Loki Hostel, we noticed a second-floor shop called Monkey Coffee which seemed perfectly suited for our needs since it was centrally located and only one block away from Loki. Adrenalin pounding, we raced upstairs. The owner, a friendly gentleman who spoke English, immediately agreed, noting that it was a good idea for us to use it then, since his shop was never busy at that time. Later, we learned that he felt a debt of gratitude to the Jewish people, since an Israeli had been there for him when he was getting his business off the ground.

We thanked him profusely, and quickly whipped out our phones to give word about the location and times. It was now three hours to Shabbat, and although most of the Shabbat food had been prepared in Lima, we needed to make some fresh salads, which required a trip to the local market—a story for another time.

Back at our bungalow we prepared the food and packed everything into several large boxes. It suddenly occurred to us that while we had advertised Shabbat services, we hadn’t brought any prayer books with us. With less than an hour to spare, we split up—Mendel to Monkey Coffee to set up, while I hailed Peru’s version of a taxi, the tuk tuk. With only an approximate address of a printing place, it took a very long while to find it, and trying to ask for help in the print shop using Google Translate was an exercise in patience, but miraculously, I left with several booklets which would serve as our prayer books. I made my breathless arrival at Monkey Coffee at exactly 6:15 pm, the time we had called the Shabbat services for, and was greeted by the beautiful sight of four Israelis! We helped them put on tefillin, one after the other, lit the candles, and then commenced the most inspiring Shabbat services we have ever experienced. Our guests, who hadn’t been inside a synagogue in years, sang every song with heart and soul, and ended each prayer with spirited dancing. It was such a transcendent moment, we could hardly believe that we were in Mancora, so remote from anything Jewish!

As we about to start the Shabbat dinner, we were joined by another Israeli. Everyone, including the owner and his friend who were watching the proceedings with avid interest, partook of the delicious food, and enjoyed the Torah teachings. Conversation flowed until close to midnight.

We considered the evening a resounding success, and on Shabbat day, when we bumped into our guests again, they repeatedly thanked us, explaining that when they leave Israel for their nearly year-long traveling stint, it is crucial that they have some Judaism in their lives, so that they experience what is true and meaningful and not lose sight of their identity.

This is our small tribute to the all-encompassing vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, of righteous memory, who visualized a world we had briefly glimpsed that Friday night.

Our Shabbat guests. (NOTE: Picture taken before Shabbat)
Our Shabbat guests. (NOTE: Picture taken before Shabbat)

Inspiration In California

September 15, 2016 5:34 PM

Summer 2016 has drawn to a close, too soon as always, and we have already resumed our studies in Brooklyn. But before we hang up our “roving rabbi” hats (temporarily, of course), we’d like to share a few snapshots of our recent encounters in the San Mateo county of Northern California, an area that is home to a host of tech startups, highly educated people, beautiful beaches, tourists attractions, as well as a small number of Jews.

Donald F.

Donald bears the distinction of being the first Jewish person we met. We had a nice, albeit short, conversation since he was on his way to an appointment. A week later, we were in his neighborhood again and decided to drop by his home and pay him a visit. Again, he was happy to see us. As we began chatting, he informed us that his wife would be picking him up in five minutes. At 84 years old, there’s always some doctor or other to see. So we quickly grabbed our tefillin, gave Donald a thirty second intro, and offered him the opportunity to do this special mitzvah. He immediately agreed, and only afterwards did we discover that it was the first time for him. We spent the remainder of our short visit celebrating that momentous occasion together.

Nathan G. and Edward R.

Rabbi Shaul Goldman, Chabad rabbi in Daly City, had given us the contact information of Edward R., who lives in Pacifia—a small city with a tiny Jewish population. When we pulled up to his building, we were greeted by a Jewish man standing outside, and we automatically assumed it was Edward. Turns out it was Nathan, and we had an impromptu meeting right then and there, which culminated with him putting on tefillin for the first time. We then headed upstairs to meet Edward. It was a mutually enjoyable visit—Edward regaled us with his vast knowledge of Chabad history and happily agreed to put on tefillin. Both gentlemen told us that they would look into attending programs at the nearby Chabad of Daly City.

Daniel P.

We’d been having a frustrating morning; all the people we were scheduled to visit in a gated community in San Bruno weren’t home. Imagine our delight when we noticed a mezuzah hanging on the door to one of the homes which wasn’t even on our list! We met Daniel and discovered that he had moved from Rechovot, Israel, a year prior. He told us how much he missed his engagement with the large Chabad community there and he was thrilled to receive Rabbi Goldman’s contact info in Daly City, where he will be moving in two weeks’ time.

Alex A. and Alex H.

Alex A. of South San Francisco (South City) is an exuberant middle-aged man, a Russian expat. His enthusiasm over our visit was a most welcome change for us! He wanted to serve us something, and called his friend Eugene, a religious Jew, to ask what is permissible. After making sure that we had eaten sufficiently, he was happy to put on tefillin. We had a great discussion about Chabad and our mission. A man of action, he led us to a neighboring building, home of his friends Alex H. and Rachel. We were pleased that Alex and Rachel seemed interested in some of the programs Chabad offered. At Alex A.’s urging, we presented our tefillin to Alex H. He had never seen them before, and was understandably hesitant. It took some gentle persuasion, and then he was duly wrapped up, and we were marking this special bar mitzvah.

Jonah and Ronit M.

The remarkable thing about this visit was a photo that caught our eye in Jonah’s and Ronit’s home. Jonah is a photographer and artist, and his walls feature a collection of mezuzot, unique photos and other artifacts. Nestled amongst them was a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. “Did you know the Rebbe, Jonah?” we inquired, and to our surprise he replied that he had taken that photo himself! He had been lucky enough to be granted an audience with the Rebbe, and told us that he could sense the holiness when the Rebbe gazed at him. We had to pinch ourselves. In Daly City, of all places, we were sitting with someone who had met and interacted with the Rebbe. And because we found ourselves in Daly City solely as followers of the Rebbe and his teachings, we took that moment as a personal approbation of the work we were doing.

We had what could easily be classified a “farbrengen”—Chassidic gathering—with our new friends, Jonah and Ronit, after which Jonah expressed his desire to find ways to strengthen his commitment to Judaism, and we are certain he will succeed.

For us, it’s back to the books now, with a heavy dose of inspiration from our Californian friends.

Finding Jews in America's Most Vertical City

September 15, 2016 5:13 PM

It was a blazing hundred degrees outside, but inside our car, the air conditioning was pumping, music was playing, and we couldn’t get enough of the beautiful views. It had all the elements of a great summer road trip, but we weren’t travelling for pleasure. We had a mission and our first stop of the day was the Verde Valley Medical Center in Cottonwood, Arizona, about a hundred miles north of Phoenix.

Why were two recently-ordained rabbis from London and Minnesota travelling to a hospital in a small, nondescript town? We were in the middle of,We weren't travelling for pleasure our third week as roving rabbis in the great state of Arizona, under the auspices of Chabad of Arizona, directed by Rabbi Zalman and Tzippy Levertov. Our colleagues from previous years had initially made the trek to Cottonwood and they’d given us the names of two Jewish doctors whom we were hoping to meet.

Arriving at their office, we were disappointed to discover that they were both away on vacation. It took us a few moments to regroup, but then we headed to the front desk and asked if there were any Jewish patients who might appreciate a visit. As we were waiting for the receptionist to find out, we heard a voice call out, “Shalom!” And that’s how we met Mitch.

Mitch had come to pick up his prescription, but he got his daily dose of tefillin in as well, because Divine providence had ensured that we would be at the front desk at the very moment that he walked in.

As we continued our visits—we had several other contacts in Cottonwood—we drove past a supermarket and decided to make a quick stop for some kosher provisions. On our way in we asked an employee if there were any Jews working there. “Sure,” he said, “Right inside at the checkout counter. You can’t miss him.”

And that’s how we met Paul. Paul has worked in numerous stores throughout the state, and had only recently moved up to Cottonwood. His shift ended ten minutes before we arrived, but for some reason he hadn’t left yet. He was elated to see us and led us to the break area where we had a chance to talk and to help him put on tefillin. In the course of conversation, he told us that he hadn’t planned on being there at all that day, but a number of employees had called in sick, so his boss had phoned and asked that he come in. We spoke"You're only allowed two yarmulkas in Jerome!" about the concept of Divine providence, and how G‑d had carefully steered each of our respective paths for the sole purpose of Paul reconnecting with his roots and doing a mitzvah.

On our way back to Phoenix, we stopped off in tiny Jerome. Known as “America’s Most Vertical City,” and the “Largest Ghost Town in America,” it is quite the tourist magnet. Museums, boutique art shops, and bars dot the few streets that make up the town. As we made our way down Main Street, we noticed a man watching us from his porch. A moment later, he called out with a smile, “You’re only allowed two yarmulkas in Jerome!” Surprised, we walked over and introduced ourselves.

And that’s how we met Tracy, an older man who had never before been offered the opportunity to put on tefillin. As we wrapped the straps around his arm and head, we explained the special significance of the moment and the mitzvah. G‑d’s guiding hand was once again apparent, helping us in our quest to connect with Jews throughout the state, and bring them closer to our beautiful and everlasting heritage.

Finding Jews in the Desert

September 6, 2016 4:54 PM

You’ve probably never heard of Deming, a small New Mexican city located about 60 miles west of more popular Las Cruces. We weren’t familiar with it either, until earlier this summer, when we received a request for a visit from Sam and Nancy, a Jewish couple living there. Roving rabbis love getting requests like that—they eliminate much of the legwork—and we happily hopped into the car.

The visit went well, thank G‑d. Sam and Nancy were friendly and we chatted for quite a while. Sam was quick to agree put on tefillin, and they also agreed to have their mezuzahs checked. When we opened the mezuzah hanging on the back door, we saw that the scroll was completely dried up due to the intense desert heat, and the entire first line of “Shema Yisrael” had been erased! “No worries, we’ve got a new, kosher mezuzah for you,” we hastily reassured them, and gave Sam the honors of affixing it to the door.

As we were wrapping up the visit, we asked the couple if they knew of any other Jews in the area. “Well, as you know there aren’t many Jews here, but there is an elderly Jewish gentleman, Mr. Levy, who has been in the neighborhood forever,” Sam replied with some hesitation. “But he does not consider himself Jewish. He is not fond of Jews. . . so I would imagine he doesn’t want rabbis in his home.”

Sam’s warning echoed in our ears, but we decided to pay Mr. Levy a visit nonetheless. As followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, of righteous memory, who constantly emphasized that there is a G‑dly spark within every Jew that can never be extinguished, our mission is to tend to that spark until the soul is afire.

When we showed up, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted warmly by Mr. Levy, who was comfortably ensconced in his recliner. He told us about his difficult childhood, and that as a result he had cut off all ties with Jews and Judaism for more than half a century. His aide, Anna, a sweet Christian woman, was sitting nearby, and whenever Mr. Levy stated that he is no longer Jewish, she would perk up and say, “Mr. Levy, of course you are, you can never leave the Jewish faith!” That got a smile from Mr. Levy every time.

We shmoozed with Mr. Levy for close to two hours. We were so glad to have found him, and paid the visit despite what we’d heard. It was apparent to us that as with everything in life, G‑d was guiding our steps. On our way out, we had a brazen idea. “Mr. Levy,” we asked, “may we please put a mezuzah on your front door?”

As you would expect, this rendered Mr. Levy speechless. But with our unlikely ally Anna backing us up, (and actually doing all the fighting for us!), he finally gave his consent.

We all gathered around outside, and affixed the mezuzah in its place of honor. What a perfect inaugural mitzvah for Mr. Levy—it is constant, encompasses the entire person, and strengthens one’s belief in G‑d.