Roving Rabbis

An Impromptu Bar Mitzvah in a Camera Shop

September 13, 2017 11:28 AM

No, we weren’t in the market for a new camera, although we have to admit we may have noticed some pretty newfangled models.

We were in Marina del Rey, a seaside Los Angeles neighborhood, to assist the local Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Danny Yiftach.

During out stay we visited hundreds of homes and businesses, finding and connecting with Jews who are generally not yet involved in the local Jewish community. After the first meeting we often met up more times, to bring a warm challah on Friday afternoon, or just to enjoy the warm camaraderie.

Back to the camera shop. We walked in, and made our rounds amongst the staff asking them if they were Jewish. The unanimous response was a polite no. As we were about to leave, we noticed a man perusing the cameras.

“Hello sir, are you Jewish?”

“Well, not really,” Long pause. “I mean, my mother is Jewish but I myself am not.”

“Of course you’re Jewish!” we replied. It had been a slow day, so we made a feeble attempt to tone down our enthusiasm. “If your mother is Jewish, then so are you according to Jewish law.”

Further discussion revealed that this gentleman had never had the opportunity to have a bar mitzvah. When we asked if him if he wanted to put on tefillin, he quickly agreed, and thus he celebrated his bar mitzvah in the aisles of the camera shop.

He appeared visibly moved when we were done wrapping the tefillin on his arms and head. We planted a yarmulka on his hair and helped him say the blessings word for word, and then showered him with the customary mazal tovs before removing the tefillin and packing them away.

Typically, that is when we would ask the person if they wanted to stay in touch, but our new friend beat us to it. We exchanged contact information and warm hugs. He lives a few miles from Chabad of Marina del Rey and G‑d willing it will soon become his home for Jewish life!

Stop the Car or Turn Left?

September 12, 2017 3:43 PM

Most of my fellow roving rabbis have already returned to their respective yeshivas, and we’ve spent some time exchanging stories from our time abroad. While this is not a new discovery, a common thread of our tales is the Divine Providence that seems to be working overtime to enable us, despite our limited human capabilities, to discover precious Jews isolated in some truly far flung locales.

On a Friday afternoon, we were driving though the small town of Boquete. We passed a cafe and thought some of the people sitting outside might be Jewish. We backed up and parked in front, but as we were about to exit the car, I suddenly felt uneasy suggested we continue driving. We turned left and drove down a side street where we spotted a young man walking. We rolled down the windows and called out, trying not to startle him, “Hey, are you by any chance Jewish?”

He stared at us for a moment before replying, “Yes, I guess you can say I am ethnically Jewish.”

This time, we got out of the car. “Wow, we’re so glad we bumped into you!” We introduced ourselves and our mission, and he told us that his name was Andrew and his mother was a descendant of one of the two main Jewish families in the region. His family had immigrated to the States before Andrew was born, and had returned to Boquete when he was nine. He told us he currently attends university in the States, and was visiting his family during his summer break.

After some more chatting, we showed him our tefillin and asked him if he wanted to put them on. He wasn’t too keen. Moving on, we asked him if he wanted to join us for Shabbat dinner in a few hours, and he was enthusiastic about that. We gave him all the details. Ten minutes before the start time, he texted us that he wouldn’t be able to make it, so we gave him the option of joining us for Shabbat lunch. To our surprise, he did show up, and actually stayed until the end of Shabbat. Before he left that evening, he offered to take us on a hike at one of the local mountain ranges the next morning, which we happily accepted.

We hiked and chatted, and when we reached the peak we again brought up the tefillin. Andrew was still ambivalent. “Andrew, we’re pretty sure no one has celebrated their bar mitzvah on this mountain. You’ll be making history!” This, along with all the quality time we had spent together, seemed to shift his perspective and he finally agreed.

He was soon wrapped up and repeating the accompanying prayers after us word by word, followed by lots of photos and some spirited dancing. Luckily, none of us is afraid of heights!

On the way down, Andrew wanted to discuss every detail of what had transpired: the meaning of tefillin, of the shema prayer, of a bar mitzvah. It was clear that it had all affected him very deeply. He hugged us both and we thanked him for the hike and told him we would definitely keep in touch.

The three of us have since returned to the States, and we have kept up via the wonders of modern technology. In fact, next week, Andrew is coming to New York for a visit, and we have plans to catch up in person. All because we decided to turn left.

Finding Jews at the Sziget Music Festival

September 12, 2017 2:48 PM

The Sziget Music Festival is one of the largest in Europe, with close to 500,000 participants, including several thousand Israelis. For the past few years, Rabbi Shmuel Glitzenstein, youth director of Chabad of Budapest, has arranged for roving rabbis to man a table at the venue, and this year we were fortunate enough to fill that role for a whirl-wind seven days.

We helped 300 men don tefillin, including 50 ‘bar mitzvahs’, and on Friday evening 50 women lit Shabbat candles and 125 people joined us for kiddush.

While we didn’t have the opportunity to get to know people very well in fast-paced, chaotic environment, some encounters stood out:

Yoram, a 17-year-old Israeli boy was walking with his friends when we spotted him. We asked if he would like to put on tefillin. “I’m secular. I don’t do things like that,” he replied. After a moment, he reconsidered, and said that if we would explain what tefillin symbolize, he might agree. Of course, we took him up on his offer, and spent 25 minutes sharing everything we know about tefillin. It seemed like Yoram was enjoying the discussion, but then in typical teenage fashion, he told us that he was hungry and wanted to go eat with his friends. “I’m here for a few days. If there's a time when I feel like I am ready, I will find you and put on tefillin,” he said.

The next morning, we saw Yoram again. We greeted him warmly, and he responded by telling us and his friends that it felt like the right time. So without further ado, we helped him wrap up and recite the blessings. “It’s your Bar Mitzvah, Yoram! Mazal tov!”

On the last night of the festival, Yoram made a point to visit us again—no easy feat with the huge throngs of people everywhere—and thanked us for his bar mitzvah.

One night, we were leaving the festival and passed a tattoo shop. A young man standing outside called out to us, “Hey, where are you guys from? I’m Jewish too!” We stopped and chatted for several minutes and discovered that Matt was born and bred in Budapest. He knew that he was Jewish but hadn’t had a Jewish education. The next morning, we visited the shop before beginning our day, and asked Matt if he would like to do the mitzvah of tefillin. He seemed shocked that we would even suggest it! “Look, that’s really not my thing. As you can see, I’m not religious at all.”

“Hey Matt, it’s cool. You don’t have to be religious to put on tefillin! Hundreds of Jewish people at the festival have done it. It will be your bar mitzvah!”

It took a bit more convincing, but Matt did eventually agree, and when all was said and done, thanked us for the experience in a voice thick with emotion. Since he was a local, we took down his contact information and gave it to the local Chabad rabbi. G‑d willing, his bar mitzvah outside the tattoo shop is just the beginning of his journey of Jewish discovery.

While we will never know the trajectory of their lives, we are hopeful that the encounters we had with the participants of the music festival will continue to have a positive impact for years to come.

Our Summer in the Great Choral Synagogue

September 12, 2017 1:27 PM

Although there is a large, active Jewish community in St. Petersburg, Russia, including many full-time Chabad emissaries, during the summer there is a greater influx of tourists, so we were recruited to assist them. We spent the majority of our days at the entrance to the 124-year-old Great Choral Synagogue, trying to connect with visitors and passersby.

Over the course of the summer, we put on tefillin with 606 men, gave out Shabbat candles to 252 women, had countless hours of conversation about Jewish life, and connected multiple people to their local Chabad center. Of the people who put on tefillin, 51 were first-timers, which we celebrated as their bar mitzvahs.

The majority of the bar mitzvahs were with St. Petersburg residents who were visiting the synagogue—a historic landmark, many of whom were denied a Jewish education back in the day, and therefore didn’t have much Jewish knowledge to impart to their children. In fact, we had a memorable father-son joint bar mitzvah, and another gentleman shared that he had spent his entire life searching for meaning, and realized he had finally found it. Four of our ‘bar-mitzvah boys’ returned every single weekday after their initial visit to continue putting on tefillin daily, and when we left we made sure to connect them with another Chabad rabbi. We have since learned that they are still at the synagogue every morning, and one of them has even purchased his own pair so that he will never miss a day.

Jacob, probably in his mid-seventies, was visiting from France. When we asked him if he would like to put on tefillin, he politely declined. An hour later, he was still studying the beautiful architecture, so we decided we would give it another shot. This time, he explained that his father had lived through the Holocaust, narrowly escaping execution at several death camps, and as a result raised his children without any Judaism. In fact, when he had turned thirteen, his mother had wanted to celebrate his bar mitzvah, but his father was adamantly opposed. “If I do put on tefillin now,” he said, “I feel like I will be disrespecting my late father’s memory.”

We expressed our sympathies, but added that his father is in the World of Truth now, where every mitzvah is valued so dearly. And while every mitzvah is important, putting on tefillin connects us with G‑d in a unique way. We talked some more and soon Jacob sat up straight and said he was ready.

We helped him wrap the straps on his arms and head, and slowly said the blessings together. Jacob’s entire demeanor changed. He was joyful and composed, and asked us to photograph this moment for posterity. We sang and danced together, and then Jacob got ready to leave. “Thank you very much for my bar mitzvah. You boys were right.” He pointed to his heart and continued. “I truly feel that my father is rejoicing with me.”

Rejuvination in Honolulu

September 12, 2017 12:50 PM

When we arrived in Hawaii, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Turns out we had no reason to worry, as you will see from the following encounters:

We met Joseph in Kapolei, a small city near Honolulu. He is a student from Istanbul, Turkey, spending his summer as a lifeguard via a work-travel program. We noticed Joseph staring at us as we walked through a shopping center, and when we asked him if he is Jewish, he responded with a thousand-watt smile. Back home, he explained, he is quite close with the local Chabad rabbi, but since he was only here for a couple of months, he hadn’t had a chance to visit the Chabad center and was thrilled to have bumped into us. We met up on several other occasions and spent a memorable Shabbat together.

Our visit with Samuel began with a stroke of Divine Providence. We had travelled to Kailua, to visit someone else, but when we arrived he wasn’t home. A neighbor was sitting on her porch, so we asked her if she knew anybody else Jewish in the area, and she pointed to Samuel’s house. He had never had two rabbis in his home before, but was excited to see us and invited us in. We had a long chat about Jewish life in Hawaii, and afterwards we asked Samuel if he would like to put on tefillin. He told us that he couldn’t possibly be religious enough for that, but we reassured him anyone can do this mitzvah, especially a wonderful Jew like himself! We were soon celebrating his Bar Mitzvah like the joyous occasion it was.

Samuel told us that his father, Don, had fallen ill while visiting from California several years back and was unable to return home. We took down the address of his nursing home and visited him several days later. It’s difficult to describe the joy and warmth that emanated from this dear Jew when we entered the room. Samuel had told us that Don used to be active in his Jewish community, so the sight of us must have transported him back to happier, more vibrant times, and he began weeping quietly. We knew just the thing to cheer him up—we showed him a photo of Samuel decked out in tefillin! This brought a huge smile to his face. We stayed for about an hour, without much conversation due to Don’s weakened state, but an almost indescribable sense of camaraderie.

We encountered Adam, an accomplished artist,at the Kahala Mall. A native New Yorker who has lived in Hawaii for many years, he had somehow never encountered Chabad. Adam was excited to learn that a vibrant Jewish community exists literally at his doorstep. He promised to start coming around, and not only that, he wanted to offer the rabbi some of his paintings free of charge to be sold as a fundraiser!

Meeting these Jews and many others (with whom we will certainly keep in touch) was an invigorating and rejuvenating experience. And isn’t that why people go to Hawaii in the first place?