When Angelique Levin asked her daughter, Amy, a student at Johannesburg’s King David School, what she wanted for her eighth birthday two years ago, she was pleasantly surprised by the response.

“I have everything I need,” said the then-7-year-old. “Instead of gifts, let’s ask people to donate doggie blankets, feeding dishes, leashes or other supplies to an animal shelter.”

One thing led to another, and the family decided to hold Amy’s birthday party in an animal shelter; however, they couldn’t find one that hosted parties.

Casting a wide net, they finally found a shelter some distance from their home, where a kind staffer named Jack agreed to allow the party on a one-time basis. Even though the shelter didn’t generally host parties, Jack got special permission to have one just this once.

At the party, the Levins struck up a conversation with Jack, who lived and worked at the shelter. As fellow animal lovers, they found that they had a lot in common. In fact, Jack even revealed that his family was Jewish, although he grew up in the distant community of Port Elizabeth and had not been raised with any Jewish observance.

Several months later, the High Holidays of 5779 rolled around, and the family attended services at Chabad of Norwood, led by Rabbi Mordechai Rodal. During services, the rabbi spoke about the importance of reaching out to as many Jews as possible, and shared with his congregants that he and his fellow Chabad rabbis were spearheading a community-wide campaign with the goal of distributing menorahs to every single Jew in Johannesburg.

Passing Along a Mitzvah

After the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the rabbi stood at the exit of the Chabad center and gave a menorah kit to each family, encouraging them to do their part by passing it on to someone who would otherwise not have one.

“Mum,” said Amy, “Jack probably does not have a menorah. Can we give this one to him?”

The family made the long drive to the shelter, where they met up with Jack and gave him the menorah. He gratefully accepted the gift, and they made sure he knew how and when to use it. He noted that it was to be the first time he ever celebrated Chanukah.

Life took a downward turn for Jack when the shelter abruptly informed him that his employment had come to an end. Not only was he out of a job, he was now homeless as well. His wife and daughter had recently died in a car accident. His parents had passed away, and he had lost contact with his lone sibling.

He heard that there was a job opening at a shelter in the distant suburb of Krugersdorp. Without money for carfare, he hiked three days, together with his dogs, to Krugersdorp. He was attacked more than once along the way but kept moving, hopeful that he would soon have a place to live. Upon arriving, however, he learned that the position had just been filled. Utterly alone in the world, with no job and no home, he needed help—and fast.

In Desperate Straits, Then a Call for Help

Living outdoors in a park, with nowhere to turn, Jack contemplated suicide and even went so far as to identify a tree upon which to hang himself.

Suddenly, he remembered the Levins, how they kindly brought a menorah for him and how good it made him feel. He rarely experienced kindness from strangers, and the little menorah had brought so much light to his life. Perhaps, he thought, they could help him.

As soon as Angelique picked up the phone and heard Jack’s tale of woe, she called Rabbi Rodal, who immediately reached out.

“Don’t do anything,” said the rabbi. “I’m coming to help you!”

Meanwhile, Rodal contacted his colleague, the rabbi of the small Jewish community of Krugersdorp. The local rabbi canceled his upcoming appointments and met with Jack. The rabbi plied the distraught man with cool water and food, calmed him down, gave him some cash and offered to help him get back on his feet.

When the rabbi spoke to Jack the following day, he was “a different person”—calm, hopeful and resilient.

Over the next few months, Jack came closer to the Jewish community and explored his Jewish experience, having put on tefillin, celebrated Passover and studied Torah—all for the first time.

The rabbis didn’t just cater to Jack’s spiritual needs, they supported him materially and emotionally as he searched for a new job and a place to live.

Eventually, he was given a visa to move to the United States, where a job awaited him at an animal shelter, as did the opportunity to begin a new life, free of his haunting memories and tortured past. The rabbis gave him money to purchase a plane ticket.

Neither the rabbis nor the Levins have heard from Jack since, but he remains etched in their hearts, a powerful reminder of the power of a friendly gesture, the light of a menorah and the resilience of the Jewish soul.

Jack, wherever you are: If you are reading this, know that your Jewish friends in Johannesburg and Krugersdorp are thinking of you with love, concern and many fond memories. Happy Chanukah, Jack!

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help; call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and/or speak to a mental health professional. More resources can be found on their website