I didn’t know he was a hero when he waved and smiled from across the synagogue. I only knew that his greeting was as warm as the sun, and he made me want to come home.

Shimon Vishnepolsky was well into the ninth decade of his life when I met him. I had struggled with Torah observance for several years, but something deep within compelled me to walk into synagogue that Shabbat morning. My awkwardness must have been palpable. Just before kiddush a man hobbled toward me, leaning on a cane, his right hand raised in a friendly wave. Despite age and infirmity, he had a commanding presence.

Shimon never left without personally greeting every JewI glanced over my shoulder, thinking he was waving at a friend, but there was only a wall behind me. He came near and smilingly said, “Gut Shabbos!” His warmth surrounded me despite an obvious language barrier. I would look forward to that same greeting every time he saw me, as Shimon never left without personally greeting every Jew.

I knew little Yiddish, but I could understand when he expressed loving concern for his Jewish family. Despite his declining mobility, any word of good news would prompt him to pull himself to his feet and dance and sing joyously with his beloved rabbi. A word of concern would compel him to ask aloud for Hashem to help the afflicted person “just this one time.” His passionate appeals shook the windows of heaven and penetrated the walls around my heart. Every Shabbat I spent in his presence reminded me of what it meant to be a Jew, and more importantly, what ahavat Yisrael truly embodies. His actions rendered comprehension of his words superfluous.

After his wife suffered a stroke, he cheerfully and lovingly cared for her, and yet still summoned the energy and strength to continue his Shabbos visits. His strength was palpable in his old age, and he gave me the feeling that he would fight at the cost of his own safety to protect any Jew regardless of his or her proximity to him.

I learned today, on the day of his funeral, that he had been an officer in the Russian army during World War II. He had put himself at risk by stopping a train. That train was full of Jews, and it was taking them to certain death. He made a split-second decision to intervene and force the conductor to go in another direction. I wonder how many worlds exist thanks to his bravery that day.

I, too, in a different time and place, was raised without a Jewish identity, stripped of my heritage against my will. Shimon’s was the first Jewish funeral I had ever attended. I contrasted it with the non-Jewish funerals I had seen—the simple pine box, which renders all of us, rich and poor, equal; the respectfulness with which my dear brother was treated; the sense of family we all shared.

I watched the sea of faces pass behind his body. Some wore the stoic sadness of a lifetime of suffering. Some were stained with tears. In that moment, we didn’t need to share a native tongue or place of birth.

During the procession to his place of rest, I thought aloud that Shimon would have been touched to know how many of us came to accompany him on his journey. As my husband shared the story of Shimon’s heroic rescue of that train so many decades ago, I thought of how infinitesimally small our little train of cars was in comparison to the souls from that Russian train who were awaiting him with dancing and glad song.

I like to picture his face radiating indescribable happiness as our Creator allows him to see the results of his life’s effortsI like to picture his face radiating indescribable happiness as our Creator allows him to see the results of his life’s efforts. I imagine him being shown throngs of Jews who were born because he saved the lives of their parents and grandparents, his soul dancing without bodily pain, the sound of his praise giving angels pause.

I watched the men labor at the loving task of burying my dear brother, and realized the indescribable love and chessed that our people share. A non-Jewish cemetery employee quickly wiped away welling tears, and for the first time, the reality of our “light to the nations” became tangible.

Because of Shimon, and the privilege of sharing in this sad occasion, I realized how much all Jews truly have in common. We have all faced trials and difficulties. We have all felt the pain of rejection and exile. There, at Shimon’s graveside, we were all one. We needed nothing to bind us but our Jewish souls.

Shimon, I want to thank you. You didn’t know my name, but you knew my face. You didn’t know much of my language, but you knew my soul was a part of you, just as yours was a part of me. You didn’t know that I had grown up in complete isolation from my heritage. You didn’t know how much it meant when you saw me, greeted me with warmth and made me feel like family. May it be Hashem’s will that you will know that I will think of your righteous chutzpah in defense of your people when I feel weak; that I will think of your passionate appeals to Heaven when I feel lacking in my connection to G‑d; that you bequeath to me hope for my descendants, when I remember you dancing with joy as yours embraced their Jewishness.

May we smile and love one another, even when we are in pain, just as you did for us May the Creator grant us the love for one another that you had for all of us. May we all be willing to put aside differences and truly be a family, in the manner we were today. May we fight with your courage when we hear others speak against our fellows. May we smile and love one another, even when we are in pain, just as you did for us.

There is an empty place at our table with you. G‑d willing, we will merit a place at your table, the table of the righteous, where you now hold a seat of honor. If we who are left follow your example, we will certainly merit the arrival of Moshiach, speedily and in our days, Amen.