Each Yom Kippur, I spend the day fasting and praying in synagogue. However, my choice of where to worship has changed over the years. Recently, I have chosen to follow a more observant Jewish path, so I daven at a Chabad House—which happens to be located several blocks from Fenway Park, home of the ill-fated Boston Red Sox. This Chabad House caters predominantly to the college youth of Boston. It’s a place where they are made to feel welcome, can learn about Judaism at whatever level they are at, and are provided with a free meal on Shabbat and holidays. All without charge. You just need to show up.

You just need to show up

This year, during an afternoon break in the Yom Kippur services, my rabbi was standing outside on the steps of the brownstone building on Commonwealth Avenue that houses the Chabad center. The break coincided with the end of a Red Sox game, and people were flooding out into the streets on their way home. If you have ever seen the members of "Red Sox Nation," you can imagine that their appearance is often incongruent with Jews worshipping on Yom Kippur. So when the crowd passes by Jews who are fasting, wearing formal suits, some with large black hats and beards, it is an evident culture clash. Thankfully, many in the crowd seemed to show a certain respectful curiosity and recognition that this was the Jewish Day of Atonement.

A middle-aged man in blue jeans stepped out of the crowd and approached the rabbi on the steps. He proudly announced that he was Jewish and non-observant, although his father had been raised in a chassidic area of Brooklyn. He added that he was married to a non-Jewish woman, and from his tone and body language, I surmised that he had some Jewish background but had left it behind. He said that while passing the Chabad House, he had remembered that it was Yom Kippur and that he wanted to say Yizkor, the traditional memorial observance for one's deceased parents.

My rabbi listened attentively to the man and said little, but he invited him into the small shul, and they emerged some minutes later. At the threshold of the door, I saw the man shake the hand of the rabbi and hand him something.

Before Neilah, the closing service of Yom Kippur, the rabbi began to speak. "I want to share a story with you that occurred today," he began. He then repeated the events that I had witnessed before he disappeared with the man inside the building.

"This man wanted to say Yizkor, and I suggested that he don a tallit. I thought to myself that wearing a tallit is a mitzvah, so he had begun on the path of teshuvah, returning to his Jewish soul.

"Although he could not read Hebrew, I knew that virtually every young Jew has at some point been taught the Shema Yisroel, the traditional statement of monotheistic belief, so we said it together. As he was reciting the prayer, he broke into uncontrollable sobs, saying that he 'missed his mother.' I hugged him and we recited the short Yizkor prayer.

"Upon leaving at the door, he gave me his card and said that he wanted to make a donation. I told him that I would accept his donation, because the practicalities of running a Chabad center without membership dues depends on the charitable inclinations of others. But I also told him that I would accept his money only on the condition that he bring it to me directly during the daytime, because I thought to myself that then I could help him put on tefillin, another mitzvah."

"Where is my son?"

Then the rabbi made the following amazing statement: "I don't think that this man came here today because he missed his mother. I think that somewhere in the next world, the soul of his Jewish mother was confused and asking, ‘Where is my son? Why is he not with his fellow Jews praying on Yom Kippur?' And through the love and concern of a mother for her son, G‑d brought the man home to his Jewish soul."

I personally don't know whether the man will return to make his donation, or whether he will put on tefillin. I hope that he does. But the next day, after putting on my own tefillin and davening the Shacharit prayer, I sat down and wrote a check, and delivered it that day to my rabbi in support of the extraordinary work that is being done at his Chabad House. And in my prayers, I remembered the man, my rabbi and all of my fellow Jews who were blessed to see another year.

Postscript, August 2016:

Several weeks ago, while visiting Israel where I teach part time at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, I received the following e-mail from my Chabad rabbi in Boston. It read:

“On Shabbat morning in the middle of our pre-services Torah class, an older man walked into the Chabad House. His accent was foreign, and he was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Throughout the morning service he sat in the back of the synagogue, but didn't put on a talit or open a prayer book.

“Toward the end of the service I asked him where he was from, and he replied, "Just outside of Paris." As “luck” would have it, sitting next to him was a college student from France, and they began to chat. Since I can’t speak French, I asked the student to invite the man to kiddush and lunch. At first, the visitor declined, but in the end he stayed for kiddush, and after that he remained for several more hours.

“At some point during the afternoon, the young French student called me over and said, "Look what he has!" The visitor pulled out a folded glossy paper printed in French and said, "I read this story, and saved it. I wanted to see where it had happened." What had moved the man to come to the Chabad House in Boston? It was the Yom Kippur story published by Chabad.org, translated into French!”