Born in 1909 in Mirgorod, Ukraine, Rabbi Meir Avtzon was a devout Chabad chassid who battled valiantly for the survival of Judaism in the Soviet Union. After spending more than seven years in a gulag for the crime of studying and teaching Torah, he escaped Russia for the religious freedom of the West, together with his wife and eldest child.

After seven years in DP camps in Europe, the Avtzon family, which had then grown to include six children, settled in Detroit, Michigan.

Yet even in the land of plenty, he remained steadfast in his efforts to serve G‑d and help others do the same.

The newspapers covered the arrival of the Avtzon family, then known as Gesthalter, from Europe.
The newspapers covered the arrival of the Avtzon family, then known as Gesthalter, from Europe.

His first job in Detroit was as a melamed, a teacher, in a local afternoon Hebrew school.

On the first day at his new job, the old-word Russian chassid walked into a classroom of American boys. His English was limited, and he began with the very basics. “In the morning when we wake up,” he told the children, “we recite Modeh Ani, we wash our hands, and then we get dressed.”

Rabbi Avtzon continued, “When we put on our shoes, we make sure to put on the right shoe first before the left shoe. Then, we are careful to tie the left shoe before the right shoe.”

And so the lesson went on.

When one of the boys arrived home that evening, his father asked him, “What did you learn in Hebrew school today from your new teacher?”

“The rabbi taught us how to tie our shoes,” the boy replied.

“What? For this we pay him? To teach you trivialities like how to tie your shoes? We need him to teach you Hebrew reading, some history, and maybe about the holidays!” fumed the angry father. “That greenhorn must be fired immediately!”

This particular father was one of the wealthiest members of the community, and his wish was the school’s command. Sure enough, Rabbi Avtzon found himself without a job.

Years passed, and one day in the early 70s a well-heeled gentleman knocked on the door of the Avtzon home in Oak Park, a heavily Jewish suburb of Detroit.

Taking an enormous wad of cash out of his pocket, he offered it to the rabbi, “This is for you, and I want to beg your forgiveness.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Rabbi Avtzon.

“Do you recall your original Hebrew school lesson and the boy whose father got you fired?” the gentleman asked.

“Yes,” Rabbi Avtzon replied.

“Well, that boy is my son. He grew up and strayed far from the Jewish path, leaving behind the rituals and values of our home. This went so far that, to my horror, he was engaged to a non-Jewish woman. He had clearly forsaken Judaism, and neither my wife nor I could talk sense into his head.

“And then, suddenly, on his wedding day, he called it off and announced that he wanted to return to his Jewish roots.

“Do you know why? When he got dressed that morning, he bent down to tie his shoes and remembered your lesson that day in Hebrew school. He recalled his Jewish upbringing and realized right then and there that he could not throw away his heritage.”

Rabbi Avtzon was delighted to hear of the turn of events but refused the cash. “If my lesson made such an impression on your son, then I have gotten the best reward I could ever want. No payment is necessary.”1