This Holocaust survivor’s bar mitzvah was 89 years in the making.

Alex Kernish, 18, was supposed to be studying at the Mayanot Institute in Jerusalem this year. When the war in Israel broke out three weeks ago, he enrolled instead for a semester at Chovevei Torah, a yeshivah in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. A native of Issaquah, Wash., Kernish was spending the afternoon of Oct. 27, a Friday, the way many young Chabad-Lubavitch men and women do: reaching out to fellow Jews on the street or at their workplace, sharing a Torah thought, wrapping tefillin, or offering them Shabbat candles.

Kernish headed to Washington Square Park in Manhattan, which is often filled with seniors, many of them Jewish, and wrapped tefillin with one of them. That man, in turn, pointed Kernish to another fellow. While Kernish thought he looked around 80, he was told the elderly gentleman was in fact turning 102, and that he thought he may be Jewish.

The elderly fellow was seated at the chess tables, and Kernish walked over and asked him if he was Jewish. Instead of replying to the question, the man simply asked Kernish if he’d like to play a game of chess with him. “Sure,” said Kernish, a decent chess player, “but if I beat you, you’ll put on tefillin.”

A deal was made.

As they played, Kernish struck up a conversation with the fellow—almost six times his age—asking him if he’d ever put on tefillin before. “I never have, in fact, I am not Jewish anymore,” he told Kernish, explaining that he “used to be Yiddish” (using the Yiddish word for “Jewish”). “Do you speak Yiddish?” Kernish asked. The elderly man replied that he’d grown up speaking Yiddish and then abruptly burst into tears.

Over the next few minutes, the elderly man emotionally shared with Kernish a few spare details about his life: He was born in Europe; when he was 9-years-old his father taught him how to play chess; he was the only one in his family to survive the Holocaust.

Now, to remember his father, he plays chess every day.

Kernish ended up winning the game. The centenarian, being a man of his word, rolled up his sleeve to put on tefillin. “Shema,” Kernish started, with the elder man repeating word by word; “Yisrael” they continued. As Kernish helped the man recite Judaism’s essential prayer, the man again broke down, sobbing. “He couldn’t stop crying; he was shaking. He could barely get the words out,” Kernish tells

Having lost the game, the elderly man puts on tefillin, as Kernish and a fellow student celebrate the Jewish milestone.
Having lost the game, the elderly man puts on tefillin, as Kernish and a fellow student celebrate the Jewish milestone.

The significance of the moment was not lost on Kernish, who has had on his own spiritual journey. As a boy, he used to play in the park with one of the sons of Rabbi Shalom Ber and Nechama Farkash, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Central Cascades, in Issaquah, Wash. Soon Kernish decided he wanted to put on a kippah and tzitzit, wearing them to public school too.

Now a yeshivah student, Kernish sees no coincidence in the fact that his moving encounter took place during the week of the Torah reading of Lech Lecha, which opens with our forefather Abraham circumcising himself at 99 years old. “Abraham entered the covenant at 99,” Kernish says, “and my new friend had his bar mitzvah this Friday just shy of 102.”