The insistent ring of my cellphone contrasted sharply with the invisible chorus of birdsong rising with the morning sun in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I was a few miles into my daily walk, my sacred quiet time to organize my thoughts and check in with myself before the hustle and bustle of the day begins. Clearly, I had forgotten to shut off my ringer. Glancing at the screen, my curiosity was instantly piqued when I saw an Israeli number. I sank down onto the dew-dampened grass as I answered the call.

“This isMy curiosity was instantly piqued when I saw an Israeli number Nechama Pevzner,” the warm voice on the other end of the line said. “I’m calling from Beitar, Israel, to verify the details of a story you told to Raizel Zucker.”

My friend, Zlati Mochkin’s daughter, Raizel, had relocated with her family from Beitar to New York a year and a half ago to have the support of her parents and siblings while she underwent treatment for cancer.

Nechama proceeded to tell me that Raziel had been so impressed by an anecdote I told her that she had repeated it to a friend who came to visit her from Beitar. It was the catalyst for an initiative N’shei Chabad of Beitar started a few weeks ago in Raizel’s memory, which has since caught on and spread like wildfire throughout all the educational institutions in Beitar and beyond.

I racked my brain but couldn’t fathom which story it was until Nechama explained that they had undertaken a negel vasser (morning ritual hand-washing) initiative.

It was 20 years ago. I was teaching Eilu Metzios (a section of the Talmud) a few mornings a week to my son’s sixth-grade class so that he and two of his classmates could be taken out of class to benefit from an advanced level of learning with their teacher. The class had a reputation as being difficult, though things were going well. The boys were engaged and had quickly adapted to proper classroom decorum, perhaps due in no small part to the game boards and fun sheets I painstakingly innovated to introduce the lessons, in addition to the chocolate-chip cookies baked fresh for them each morning. However, two weeks in, I sensed the students for the most part had a disconnect with the thought-provoking material, despite all of my efforts.

My father, Rabbi Dovid Schochet, had suggested different resources that I could use for my preparation. He was so proud that his daughter was a Gemara teacher and was very interested in following my progress with the boys. I discussed my dilemma with him, describing the situation in great detail. He was quiet for a minute and then stated simply, “I wonder if they wash negel vasser.” I protested, “Daddy, it can’t be. This is a school for boys from Torah-observant homes. They’ll be bar mitzvah next year!”

But the next morning, as the teacher exited the classroom and my 19 students respectfully stood to greet me, my father’s wise words echoed in my mind. “Good morning, boys,” I said. “Please remain standing for a minute. Can I see a show of hands from those who have not yet washed negel vasser today?” My heart sank, my stomach turned, as I watched 75 percent of the boys raise their hands. Without missing a beat, I smiled and nonchalantly continued, “Let’s line up at the sink and wash negel vasser before we start learning today.” And I silently resolved to ensure that they did this daily.

That night,I made sure to call my father despite a long, busy day, I made sure to find a few minutes to call my father. He was not surprised at all by the events I related. He explained to me that when one does not wash negel vasser, it is as if the electrical plug is not plugged in. Therefore, despite all the efforts to turn on the light by flicking the switch in the most creative ways possible, there is a blockage to holiness.

Nechama thanked me for filling in the details of the story that had touched Raizel’s heart. She reiterated to me the far-reaching effect it was currently having in Israel.

Educating is like sending messages into space, never really knowing if anyone is out there receiving. Nevertheless, we teach, we hope and we pray that a real connection has been made.