As a Chabad yeshiva student, your Friday “job” is to go out there, do your route, put on Tefillin with people, distribute Shabbos Candles and fan the flames of Judaism in the people that you meet. (Read more about this in my recent piece http://rabbischusterman.com/excuse-me-sir-are-you-jewish/ .)
The effect of your outreach efforts are rarely seen or recognized. This is ok, because it is not about the feel good of a positive result but the mission of fanning the embers of latent soul Judaism in those you are in contact with. You are always having an impact. Sometimes it is strictly hidden and soulful in nature, other times it you can see the tangible results.
Having said the above, we often don’t know that while to us, this is a short interaction where someone did me a favor possibly, or indulged our Chabadnik “mishegas” there is an entire other side of the equation. The person who we interacted with.
Did they like putting on Tefillin? Did it have meaning for them? Did they forget about our interaction the moment the door closed behind us? Did they think about it further? Were they moved? Moved enough to do anything?
Often we will never know the answer.
Recently I got the answer to a two decades old Mivtzoyim interaction.
Some 23 years ago I did a two year stint in South Africa, where I was studying and also acting as an “older brother” or student Shliach to the local community. I was partnered up with a native, Yossi Pels, who fast became a dear friend, to do our Mivtzoyim route in downtown Johannesburg.
Not the safest neighborhood at the time, but the work had to be done. There was a sweet fellow and his wife who had a tire, alignment and hubcaps store there who we will call Mike.
We visited Mike weekly. Our charm was irresistible and within a period of time he’d put on the Tefillin with us weekly. We grew fond of one another, even purchasing a Siddur for him as a gift but alas, my time in the country was coming to an end. With promises to keep up with one another, and in a world before facebook, the relationship petered out for me. Yossi stayed in touch with Mike, but he too eventually married and moved to the United States so while more in touch with Mike than me, he was only able to be in contact to a point.
Now, South African Jews are a funny bunch. Regardless of their level of observance they are very traditional. It is not uncommon to attend Shul regularly even while leading a very secular non-yet-observant lifestyle. That’s just what they do there. Our friend Mike, attended (and still does) the Sydenham Highlands North Shul, where Rabbi Yossi Goldman, a Chabadnik is the rabb.
To be totally candid, I basically forgot about Mike, that is, until very recently.
You see, I was at the wedding of my niece in Allentown, PA, and one of the groom’s uncles is the very same, Rabbi Yossi Goldman of Mike’s Shul. His nephew and my niece were married.
I know Rabbi Goldman, though my senior, and we schmoozed about the good old days in South Africa. He then mentioned Mike and a special letter he received from him. (This letter, while nearly 20 years old, only came to my attention now.)
I obtained a copy of that letter, and to my great joy, a twenty plus year gap of information came full circle, and I was let in, to what Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.”
It reads as follows (I’ve cut out various parts of the letter).
I have a story which I, as a member of your congregation, would like to relate to you… I was brought up in a less observant branch of Judaism… I later tried another Temple which felt closer to that of the orthodox service, but I didn’t care much for that Shul either so I eventually took the step of attending services at Sydenham Highlands North.
It took a bit of time but I managed to get the hang of it and even enjoy it…
The aforementioned paragraphs are just to give you a sort of overview of where I come from in the world of Judaism and the story I want to relate to you now begins…
About two years ago, on a Friday (that was over 22 years ago Editors note), some “strange fellows” walked into my business which is situated in the middle of Johannesburg and asked if anyone was Jewish. I answered in the affirmative.
They asked me if I had put on Tefillin that day and I answered that I had not.
At this stage I must tell you, Rabbi, that I had never ever put on Tefillin in my life and that the only time I had seen it was when was in the army when I, together with all the other non-Jewish soldiers watched,, which I considered to be a very strange performance.
To get back to the story, I was embarrassed at the question, not because of the question itself, but because of the fact that I had never put on Tefillin before and would therefore make a fool out of myself by asking any further questions.
The gentlemen then asked me if I would like to put on Tefillin there and then and for reasons that I have already mentioned, I refused and they then left.
But they persisted, and visited me again the next Friday, asked me the same question, whereupon I confided with them of my history. I led them upstairs where they “fitted” the Tefillin on my arm and asked me to read the relevant portion.
I will never forget the feeling that I experienced the first time that the Tefillin was put onto my arm, in fact, that feeling came upon me for the first three times that I put on Tefillin. It was almost as if I was suddenly wrapped up in a special kind of cacoon. I have never ever felt such a special feeling in my life before this. I was also surprised to find out that I actually knew the portion that was related to the Tefillin.
At the time of all of this, my business was going through a rather bad patch. The bank had pulled the carpet and I was in rather deep trouble, not knowing which way to turn or where to get help.
Although I never told the “Shluchim” how bad things were for me at the time, except for the fact that “business was not so good.”
After a few Friday’s of the “Shluchim” visits, I decided to order my very own tefillin from them of which they duly obliged. I have been putting on Tefillin every day that it is allowed and believe that it changed my life completely.
I became calm and seemed to have a more clear head in business. Although my business was running very heavily on overdraft, I felt sure of myself and even managed to scrape a few Rand to invest in the stock market.
A few weeks ago, everything came to fruition! I woke up one morning, and after opening my business for the day, I suddenly called my stock broker and instructed him to sell the complete share portfolio that Ihad built up over the past few years. The broker went crazy and asked me what type of strategy I was pursuing, and that it was not the right thing to do…
But, I had other ideas and told him, much to his dismay, to sell out. I need not tell you what then happened to the stock market.
I then phoned my bank manager, made an appointment to see him, and took my business out of an overdraft that exceeded R$500,000!!
Rabbi, this is not a letter which is intended to boast of the fact that I did so well, and managed to sell at the right time on the stock market. It is a letter in which I wish to inform everyone who wishes to listen, that I firmly believe that it was the the “Shluchim’s” visits, which introduced me to Tefillin, that helped me to get totally out of dept to my bank. (In fact, my bank manager thinks I am a genius and cites me as an example to other clients.)
Oh, and by the way, business is still a little shaky, but I know that I, together with my Tefillin, will work my way to better turnover which, believe it or not, is already starting to happen.
I extend to you and your family my very best regards and a Happy, Healthy New Year!
I’ve since been reconnected with Mike via WhatsApp and via my old South African buddy, Yossi Pels who has maintained connection with Mike and visits when he is visiting South Africa.
I have further found out that Mike now puts on Tefillin daily, and has done so for the past 20 plus years or so. Furthermore, Mike is now the “Shluchim” he fondly recalls in his letter, as he has become the lamplighter himself. As folks pull into his shop to get the new tires, or an alignment, he reminds them that they need a “spiritual alignment” as well. He then offers them the opportunity and gift to put on Tefillin.
BUT THERE IS MORE!!! (As they say in those late night commercials encouraging you to buy double the amount of a product you don’t need!) About 6 months ago, Mike took yet a further step in his ongoing journey of Yiddishkeit! He closed his store for Shabbos, even though that is the busiest day of his work week. His faith is so staunch that he feels confident that Hashem will provide for him in other ways or on other days whatever he’d lose by closing on the holy Shabbos day!
This story, one of millions certainly, is still unfolding, but it is certainly the fulfillment of a vision that the Rebbe had when he launched the Tefillin movement in 1967. To expose another to the raw, naked truth of Judaism, is guaranteed to light, or fuel an existential fire which can only lead to better results not only spiritually, but physically as well, as conveyed in the story above.
Give it a try. Wherever you are on the planet, there is a Chabadnik waiting to wrap the Tefillin on you.
Pictured is a siddur and inscription Yossi and I presented to Mike many years ago.
Pictured is Mike’s proud sign announcing his closing his store for Shabbos.
Blog 48/52 Photo Credit Yossi Pels