Wednesday, September 7, 2011

See how far you can go?

The power of outreach. On Friday afternoon young Chabad students can be seen all over town, distributing candles, talking to strangers, and doing anything possible to light the Jewish spark.

The Avner Institute presents a fascinating encounter with an Israeli dentist, who describes to two young visitors how he made his way back to Torah, and how the Rebbe's campaign set the ball rolling.

Good Shabbos

It was Friday afternoon in Haifa, a notoriously left-wing city where workers would be soon leaving their desks, not for home or synagogue, but for cinemas and nightclubs. Nevertheless, two young students Yitzchok Levin and Ayal Blau, from Yeshivat Migdal Emek faithfully combed the main street, as they did every week, in search of outreach activity. Since it was the Friday before 3 Tammuz, the anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the students decided to extend their route in order to reach even more Jews and lay tefillin, the phylacteries worn by men during prayer.

That is how they learned the following story.

“I noticed a huge office building,” Yitzchok began, “and we decided to go in, even though it was almost Shabbos. As soon as we entered the first floor, I noticed an open dentist’s office. We walked in and saw the dentist sitting and talking on the phone.

“Just one look at him made us nervous. Those who go on outreach regularly know this type a mile away. You could see the angry eyes and the way he was getting ready to curse us out.

“Well, what we were afraid of came to pass. As soon as he finished his phone conversation, he bombarded us with questions, in an angry and even demeaning tone.

“We weren’t scared off, though. We’re used to reactions like this. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was almost Shabbos. As the man was plainly only listening to himself, I motioned to my friend to leave.

“We were standing on the threshold when suddenly Ayal turned toward the dentist and shouted in the same number of decibels, ‘Hey, Jew! You’ve been in this world for forty years now. You eat and sleep, but what’s with your soul? You think you’re yelling at us, but you are really yelling at the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who has helped thousands of Jews do good deeds!’ And he went on in this vein.

“In my mind’s eye I could picture the dentist getting up and hitting us, but that’s not what happened. When he heard the Rebbe’s name, he trembled, his face fell, and an uncomfortable look flashed in his eyes.

“After my friend finished his tirade, the dentist said in surprise, ‘Oh, you’re from the Lubavitcher Rebbe!?’ His voice was so calm and quiet that we wondered if this could really be the same man we had just been talking to!

“`Sit down," he said. ‘You probably think I don’t know your Rebbe. Listen, and I’ll tell you who the Lubavitcher Rebbe is.’

“The anger in our hearts immediately changed to curiosity. We sat down and the dentist began his tale.”

I grew up in Vienna, and my sole connection with Judaism was through the Zionist youth movement in our city. After I finished school I moved here, to Israel, and was drafted. During the Six-Day War I served as a combat officer on the front.

In the course of my work as a dentist, I got to know a religious girl from Boro Park who was visiting here. We stayed in touch even after she returned home. At some point I returned to Vienna.

A few months went by and with her agreement, I decided to go to New York in order to meet her and ask her parents for her hand in marriage. I visited her home. Her parents were gracious, but when I left the house, the father came out with me. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he said I must break up with his daughter.

“You don’t deserve to be my son-in-law,” he declared.

I was shocked. I truly wondered what was wrong with me. After all, I was a dentist, an officer, an Israeli, tall and good-looking, making nice money—in short, I had it all.

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing out on,” I thought sadly. “Other people would be proud to have a son-in-law like me. Not only that, but if I married his daughter, she would get me to become religious.”

I was still thinking this over when my cousin Yaakov, with whom I was staying in America, appeared. Seeing me upset, he asked what was wrong, and I told him what had just happened.

He brightened. “Listen, not far from here lives a great rabbi who everybody talks about. Maybe you should visit him and he can explain what happened, or maybe he would even agree to convince the father.”

A few weeks later I met with the Rebbe. The Rebbe listened with great interest as I told him at length about the area where I grew up, the Jewish community, my army service, and then finally, the reason I was there. I told the Rebbe about our desire to marry and the father’s veto.

When I finished my story, the Rebbe told me to get up. To my surprise he looked me over in satisfaction and said, “I’m pleased. Until now I was pleased. Now I’m even more pleased.”
Having no idea what the Rebbe was talking about, I waited for him to continue.

The Rebbe began by explaining that in the Jewish America of today there was unprecedented assimilation and intermarriage. People practically gave no thought as to the nationality or religion of their future spouses.

“Now,” said the Rebbe, “if somebody were to tell me that an observant Jew took a dentist, who was also an officer and a nice-looking fellow, despite the fact that he was not observant, for a son-in-law, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. But when you tell me that here, in America, there are Jews who consider the Torah more important than the honor they would get when people heard they got ‘a young man from Eretz Yisroel,’ I am very pleased.

"That’s why I asked you to stand up—so I could see how tall you are and how well-built. To believe that a Jew from Boro Park gave you up despite all your good qualities—just because he wants an observant man for his daughter!”

I was in shock. I had come to tell the Rebbe my sorry tale, and here the Rebbe was telling me he was happy about it!

Despite what the Rebbe had said thus far, I kept trying. “Rebbe! Who knows? Maybe if I marry her, I would try to live more like she does, and I would even return to the faith. Why shouldn’t I get a chance?”

The Rebbe answered with a parable. “There are two friends—one on the top of a mountain where there are plenty of delicious fruits, and one on the bottom of the mountain without fruits. The one on top tosses a few fruits down to the one on the bottom, and when the one on the bottom tastes them he sees how good they are. With his friend’s help, he makes it to the top of the mountain. But this happened only because the one on the bottom tasted the fruits and saw how good they were. If he hadn’t tasted them, he would never have made the attempt to climb to the summit.”

The Rebbe gazed at me penetratingly and said, “You’re not even willing to lift 200 grams, and you want to be a Boro Parker?”

I wracked my brains trying to figure out what the Rebbe was referring to when he said “you won’t even lift 200 grams,” but came up with nothing. Had I tried to lift something weighing 200 grams and not succeeded?

With that the yechidus ended, and I left both confused and disappointed. Meanwhile my cousin was still waiting outside, and I told him what the Rebbe had said.

“I had no idea what the Rebbe was referring to when he said I couldn’t even lift 200 grams,” I explained.

Yaakov pondered it over for a few seconds and then jumped up. “Tell me, do you lay tefillin every morning?’

"No, I don’t. I’ve never even given it a second thought.”

"Nu,” Yaakov declared, “that’s what the Rebbe meant! You’re not even willing to lay 200 grams of tefillin on you. So what makes you think you’ll change your lifestyle and fulfill all 613 mitzvoth simply because you’re marrying someone?

“First, start doing mitzvoth on your own—just basic things like tefillin—and then with her help or the help of a good friend, see how far you can go.”

This time it was my turn to get excited. “What a Rebbe! How wise he is!”

Sometime later, I married a religious girl and thank G-d, we have three children, all yeshiva graduates. The first is named Menachem, like the Rebbe, of course. My daughter leads a religious life, and even though I still have a lot to work on personally, whatever I do have is in the merit of that yechidus.

“We sat and listened to his story,” concluded Yitzchok, “and when he finished I asked him, ‘Nu, after a story like that about 200 grams, are you still not ready to put on tefillin?’

“The dentist looked at me slyly and said with a smile, ‘Since that yechidus, my morning exercise consists of lifting 200 grams on my arm.”