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The celebration of a Yahrtzeit

Dear Friends,  

Twelve years ago today, we bore the terrible news of the sudden loss of my father at the age of fifty.  I find the day of his Yahrtzeit a suitable time to share his life and legacy.

zeidy Kaplan-small.jpgMy father was the head of our family and the leader of the community in which I grew up. An easy father for me to admire, he was the smartest person I knew and the greatest Torah scholar I have ever met. He could sing better than anyone else and he was taller than all the other fathers in the neighbourhood...

As children if we had any kind of argument, his was the last word. We always accepted every decision; it never took him very long to provide a solution.  He had a strong inner confidence and we trusted him very much, even if he was unsure about something - we never knew....

On one particular occasion he found himself wrestling with a decision, and for the first time he shared his deliberations with his children.  He had received an invitation from a Chabad Rabbi to come to the opening of the first Jewish centre in Minsk, Belarus (which he had helped to build) and to attend the dedication of a new Torah scroll there.

My father wasn't a man of celebration - he was a man of action.  It took a lot of convincing for him to agree to come. After finding that there were no seats left on the flight going to Minsk, the local Rabbi persisted, and arranged for my father to fly to Moscow where a driver would take him the remaining 10 hours to Minsk. 

My father debated as if it were a life decision. Even though I was just a young boy in Yeshiva, he consulted me. Finally, he said "I can't refuse a request from a Rabbi who has given up the convenience of living in a Jewish environment and has built a centre of Jewish life. I'm going."

I was sent to the airport to bring him his passport and visa. I was the last family member to see my father. Hours later, his soul departed in a car accident, miles from the town Lubavitch in Russia.

As you can imagine, the celebration of that Jewish centre was filled with tears; the Torah came to the new ark with broken hearts.

Two days later was Lag B'omer. On this day, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people of all backgrounds and affiliations come together to follow the request of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and celebrate his Yahrtzeit by his gravesite in Meron. Across the wadi, at the bottom of the hill of Tzfat, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan came to his resting place. Until today I'm not sure if it was in real life or imagination, but I remember how the singing from Meron echoed throughout the mountains. That Lag B'omer was very sad for the community of Tzfat. The fire was traditionally lit while tears streamed down people's faces.

A year later, on Lag B'omer, a Torah was dedicated to the Chabad Yeshivah in Tzfat in memory of my father. Many thousands of people from across the country came to participate in the Simcha. It might have been the largest Torah dedication in the recent history of the city. The celebration was filled with happiness and joy, the dancing and singing was tremendous in ways which is hard to describe.

In Jewish custom a Yahrtzeit is not a day of sadness, it's sometimes called Hillula - which means celebration. In times of pain, when we are lost, our traditions give us meaning and insight to be able to continue living with positive vigour.  Dancing with the Torah that day symbolized so clearly where we draw our strength and validity.

The Everlasting Table

Last Sunday one of our community members, a kind woman named Mrs. Ireta Fisher-Cowall, invited me to attend a meeting about a fantastic event that she is currently planning, and which you will be hearing about some time soon.

When we first arrived at her house she didn't allow us to sit down, and quickly summoned us into her sunroom, where she displayed a nicely designed wooden table.  Then she began a very intriguing story:

"About 40 years ago I bought this wooden table at an auction in town. But I noticed that its unique design had something strange about it.  At the edge of the table there was a plaque with nothing written on it. Decades later, a friend advised me that 'sometimes people might not like what is written on a plaque, but instead of getting rid of it, they turn it upside down.' Just as I was beginning to turn the screws, I felt inexplicably sure that the plaque would be in Hebrew... And guess what? I was right!"

Then Ireta turned to me and said: "Would you please read for me what this says?"

"This is the donation of Reb Yisrael Garfinkel to the Maczikei Hadas v'Shomrei Shabbos synagogue, 1930," I read. In fact, it turns out that the table is from a Shul in Europe before the war, and somehow made its way to an auction in British Columbia. And so in an amazing case of divine providence, despite our small community here, it has ended up yet again in Jewish hands.

So now, I've been working diligently with two Jewish boys named Sergey and Lawrence (ie. google) to track down the synagogue and perhaps members of the Garfinkel family. I hope I'll have some interesting information to share with you next week.

In the meantime this interesting discovery is having an impact on our Shul. In Europe there were two different kinds of Shuls. The "Official Synagogue" which looked like auditorium, had rows of chairs facing the "Mizrach."  The other kind of shul was the "Shtibel"  which means "Home-style;" it had a friendly personal atmosphere, which would usually include tables in order to make sure that would be a comfortable place for all. I always wanted "Chabad Family Shul" to be a Shtibel, where it would feel less like a "concert-hall" and more like a home. For several reasons it hasn’t happend yet, but now Reb Yisrael Garfinkel has reminded me that I shouldn't wait any longer.

I have contacted Mr. Don Chambers, who built the rest of the Shul furniture for us. We made a plan to build beautiful wooden tables for our Shul, costing $4,000. I have two sponsors for half of the sum, but we need another two, if you will like to be part of it - let me know so we can go ahead immediately.

You see, dedication to a Shul is a life time legacy. Even if for some reason the tables get sold someday – they will be picked up by another Jew, and inspire tables for a Shul somewhere else. What an investment!

Fair Justice

Dear Friends,  

Three years ago we hosted "Evening of Treasures" - an auction supporting Chabad of Vancouver Island, and it fell to me to find the donors. This wasn’t different than any other fundraising campaign - never easy... apart from one particular phone call that I made to a person who I never met, who had no idea where Vancouver Island is... 

I had called Agriprocessors, a large kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa asking them to donate a freezer full of kosher chicken to use at the auction. When I got to speak to the owner, he agreed without letting me finish my sentence. I didn't even have the chance to thank him properly.... 

Later I found out that this person was Mr. Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin.  

Today, I have an opportunity to pay back my gratitude for his generosity. This week the United States prosecutors have recommended that Sholom Rubashkin be sentenced to life in prison for financial corruption charges during to his role as an executive in Agriprocessors. 

The US federal government has been overzealous in pursuing Sholom Rubashkin and has submitted him to considerably more severe restrictions and potential punishment than others in similar cases. Rubashkin, a father of ten including one autistic child, will be sentenced on April 28 and faces the possibility of life in prison , far beyond the sentences imposed on others whose crimes were significantly more severe than anything Rubashkin may have done. 

Jurors concurred that Rubashkin did not gain personally from his legal errors and had no intention to cause any monetary loss to anyone. Rubashkin’s lawyers also pointed out that Mark Turckan, who pled guilty to a 21 year cover up of misapplying funds from the same bank, and was found to have caused a similar loss to what DOJ argues was caused by Rubashkin, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. 

World Jewish leaders have carefully researched the prosecution of Sholom Rubashkin and are deeply disturbed.  I am joining thousands of other Rabbis and organizations who are urging their communities to voice their concerns.

In issuing this call, we are in no way condoning any criminal conduct.  Rather, we are asking that Sholom Rubashkin be treated like any other American. 

I urge you to communicate your respectful concern over the handling of the Rubashkin case, and the excessive sentence being considered. (For more details, and to sign an online petition, please see the memo available at www.justiceforsholom.org). 

Please consider forwarding this to your family and friends as well.

Munkatch in Victoria

Dear Friends,  

12 years ago I celebrated the last days of Pesach in Munkatch, a town that is now in western Ukraine. I was there helping the local Jewish community with the celebration of Pesach. Watching the back row of our Shul this week made me feel a sense of closure... 

Before World War II, while still a part of Hungary, Munkatch was a vibrant center of Jewish life. With many thousands of Jews, very active synagogues, schools and a grand Rabbi, whose name was respected throughout the world, the town’s Jewish community thrived.  Visiting Munkatch in 1998, I found that those who survived the holocaust and their descendants were extremely disconnected from their heritage, by 50 years of communism. Only a few older people came to the old synagogue on Shabbat and for festivals, feeling the responsibility to represent the good old days of this Shtetl.

There was one man who made a tremendous impression on me.  In his mid 90s, he led the services by heart, with special Hungarian pronunciation and beautiful ancient melodies. This man, who spoke fluent Yiddish, remembered the town in the good old days and constantly tried to convey to us that what we witnessed was not the real Munkatch.  His eyes were brightly lit as he shared the memories of his youth, but he finished with great sadness as he told of Munkatch’s diminished Jewish activity and community.  It was heartbreaking, especially with the knowledge that although the town still housed hundreds of Jews, many of them were completely ignorant concerning their own Jewish heritage.

Now, 12 years later, we celebrate the last day of Pesach at the Chabad Family Shul in Victoria. Although it is a mid-week service, 40 men, women and children are in Shul.  In the back row, there is an older man, Mr. George Pal, whom you know from a previous post.  George was born and raised in Munkatch, until at the age of 17, when he was sent to Auschwitz and survived.

When I look at George watching the little children running around the Shul my mind strays back to my visit to Ukraine. Yes, Munkatch lost its glory, but Judaism is still alive and strong, continuing to inspire Jewish souls wherever they may be.

A surprise in prison

Dear Friends,  

Last week I was contacted by the secretary at the Lubavitch in Vancouver saying that "Victor, a Jewish inmate who moved lately to a prison in your area would like to have a visit of a Rabbi before Pesach." I thought to myself, what a nice gesture it would be to bring a bit of the festival of freedom to a Jew behind the bars! So, I immediately scheduled a visit for Sunday this week. However, when I arrived at the jail just five minutes later than scheduled, I learned that there is no such thing as "Jewish time" in a maximum security jail...

Thus the next morning, which was Erev Pesach, I was on the phone convincing the supervisor of visits to allow me to come that same day, even though they normally require 24 hours advanced notice.  Finally, I was told to be there for 2:20. In fact I was there by 2:00, just in case... Being that Pesach is the busiest day in the Jewish calendar, I was planning on spending just a few minutes there. I would leave him some Matza with good wishes, and rush back to set up the Seder.  However my plans were once again foiled. When I met the guards I was informed that it was against the rules to leave food for Victor, that I would meet him on the phone through a glass window, and that I must be there for no less than one hour, since they don't let people out in the middle of a visit...

So here I am on Erev Pesach, hours before we host a large Seder for 80 people, spending two hours on this unexpected visit. But it was worth it. He knew all about Erev Pesach, and he was much appreciative of the fact that on such a busy day I took the time to visit...

He was very excited to tell me that he knows many Chabad Chassidim all over the world. "Let me tell you about my first meeting with Chassidim which I will never forget,” he says.  

“It was in 1991, right after I immigrated to Israel. Sadam Hussein threatened to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. We were horrified, is this why we came to Israel?”  He continued, saying: “It was the first day of the war, I was in my uncle’s home, helping him to tape the windows for the 'sealed room,' when we heard singing from outside. I saw a group of Chassidim singing and dancing on the street with optimistic faces. Seeing how shocked we were, they explained to us that 'the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that we don't have to worry, there will be miracles, and tonight is Shabbat, which is a day of joy etc...' it warmed our hearts, it gave us happiness and hope when we were desperate for it."

"Where was this in Israel?" I asked. “It was in Tzfat, we lived then in a neighbourhood called 'Kna'an," Victor said.

I got chills when he said that. "Victor," I said. "I was there. I was just 11 years old at the time, a fax came to my father from the Rebbe's office, instructing us to bring the joy of Shabbat to the residents of Israel, and we did exactly as you described, especially in the neighbourhood where there were new immigrants."

Victor seemed to take it very naturally, I was overwhelmed by the divine providence. 

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