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Erev Pesach in Safeway

Erev Pesach 2008, I was at Safeway doing some last shopping before the dawn of the holiday. In my cart was some horseradish roots and other vegetables customary for Pesach. When I got to the cashier I was caught by surprise.

The lady ahead of me in line, which I have never met before, also had horseradish and parsley, evidently shopping for her Seder as well... When I glanced at her groceries, I noticed her hands slowly covering the items so they weren't visible to me - as if to say, "I'm celebrating Pesach but I'm not interested in being identified". 

Respectfully, I moved my eyes from the checkout counter and made as if I didn't see anything.

My first thought was "What an odd way to celebrate freedom! What's there to hide in our Jewish essence? Why not celebrate our identity proudly?"

But then there was a second thought. Look how amazing the Jewish people are! This lady seemingly had some negative experience that had made her run away from community life. She may have lived here for many years, but something may have distanced her so far that she wasn't interested in involving herself with other Jews. Nevertheless, she couldn't let Pesach go by without having her bitter herbs...

Toulouse, France

In 2004, Chani and I had the privilege of visiting the Jewish community in Toulouse, France, when we attended the wedding of Chani's brother who married the daughter of the Chabad Rabbi there, Rabbi Yosef Matusof. These past few days, memories from that visit have been flooding my mind. 

Though I’d been to France before - that was the first time I got to experience the Jewish community from within. It was very interesting and unique. Thinking in particular about my experience in Toulouse - two things stand out in the life of that community.

First was unity. There were a few synagogues, organizations, and Rabbis and they all worked together with mutual respect. The deep connection between the members of the communities was apparent. I remember the joy they expressed at the wedding, the shining faces of the participants appearing as though they were marring their own child. 

The other feeling displayed so beautifully by the community was their great warmth. The feeling of family and great care wasn’t only toward their own community members, but was, perhaps even more so, toward the guests. Guests who had been there for only a few hours were treated with charm like they had been there forever. 

The tragedy that hit the community at the beginning of this week is beyond words. The pain of the families of the young children is unbearable. I can just imagine the great shock the community finds itself in right now, and the broken hearts of children who saw evil in its ugliest form. 

Let’s pray for the young injured child, Aaron Ben Leah, who is still fighting for his life, for a complete and speedy recovery. Let's send our blessings from the depth of our hearts to all our brothers and sisters of the Toulouse Jewish community. May the All-mighty give you the strength to overcome these horrific days, may He bring healing to each one of you and to the collective community, and may you see very soon, together with all of us, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, "God shall wipe the tears off every face, and the shame of His people He shall remove from upon the entire earth." Amen!

"Just like my Zeide"

A member of the Jewish community, who is a social worker, informed me of a current patient in the Jubilee hospital who speaks only Yiddish and Russian. Being that I speak Yiddish, she asked if I can visit. 

Yesterday I made it over. I sat next to Vladimir and began speaking to him in Yiddish. His eyes lit up when he heard those Yiddish words - "Mame Loshon". Speaking his childhood tongue made him travel back in time, and without me asking, he started sharing his memories of growing up in Chernovcy, Ukraine. He spoke of the beautiful Synagogue, the lively community, the town that was once a "Jewish Shtetel" and lost its identity with the rise of communism. There was a combination of joyous recollections and sad memories.

It was clear to me that although he was sitting right next to me; he was far away on another plane of existence. It was just that every few minutes, he would pause and say "dos vos gedeinkt zach mir", this is what I remember...

As he spoke about his grandfather, who was his main educator after his father died in the war, I asked him if he remembers him putting on Tefilin. "What do you mean if I remember?! It was every single day, even after the Shul closed down he did this at home, every morning".

"But there was no Cheder at the time so I never learned how to put them on myself, and I never did" he ended with a gloomy face.

"It's not too late” I said "I will bring Tefillin tomorrow and I'll show you and help you put them on".

For the first time since I came Vladimir smiled broadly "Azoy vee der zeide” – “just like my grandfather" he said.

Defining moment of education

While it seems like Leibel got his fair share of coverage lately, I think this incident and picture is worth sharing 

Two weeks ago, Leibel, who is 6 years old, took for the first time a pencil and paper trying to make a portrait of a figure he knew. When he looked on the finished product - he himself was surprised by the success; we were stunned.

Leibel's picture.JPGI asked him to draw a picture of my father, who he is named after. A short while later he came up with a drawing that actually captured the look of his grandfather, who he never had the privilege to meet.

Leibel looked on the paper and realized that he just found in himself a talent he had no idea he contained. He saw the faces of his parents and sibling and he was filled with pride of his accomplishment.

I realized that it is a defining moment. "Leibel" I said "Hashem has given you a special gift, you didn't work for it or earn it, how are you going to thank Him for it? In what way are you going to serve Him with this talent?"

Children are so sincere. Leibel listened carefully and then his facial expression changed to one of gratitude and perhaps even humility. "When I daven, I'll make sure to thank Hashem for this too" he said. 

A year later...

A year after my letter to Tamar Fogel, now 12, who lost both of her parents and three siblings in a massacre inside her home, I decided  it was time to send her a follow-up letter: 

Dear Tamar,

I know it is very difficult days for you and your family, as you are marking the first Yhartzeit of five of your closest family members who were brutally killed by terrorists.

I want to share with you an incident that happened on the day of their Yahrtzeit, here in Victoria, BC.

On Tuesday evening I went to my friend’s house for our weekly Torah learning Chavruta. Just as I walked in he told me with excitement of the time he just spent with his children studying Hebrew for the JEP program. "I couldn't believe how much my son learned this year" he said. "In fact, now I need to catch up with him. I'm brushing up on my Hebrew with my children and it’s great!" When I got home I realized the significance of the day...

As you may recall, the JEP program, or in its full name "The Fogels Jewish Enrichment Program" is a project through our Hebrew School, where children practice their Aleph Bet and Hebrew reading and read from a “Jewish Heroes” book daily. At the end of the week they receive a prize.

When I wrote to you last year, I had no idea if this would turn into a reality and if it would make a mark on Jewish life on our island.

Today I can tell you, Tamar, the JEP program has effected the Jewish education and commitment of Jewish families on the island more than we ever imagined.

Here is an example: A brother and sister who joined grade 4 of our Hebrew School with no Hebrew or Jewish background at all, now started reading Hebrew, and have become inspired to discover their Jewishness, due to the "Jewish Heroes" book that they are reading every day, as part of their participation in the JEP program.

I know your parents, and Yoav, Elad and Hadas are smiling now. They are happy to see you grow in the way they have paved for you, but they can also take pleasure in the fact that their killers have not been successful, they wanted to extinguish Jewish life, but their attack ignited more flames, not only in your hometown but on the other side of the planet too.


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