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Time to keep my promise

I trust that by now, you have received our invitation to take part in the Friday-night candle lighting and dinner in honour of our daughter Rochel's third birthday. What you may be surprised to hear is that this event is a fulfillment of a promise I made to you, which is a marvellous story on its own. 

On September 8th, 2008, we celebrated the upshernish (first haircut ceremony) of our son, Leibel, in a great celebration in front of the Chabad Centre in Victoria. This celebration was very special to me, as that year was 10 years since my father's passing, whom Leibel is named after. You may recall how Leibel said some torah verses out loud and the crowd recited after him.

Being that an upshernish marks the beginning of a child's Jewish education, I was asked by community members how we mark this occasion for a little girl. At the closing of the event, I mentioned that our Rebbe suggested for Jewish families to start the education of mitzvot for girls by candle lighting on Erev Shabbat, and many have turned this occasion into a community celebration of the inauguration of a girl’s education. "Our two older daughters’ birthdays are both during Pesach and it wasn't practical to have a communal event at that time of year..." I said. "But, though I can't give you a date to mark your calendar, G-d willing, for our next daughter’s third birthday, you'll be invited to a candle lighting ceremony in honour of the occasion…"

Nine months later, on the 7th of May, 2009, we embraced a new baby girl and named her Rochel. We thank the Almighty for His blessings and next Friday we will try to keep our promise...


"They called me Germish"

As we were about to arrive home back from Shul last Shabbat, with the children and our guests, we realized that a young man and woman were gazing at us as we passed through. Then the young lady turned to her friend and said “just ask".

The man gathered his courage. "I was wondering why you are wearing that hat and long coat?"

"We are Jews" I explained. "Today is Shabbat and the last day of Passover, as Chassidic Jews - we have special garments which we wear in honour of the festivity. In fact I am a Rabbi here in Victoria, and my brother-in-law who is visiting, is a Rabbi in Philadelphia".

"Oh, I see, you are Rabbis. I thought you may be Jews, but I have Jewish friends, I've never seen them wearing anything out of the ordinary... so thank you for explaining..."

 The woman looked at the man, winked at him, as if to say "go for it" and just as we were about to continue walking - he turned back to me and said "I also have some Jewish blood in me..."

"How is that?" I asked. "Oh, my great grandmother survived the holocaust, she was in a concentration camp. She immigrated to Canada in the middle of the war; married a German, and lived in Nanaimo, where my grandmother was born. Growing up, I knew I had some Jewish blood in me. In fact, in school they used to call me "Germish" laughing on my combined origin, they used to tell me some other nasty things, but I won't repeat them"...

"How is she your great grandmother?" I asked. "She is my mother's mother's mother" he answered. "Then you are 100% Jewish!" I said with excitement, explaining to Aaron that according to Jewish law if the mother is Jewish the child is fully Jewish, and "if your maternal grandmother had a Jewish mother that makes you as Jewish as can be".

"Your great grandmother may have been an only survivor from her family, yet if you will learn of your heritage - you may be saving a lineage of Jews of thousands of years that was almost extinguished", I added . Aaron looked attentive.

I hope to soon report to you of Aaron's reconnection; after all, this is the story of our generation - the miracle of the revival of Judaism, just seventy years after the idea of a flourishing Jewish life was unimaginable.

Traveling lesson

Last week I wrote about my tears on Erev Pesach in Uzhgorod, Ukraine, and the great lesson I learned that day, it was only 13 years later that this story came to a closure.

One morning last year I was invited to a friend's home, while sitting in their living room I was introduced to their friend visiting from the US. After a short conversation I learned that this man, who was known to be very successful with a promising future, was now in the midst of a great downturn in his personal life, he was humiliated in a terrible manner, so much so that he wasn't sure there was a way for him to get out of it.

I listened to the recent events in his life and since it was close to Pesach, I immediately thought of my experience in Ukraine, so I shared with him my story, and the lesson that “some times from a low point, when you are hopeless and loose your pride - this is when you become worthy of G-d's salvation...”

When I finished telling the story, he looked at me and asked: who did you say was your partner in making Pesach there? When I told him the full name - he was shocked. "Mendy is the Chabad Rabbi in my city, I celebrated the last High Holidays in his Shul!"

The next time I met him he had some corrections to the story, that he heard from Rabbi Mendy... And things have taken a sharp turn for him, for the better...

Erev Pesach in Uzhgorod

 Last week, I wrote about Erev Pesach 2008. Today, I’d like to go back another 10 years to the same day. It was one of the most influential days of my life.

That Erev Pesach, I was crying my heart out in a hotel suite in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. We were 19 years old when my friend, Mendy, and I accepted the mandate to lead Pesach in that city. It was the first public seder there after over 50 years of communism. 

The days before the seder went extremely well. We got great publicity from the local media and we were able to reach out to hundreds of Jewish homes in the city. The feedback was amazing. We were expecting no less than 200 people to come to the seder in the main hall of a big hotel (that cost $40 for the evening..). 

We called the Chabad Rabbi of Western Ukraine to report of our plans. He was very excited and he informed us that a truckload of Pesach supplies would make its way to us at least 24 hours before the event. 

The night before the seder, we invited some twenty teens in the community for a “chametz hunt,” as well as to help us in starting the preparation of foods, etc. We had a great evening, but no truck arrived. We apologised and promised the boys and girls that we would contact them as soon as we heard anything. 

That night, Mendy and I didn’t sleep much. We ran to the window every few minutes, with every passing headlight bringing hope of a delivery... 

I won’t take you through the nerve-racking hours of the morning and early afternoon. It was perhaps the longest day of my life... How would we show our faces to people? They were coming in from the whole city to a great Pesach seder and we had nothing to serve, not even matzah! Just the thought was embarrassing beyond description. 

Throughout these hours, we were on the phone with Rabbi Wilhelm, who wasn’t able to do much besides offer some words of hope and encouragement. 

Two hours before the event, we watched the first guests arrive from the window of our hotel room. They were dressed in their finest clothes, the elderly wearing military medals, and the room was set beautifully, but we had no food to offer. 

I called Rabbi Willhelm and said, “OK. It’s time for plan B. What do we do with two hundred guests tonight with not even the basic needs for a Pesach Seder?” 

“Listen” he said, “You have been very proud of yourself, and for a good reason. You did a lot in a short visit. I believe that the moment you feel hopeless and turn your eyes to heaven, realizing that you are powerless, then it will be the right time for G-d’s salvation.” 

I hung up the phone with tears in my eyes, in total despair. Suddenly, I heard my friend, Mendy, screaming from the other end of the room: “It’s here!” 

This story came to an amazing closure in Victoria, but I will leave the rest of the story for, G-d willing, next week.

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