A Kid Who Cared

Tefillin at the March of the Living in Auschwitz. (Crownandkingston.com)

You may have seen it before. Perhaps in a place you were least expecting it. On the Subway, in a store, or even in a high-security business building. Two young “Rabbis,” formally dressed in a hat and blazer, asking strangers and passersby if they are Jewish. Or distributing shabbos candles. Or perhaps laying tefillin with a store employee. At times armed with challah — for good measure. You may have wondered what it was. Well, allow me to fill you in.

These young men are yeshiva students. They spend their days delving into the ancient texts of Torah Law and Torah Thought/Mysticism. With one day the exception — Friday, before Shabbos.

You see, these students are taught that in addition to the love of study and Torah there is another requirement; namely, the love for a Mitzvah and the responsibility toward Our People. This caring is channeled in weekly (pre-shabbos) meetings with fellow Jews where they offer the opportunity — as well as encourage — the performance of a Mitzvah. (Specifically, to make readily available and enable the performance of ten primary Mitzvos — as defined by the Rebbe, as part of the campaigns [in original Hebrew — mivtzoim] he established. Campaigns to bring awareness and availability of said Mitzvos to every Jew. Including — but not limited to — tefillin, Shabbos candles, mezuzah, and charity.) These students will present the opportunity to those they encounter in passing, as well as become acquainted with fellow tribals in the area — be they in a hospital, assisted living residence, storefront or office — and visit regularly. I can personally attest to many wonderful acquaintances I’ve made by means of the mivtzoim. I’ve shared with and have learned a great deal from these unconventionally-made friends of mine. And it is of one such friend I’d like to tell you about.

I must preface though, that I do understand if one is a bit intimidated at first, at our advance. Two young rabbis, dressed in ultra-orthodox attire, entering the shop and asking if there are Jews on site. Uh oh. (Our one advantage towards counter-intimidation being our youth. Little Rabbis. Which, in my case, is slowly losing its touch. Alas.) However, as time passes, boundaries are broken and friendships are created. And I’m quite glad I made it through those first tough moments. Now, back to the story.

This particular acquaintance, I met in a shop he managed. I offered him tefillin — which he refused, conducted some small talk, and provided a set of travel candles for his wife to light before sundown. And I was back, Friday after Friday.

On one of the first weeks, my yeshiva friend and I caught him in a particularly foul mood. Perhaps just another day of too much work. “Look,” he said, politely but firmly. “I do not have time for you to visit every week. Goodbye.” Period.

Well, one must respect a refusal, which comes our way on occasion. So, the next week, although I passed by his store on my way to others, I did not stop in, per his request. Yet, in my youthful innocence, it nagged at me. I was a man on a mission — to help and to provide. And here was a Brother, behind a closed door.

The next week I gathered courage. He hadn’t said not to come back at all, merely not every week. Not knowing how we would be received, my partner and I strengthened each other and crossed the threshold. Fortunately, he welcomed us with a smile. Feeling lighter, we approached his desk and went through the routine: small talk, he refuses tefillin, we provide a set of candles. As we turn to leave the man states, rather humbly, “Thank you for your persistence.” Wow.

The next week as we returned he called to an employee, “Judy, my Jewish friends are here!” Well, now we’re friends. . . It seems that this woman had a few questions on Judaism, and us four — my partner, I, the manager, and the employee — spent over an hour in discussion.

The routine continued without hitch for the next three years — he declines the tefillin, we have a nice discussion, and we share a small pack of candles. Plus a bonus for the holidays: Passover we provided matzah, Chanukah — a menorah, and Rosh Hashanah we enabled him and his family to hear the shofar. It was the week I was to graduate that yeshiva and was moving on to another town, that there was but one glitch; he agreed to lay the tefillin.

As a religious man, I’m always praying. Praying for understanding and knowledge, praying to find grace in the eyes of others, and praying to make the right choice. Greater than all, however, is that which I pray to retain; the passion of which I pray to never lose. I hope and pray to always care. To care for a fellow in a storefront, on whatever corner I’ll pass, and to care for the Mitzvah.

As I’ve heard it said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I really hope to care.

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