As we prepare our wicks and count our candles, each day adding another level of light, do those numbers hold another special meaning for you?
Project Coordinator: Rachel Bachrach
One Last Chance
By Binyomin Yudin
The most incredible conversations I’ve had in my career have been with people who know they are close to death. Replete with a focus on long-ignored priorities and a deep desire for life so rarely extant in everyday interactions, these conversations always leave an impression.
In my early 30s, I helped start a hospice program at the Jewish retirement facility where I was a chaplain. Although I had already worked with this demographic, my new role would bring with it experiences I never could have imagined.
One of my responsibilities was to be at the facility for Shabbos to perform my duties as chaplain — leading davening, directing discussion groups, visiting with residents. My family and I stayed in a house nearby. We had a guestroom, and one winter Shabbos, we hosted a young woman who was visiting her extremely ill grandmother in the facility. Our guest had grown up thousands of miles away in a chareidi town in Israel, but her savta was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a secular family with no Jewish upbringing.
That Friday night, we ate the Shabbos meal while our guest, who had come with her two-year-old son, spent time with Savta. After the meal, I prepared to go to the facility, and on my way out, I noticed our guest, who had since returned, starting her meal. She stood at the dining room table, her little boy on a chair at her side, holding a silver cup of grape juice. I was closing the door behind me just as she concluded the brachah in her strong Israeli accent.
“Borei pri hagafen,” she said, and I muttered, “Amen.”
I should visit her grandmother, I thought as I walked down the path. She isn’t doing well, and she’s probably anxious.
Although illness had ravaged her body, cognitively Savta was 100 percent lucid, and I was certain she’d appreciate help processing what she was experiencing.
I entered the room and beheld Savta, tiny in her bed, her eyes mostly closed in the low light. I moved slowly, not wanting to wake her if she was sleeping, but not wanting to miss her if she was awake.
“Hello, Rabbi,” she said weakly. “How are you?”
“Doing well, thanks, but I came to see how you are, not to talk about myself,” I responded with a gentle smile.
She chuckled softly.
“Well, Rabbi, I’m dying.”
“We both know this, Savta,” I inclined my head and replied. “How do you feel about it?”
“To be honest, I’m worried. Frightened,” she replied instantly.
This response, while not uncommon, means different things to different people.
“I’m sure. What is it exactly, though? What are you scared of?” I asked.
“Rabbi, I grew up completely secular,” Savta began. “I remember a little from my childhood, but my parents didn’t teach us anything. I just remember my zeide saying Kiddush on Friday nights. What if I was wrong my whole life? What will happen when I get Up There?”
A woman more than 50 years my senior was asking me the prime existential question: What is life after death, and how does G-d judge us? You know, simple stuff.
There are times when you feel Divine intervention in your bones. There are times when the words find their way into your throat and travel out of your mouth before you even have time to think them through.
“I want to tell you what I witnessed when I left my house a few minutes ago,” I said. “There was a young woman there with her toddler. She was emulating your zeide.”
Savta looked confused, so I continued.
“I saw your granddaughter, holding a cup of grape juice, making a blessing — making Kiddush. Her little boy was standing next to her on a chair, taking it all in.” I took a breath. “It reminds me a little of a scene described to me by someone just moments ago.”
Savta’s quizzical expression transformed into a grin.
“Your granddaughter was giving the experience of Kiddush to your great-grandson, just as your zeide gave it to you.”
I expounded on the concept of a Yiddish legacy, of Kaddish, that the world will be left with a vacuum of holiness after her death, and so we sanctify G-d’s name daily in her stead. And that even after those 11 months are up, the holiness of her ancestors that was passed down through her and from her to her children, her grandchildren, and even her great-grandchildren, will continue to be passed down forevermore. I assured Savta that although she made different choices in her life — choices she may regret now — those she leaves behind are a tribute to her.
“Cherish the fact that you’re leaving this legacy,” I encouraged Savta.“Talk to G-d, thank Him, and feel the warmth and comfort of knowing that your work on earth is being continued by your progeny.”
Savta grinned again. Clearly the young rabbi waxing philosophical was entertaining — but then she teared up, and in the tiniest of voices, she thanked me.
The Gemara tells us that there are those who acquire their portion in the World to Come in one moment, and one of the examples the Gemara gives is that of moments of intense revelation attained by exposure to the ultimate Truth. These final conversations, when they expose us to what is important, afford us the opportunity to pay attention, to make the most of the clarity with which we have been gifted. For some, it’s the chance of a lifetime.
Binyomin Yudin LISW-S is a psychotherapist and lecturer in private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio.
By Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding
When I was growing up, we lived on West 86th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the mid-1960s, soon after my bar mitzvah, my father established a Friday night minyan in our living room to accommodate a house guest who was too ill to go to shul.
The minyan was diverse; some of those who attended davened regularly in the Rudniker shtibel, some in the Young Israel. A couple frequented Boyan, and still another went to the Jewish Center. Even after the gentleman’s unfortunate passing some time later, our regulars encouraged us to keep the minyan going, as the closest shuls were a minimum of five to seven blocks away.
The minyan was strictly for Friday nights; on Yom Tov, we went to one of the local shtiblach. But on Erev Pesach in 1969, my father decided we would host a minyan that evening for Minchah and Maariv, in light of our minhag not to say Hallel during Maariv on Pesach. He asked me to go downstairs and inform the Spiras, who had two bar mitzvah members, of our plans.
Right after candle-lighting, the neighbors started filtering in: Marcus from across the hall, followed by Rothman from upstairs, and then Chanowitz who lived on the other side of our courtyard.
“But where are the Spiras?” my father murmured as he looked anxiously at his watch.
Shkiah was fast approaching, and we were still two men short.
I went downstairs to find out why the Spiras were late.
“There is a minyan?” Mrs. Spira exclaimed. “But you told me there isn’t going to be one…”
She had misunderstood me earlier and thought there would not be a minyan — and both Spira men had gone to shul.
When I ran up to our apartment to report this to my father — only a few minutes before shkiah — his face turned red. But just as I began to worry he would shecht me with whatever Pesachdig knife he could find, there was a knock at our door.
We opened it, and there stood Rav Avraham and Rav Eliezer Kahaneman, the son and grandson of the Ponevezher Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman.
“We were on our way to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights to spend Pesach with my father, who is very unwell,” Rav Avraham explained. “But the traffic….”
Apparently, traffic was at a standstill on the West Side Highway, and as the clock ticked closer to Yom Tov, the Kahanemans realized they wouldn’t make it in time. They told the taxi driver to exit at 79th Street, and they went to place their suitcases in the Carlebach shul on 79th Street.
“Then we made our way here, to ‘The Goldings’, for the Pesach Seder,” Rav Avraham concluded.
The Kahanemans knew well of my grandparents’ legacy of hachnassas orchim. My Golding grandparents hosted most of the roshei yeshivah who came to America in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Hence, Rav Avraham and his son knew exactly where to go.
With the remaining two men, our minyan was complete, and I had a new lease on life.
Davening was followed by the Pesach Seder, and what a wonderful Seder it was. The divrei Torah that flowed that night were quite memorable, even for a young teenager like meyself. And when we sang “Echad Mi Yodeia” at the end, I had a new answer to “Who knows two?”
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding is the executive director of Hatzoloh of Rockland County in New York.
As told to Rochel Samet by Eli Schlossberg
ITwas Shabbos afternoon, around 2 p.m., when I entered Ohr Simchah for Minchah. I noticed a newcomer, a young man in his late 20s in a wheelchair. He was with one of our regular mispallelim, and I was told he was paralyzed from the legs down.
As I walked over to greet him, an idea formed in my mind.
“Today you’ll receive the kibbud of hagba’ah after leining,” I said, after I introduced myself and welcomed him to Baltimore.
The young man looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Hagba’ah involves lifting the heavy Torah scroll to shoulder height, holding it open to the section being read that day, and rotating it slowly so that everyone in shul can see. It requires strength from the lower body, not just the arms, since a Sefer Torah is extremely heavy and can be unbalanced to one side, depending on the parshah. It’s impossible to do hagba’ah with one’s hands alone. The entire body is needed to support the weight, and someone who is wheelchair-bound would most likely be unable to perform the necessary machinations.
“Hagba’ah? That’s impossible. I’ve never done it — I can’t do it,” he stammered. “You can see that.”
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “You’ll have hagba’ah, and it’s going to be fine. Trust me.”
AT the time, Ohr Simchah had a sefer Torah on loan with a miraculous story: a tiny scroll, about 14 inches high and weighing just three pounds. The sefer Torah survived the Holocaust in a concentration camp — likely Theresienstadt, but we’re not sure — hidden, revered, and even used, secretly, desperately, despite the threat of immediate death if the prisoners would be caught.
Nothing is known about the origins of this Torah, not who brought it into the concentration camp nor how. All we know is that it was used under perilous circumstances and that it carries the mesirus nefesh of Jews living through one of the worst experiences on Earth, Jews who nevertheless kept the Torah alive in their arms, their bunkers, their hearts. And we know that the little Torah survived, and upon liberation a survivor who was a baal korei took it with him when he immigrated to the United States.
For many years, the Torah remained with the survivor in a shul in the Midwest. Eventually, a relative brought it to Baltimore, and for 15 years, the Torah was on loan in our shul. We used it as a second sefer Torah when necessary, and every Shabbos Minchah for krias haTorah.
When the young man in the wheelchair arrived to shul that afternoon, the Torah was already on the shulchan for leining. He hadn’t yet caught a glimpse of it, but I knew he would be able to lift it.
“I have someone in mind for hagba’ah,”
I whispered to the gabbai, who nodded.
“Ya’amdu hamagbiah v’hagolel,” the gabbai called out after leining. The man’s host wheeled him up to the bimah — and now, for the first time, our guest had a close-up view of the miracle sefer Torah.
I watched him glow, his smile so wide it looked like it would crack his face in half from sheer elation. The scroll handles were placed gently, reverently, in his hands, and his eyes filled. Slowly and carefully — for the first time in his life — the young man lifted the Torah high into the air for the mitzvah of hagba’ah. One of the gabbaim grabbed the wheelchair handles and turned it around and around, so that everyone in the shul could see the ancient text. And then, with the scroll open in front of him so that the words were visible to all, the young man started to cry.
I was standing close by, watching the Torah that had been through so much, in the hands of someone who himself had been through so much. I was overcome — and as I looked around, I saw I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was tearing as we witnessed this young man’s simchah at being able to perform this hallowed tradition for the first time.
As the Torah was replaced in the aron kodesh and the chazzan resumed the tefillah, I returned to my seat – but the image lingered: the beaming smile, the tears of joy and gratitude and longing, and the rest of us, who tend to take so much for granted, our hands and our health and having a sefer Torah and a shul where we can safely daven.
Like the three-pound sefer Torah, we were uplifted.
Eli W. Schlossberg is a Baltimore business executive and community askan. He is the author of The World of Orthodox Judaism (Jason Aronson 1995) and My Shtetl Baltimore (Targum Press 2017).
Four Books of the Torah
As told to Riki Goldstein by Chaya G. Blum
I’ve had my set of small Mikraos Gedolos Chumashim for a long time. It’s a very classic set — blue covers, shiny gold lettering, neat slipcase, perfectly crisp, clear print. Years ago, as a parshah teacher, I’d prepare from this set, sometimes penciling notes in the margins. Today, the Chumashim sit in state on a shelf, coming down from time to time on long Friday nights. But one of the five blue volumes is missing —there are only four. The gap in the set would be annoying, but the memory is beautiful.
One summer when I was in my late teens, my mother and I were stacking the dishwasher after supper while my father was seeing meshulachim. His open-door policy and willingness to hear everyone out meant that most evenings brought a stream of people, each clutching a laminated letter with a tale of woe. One night, after the crowd had thinned, my father walked wearily into the kitchen.
“One man says he’s sleeping in his car,” he said.
If I remember correctly, the next day this man moved into our attic with his teenaged daughter Tova. They stayed a while. Was it two months? Closer to three? I can’t recall.
Tova and her father had come to London from Israel after a very rough time and a divorce. His hair was graying, even though he couldn’t have been that old. He drifted in and out, collecting money and looking for some work. He was good with his hands, he told us, and only needed to be given the chance.
During the week, Tova and her father ate with us, but on Shabbos, they were often invited out. Our community really stepped up to the plate. There was one kind lady who took Tova clothes shopping in Primark. She came back with a huge smile and loaded bags. I think it was the same lady who arranged for Tova to go to camp and ensured she had all she needed there.
When the school year began, Tova was enrolled in the tenth grade at a local high school, leaving the house each day in her uniform. As fall rolled across London, she began to find her place and find friends. She enjoyed attending youth group on Shabbos, and I remember that when my mother found out it was Tova’s birthday, she presented her with the blow dryer she wanted as a gift.
On Rosh Hashanah, Tova and her father were invited out to a well-heeled family in the community. The next day, their host knocked on the door and handed my mother £200 cash, saying, “Tell Tova to buy a coat for the winter.”
Tova would come home and tell me all about school, what she enjoyed, and what she found boring. One day, she said she needed a Chumash Vayikra for class. I went to the shelf and pulled out my Chumash.
A month or so later, Tova and her father moved on. For a while, I’d bump into them around town, but at some point, I heard they went back to Israel, where Tova had to do Sherut Leumi.
Occasionally, I still think of her. Is she settled? Is she okay? Is she frum? Does she remember those years in London and the care people showed? Does kindness even leave a mark against the backdrop of such a turbulent life?
When I see the empty space in my boxed set of Chumashim, the practical side of me regrets so hastily giving away that one volume — it would have been so much smarter to buy a Sefer Vayikra for Tova to use. But then I remember my parents’ kindheartedness, their hospitality in hosting these unknown people in their own home, and I think of the people in the community who opened their hearts and their pocketbooks so willingly to a foreign child.
When I look at my Chumashim again, there’s an emptiness, but also a glowing memory that fills my heart.
Chaya G. Blum is a mother and teacher in the UK.
By Shaina King
IN July 2019, with one year, three months, and 23 days to go, I booked a hall for my son’s bar mitzvah. He was 11.
I know, I know. But he was almost 12. And halls get booked so quickly, and the Yamim Tovim were coming, and I was due on Succos… Besides, it was so exciting.
Covid blindsided us in March 2020. But by the summer, things seemed normal, and in September, school started as usual. I’ll be honest, I thought the pandemic was over. I confirmed the menu with the caterer I had booked so long ago.
But then the numbers started to creep up. The bar mitzvah was scheduled for Sunday, October 18th, and I woke up every morning thinking, Is today the day we call the printer and cancel the invitations?
On Erev Yom Kippur, my husband tested positive. I got sick on Succos. We got out of quarantine by the skin of our teeth, but it was clear that Covid was back.
On Tuesday, five days before the bar mitzvah, I cancelled the hall.
Then I rented a tent. I think it was the last tent in Lakewood. Possibly in the Tristate area. Maybe in the entire world.
I rented tables, chairs, tablecloths, lighting — whatever the rental company offered, I took. I didn’t work, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep — I sat at my husband’s desk in the study and made phone calls nonstop from eight-thirty a.m. until one-thirty a.m. I’ve never made so many decisions, or spent so much money, in such a short amount of time. At least the photographer, musician, and caterer were already booked.
Until Wednesday afternoon, with four days to go, when I got the call: due to Covid complications, the caterer had to cancel.
What should I do now? I thought. Cry?
It was tempting, but I was about to pick up the bar mitzvah boy for some last-minute shopping, and I thought that would freak him out — plus, once I started, I wasn’t sure I would be able to stop.
My son got into the car.
I will definitely not tell him the caterer cancelled, I decided.
“Hi,” he said.
“The caterer cancelled,” I told him.
As I drove, I tried to think. I dialed the only caterer I could think of, but no one answered.
My son went into a store to buy a tie.
I got the number of another caterer, but they didn’t answer either.
My son came out of the store with the most expensive tie he is ever going to own in his entire life.
My phone buzzed. It was the caterer.
“Hello?” I gasped.
“Hi, this is Green, returning your call?”
I told him my story. Mr. Green was quiet.
“I think I can do it,” he said finally. “I’ll call you back.”
I was fairly certain I would never hear from him again. But just as I got home, my phone buzzed.
“I can do it,” he said. “I need you to pick the menu within the next 20 minutes.”
I dumped the baby in the bar mitzvah boy’s arms, and the lady who booked a hall 15 months in advance picked a menu in 20 minutes.
I had cancelled the invitations right before Yom Tov, when it became clear that whatever was printed on them was no longer relevant. Now I had to invite every single guest by phone. This was actually the most stressful part, because I had to process everyone’s Covid story: If they socially distance, if they don’t socially distance, if they do but only under certain conditions and why, if they wear masks or don’t wear masks or sometimes wear masks, if they have antibodies or don’t have antibodies and why they think it does or doesn’t matter, if they think I’m wasting all my money needlessly on an outdoor event or if they think I’m inviting my guests to die.
We decided to invite only family to the seudah, and to seat each family at their own table. The seating plan alone took an entire day — who needed a 3 x 3 table, who needed a 5 x 5 table, and who would benefit from an even larger table to give more space between seats. And the people who wanted to be under the tent, not under the tent, on the perimeter of the tent so they could pull their tables out of the tent if they felt it was necessary. Oh, and also the people who didn’t want to be near anyone with kids or anyone not wearing masks or anyone from a certain city. I used graph paper to diagram exactly which tables should be placed where and which families would be seated at which tables. I was sure the caterer/hidden tzaddik was regretting that he ever called me back, but he pretended it was normal.
ON the day of the bar mitzvah, the weather was gorgeous.
“I bet you’ve been davening for this good weather,” one of the guests said, but the truth was I’d been so busy it had never occurred to me to worry about the weather, although it was a little crisp, and I was afraid everyone would wake up the next day with a cold and say, “I went to a bar mitzvah and got Covid.”
We started early, at around three-thirty, and our neighbors and friends were invited for a dessert reception at six o’clock. With no time for personal invitations, I had sent out a group text. The replies came quickly.
Mazel tov! Do you have antibodies?
“His bris was in a succah,” my mother reminisced, “and now his bar mitzvah is in a tent. I wonder where his wedding will be.”
In Yerushalayim, I hope.
The food was gorgeous, and I’m told it was delicious; my own sense of taste had not yet returned.
I stood in the dark, watching the men and boys dance on the grass, contemplating that you can start planning an event over a year in advance, and not know anything the week before — not when it will be, who will be there, or what you will serve.
Maybe growing up means understanding that the world is bigger than you are, that G-d is greater than everything, and that you don’t need to sweat every detail, because He knows exactly who, what, when, and where.
I have to remember this for next time. I’m making a bar mitzvah in five years, seven months, and 17 days.
Shaina King is a writer, ghostwriter, and editor living in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Six Years of Walks
By Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman
IN Elul 1982, I was engaged, and my chasunah was scheduled for a few days before Rosh Hashanah. At the time, I was living in Washington Heights, New York, learning in Rav Hershel Schachter’s kollel at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, more commonly referred to as RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary).
When I announced my chasunah date, my friends’ reactions weren’t exactly what I had hoped for.
“Mazal tov!” they said. “But can you get married right before Rosh Hashanah? Are you allowed to even have sheva brachos during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah?”
The questions made me uneasy — and to be honest, I found them hurtful.
One day after second seder, I left yeshivah and began the trek to 44 Bennett Avenue, the building where I’d rented an apartment, to oversee some work being done there before our wedding. As I exited the yeshivah on 185th Street, I noticed Rav Herschel Schachter, who lived in the next building at 24 Bennett, walking in the same direction.
Rav Schachter is probably walking home, I surmised. I can ask him about what the others are saying, if indeed it is inadvisable to get married so close to Yom Hadin.
“May I walk Rebbi home?” I asked.
Rav Schachter flashed me his glowing smile. “Why not? We’re going the same way!”
I shared my friends’ concerns about the date of my chasunah, and Rav Schachter smiled again.
“The Melamed L’Ho’il writes that he got married during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and all the gedolim were in attendance,” he responded. “He adds that perhaps the mitzvah of getting married can tip the scales during the Yemei Hadin in your favor. It’s fine to get married before Rosh Hashanah —and I will personally attend the chasunah!”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then I realized I had a unique opportunity, one too good to consider passing up — and for the next six years, I made it my business to walk Rav Schachter home from yeshivah.
The Gemara teaches that one can and must learn from even the sichas chulin, the seemingly mundane conversation, of a talmid chacham, and for six years, I was zocheh to spend hours listening, learning, and observing this Torah giant as I accompanied him on our half-mile walk home from yeshivah.
When we walked, we would cross two intersections with traffic lights: St. Nicholas Avenue and Broadway. Rav Schachter never crossed when the light was red, even if there were no cars in sight and everyone else in New York City crossed against the light. One day, as Rav Schachter waited patiently for the light to turn green, I asked him why he was so careful about this, and he responded with a story.
“One day, the Chofetz Chaim hired a wagon driver to take him from Radin to a neighboring shtetl,” he recounted. “On the way, the driver stopped to allow his horse to graze on someone’s grass. ‘Tell me if anyone is watching,’ the driver instructed the Chofetz Chaim. As soon as the driver unharnessed the horse, the Chofetz Chaim screamed, ‘Someone is watching!’ The driver saw no one was there, and he asked the Chofetz Chaim, ‘There’s no one here. Who’s watching?’ The Chofetz Chaim pointed upward and said, ‘He is always watching.’”
Rav Schachter smiled as he pointed up and said, “He is always watching.”
One day, as we passed Yeshiva Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik at 560 West 185th Street (it has since closed), when I saw the name “Soloveitchik,” I was prompted to ask Rav Schachter if Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik was his mesader kiddushin.
Rav Schachter is one of the premier talmidim of the Rav (as his talmidim refer to him), the go-to if you want to know Rav Soloveitchik’s position on any topic, and I assumed the Rav had officiated at Rav Schachter’s chasunah.
Rav Schachter confirmed he had indeed asked the Rav to accept this honor, and then he shared what had happened.
His kallah’s father, Rav Aharon Yeshaya Shapiro ztz”l, was a maggid shiur for decades at Torah Vodaath and was very close with Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Moshe came to the hall during the chassan’s tish, and when Rav Soloveitchik noticed his arrival, he told Rav Schachter that Rav Moshe should be mesader kiddushin, because Rav Moshe was eight years the Rav’s senior, and the wedding was in New York, where Rav Moshe lived, while Rav Soloveitchik resided in Boston, Massachusetts.
Nevertheless, the chassan Rav Schachter said, “The Rav is my rebbi; I would like you to be my mesader kiddushin.”
The Rav was silent.
Soon the chuppah began, and a man announced into the microphone, “Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik is mechubad with siddur kiddushin.”
The Rav approached the chuppah and, without hesitation, declared, “HaGaon HaRav Moshe Feinstein is mechubad with Bircas Eirusin.”
Rav Moshe walked up, accepted the cup of wine from Rav Soloveitchik’s hand, and pronounced the brachah marrying Rav Schachter and his wife.
Rav Schachter was stunned by the fact that his rebbi had given away the brachah, and after the chuppah, he questioned, “Rebbi, why did you defer to Rav Moshe? Rav Moshe wouldn’t have been offended.”
“I was mesader kiddushin,” Rav Soloveitchik smiled as he replied. “I organized (mesader) the kiddushin (the wedding) — I organized who received which brachah.”
An interesting postscript is that decades later, I was with Rav Schachter at a chasunah. At that point, he was universally recognized as a posek and rosh yeshivah. Nevertheless, a young rav was honored with siddur kiddushin. Rav Schachter showed not even the faintest sign of displeasure or insult; in fact, when the young rabbi asked Rav Schachter a question about the kesubah, I watched Rav Schachter answered calmly and patiently. The lessons from his own rebbi were not lost on him.
One day Rav Schachter said to me, “I noticed that you learn with a very small Gemara. Why don’t you have a large Gemara? How can you see the small print?”
I sheepishly answered that I was still waiting for the delivery of my chassan’s Shas, and as the set was due to arrive soon, I didn’t want to purchase a single volume. The next day in yeshivah, Rav Schachter brought me a large Bava Basra and Makkos, the two masechtos we were learning.
“Use these. They’re better for your eyes,” he said.
When I opened them, I saw Rav Schachter’s name inside the covers, and chiddushei Torah written in the margins.
When my Shas arrived several weeks later, I brought Rav Schachter’s Gemaras back to him.
“I gave them to you as a matanah; they’re yours now,” he said.
I protested, mentioning that his personal notes were in the margins.
“That’s fine,” he remarked. “They’re yours to keep.”
He then smiled and quipped, “Maybe you’ll find some mistakes I made and correct them.”
I treasure these two Gemaras to this day.
One day, a non-Jewish resident of the Heights approached and asked for a handout. Without hesitation, Rav Schachter opened his wallet and gave him a generous donation, with a smile. When I expressed surprise, Rav Schachter quoted the perek and halachah in the Rambam, stating the halachic obligation to give non-Jews tzedakah for darchei shalom. Rebbi also offered the man heartfelt encouragement. The man turned to me and remarked, “Stick with this man — he is a holy man!”
Before the petirah of RIETS rosh yeshivah Rav Nisson Alpert in 1986, we often met him outside the building on 185th Street, waiting to catch a ride with someone heading downtown to the Lower East Side.
Once we noticed Rav Alpert getting into a cab. Rav Alpert, perhaps feeling he had to justify himself, quipped, “I know a cab is expensive, but just because I’m a poor man, it doesn’t mean I have to live like a poor man!”
“Rav Alpert is a true talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, an asset to our yeshivah,” Rav Schachter, himself a renowned posek, commented as we continued on our way. “He is the one to go to if you ever need psak halachah.”
Back then, Rav Schachter was clean-shaven and had a youthful look. I remember one hot, steamy Sunday afternoon when the air conditioning in the beis medrash malfunctioned. Rav Schachter sat in his shirtsleeves as we braved the oppressive heat and humidity to learn.
When seder ended, an older man who often sold tzitzis and yarmulkes in the back of the beis midrash approached Rav Schachter to hawk his wares. Because of the heat, the beis medrash was emptier than usual, and it was clear business wasn’t very profitable that day. Rav Schachter promptly bought two yarmulkes.
I waited for Rav Schachter as he put on his jacket before we left, and the man asked, “You’re always here, but you look older than the boys — were you left back?”
Without hesitating, Rav Schachter smiled and said, “I still haven’t finished all the seforim here, so I keep coming to learn with the younger fellows!”
“Hatzlachah,” the man replied. “And I hope you get a job one day.”
Often before we left the yeshivah, I would walk Rav Schachter to his office to get his coat or put back a sefer. The building was locked at night, it was empty when we left, and no one was ever there, yet Rav Schachter persisted in knocking before opening his own office door.
When I questioned him, he said, quoting daf and line, “The Gemara says you must always knock before entering a room to give whoever is in there a warning.”
IN 1985, Nesanel, my second son, was born. We held the bris at home on Bennett Avenue and drove to yeshivah for the seudah. I offered Rav Schachter a ride, which he gladly accepted, but as we piled into my 1979 Cutlass, my two-year-old Meir screamed, “It’s so squishy in here!”
I was embarrassed, and I apologized to Rav Schachter.
Rav Schachter, who had his own clan of little ones, said, “I’m happy he said it — it makes me feel at home.”
Once, when we turned onto Bennett Avenue, we met an older woman who knew Rav Schachter from the neighborhood but didn’t know his position. She stopped us and said, “You’re Hershel Schachter, right?”
She then proceeded to discuss the most mundane topic — the price of water challahs at Gruenebaum’s Bakery and how unfair it was that the bagel shop across the street was now selling challah as well. The lady went on for what seemed like twenty minutes without ever taking a breath. Finally, she asked Rav Schachter what he thought.
He answered with a smile in a sing-song voice, “I don’t know about pricing — but the challah tastes good!”
After wishing her a sincere goodbye, we walked to his apartment building. I couldn’t control myself.
“Rebbi,” I said, “how do you have so much patience for everyone and their seemingly unimportant issues?”
“We ask Hashem to listen to us and our issues daily,” he replied. “If Hashem has patience for us, we must have patience for His children.”
I realize now that Rav Schachter was referring to me as well. No matter what issue I brought up, no matter how banal the topic was, he always made me feel like a million dollars. Every question I posed was met with the same seriousness as if I was asking a deep and insightful question on a Tosfos.
On my training grounds, on those blocks of Washington Heights, Rav Schachter showed me how to care, how to be patient, how to show deference and humility for all.
It’s now forty years later, and I still try to treat my congregants as Rebbi demonstrated to me over the course of six years of walks home.
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman is the rav of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, New Jersey, and a columnist in this magazine.
The Cyprus Seven
By Rabbi Chaim Ellis
ITwas 2003, and after spending Pesach at my wife’s family in Cleveland, Ohio, we planned to fly back — my wife and I, and our two little boys — to our home in Eretz Yisrael via two connecting flights: the first in Chicago, and a second in England.
We heard rumors of a pending strike in Eretz Yisrael, and that industries across the board — postal workers, sanitation workers, bus drivers, and yes, air traffic controllers — might cease operations.
The whole country might shut down, we heard again and again.
When we called British Airways to determine our options, they weren’t very forthcoming.
“As of now the airport in Tel Aviv is open,” the agent informed us. “If you choose not to fly, you’ll forfeit your tickets.”
We chose to fly — but not without misgivings. And with good reason. While we were in the air, en route to England, the news broke: Eretz Yisrael had shut down. Upon arrival in London, we were told the airline would re-route us to Larnaca, Cyprus.
“It will be only a matter of time before we can continue to Israel,” airline staff announced.
Larnaca?! My wife and I just stared at each other. There was no Jewish community there, no kosher food — back then, there wasn’t even a Chabad house!
We hoped we could just stay in London, where we had cousins, until the strike ended, but again the airline told us we’d forfeit our tickets if we didn’t stay with the rest of the flight.
When we landed in Cyprus, the sun was out and there was a nice breeze. Our suitcases were on their way to Eretz Yisrael, so we had just the clothes on our backs, some 40 kosher frozen meals from the airline, and the peanut butter we’d fortuitously packed in our hand luggage (thankfully, because all our sons ate during our stay were peanut butter sandwiches). Even so, we were determined to make the best of it. We took a walk along the water, enjoying the picturesque and serene surroundings.
“A relaxing day trip,” we joked. But as time went by, and one day became two, and two became three, we soon realized we’d be stuck here for Shabbos.
We weren’t the only frum people stranded in Larnaca. We were joined by a group of seven bochurim who also got stuck and couldn’t return to yeshivah. They referred to themselves as “The Cyprus Seven.” There was also a group of seminary girls and more than 100 other Israel-bound couples, vacationers, and travelers.
The Cyprus Seven got to work arranging the Shabbos meals (though one ambitious couple bought kosher fish to cook on their own). Baruch Hashem, we heard about a Pesach hotel on the island that had enough leftovers for us for Shabbos. We arranged for a taxi to drive over an hour each way to bring us our food.
That Friday night was special. As I was about to start Kiddush, a young Israeli couple on vacation walked in and asked, “Yesh Kiddush poh? — Is there Kiddush here?” After we were settled, we went around the table, and everyone introduced themselves. It was Shabbos parsahas Kedoshim and I spoke, as if I were chief rabbi of Larnaca (b’makom sh’ein ish, I guess). I discussed the special opportunity that HaKadosh Baruch Hu had given us to sanctify a location that was void of kedushah.
The next day, word got out that flights would resume immediately after Shabbos. Motzaei Shabbos was literally a race against the clock. We were driven to the airport, and I ran ahead, calling out, “Hold the plane!”
The other passengers had already boarded, and I was worried they’d be upset with us for holding up the departure of the first plane off the island after three long days. To our surprise, everyone started clapping when we boarded. We were ushered to our seats and the plane took off immediately, almost as if we were on an undercover escape mission.
I haven’t kept up with any of The Cyprus Seven, or anyone else who ended up with us in Larnaca, but I do sometimes wonder about how they are, what they’re up to, and if they too remember our shared adventure.
Rabbi Chaim Ellis, LCSW, lives in Passaic, New Jersey, and is the coordinator of mental health services at the Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic. He also maintains a private practice, is an adjunct professor at Sara Schenirer Institute’s Wurzweiler Master of Social Work program, and is the writer of a children’s advice column in Mishpacha Jr.
By Mindel Kassorla
The family joke is that after my first was born, they took her to the NICU, but after my second, they took me to the ICU. I know it sounds more morbid than funny, but humor is what got me through the whole ordeal. And gratitude.
It was Tuesday night, June 12, when I gave birth to a boy. It had been a dangerous, complex delivery, as I’d delivered while suffering from a massive pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs. Right after they whisked my new baby to the regular nursery, I was taken to an expansive private room with full-length glass windows and a massage bed. But the windows afforded me no privacy, I was barely allowed to move, and I was at the mercy of nurses who didn’t have time for my inane requests for water and pillows.
Not that I could blame them. At one point, I buzzed the nursing desk repeatedly to ask for a basin to wash my hands so I could say a brachah. Bzzz. Bzzzzzzzz. Eventually, I started flapping my arms to get the attention of a kind soul beyond the clear partition. When she entered, I was fuming.
“How could no one come? What if there was an emergency?!” I asked.
“In this ward, the only emergencies are up there,” she said, motioning to the screen overhead displaying spikes and dips.
“I don’t belong here,” I kept telling myself and any family member I spoke to by phone. I didn’t realize how serious my situation was, and that I actually did belong in the ICU. I was on blood thinners to dissolve the clot, but until it did, I was at increased risk of a heart attack, a fairly valid reason for observation.
The next morning, I begged every physician who entered what I viewed as my cell to release me to the regular maternity ward, where I could see my newborn son freely and interact with conscious people. By noon that day, the doctors agreed to transfer me, on condition that I stay under close watch with a room facing the nurses’ station.
With newfound peace of mind, I sat back in bed and began to plan my son’s bris. Granted, he was less than 24 hours old, but I was overwhelmed — our first bris! — and excited, and I made lists, emailed my siblings, and started daydreaming about the menu.
When the doctor came in to see me later that day, I asked when I would be able to go home. He glanced at his assistant and pursed his lips.
“We’ll have to see how you’re doing over the next few days,” he answered vaguely.
Wait, what about Shabbos? Will I be home for the shalom zachar?!
It was only Wednesday, still Day One in the countdown to the bris, and I felt fine, but the doctor’s expression gave me little hope.
I spent Thursday and Friday, Days Two and Three, making plans. I was trying to figure out how to get someone to buy me a robe to wear on Shabbos instead of a hospital gown.
On Motzaei Shabbos, I asked my doctor for a straight answer.
“Probably one or two more days,” he said. “You seem to be doing well.”
They really couldn’t make any promises — they were still concerned I’d suffer a sudden heart attack — but I wanted out.
A friend came to visit the next morning, Day Five.
“So, if you can’t leave this week, will they postpone the bris?” she asked.
“The baby’s fine,” I told her. “They don’t postpone a bris for a sick mom. Maybe we’ll do it here?”
But I didn’t really consider the options.There was no way I would still be here on Wednesday, eight days after I’d given birth. Right?
Later that day, I felt something funny in the back of my head. I wanted to ignore it, but I had been warned to notify staff of even the slightest change in my physical condition.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” the nurse said, but when she passed the information on to the doctors, they immediately scheduled me for an MRI. The blood thinners I was taking could cause hemorrhaging, and they needed to check.
I lay there in the tunnel of whizzing lights, perfectly still as instructed, because the slightest movement could invalidate the scan. With Yaakov Shwekey music playing in the background, I tried to relax. I reviewed the advice my husband had given me before the scan.
“Just keep reminding yourself, Ein od milvado — Hashem is with you,” he had said.
“Ein od milvado, ein od milvado,” I kept repeating to myself. There is nothing but Hashem, I am with Him in this moment, in this machine.
After the MRI, it dawned on me that it wasn’t likely I’d be released by Wednesday. The doctors wouldn’t commit to anything — they wanted the MRI results, but they did tell me that even if the results weren’t okay, they might be able to release me for a few hours to be at the simchah, if I was stable enough.
Very late Sunday night, a nurse took me aside.
“We need to talk,” she told me gently. “There’s something on the scan. Nothing to do with hemorrhaging, but we don’t know what it is. The doctors asked me to keep you in the loop — they want you to know what’s going on, to be prepared. The head neurologist and radiologist will examine it tomorrow.”
I tried to process what she was saying, but my brain wouldn’t cooperate.
Not a blood issue? So, what is it?
I dared not speak the words. Instead, I went into the hallway and called a close friend.
“I can’t do this,” I told her. “No more of ‘your life is in danger.’ I just want out of here. A clean record. What do I do?”
“Daven,” she said.
When I hung up the phone, I spoke to Hashem: “Please, please get me out of here, and let me be perfectly fine. I’m young, I’m healthy, I have a family to care for.”
In that empty corridor, I wasn’t alone. Ein od milvado.
Monday morning, Day Six, I was told there was a good chance I could leave later that day.
“But we’re still waiting for the neurologist and radiologist to analyze the MRI,” the nurse clarified.
I was confused and exhausted by the see-saw of emotions. Last night, I thought my life might be ending, because the nurse said they saw a spot on the MRI. Now they’re saying it’s probably fine….
I tried to block it all out — I didn’t know what to think anymore — so I immersed myself in bris planning (it wasn’t going to plan itself, and I was still hopeful I would be there). Finally, late that afternoon, the neurologist came to see me.
“You’re fine,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about. Get that spot checked in another year or two, but you’re free to go.”
For the first time in a week, my breathing slowed to a normal pace.
Tuesday morning, Day Seven, the day before the bris, the pediatrician confirmed my baby was ready to go, too (this was standard practice — baruch Hashem, the baby was fine all along). The nursing staff was excited to see out “the woman with the PE (pulmonary embolism),” as they fondly referred to me, with a high dose of blood thinners and strict instructions to follow up regularly with a hematologist.
On Day Eight of my son’s life, I sat in a hall surrounded by family and friends. My five-year-old daughter was wearing a dress my husband had bought for her in my absence. I didn’t care anymore that it should have been me doing the shopping. The very fact that we were all here was supernatural, lemaalah min hateva, and I was just so grateful. I watched as my husband stood at the front of the room.
“Shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigianu lazman hazeh,” he pronounced over our son, freshly minted Chaim. And I thanked Hashem for the gift of life — my newborn son’s, and my own.
Mindel Kassorla is a seminary teacher and graphic designer who lives in Jerusalem.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)
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