Paid Forward| February 28, 2023
Only after his deposit was cashed did he notice the fine print: no pets
Bernie Hillstein (name changed) had finally conceded he could no longer live alone and had to enter an assisted living facility.
He’d always craved warmer weather. So when Bernie found an assisted living complex in southern Florida, he hurriedly signed the lease. Only after his deposit was cashed did he notice the fine print: no pets, including service animals, were allowed in the assisted living facility.
When Ethel, his wife of 56 years, had passed away six years prior, Bernie welcomed Oakland into his home on the advice of his doctors. Oakland was Bernie’s German shepherd service-guide dog, and constant companion. Without Oakland, Bernie doesn’t know how he would have survived Covid. As he and Ethel had no children and his own eyesight was failing, without Oakland in the apartment, Bernie would have suffered the greatest pain of all: complete loneliness.
Bernie came to my office and begged me to help him get some waiver or exception to the no-pets rule.
I called the CEO of the facility. He listened to me politely, yet was firm in explaining that the rule of no pets meant no pets, period. Bernie was beside himself with grief. The thought of abandoning Oakland, which meant living alone, felt like a death sentence to Bernie. Finally, the exasperated CEO said, “Call Mr. Hertzler. He owns the facility and is the only one who can give you permission.”
Mr. Hertzler was going to be in New York for a family simchah, and I was able to arrange a meeting with him for that Sunday evening.
When I arrived at the house in Boro Park, my expectations were not high for success. Mr. Hertzler was a chassidish Yid with blue numbers on his forearm. What 94-year-old Holocaust survivor would allow a German shepherd to live as a guest in his facility? I realized this would be a mission in futility.
Mr. Hertzler was extremely hospitable, offering me kokosh cake.
I explained the situation and why Bernie needed to have Oakland live with him. I stressed how Oakland was all Bernie had in his life.
Mr. Hertzler listened patiently and then responded by quoting a pasuk: “U’l’chol Bnei Yisrael lo yecheratz kelev leshono — But to all Bnei Yisrael, not one dog will whet its tongue” (Shemos 11:7).
I thought perhaps Mr. Hertzler wasn’t focusing on what I said.
I repeated my plea, and he repeated the pasuk.
Then Mr. Hertzler said, “I have been waiting for you for 77 years. Of course, your friend can bring his dog. In fact, I will personally pay for all of the dog’s needs.” He looked at me. “In 1945, toward the end of the war, the Nazis were evacuating the camp. I decided to hide in a crawl space under the barracks. The Nazis used their German shepherds to sniff out any Jews. Anytime the dog smelled a Jew, it began barking. As a Nazi and his dog neared my crawl space, I repeatedly davened with all my heart, ‘U’l’chol Bnei Yisrael lo yecheratz kelev leshono.’
“To my amazement, the dog passed right by me. He made no sound and kept walking. It was then I made a promise: just as Hashem paid back the dogs for not barking during Yetzias Mitzrayim, one day I would pay back a German shepherd for not barking, and saving my life. And now, the day I have been waiting for has arrived. Your friend and his dog will be my honored guests.”
I sat there stunned.
“You thought you came to ask me for a favor,” Mr. Hertzler said with a twinkle in his eye. “However, Hashem sent you to allow me to pay a 77-year-old debt.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 951)
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