Thinking Out of the Box| March 7, 2023
In all that she did, Debbie Markowitz embodied the quality of “thinking out of the box”
11 p.m. on Thursday night, 21 Shevat, the phone on which Mrs. Devorah Markowitz was monitoring all incoming messages to the Har Nof email list from her hospital bed fell out of her hand. Until then, she had steadfastly refused to allow her daughter-in-law to take over for her. Soon thereafter she was intubated, and before Shabbos she was gone.
With the help of her husband Gershon, the neighborhood handyman for the first 30 years of Har Nof’s existence, Debbie was a one-woman chesed operation. Twenty-two years ago, she established the Har Nof email list, which has grown to 3,000 members. And 17 years ago, she became the national address for anyone who had lost or found a pair of tefillin.
In all that she did, she embodied the quality of “thinking out of the box,” as described to me by the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family whom I recently sat next to on a bus. If one is blessed with great material resources, he explained, the way to help an organization in which one believes is obvious: Write out a large check. And baruch Hashem, those capable of doing so have proliferated in our community.
But what if one does not have the resources to dedicate a building or the like? Then one has to think harder about how one can make a difference — dig a little deeper into the organization, talk to those on the front lines about how it works, and figure out ways in which a bit more discretionary cash could help the organization reach its goals. And then raise the necessary funding.
The inability to write a large check sharpens one’s eye to all the ways in which a relatively small amount of money can make a huge difference. In my seatmate’s case, that meant raising the money for school shabbatonim in the school system in which he is involved. Frequently, the money for shabbotonim may not be included in a school’s perpetually stretched budget. But those shabbotonim can often have a disproportionately positive impact.
My seatmate then gave me another example of out-of-the-box thinking. At one point, his aging mother could no longer live alone, but she did not want to sell her house, holding out hope that she would one day be able to move back home. The house happened to be on a block on which there were not too many frum Jews, even though the area was largely Orthodox.
Many young women in shidduchim dread the possibility that the neighbors will see the young men coming to pick them up. The out-of-the-box idea was to turn the unoccupied house into a meeting place for young couples where they would have little chance of being observed by anyone they knew, and where their parents could sit upstairs to avoid any yichud problem. And as with many such innovative ideas that fill an identifiable need, there were soon others offering their homes in a similar fashion.
ONE OF THE GLORIES of the Torah community is how many extraordinary members there are, often under the radar. And Debbie Markowitz was one of those hidden gems, avoiding the limelight, yet doing chesed in myriad ways and facilitating others in their desire to give. Take the Har Nof list. On that list, anyone who needs something — an about-to-be discarded bunk bed, a used bike, a pre-Shabbos ride to Ramat Beit Shemesh, a support group, medical information — can count on finding someone else on the list eager to supply the information, service, or item they are seeking.
The email list was a full-time job. Postings had to be monitored for possible lashon hara and appropriateness for a public forum; sometimes rabbanim had to be consulted. But it was only one of Debbie’s projects. About 17 years ago, the founder of a nationwide hashavas aveidah project, also a Har Nof resident, asked her to become the nationwide address for all those who lost or found tefillin. For her it was a simple choice: “It’s a mitzvah.” And its performance only required the addition of yet another phone line.
Most tefillin are lost far from home and in places where few people are likely to know the owner, even if his name is on the tefillin bag. Some degree of detective work is almost always required. Gershon is convinced that his wife connected over a thousand losers and finders of tefillin. But he is constrained from saying so by the memory of how scrupulous she was never to permit any slight exaggeration or deviation from the truth. And secondly, by her insistence that all her activities remain totally secret to the greatest extent possible. In the latter category would be all those for whom the Markowitzes raised money when they learned of a pressing need.
I primarily knew Mrs. Markowitz as the nice lady who took many of our desperate phone calls for her husband, and who always seemed to be quilting or knitting on those occasions when I visited the Markowitz home. But the Rosenblum family, too, owed her a huge debt of gratitude. At some point, she learned that one of our sons had been married for many years without children. She quickly tapped her large network of friends to arrange for 40 women to take challah that Erev Shabbos, which is a segulah for children. Little over nine months later, our grandson entered the world.
I came to the Markowitz shivah home intending to share this story. But even before my wife and I were seated, Gershon asked me to relate Debbie’s spontaneous efforts on our son’s behalf. When I finished, in tears, Gershon interjected that I had only told half the story. What my wife and I had forgotten was that she had done the same thing years later for another son of ours not yet blessed with children after many years of marriage. And again her efforts met with success, albeit not quite as instantaneously.
Not all of Debbie’s projects directly involved chesed. At the beginning of the present Daf Yomi cycle, she saw an advertisement in Mishpacha for Rabbi Eli Stefansky’s daf shiur. The time period from 7:15 a.m. became sacrosanct, as she and Gershon sat at the table listening to the shiur — Gershon with a Gemara open in front of him, and Debbie just absorbing. Her goal was not to become a Gemara learner, but rather to pick up three or four concepts every day that would deepen her Torah knowledge and her avodas Hashem.
I left the Markowitz shivah house strengthened by the recognition of how much individuals, without any resources beyond their own determination, can do to make life better for their fellow Jews, and grateful to live in a community in which Debbie Markowitz was not alone in that determination.
Some of us are fortunate enough to receive a clear sign that a certain relationship is bashert. The first time it happened to me was on my third date with my wife. I mentioned Sharon, Pennsylvania, my father’s hometown and the city in which my grandparents still lived, and she jumped: “Where did you say?”
Her mother was from the adjacent town of Farrell, where my father grew up. I had known many of her mother’s closest relatives almost my entire life. Her mother’s double first cousin, who was raised together with her by my wife’s grandmother, was the mainstay of the Sharon Orthodox minyan to which my grandfather would take me on Shabbos.
A quick call to my grandfather elicited the further information that he had greeted my wife’s grandmother at the Sharon train station on behalf of the community, when she arrived from Hungary courtesy of HIAS in 1919, and that her grandmother’s two brothers had owned a fruit store on Market Street that did not meet my grandfather’s strict standards of cleanliness. My wife is named for said uncles Mo and Alexander — Mascha Alexander — neither of whom had children.
Armed with this abundant information, I was able to proceed confidently to the chuppah, knowing that I had found my bashert (even if I had never yet heard the term.)
Recently, I had a similar experience. Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel of Chicago asked me to mentor a young Wall Street Journal reporter, with whom he had become very close, under the auspices of Olami, the international kiruv organization. My mentee and I hit it off immediately, and I no longer have to envy my three sons who are active in Kesher Yehudi’s preinduction academy program.
On our second or third Zoom session, my mentee, Austen, mentioned that his parents had met at Yale Law School. Not only that, but his parents have raised a family of eight kids. That almost certainly makes the three of us the only YLS graduates over the past 50 years with eight children. Could there be a clearer sign than that that our mentorship relationship was destined?
Truth is, I didn’t need either of these signs to know that I had met my future wife or that the relationship with Austen would blossom. But a little confirmation that the relationship is bashert never hurts.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 952. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at email@example.com)
Oops! We could not locate your form.