The “No” That Brought Him Closer To Judaism

Every summer, Chabad Yeshiva boys travel to outlying Jewish cities and towns where there is no permanent rabbi to uplift and inspire the Jewish people living there. This important connection for our Jewish brethren to their heritage is one of the many programs instituted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson, in the early years of his leadership. The Rebbe’s love for every Jew, no matter where and no matter their level of observance, is legendary. And this love he bequeathed to his Chassidim.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, students from the Yeshiva would be sent forth during their summer break to outlying communities. One of these communities is the beautiful resort town of Plettenberg Bay. During the year, there are perhaps 100 Jewish families living there; however, during vacation time, this town receives an influx of people and enjoys a vibrant Jewish presence. One year, two Yeshiva students, bachurim, were assigned to go there during their summer break. However, due to circumstances beyond their control, their trip was delayed, and the first chance they managed to find to go there was shortly before Rosh Hashana.

Now please read one:

Rabbi Ari Shishler runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, which is not far from Johannesburg, South Africa. In addition, he is part of a group of rabbis who alternate helping lead services for a community without a rabbi.  About twenty years ago, he was invited to be the traveling rabbi to Plettenberg Bay, a popular holiday resort near Cape Town. During the holiday season it fills up with many Jews searching for the cooler air away from Johannesburg.

Each morning, following davenning, a breakfast was arranged and enjoyed by the congregants. On one of these days, one of the locals walked into the synagogue as the prayers were concluding. He walked over to the rabbi and asked if he would take a question albeit a long one. With a wide smile, Rabbi Shishler replied in the affirmative.

“Well, Rabbi, some eight years ago two young Chabad Yeshiva bachurim came to visit us here in Plettenberg Bay, right before Rosh Hashana, the New Year. They came armed with a list of the members of the local Jewish community and proceeded to visit each family one by one. When it was my turn, I was happy to welcome them into my home and we spent a very pleasant time discussing all matters Jewish. After a while they asked me if I would like to put on Tefillin, but I declined because I hadn’t done it since my bar mitzvah and had no intention of starting it again. Nothing could persuade me to change my mind. We parted on good terms but the Tefillin never left their bags.

“That night I couldn’t sleep. I berated myself for not having taken up the kind offer of those two sweet boys. What harm would it have done to put on Tefillin? The next morning, I looked around my house until I found my bar mitzvah Tefillin in a corner of one of our cabinets, long neglected. I took them out. Thinking about our conversation and the message of the New Year being a time for taking on a new Jewish mitzvah, I resolved to put them on every day of the coming year.

“When the year was up, I decided to make a new resolution. I would put the Tefillin on for another year but this time also say the Shema. So back to that cabinet I went and I dug out my bar mitzvah siddur. It, too, looked sad and neglected, though pleased to finally be remembered. With memories of my bar mitzvah flashing through my mind, I flipped through the siddur until I found the Shema. But in so doing, I discovered that one is not supposed to don Tefillin on Shabbat. You live and learn.

“At the end of the second year, I decided to upgrade and see if I had any other Jewish books in my possession. Back to the cabinet I went until I found my Soncino Chumash. I had now retrieved my entire Judaica collection. I turned to Google for assistance in understanding what exactly these Five Books of Moses were all about. I learnt that they are divided into approximately 52 sections and every Shabbat the Jewish people read one of them, usually in the synagogue, until they finish the whole Chumash. “Rabbi” Google was kind enough to tell me which section we were up to at the time.

“And so, week by week, I read the English translation of the weekly sedra (the Torah portion of the week). I didn’t understand an awful lot, but it made me feel very Jewish. At the end of the year, another session with Google taught me that there was a famous commentator by the name of Rashi who could probably help me understand many of the mysteries hidden between the layers of the Chumash. The Soncino Chumash had extracts from Rashi printed at the bottom of the page and indeed they were most helpful.

“Another year went by, but by then I was looking for something much more in depth. With Google’s help once again, I discovered that there was a page printed each week and it was called a “Thought for the Week” (written by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Kagan, of blessed memory).  It summarized the weekly talk of a rabbi named Rabbi M. M. Schneerson. A brave new world had opened up.

“Yet another year passed, and I realized to my sad dismay that I had failed to share my new delight in the Torah with the other members of my community. I phoned them all up one by one to let them know I was starting a Wednesday evening get together – whiskey, smoked salmon, and some food for the soul. Ever since then, we get together every single week to bask in the Torah with the insights of the Rebbe’s wisdom.

“And now, Rabbi, here is my question. I still feel terrible for turning those nice boys away empty handed. As you are a Chabadnik, I thought that just maybe you could help me find them so that I can apologize for my insensitivity. How bad they must feel.”

Rabbi Shishler smiled his big warm smile and said the search was to end right there and then because he actually knew who the boys were.

The man was quite taken aback for he had not been prepared for such a quick solution to his years of despair. The explanation was very simple, as Rabbi Shishler continued, “I myself was one of those two bachurim!” It took eight years and to the delight of Mr. Sam Gelman, the mystery was solved, and the circle was now closed. He was so grateful to the Yeshiva boys who first inspired him and was grateful to Hashem who brought Rabbi Shishler back to Plettenberg Bay.

As seen in Living Jewish #762 By Yaakov Cass

Thank you, Rabbi Shishler for verifying and making corrections to the story.

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