From Russia. With love.
A teenager's touching Chanukah tribute to a Holocaust survivor.
Tzvi & Chaim. Jewish & Proud. ⓒLeviWelton
Baruch Hashem, this happened a few years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. I received a random email from a mother from the former Soviet Union who wanted help preparing her son for his Bar Mitzvah. Her children never went to Hebrew school but now it was time for her son's Bar Mitzvah and she wanted him to celebrate his special day with his people. Every synagogue she had asked turned her down. Apparently, it was "too late" to prepare him. I could feel her pain as she asked me if I would help her.
"It's never too late in the eyes of God," I told her. I promised to take him under my wing and become his guide as he claimed his Torah heritage. From that moment on, Tzvi (AKA Georgy) began coming to Shul on Shabbos. He’d sit right next to me.
Now, Tzvi is a tall, lanky boy with a wild imagination and a respectful disposition. His first question to me was a polite and easy,"How do you know God exists?" We spent over an hour engaged in this discussion. I later found out that it was the first time he had asked a rabbi anything about Torah. His mind brimmed with curiosity and over the subsequent months, we bonded. I quickly got used to his greeting every time he saw me. Not “Hello” or “How are you?” or even a “What’s up?” but "Rabbi, can I ask you a quick question?" He stumped me on more than one occasion. I felt blessed to be his teacher.
Fast forward a couple of months and we were celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. He had started out not even knowing what an Aleph was but on that special day he recited the Torah blessings with gusto. My congregation showered him with applause plus lots of candy (Think soft “Sunkists”, not jawbreakers. Don’t worry).
During the Kiddush, his father gave a speech, his mother gave a speech, I gave a speech, and (of course) the Bar Mitzvah boy gave a speech. I watched him proudly standing in front of the entire congregation, quoting the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and a host of other Torah scholars that he weaved in and out of his “coming of age” presentation.
About a week later, I got another call from his mother. "Rabbi, Georgy asked me if he can continue learning Torah with you. Would that be ok, please?"
I had never suggested this to him. Honestly, I had never even thought to suggest it. I was more the kind of rabbi who would advise people that the best way to get rid of cockroaches in the kitchen is to give them all a Bar Mitzvah “…and that way, you’ll never see them again!” So this all came from him. Obviously, I said yes.
I discovered that Tzvi's great-grandfather had been a proud religious Jew in Russia. He was beaten to death by the Nazis because of it. The rest of his relatives were forced to hide their Judaism just to survive. But they never forgot the Torah and their God. They prayed and celebrated the Jewish holidays in secret. It was their self-sacrifice that Tzvi’s mother always spoke to me of and her family's pride in their faith against all odds that was a beacon of light for her. It was why she taught her children to never forget who they are and where they come from.
This is why it meant so much to me when this Russian-American teenager approached me one Shabbos during the Kiddush luncheon. He had another one of his “quick questions.” But this time it was about one of our synagogue members who is a Holocaust survivor, Reb Chaim Grossman. He is known in our parts as the “Angel of Westchester.” Tzvi had never met a Holocaust survivor in his life and wanted to know if I could make the introduction for him.
“Of course,” I said. I led Tzvi across the social hall to the table where Reb Chaim was sitting. I made the introduction and left the two of them, sitting across the table from each other, their plates piled high with delicious Kiddush food. I returned to my table. A few moments later, I glanced back and saw Tzvi sitting with Chaim, their foreheads almost touching as they conversed with one another. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about.
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