Perhaps we are following in our parents’ footsteps, or maybe it’s just the cold and rainy days at this time of year in New York that make it a good time to get away. At least it hasn’t snowed in New York yet this year.
The weather in South Florida was spectacular last week. But even more captivating were the Shabbos services at the internationally renowned Chabad center known as The Shul.
I have to digress for a moment here and give a great amount of credit to the founding rabbi of The Shul, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, who has built a growing and dynamic community that has made this area — Surfside and Bal Harbour — one of the most attractive areas in South Florida to live and visit.
I was sitting in shul on Shabbos morning. Rabbi Lipskar paused to introduce two Chabad rabbis from different parts of the world who recited the berachahs before and after their aliyahs to the Torah. Then they each went on to speak for about ten minutes to describe the unique circumstances of their missions in their various locales on the globe.
The first rabbi was Rabbi Chaim Danziger who is the Chabad shaliach and chief rabbi of Rostov, Russia. The city of Rostov has deep roots in the evolution of the Chabad movement. The city was the home and now the burial place of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Sholom Dov Ber Schneerson. During World War II, the city was occupied and dominated by the Nazis. More than 70,000 Jewish residents of Rostov were murdered.
The remaining small Jewish community was spiritually destroyed by 70 years of Communist rule during which the practice of Judaism was illegal. Rostov’s 21st century generation of Jews had no connection to anything of a religious nature until Chabad began to reignite what nearly a century ago was a bright and vibrant flame of Yiddishkeit.
Today, Rabbi Danziger said, there are 10,000 Jews residing in Rostov. The evidence of the 70-year religious vacuum is still pronounced, he said. But since he has been there along with his colleagues, Jews are rediscovering their ancient roots and returning to observance of Torah and mitzvos.
A religious vacuum of so many decades means that it can be a challenge to know who is technically and halachically Jewish. Jewish names, the rabbi said, are long gone but now with the upsurge in bris millah, circumcisions, they too, along with Shabbos and kashrus, are returning.
Rabbi Danziger told a story to the few hundred congregants this past Shabbos about a member of his community. Boris, a 60-year-old native of Rostov, told Rabbi Danziger that he wanted to enter the covenant of Israel with a kosher bris.
The rabbi arranged for the mohel, who had to travel some distance, to perform the ceremony. Just as a geographical side note, Rostov is about 1,000 miles from Moscow. It is not too far by air, more like a trip from New York to St. Louis.
So the bris was set to take place in the rabbi’s office a few days hence at noon. Rabbi Danziger said that because of travel delays, the mohel arrived at about 2 p.m. The rabbi, the mohel, and Boris proceeded to the rabbi’s office where he had a mattress arranged on top of his desk.
In the meantime, he said, word spread in the nearby yeshiva for boys that there was a mohel in town performing a bris in the nearby shul. That information motivated 13-year-old Nikita to walk over to the rabbi’s office and knock on the door where the mohel was preparing for Boris’ bris milah.
Last summer, Nikita was a camper in the summer camp run by Chabad in Rostov. One Shabbos, his counselor was handing out aliyahs to the Torah on Shabbos and said that he would award the young man who would make a commitment to a higher level of Jewish observance sometime in the near future.
Nikita, the rabbi later learned, told his counselor Yosef that he would commit to having a bris sometime over the next two years and definitely prior to his 15th birthday. At the conclusion of the summer, Yosef, the camp counselor, died in a car accident that left the community devastated. It was around that time that as a z’chus for his counselor’s neshamah, Nikita decided to act on his commitment. So when he heard the mohel was in Rostov, he left school and went to knock on the rabbi’s door.
By then it was already 3 p.m. and sunset was at about 4:30 p.m., the point after which a bris is not performed. When the rabbi heard that Nikita wanted to have a bris that day too, he asked the mohel if he could expedite things a bit and move along with a bit more alacrity. When Boris heard the rabbi asking the mohel to hurry it up, he grew a little concerned and protested that he did not want the mohel rushing through the process.
Things moved along well; both Boris and Nikita were circumcised and received their Hebrew names, Baruch and Natan. It is events like this that are changing these far-flung Jewish communities whose members for decades were forced to forget they were Jews.
Following Rabbi Danziger, the shul heard from an old friend of mine who was originally from Crown Heights — Rabbi Yossi Schildkraut of São Paulo, Brazil. The Schildkrauts and the Gordons were neighbors in the old Brooklyn shtetl. I remember Yossi’s father, who was a seasoned photographer in the community, working at one of my siblings’ weddings a few decades ago. The last time Yossi and I crossed paths was a few years ago in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Yossi said that he frequently travels to South Florida, with good reason. Today there are over a half million Brazilians living permanently in Florida. Many were substantial members of the São Paulo Jewish community and supporters of building Chabad institutions there.
All this took place on the Shabbos on which we blessed the new month of Shevat, the month that is particularly prominent and important on the Chabad calendar. On the 10th of Shevat we mark the yahrzeit of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson. On the same day, a year later, the next Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel, agreed to succeed his father-in-law.
The last Rebbe is still the inspiration for young men like Chaim Danziger and Yossi Schildkraut who work relentlessly and tirelessly to fulfill the missions they received from the Rebbe: to bring Jews back no matter where they find themselves.