Twenty nine years ago today in a beautiful shul in Johannesburg South Africa, I was called up to the Torah for the first time, I had just turned 13 years old. It was Shabbos Morning Parshat Shmot and, towards the end of Torah reading I heard my name being called. I couldn’t escape it. Yes! The Gabbai was right. He had my full correct name and that of my Fathers. I walked over sheepishly to the Bima and in a voice barely audible I recited the Brachot for the Maftir. I recall as if it were just yesterday how I felt. My heart was pounding and racing a mile a minute. I was afraid that in a moment my heart would escape my body. In my young imagination I thought every member of the congregation could hear the thumping of my heart beat. I was so embarrassed.
I read the Haftorah in record speed and could not get off the Bima fast enough. You see the tune of the Torah and Haftorah never spoke to me. I felt I HAD to do this as my dad was the Rabbi of the prestigious congregation and I needed to make him proud. Well sure enough my salvation came in the form of the last words of the Haftorah and I darted back to my seat looking down all the way as I walked. I lifted my eyes unto heaven as I reached my seat thanking GD this part of my life’s journey had been completed.
Just as I sat myself down in my seat and started to relax I felt a warm but strong hand on my shoulder. I heard the unmistakable voice of the legendary Gabai of the Shul Mr. Yosef Klagsbald. He said: “Benny, Please go up and daven Musaph’ I looked at him much like a deer looks into headlights. You want me to Daven? Are you serious? Why me? I’m just a kid why can’t you find someone else I thought. I soon realized Yosef was not as much asking me he was commanding me. To be clear, Yosef was a Gabbai like no one you may ever meet. He didn’t simply fulfill the duties of running a shul, he WAS the shul. His heart and soul were etched into the walls of the Shul. I used to love going to Shul as a young kid.
I would wake up early Shabbos morning and walk to shul hand in hand with my father who served as the Rabbi. I felt so proud in fact at times I would walk purposely slow so it would take an extra few minutes, so as to spend that special time with my father. I was a short little fella but in those precious moments I was ten feet tall.
Once we arrived at Shul I was “handed off’ to Yosef the Gabbai. My father would go sit in his Rabbinic seat and I would sit next to Yosef. In time, I learned that Yosef was a Holocaust survivor who had lived in Lithuania before the war with his wife and five Children. Sadly every member of his family had perished and he was the sole survivor. I never saw him shed a tear but the one time I hid under the table during Yizkor and saw him overcome with emotion. He loved me and I loved him. We had a very special bond. He would sit with me and teach me the different parts of Davening and reward me when I behaved and especially when I sang along. He would always tell me that I had such a nice voice and I was blessed with a gift from Hashem.
And now Yosef with his piercing blue eyes was standing over me towering as giant and motioning to me to go to Daven. I didn’t have the confidence and for the life of me I don’t know how I did it, but I stood up and walked to the Amud. I remember staring Musaf as my voice trembled and then slowly calming down as the minutes passed. I will never forget as long as I live that Shabbos. As Musaf ended people rushed over to me, adults and children everyone was complementing me . I couldn’t believe what I had done. And then I recall someone pinching my cheek so very hard that I thought the right side of my mouth would fall off. It was Yosef. He looked down at me and said in Yiddish “Du est Zeyn a Chazzan” (you will be a Chazzan)
Twenty nine years have passed and “Yosef’s dream” came true. I have been privileged to serve in so many special synagogues the world over. I have sung at concerts, preformed at life cycle events and led Daveing so many thousands of time, yet every time I get up to sing it is the words of Yosef that I recall. Sadly, Yosef passed away a few years ago but his voice remains in my heart forever.
I don’t know if Facebook works in Heaven but today on the anniversary of this special day in my life, I want to give thanks to a man who believed in me and set me on the path of my life’s dream and passion.