It was a week after the broadcast of the first Jewish Outreach to Combat Assimilation 7 hour television telethon across the United States, South America, and the Virgin Island, via Zev Brenner‘s Talkline Communications. My Father and I had worked 24/6 for three months organizing, casting, writing, directing, and producing the groundbreaking program in Jewish Outreach called “Back to Our Roots 1994”.
Famous Jewish singers, dancers, Rabbis and entertainers were featured on the show, including the great Jackie Mason. Unfortunately, it was to be Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s last television appearance.
But as the midnight hour was turning and becoming June 12, 1994, the night turned into a tragedy as the great Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schnersson passed.
As daybreak arrived, our planned event had no choice but to continue due to broadcast considerations, though none of us had the heart to conduct the event. And though the program was a television production success, viewers were so stunned by the Rebbe’s passing that the donations to the Center for Jewish Living, which was the goal of the event were not forthcoming, as all had expected. The production broke even but all those who created a new home for outreach suffered a big blow. All of us wondered why, of all the days of that year, the Rebbe, the leader of outreach should be taken away exactly on the day when the first telethon of such magnitude was to take place.
And so, a week after the telethon had begun, the confusion and disappointment in me was so great that I told my Parents that I had to drive West. “I will won’t stop driving until Friday afternoon. Where I land I land.”
My car packed with my tefillin, siddur, some clothes, food and video camera, I pointed myself West. My soul was on fire. Driving at night and at times, sleeping in the car, buying kosher candy at gas stations I passed through State after State. New York. New Jersey. Pennsylvanian. Ohio. Michigan. Indiana. Illinois. Wisconsin. And finally, as the sun was setting on Friday afternoon, I reached Medora, North Dakota, just 20 miles from Billings, Montana.
As I was driving through North Dakota, I was hearing reports about it being Nazi territory. And here I was just 20 miles from the border but the Sabbath was arriving and I had to stop, find lodging, buy candles, and get some kosher candy from the local convenience store.
Knowing I was in danger I wore my baseball cap. I did not want to give any Nazi an opportunity to attack. While finding and booking my room, the motel owner said, “I am giving you the big room for the night. But come tomorrow morning I need for you to move to a smaller room because more guests are coming in.”
Sunset was arriving. My room was prepared. But then I realized I had forgotten something in the car. I was already dressed for Shabbat, and if I went outside everyone would know I am a Jew.
Here I was all alone. More than 1,500 miles away from home. My Parents were back in New York. And I was at a loss about what to do. If I went out and got killed, no one would know. And if I stayed in my room, then I would die within my Soul. Did I not have the courage to stand up and be proud of my Jewishness even in the face of mortal danger?
As the seconds were ticking away, the fear for my life became greater than the honor of my identity.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I had shamed my Avraham Avinu, Abraham the Father of my People. Avraham was afraid of no man when his identity as a Jew was questioned. And here I, a descendant of Avraham, bearing the same name Avraham, had cowered in fear of physical self-preservation.
As the Sabbath night was passing I had begun to realize why Avraham Avinu never feared a non-Jew… because he was born a non-Jew and never had the fear instilled in him that Jews, who live as a minority among the non-Jews, have.
As I lay on the bed I swore to myself not to shame my G-d, my Patriarch Avraham Avinu, my Family and myself.
I swore that come Shabbat morning when the “Nazi motel owner” came to my door I would open the door with kippah on my head, standing proud and strong and tell him that I am Jew. If I died, then I would die as a Jew.
Shabbat Morning had arrived. I arose from bed. I washed and began to pray. In the middle of prayers, the room telephone began to ring. The owner was calling me but I would not answer. For the next ten minutes, he rang and rang and rang. But I would not answer it. It was Shabbat.
After finishing my prayers which had taken more than an hour, I placed the siddur on the night table and prepared myself to meet face to face the Nazi.
Kippah on my head. Suit Jacket straight. A knock came on the door. Then another knock, but each knock was a pounding. I could feel the anger of the sound – I had not picked up the telephone.
I unlocked the lock and opened the door. And there in front of me was standing a giant of a man, more than foot and a half taller than I, with anger in his face.
“Why didn’t you answer the phone when I rang,” he said.
I looked straight up and into his eyes and he looked straight down into mine.
I said, “Today is the Jewish Sabbath. I am a Jew. I do not answer the phone.
He looked at me. His eyes enlarged and then said something I never had expected in million years.
“Really. I am a born again Christian. Let’s talk.”
He carried my things to the other room
And for the next two hours this man and I engaged in a Biblical discussion.
After he left I was overwhelmed with thanksgiving to Hashem that I had found the courage to be a son of Avraham Avinu.
When night arrived and now I could walk around the motel with no fear of breaking Shabbat, for Shabbat had ended, I purposely walked with a kippah around the other guests. I was not going to lose my new identity and courage.
Sunday morning arrived and I drove into town. I wanted to test myself further and see the sights.
Entering a restaurant/bar I walked up to the counter and greeted two cowboys, Brian and James. As our conversation ensued I proudly told them I am a Jew. I was now speaking as a Man, a Fighter, a son of a great Palmach Warrior. Within minutes Brian and James saw that I was one of them – an American Cowboy. In other words, a Man willing to stand up for himself and his beliefs.
Within the course of the next five hours they invited me to their ranch. And we even shot a short cowboy fight video.
I had learned on my Shabbat in Nazi Territory the lesson of Jewish Self-Respect.
I had learned that SELF RESPECT AS A JEW IN THE FACE OF FEAR OVERCOMES ALL.
NOW AS ANTI-ANTISEMITISM IS RISING WE MUST STAND TALL AND PROUD. FOR THAT WILL OVERCOME ALL!
BLESSED BE HASHEM, G-D, KING OF THE UNIVERSE!!!!