President Reagan’s picture with Rabbis Cunin and Feller, among others, reminds me of the time period when Rabbi Feller was attempting to attract young Minnesotans to Chabad, which was based in St. Paul. We lived in St. Louis Park, about 20 miles away, which made it impossible to go to a Chabad Shul on Shabbat because at that time a Chabad Shul did not exist in Minneapolis.
It was the mid-1970’s and the Baal Tshuva movement had started. I had made a definite decision to become Shomer Shabbat a few years earlier, and that was hard enough, but now I had to make a more difficult decision – which direction to follow? I had three opportunities placed before me, Chabad being the first.
There was one Chabad family in St. Louis Park with whom I spent many Shabbatot together named Bob and Bonnie Magy. They were very welcoming and became my Chabad connection. I would always sing along with the Magy children when we benched together. It was very nice just speaking about life in general and Chabad in particular. I was invited to their Seder, where Bob, I and their children would sing together, which was very enjoyable. Suddenly Bob brought out a bottle of Muscat grape juice, and just as fast, the children burst out with a two word chorus of “Muscat Love”. That was the time when “The Captain and Tennille” were on top of the charts, and so we would always hear that song over the airwaves, one of their most popular.
There were two other options to consider besides Chabad. One was to go to Far Rockaway and learn at Rabbi Freifeld’s Yeshiva. Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld was an influential personality in the world of Orthodox Judaism who established a vibrant outreach Yeshiva in the New York City area. He influenced thousands of students and was a key figure in the Baal Teshuva movement throughout the seventies and eighties. Bob Dylan also managed to have been impressed with the Yeshiva. He was quoted as saying, when visiting Rabbi Freifeld on a particularly cold New York’s winter night, “It may be dark and snowy outside, but inside that house, it’s so light.” I also discovered Rebbetzin Freifeld ran a similar Seminary for Women who came from backgrounds similar to me, and there have often been Shiddachs made between the bochrim and women who attended the two.
The final option I was to consider was to continue learning in a Yeshiva and then once I was ready; to consider getting married and starting a family. Someone encouraged me to join him in a Gemora shiur they had every day. That person was not there when I came, so I sat down at a long U shaped table. I was the only one without a Gemora and the others listened intensely while the person giving the shiur explained the Gemora. Many in attendance saw me without a Gemora, I just sat patiently while the Shiur carried on until the end., without ever understanding anything that was going on. No one took the time or made the effort to find out who I was or why I had come. Needless to say, I did not enjoy it. In similar situations, my father had a famous saying – I was there twice; the first time and the last time.
My experiences when I was looking to further my Jewish observance perhaps explains why I chose Chabad, which has grown to be a major force throughout the world in creating an opportunity for those individuals and families to explore their Jewish roots and begin following the ways of the Torah, to Keep Shabbat and do Mitzvahs.
I want to share with you a story as told by Rabbi Feller regarding his father who had been living in Kfar Chabad and reached 90 years old. This was in the mid-1990’s, and his father was seriously ill.
It seems the only thing that could save his life was an operation, which was very risky at his age, but he decided to go ahead with it anyway. Rabbi Feller was alone with his father saying Tehillim and vidui (the final confessional prayers) in the prep room before the operation.
Suddenly the door swung open and what appeared to be a high ranking officer in the Israeli Air Force stood at the door. The officer was looking for his friend who was nowhere to be seen so Rabbi Feller who has been known not to miss an opportunity when he can do a mitzvah or help someone do a mitzvah asks the officer if he could give his father a Bracha. The Officer looks at Rabbi Feller in amazement as if he could not believe what Rabbi Feller was saying, since the Officer was obviously thinking to himself that it’s Rabbi Feller who should be giving Brachas, not the Officer.
So Rabbi Feller repeated his request again, and the Officer looked very puzzled. Rabbi Feller said to him, Aren’t you in the Air Force? Aren’t you prepared to give your life to defend your fellow Jews in Israel? The Officer answered without hesitation, Of Course!
So then please bless my father, Rabbi Feller said, and he continued to tell the Officer that the Rebbe holds soldiers in the IDF with very high esteem. Rabbi Feller added that a soldier and an Officer have special powers to bless his fellow Jews, because of his self-sacrifice to defend the people of Israel.”
So he pulled his beret out of his shoulder lapel, and put it on his head. Rabbi Feller then said the Priestly Blessing word for word with the Officer. When they were finished, the Officer was crying.
Then Rabbi Feller put Tefillin on the Officer when he found out the Officer had not done so that day.
Rabbi Feller said that he carries a pair of Tefillin with him wherever he goes. Because as Rabbi Feller puts it – You never know who might come along—and the power one Jew and one mitzvah can unleash.
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Feller’s father went into the operating room. He passed away after the operation, never regaining consciousness. But the very last sight his father saw before he left this world was his son putting on tefillin with an Israeli Air Force Officer, the symbol of Israel’s physical might, but most of all, a fellow Jew. Imagine the nachas.
Rabbi Feller finished this story by saying “One thing is certain: The Officer’s blessing and mitzvah of tefillin had power. I’m sure they helped someone, somewhere in Israel, not to mention the powerful spiritual charge to the Officer himself.
Speaking about the Israeli Defense Force, about a year ago, in our neighborhood, we were shocked to hear the news that one of the sons of a very respected family had given his life for his country. After the 30 day mourning period, Rabbi Zev Leff came to give a powerful Dvar Torah. He wanted to convey to the family and all of us that we do not understand the ways of Hashem, but Hashem has his plan and we must understand that along the way things can get very challenging.
Then he went on to convey a very powerful story. He said imagine if you asked a boy or girl about the age of 5 or 6 to draw a picture of a man, what you would expect him or her to draw? Of course, the picture would most likely consist of sticks for the body and sticks for hands and feet. Or something very simple to draw which makes sense.
Then if you asked one of the greatest artists of our generation to draw the same thing, what would happen? Well of course the artist would bring cans and cans of paint, of all different colors and spend hours and hours drawing the picture. You would not be upset with the artist because you know at the end the picture will be a masterpiece and therefore anyone doing such a thing that has the talent to do so, will take much more time, but at the end you know the result will be perfect.
And that is the message I remember Rabbi Leff was trying to convey. We must trust Hashem enough to know that he knows what he is doing, and at the end the result will be for our good.
This therefore must be the message to both the Cunin and Kaye families. For some reason, Hashem has made these events take place now, when they were least expected. Hopefully in the very near future we will clearly see that these events bring the coming of the Moshiach ever so much closer