The tremendous hustle and bustle of Manhattan did not faze the two bachurim who stood that day, in the summer of 1979, on Seventh Avenue near a Mitzva Tank. They invited Jewish passersby to enter the tank and put on t’fillin.
“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” they asked people earnestly. Those who said yes were invited to enter the tank where they were told what t’fillin are and how they connect a person to G-d.
The two bachurim stood there for hours and couldn’t help but notice the stares of a young man who stood nearby. Of course, the bachurim went over to him and asked the same question they had asked so many times before, “Are you Jewish?” He said no, shaking his head vigorously. No, he wasn’t Jewish.
The bachurim continued accosting passersby. They had a job to do, to connect Jews to their Maker, and this was the call of the hour. They couldn’t waste time.
A long time passed and the young man was still standing there. The bachurim felt uncomfortable. Why was he standing there and watching them? The asked him again, “Perhaps you are Jewish?” But like before, he gave a firm no.
The bachurim went back to work while the young man, as though not getting the hint, continued to stand there, not removing his eyes from them. At a certain point, his presence and stare became disturbing to them. They, who had left the big beis midrash of 770 where they learned Chassidus and had heard many times the Rebbe’s outlook on the world, sensed there was something going on here. Maybe he had a soul that was attracted to Torah and Judaism without his knowing it!
The bachurim revised their question and asked, “Are your parents Jewish?”
This time, the answer was, “Yes, my parents are Jewish, but I’m not.”
The bachurim smiled and put a loving arm on his shoulders. “You are mistaken, my friend. You are Jewish too. According to the Jewish religion, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish too.”
The young man shook his head and said, “My parents are Jewish but I’m not Jewish.” The bachurim got into a conversation until the young man finally opened up and said that his parents were from Europe and had survived the Holocaust. They immigrated to the United States, married, but decided not to have children lest another Holocaust happen and their children suffer the fate of the millions of children who were killed in Europe, may Hashem avenge their blood.
They went into business and did well and became wealthy. They bought a palatial home in the suburbs and enjoyed a respected position in the community.
Ten years and more went by and they began to worry. They were successful, but they were afraid that after they died, not having any heir, the money they worked hard for would go to the government, and they didn’t want that. After much deliberation, they decided to write a will in which they bequeathed their money to charitable organizations dear to their hearts. They went to a lawyer whom they knew and had him prepare their will.
When the lawyer heard their request, he looked at them in astonishment and said, “Excuse me for mixing into your lives, but you are relatively young people. How is it that you don’t have children? If you have a medical problem, I can recommend a top doctor whom I know personally.”
The couple told him their sad past, about the horrors they went through during the war, and their fear that a Holocaust would happen again, which is why they chose not to have children.
The lawyer was quite surprised. He certainly hadn’t expected an answer like this. But then he laughed and said, “Do you really think there could be another Holocaust, like what happened in Europe? We are in a different era now.”
After a long discussion, which required great personal courage, the lawyer managed to convince them to try and receive heaven’s blessing and bring a child into the world to carry on their name. Indeed, after some time, the woman gave birth to a son, “and that son is me,” said the young man to the bachurim.
“Although they had me, my parents still feared another tragedy would occur and they emphasized to me, again and again, from when I was a young child, that although they are Jews, I am not a Jew.”
Lubavitcher bachurim would not forgo such an opportunity to bring a Jewish soul back to its roots. They took the opportunity to explain to him that since his mother is Jewish (and that both his parents were good Jews), he was a Jew in every way.
Despite his surprise, he quickly recovered and asked whether he could go on the tank and see what they did there. The bachurim were happy to oblige. They invited him onto the tank and explained what t’fillin are and about the bond they create with G-d. He looked greatly moved. “Can I put them on?” he asked, pointing at the t’fillin.
“Of course,” they said.
When he removed them, he was very emotional. He pointed at the t’fillin, yarmulke and siddur and asked where he could purchase them. “I want the best there is, and I will pay whatever it costs.”
They exchanged phone numbers and that same week they provided him with beautiful t’fillin, a siddur and a yarmulke. There was nobody happier than he.
His parents looked at the package and immediately realized what it contained. They remembered what t’fillin look like. They were shocked into silence. His mother recovered first and began to scream, “Where did you get this? This belongs to Jews and you’re not a Jew!”
“I am a Jew!” he responded quietly. He had prepared himself for this encounter.
“No! You’re not a Jew! You are an American like everyone else,” she screamed in a mixture of fear and anger.
“I checked it out and if you are Jewish, then I am Jewish.”
Voices were raised. Even his father, albeit in a calmer voice, tried to dissuade him. Before their eyes, they saw all their training going down the drain.
At a certain point, his parents went into another room to discuss things and decide how to proceed. They realized that their screaming wasn’t being effective and they had to strategize.
After a long while, his father came out and sat down for a father-son talk. “Listen,” he began in a conciliatory tone. “You are right. You are Jewish. All our lives we wanted you to think you are a gentile but we knew the truth. We were just afraid for you.
“However, you can’t use those,” he said, pointing at the velvet bag with the t’fillin.
“Why not?” asked the son in surprise.
“Because you are not circumcised and a Jew needs to be circumcised. That is a most important basic requirement.”
The father tried to dissuade him from using the t’fillin. He was afraid. Very afraid. So he used various excuses to convince his son not to use the t’fillin, but the son was suspicious and wary.
“Thank you for the information, but I need to check it out. I want to find out for myself.” He got up to indicate the conversation was over.
He made contact with one of the bachurim and asked him. The bachur said, “True, a bris mila is essential and fundamental, but you can definitely put on t’fillin even if you are not circumcised. The two mitzvos are not interdependent in any way.
“Furthermore,” said the bachur, seeing the time was right, “you can have a bris now. It’s never too late.”
The young man was excited. Having just discovered his Judaism, it was obvious that he was consumed with a fiery passion that caused his soul to shine brightly.
His parents were aghast when he returned home and told them what the bachur said, and about his desire to undergo a bris. As the days went by, they began to slowly get used to the idea that their attempt to protect their child from future anti-Semitism was unsuccessful and he was making his way, slowly but surely, toward the Jewish people.
Since he was their only son, born after many years of marriage, their love for him overcame their fear for his fate and they decided to take part in his process. They even courageously decided to attend the bris mila that was arranged in a well-appointed medical facility in New York. The bachur from the mitzva tank who was in touch with him the entire time, arranged for a mohel and an anesthesiologist and even promised to bring some friends to complete a minyan.
Intense emotions could be felt in the facility where the bris was to take place. Moments before the ceremony was to begin, the young man requested the attention of those in attendance, as he wished to say a few words.
“The truth is that this bris should have taken place decades ago. I am now 22 years old, and I am fulfilling this mitzva after a great delay. Since this is taking place after such a delay, I am asking that I not be given any anesthesia. It is my wish to feel how I am entering into becoming an integral part of the Jewish nation.”
The mohel, the anesthesiologist (who was a Reform Jew), and all those present were shocked by the unexpected request. They were not used to hearing such a request. The mohel acknowledged that it was possible, but warned the young man about the tremendous pain involved. “If, at any point, you want it, we can give you an injection to still the pain,” added the pain specialist grudgingly.
There was not a dry eye in the room during the event. Even the Reform anesthesiologist burst into tears as this special soul returned to its people in such an amazing fashion.
A few weeks later, during the Ten Days of Repentance at the beginning of the Jewish year 5740, the parents organized a large celebration, to which they invited all of their friends and acquaintances. The invitation that they sent out announced a “Return to Judaism Party.”
At that celebratory event, the parents recounted their life story, including the horrors they had lived through during the Holocaust, which had caused them to make such a firm decision to escape and disconnect as much as possible from their past so as never to have to live through such horrors again. They proceeded to recount the story of how their son came to be born and the recent events they had lived through, concluding with the announcement that the purpose of this event was to publicly proclaim their return to Judaism with pride…
(Story heard from Rabbi Nachman Yosef Twersky, who heard it from Rabbi Gershon Ber Jacobson, one of the invitees to the party thrown by the parents.)