God Sends a Kosher Editor
Oh wow, a $35,000, roughly 40 foot house-bus, in front of United Cigar and Christoper Street is blaring Yiddish music—this I gotta see. What I find is a very young rabbi waiting to step out and greet young men who look Jewish and return them to the kosher path. A few minuets of conversation reveal he knows every Jew that I know in the Village. We are pals in minutes, and I ask him to do a story for the paper, and then, Alfred Rosenblatt appears and asks if he can edit for WestView and I say “Have I got an article for you.”
Here is what they did together.
By Rabbi Yehuda Pevzner
It’s the end of July, on a regular summer day of 90 degrees. I’m climbing the stairs of the Christopher St. subway station and the heat hits me in the face. I’m dressed in my usual street clothes. A black suit and hat, white shirt: I hold a tefillin bag in one hand. With the other I’m helping my wife Mushka up the stairs with the carriage holding Shmelke, our 3-month-old baby boy. We reach the top of the stairs. I go out into the street.
In front of me I see a man. I think he is a Jew. I walk over and ask, “Hello, sorry, are you Jewish?”
He stares and asks, “How can I help you?”
I reply, shalom, I am Rabbi Yehuda. I’m from Brooklyn and I intend to move to Greenwich Village to look for Jews to bring them closer to G-d. He stares at me with a strange look and asks, do you know where you are? Are you sure you got off at the right station?
I tell him yes. You are the first Jew I have met here today. Would you like to put on tefillin? Who gave you permission to ask what religion I am, he says. He walks away.
Not a very warm welcome. I tell my wife we will probably have a hard job here but let’s continue.
Many Jews live in the area. I am here to show them what Judaism is and how to learn and pray. To do this I want to open a Chabad House here in the neighborhood.
I was told there’s a synagogue at 53 Charles St. I knock on the door and it’s opened by an elderly man who I was told in advance is Mr. Herman, a very nice man. He says hello, how can I help you?
I answer, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sends shluchim [messengers] like me to every corner of the world to encourage old Jewish communities and help them find young people to come to synagogue, organize classes, and shabbat meals, and build the community. I have been sent to this neighborhood.
Mr. Herman looks at me sadly and says we’ve already tried this. It will not help. No one is coming. I point out to Mr. Herman than I am young, 26 years old. I’m sure I’ll succeed and that he’ll see a revolution in the neighborhood. Mr. Herman says the main thing is that the synagogue should continue to operate and that it will have a minyan (10 adult Jewish men) every Saturday. I tell him of course, and that we’ll be in touch.
I leave the synagogue and think about how to start operating here in an orderly way. Certainly, we will need an office. A mitzvah tank to put on the street [photo] with music that will invite Jews to come and put on tefillin.
I go to work on the Internet to find a tank for rent. But it is now the end of July and impossible to find one to lease.
I call Rabbi Rotenstreich of Chabad, my organization, and tell him my problem. He tells me, “listen Yehuda, you’re very lucky. I just got off the phone with a Jew from New Jersey who has such a vehicle and is willing to donate it.”
I thank G-d for such immediate help.
Two days later, I park the 36-foot-long tank—originally it was a recreational vehicle, a camper—at the corner of Christopher and W. 4 St. and ask people if they are Jewish.
A man walks over to me, “Sorry, you’re Jewish?” I ask.
Yes, he tells me but says right away that he does not want to put on tefillin! I believe in talking to G-d directly, he says, and do not need physical action to get closer to G-d.
“Have you ever tried calling someone without knowing the phone number?” I ask. Tefillin is the connection that G-d told us to use.
He says he does not think so. I offer him a business card and promise to come one day and clarify the matter. He tells me he’s very busy but we’ll be in touch.
In the next days I park the tank on Christopher St. at Seventh Ave. or Seventh Avenue and W. 4 St. I’m there most days from about 12 to 7 pm. Not that many people pass by. So some days I move to Vandam and Hudson. Parking is not an issue. Every religious organization gets a few annual permits from the city for vehicles on the street.
I hand out brochures and cards with information about performing good deeds—mitzvah in Hebrew is a good deed—and about the coming of Moshiach (the messiah). I help men, and boys past bar mitzvah age, who are willing to perform the ritual of putting on tefillin. These are small leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the torah. I hand out candle-lighting information and candles to women and girls to light in honor of the shabbat.
Many people stop to look. A few take my information. Fewer still put on tefillin. But at least they know we are here. I’m sure we will make progress.
Rabbi Yehuda Pevzner was ordained in 2012 at Central Yeshiva Tomchei on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.