And Bind Them For A Sign Upon Your Hand


by Baila Olidort - BRAILA, ROMANIA

August 17, 2003

Zalman Lieberov spent four hours one afternoon talking to an 80 year-old Jew who vividly remembers his hometown cheder, where he was schooled as a young child before the war.

But that was a long time ago, Shmuel Haiperman explained, and he has long since shed the Judaism of his childhood. He’s too far removed from traditional Judaism, now. It’s too late.

“No Jew is ever too far,” Zalman told him.

“And it’s never too late.”

So for the first time in his life, with Zalman’s help and some cajoling, the elderly man wrapped the leather straps of the tefillin around his arm, exactly as his grandfather did. Then he closed his eyes and said the Shema.

Between Zalman and Leizer Twerski, Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students on a five-week stint in Romania, these leather straps have been bound around the arms of hundreds of Jews. It’s a mitzvah, explain the rabbis who don tefillin daily, that connects the Jewish soul to G-d. “We want every Jew to have the spiritual benefit of that mitzvah at least once in a lifetime,” says Zalman.

As part of the Jewish Peace Corps Program sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch, they want, too, to help strengthen Jewish communities here. In a story that has replayed itself in numerous European countries but bears repeating, Zalman and Leizer describe their travels the length and breadth of this country discovering testaments to a vibrant Jewish past: here a Shul that once held hundreds of worshipers, there the remains of a now defunct mikveh, this used to be the famous yeshiva . . .

“It’s a heartbreak,” says Zalman, counting off the names of cities like Sighet, Timisoara, Bacau, Satmar . . . some of which once had more Jews than Gentiles, now thinly populated with no more than 12,000 Jews in all of Romania.

But they are Jews who care, and their warmth and earnestness deeply touched the rabbinical students. “In every city, they came out to greet us with generous hospitality.” With no more than childhood memories to stand in for a Jewish education, most of the Jews here recognize the need to learn and to know more. In some cities there wasn’t even one pair of Tefillin. But to their credit, observes Laizer, “They are not in the least indifferent. In one city, no one knew how to read from the Torah (sans vowels) yet they attended Shul twice daily.”

Rabbi Naftali Deutsch and his wife Risha, the Chabad-Lubavitch representatives since 1999, to Bucharest, which has the largest concentration of Jews and a sound Jewish infrastructure, provided a home base for the rabbinical students from which they embarked on an exhaustive itinerary, traveling sometimes a distance of 12 hours by train from one city to the next. Coordinating their activities with the Deutschs who have their hands full conducting programs and services for Bucharest’s Jewish community, the rabbis reported back to Rabbi Deutsch who will follow up once they leave.

With plans to spend their fifth and final week in the mountains of Romania where they hope to meet Jewish students vacationing, Zalman and Leizer—their tefillin straps well worn—will finally make their way back to New York. The young rabbis will resume their rabbinical studies, preparing to fill permanent posts as Shluchim (Chabad-Lubavitch representatives), wherever the need arises.

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