By Avraham Berkowitz, chabad.org
In the early 1970s, thanks to pressure from President Nixon and the newly minted Jackson-Vanik Amendment, Boris Donskoi and his family were among the 900 Soviet Jews who were permitted to leave Russia. Boris arrived in the United States and became a successful toy manufacturer. With the onset of perestroika, Boris, together with his son Gary, returned to Russia to pursue newfound business opportunities.
Upon his return to Moscow, Boris became a friend and early supporter of the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, who in the early nineties was laying the groundwork for what is today the enormous network of Chabad-Lubavitch across Russia and the former USSR.
In 1997 Boris was diagnosed with lung cancer and battled with the disease for several years. In the summer of 2002 he was hospitalized in the Sloan Kettering Institute in NY.
In September of 2002, I flew from Moscow to NY to participate in the memorial ceremonies on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, as a representative of the Russian Jewish community. Before I left, Rabbi Lazar gave me a pair of tefillin and asked me to visit Gary and his father in the hospital and to give the tefillin as a gift to Gary with prayerful wishes for his father’s full recovery.
Tuesday, September 11, 2002,
2:00 PM JFK Airport
I call Gary on his cell phone to let him know that I would like to come to visit his father in the hospital. He began sobbing on the phone. “My dear father passed away moments ago…”
The funeral was scheduled for the next day, September 11. As I am a kohen and do not attend funerals, I told Gary that I would visit him on my first opportunity when the family would be sitting shivah.
6:00 PM National Office of Hadassah, NY, NY
I had a meeting with Marlene Post, president of the Hadassah women’s organization and the chair of Birthright Israel in North America. She invites me to join her the next morning, September 11, at a 9-11 memorial ceremony at FEGS, a beneficiary organization of the New York Jewish Federation, the largest and most diversified private, not-for-profit health-related and human service organization in the United States.
The organization’s headquarters is less than a mile from the World Trade Center, and they got involved in the 9-11 recovery effort from the onset, particularly in the areas of mental health and family services. Marlene tells me that with support from the Jewish community, they assisted over 18,000 people in the year after the attacks. More than 1,000 social workers were employed by FEGS to provide counseling and financial support to families that were getting back on their feet as their world fell apart.
The 9-11 Memorial Services
Wednesday, September 11, 2002,
10:30 AM FEGS Headquarters NY, NY
Among the many people Marlene introduced me to this morning was Dr. Jonas Waizer, a kind man who is the chief operating officer of FEGS. Dr. Waizer gave me his business card and said to me, “If you know someone who may need assistance here in NY, please give me a call.”
The wind was fiercely blowing as I walked from the FEGS event to Ground Zero. It was somber; wherever I went the flag was at half-staff, hanging all over were pictures of the victims, and all I could see were the tears of the widows and their families.
The Shivah Call
I arranged to meet with Dan Weiss, a common friend I have with Gary, to go with him from Manhattan to the Brighton Beach neighborhood in Brooklyn where Boris lived, where Gary is now sitting shivah. Security is on very high alert, as heads of state are gathered in NY to mark the anniversary. The bridges and tunnels are backed up for hours as they are checking cars very closely. We did not arrive in Brighton Beach until close to midnight.
On the way we kept calling Gary’s cell phone to verify the exact address, but we could not reach him. When we arrived in Brighton Beach, we asked people for directions to the street we were looking for—only to be told that no such street existed in Brighton Beach.
We began to ask passersby if they knew where Mr. Donskoi lived. After asking random people for an hour we were just about to give up when we saw a Russian restaurant that was closing. We asked the waiter who was cleaning up whether he knew the Donskois who lost their father today. He did not, but pointed to a group of people sitting behind the restaurant in the dim light on the boardwalk; maybe we should go ask them…
When we approached to ask them if they knew the Donskois, we surprisingly found that Gary, his family and friends were all sitting there… They were just as surprised. “How did you find us?” “Our father’s apartment is eleven blocks away from here!”
For the next three hours we sat and talked, listening to stories and anecdotes from Boris’s life. Before I left, I handed Gary the tefillin that Rabbi Lazar had sent, and he pledged to honor his father’s memory by wearing them every day when he would go to the synagogue to say kaddish. He saw this unlikely midnight meeting that brought him such comfort and solace as a sign from Above for him to come closer to his faith.
The Unfortunate Violinist
Thursday September 12,
3:00 AM, En Route from Brighton Beach to Manhattan
When Dan Wiess and I got back into the car to return to Manhattan, we began to talk about 9-11 and its effect on the world. Dan, who works in the theater business on Broadway, tells me about a friend of his by the name of Sasha, a Jewish Russian immigrant, a most talented violinist who studied in the top schools in Russia and played in some of the greatest music halls in NY. Unfortunately, his career came to an end when, due to emotional instability, he could not commit to perform in shows on a regular basis.
One day in the mid 90s he found a spot in a subway tunnel beneath the Twin Towers, and began to play there every day from 6:30 until 9:00 a.m., as tens of thousands of people walked by. Many appreciated the beauty of his music and dropped quarters or dollars into his bucket. He would sometimes collect close to a thousand dollars a day.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Sasha was there playing as usual. When the planes slammed into the WTC, Sasha was among the thousands of people who fled for their lives.
Every day, Sasha would connect with hundreds of people who worked in the WTC, if only for a few seconds. When the towers came crashing down, so did Sasha’s life. He could not bear the pain caused by the images of the hundreds of faces who had walked by him each day, faces he had seen that morning, many of whom had perished in the attacks.
In the weeks and months that followed, Sasha became increasingly sad and despondent; he only played his violin to barely survive.
Dan tells me that in recent days, as images of the attacks appeared on television again and again with the approach of the anniversary, Sasha had become even more depressed, to the point that he was suicidal. He sits in front of the television all day watching the clips of the attack.
“Have you ever tried to turn to FEGS?” I asked. Dan told me that FEGS only helps families of victims, or employees in the Twin Towers who had psychological problems. Sasha was making a living in the building, but he was not officially employed there. “Besides,” Dan continued, “he is refusing to go to professionals for help.”
I told Dan about my encounter that morning with the COO of FEGS, and about his generous offer. From the car, at 3 a.m., Dan called Sasha and encouraged him not to do anything drastic and that help would be on the way in the morning.
I called Dr. Waizer. He said he would immediately organize a team of specialists to go to Sasha’s apartment.
Within a few hours, the specialists and doctors began their emergency intervention and began giving Sasha the care, medication and support he needed to get him back on his feet—emotionally, mentally and financially. Within a few weeks he was on the road to a full recovery.
Behind the Scenes Intervention from On High
Shabbat, January 4, 2003 Moscow, Russia
Gary was visiting Moscow and I invited him to my Shabbat table. In front of a table full of guests I recounted the entire story of my trip to NY and how the midnight shivah call led to the saving of Sasha’s life.
Gary then asked to speak. “The entire story that Rabbi Berkowitz told is true,” he said “But I want to add a part that he does not know.
“On Monday, September 9, the day before my father passed away, Dan called me and told me the whole story about Sasha’s desperate situation. Since I majored in psychology and speak Russian, Dan asked me to meet with Sasha and try to encourage him to get professional help, or simply stop him from taking his life.
“I had to act. I told my father that I was leaving his bedside for a short while to try to save a man’s life. I went to Sasha’s apartment and knocked on his door, but he refused my entry. I spoke to him through the door for a few minutes until I convinced him to let me in.
“I saw his face and the dark rings around his eyes, and I realized how bad the situation was. I sat down and spoke to him about getting professional help, but he adamantly refused. I then told him about our immigration from Russia in the early 70s. When we arrived in the USA we were greeted in the airport by the Okonov family, founders of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, an organization that dedicatedly served tens of thousands of Russian immigrants.
“We received an apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, headquarters of the Lubavitch chassidim, and home of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although we were not religious, we became very close to the Lubavitchers and we were particularly endeared to the Rebbe himself. The Rebbe privately met with our family and, speaking in fluent Russian, helped us acclimate to our new life. I would see the Rebbe often, walking from his home to his synagogue. Whenever we had a problem in our family we would turn to the Rebbe for his wise advice and blessings.
“‘The Rebbe was a Russian Jew,’ I told Sasha, ‘and he particularly cared for those of us who struggle in the new world. Even today, after his passing, I visit his resting place – called the Ohel – in Queens whenever I want to feel close to him and ask for his continued blessings from On High.
“‘Sasha, please come with me and we will visit the resting place of this holy person. I am sure when we stand there you will find new strength to overcome your difficult depression.’
“Sasha agreed, and I drove him to the Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. It was late at night when we arrived at the Rebbe’s resting place, and we were the only ones inside the room. I felt as though I was standing in the Rebbe’s presence again. I quietly said in Russian, ‘Rebbe, help Sasha! Only you know the hardships of Russian Jews in their new life here in America. Sasha is in desperate need and refuses professional help, he wants to give up on his life. Rebbe I am at a loss to find a way to help him…'”
Gary finished his story, his eyes filled with tears; not tears of sadness but of deep emotion. “I knew,” he continued, “that going to the Rebbe’s resting place could lead to helping Sasha—that is why I brought him. I just never imagined that I’d see the connection so clearly and so swiftly.”
– Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz is a chabad Rabbi and serves as the Director of the international Jewish Community of Moscow