By Rabbi Levi Welton – Rabbi of Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers, NY
Recently, my wife Chavi and I decided to visit my folks in Sacramento, California. We picked a random Shabbos to go out there and went to the local Chabad for services. An out-of-town family was also there that Shabbos celebrating their daughter’s Bas Mitvza. We stayed for the Kiddush and the dynamic Rabbi Mendy Cohen led the entire community in singing, Torah inspiration and some hearty Lchaims. The party continued until late in the afternoon.
At some point, I asked Chaim Valencia, the father of the Bas Mitzvah where they originally came from and he told me he was from Mexico City and had converted to Judaism many years ago (before he had his kids). “So why’d you pick your Hebrew name of Chaim?”
He told me that he had once spent a Friday night Shabbos service at a synagogue in Westchester back when he was just starting out on his spiritual journey.
One of his Rabbis had told him that if he ever met a Holocaust survivor, he should remember these words: “A Holocaust survivor who doesn’t believe in God is a normal person. A Holocaust survivor who does is an angel.”
During that Friday service, they were dancing around welcoming the holiness of the “Shabbos Queen” when he looked down at the arm of the person he was holding hands with and saw numbers. He felt overwhelmed that he was dancing with an angel and couldn’t control the urge to ask the man his name. The old man smiled and said “Chaim”. From that moment on, this man from Mexico City decided that when it came the time to pick his Hebrew name, he would name himself after the angel he was lucky to dance with. Years past and he never saw the man again.
I stopped smiling and asked this father, “Is his name Chaim Grossman“?
His mouth dropped. “How do you know that?”
I told him I was the Rabbi of the Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers, New York, and that Mr. Grossman is a member of our shul. He survived Buchenwald, went on to serve in the IDF Air Force, and then immigrated to America and settled in Westchester.
This father began to cry. He hadn’t even known Chaim Grossman was still alive. I leaned close to him and told him that Chaim Grossman was very much alive and that I would be seeing him the following Shabbos. We took this photo as this father wanted to send his love to his “Godfather”.
The next Shabbos, I asked Chaim to sit in the center of the shul as I began my sermon. I told him that 3000 miles away there lived a man that carried his name and who was raising his family to follow in the ways of Hashem.
“This is incredulous!”, I said, “What is the mathematical probability that on the exact Shabbos, the ONLY Shabbos in the entire year, that we would fly out there, it would be the same Shabbos of his daughters Bat Mitzvah? What are the chances that after 4 hours of partying, we would have that conversation about the origin of his name?
And what are the chances that the Shabbos that I would return to NYC to tell this story to his namesake would be when we would begin reading the book of “Shemot” which is mistranslated as “Exodus” but which actually means “Names”. The entire second book of the Five Books of Moses is called “Names” because our Rabbis teach us that one of the ways our ancestors broke free of their slavery was by keeping their Jewish names!” As I looked out at the crowd, I ket repeating “What are the chances?!!”
And then I pulled out this photo, printed and framed, and looked Chaim in the eye. As he raised his numbered arm to receive the photo of his “Godson”, everyone began to cry. You see, Chaim had never been blessed with any children. And yet now he had a proud Jew halfway around the world who was carrying his name and who would pass it on to his children’s children.
I will never forget the moment when Chaim stood up and blessed Hashem. I will never forget the deafening applause that followed.
And I will never forget the image of this holy Holocaust survivor Chaim hobbling out of the synagogue holding tightly to the framed photo of a miracle. As Albert Einstein once said “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
I had thought I was going to California on vacation but I was really being sent on a mission to witness the lesson of Chaim which means “Life”. As the Talmud Taanit 5b says “If our descendants are alive, then our patriarchs are alive.”
P.S. Chaim Grossman and Chaim Valencia have been in touch since then and the story goes on. Lchaim – “to Life”!