By COLlive reporter
During the Covid pandemic, Rabbi Mendel Kaplan received a phone call from a man named Jonathan Weiss, asking whether he could join his shul, Chabad at Flamingo in Thornhill, Toronto, Canada.
Weiss said that until now, he had been driving by car to a distant congregation on Shabbos. He now wanted to begin going to shul on foot and thereby keeping Shabbos.
It was a strange call for Rabbi Kaplan to receive as those were the days of continued government-mandated lockdowns and restricted social interaction. Even the regular crowd avoided coming to shul, Rabbi Kaplan thought to himself.
He told Weiss that he would be most welcome to attend. And Weiss, a happy and sociable person, quickly became an integral part of the community. He has been known to share a good word and a drink with friends and has been growing in his spirituality.
In fact, when the community wanted to host one of their regular Hakhel farbrengens this past Motzoei Shabbos in honor of Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Weiss and his wife Allison Weiss happily agreed. A crowd of 50 people was in attendance, hearing words of Torah and stories from Rabbi Kaplan.
As the night went on, the crowd began to dwindle, and Weiss himself opened up and began telling the story of his life to the few who remained present at nearly midnight.
“Do you know what motivated me to begin this journey? Why was I drawn to Chabad? What pushed me to begin keeping Shabbos?” Weiss rhetorically asked.
“Well, I have a memory from my childhood that would not let me rest. I was born in the late 1960’s in Montreal. Life was difficult and my father left home, leaving my mother with three small children. We moved into a small duplex apartment; the upstairs neighbors were a Lubavitch family.
“This family had a son, Yeina (Yona, in a Yiddish-Russian accent). Although he was a few years older than me, he befriended me and insisted that we walk together every Shabbos morning to the “Yeshiva,” the Chabad Shul on Westbury Avenue. At one point, Yeina’s father bought me my own Siddur and gave it to me as a gift which I deeply cherished.”
“There was another Chabad boy, a friend of Yeina’s, who would encourage me to learn the posuk of “Torah Tzivah” by heart. He would also remind me that my Hebrew name is Yaakov Yosef and that I should learn the Tehillim that begins with those letters. He gave me a calculator as a prize for my efforts.”
When Weiss was 11 years old, the family moved to Ottawa. He then lost contact with his Lubavitcher friends, and his interest in Judaism. He dated a non-Jewish girl years later. At the last minute, before getting married, he said something stopped him from going forward with it.
“I eventually married a Jewish woman, who herself is involved with the Jewish community, but I always remained nostalgic for the memories of the Orthodox Shul I attended with Yeina…”
Weiss said that is why he finally chose to join the Chabad community. “With all the difficulties I went through in my life, there is one object which I cherish: the Siddur I received from Yeina’s father,” he said.
Weiss then stood up and showed the Siddur sitting on the bookshelf in his home. “This Siddur brought me hope throughout my life,” he said.
What drives him crazy, he added, is, “I wonder, where is Yeina today? I have not seen him since 1977 – for over 45 years.”
Rabbi Kaplan, deeply moved by the story, commented that he knew of only one Lubavitcher from Montreal called Yeina, and that he today lives in Toronto as well.
Despite the late hour, Rabbi Kaplan called his colleague Rabbi Yona Shur, director of the Cheder Chabad in Toronto.
“Did you once know a boy in Montreal named Jonathan Weiss?” he asked.
“What? Jonathan? He is one of my favorite childhood memories, but I have not seen him in 45 years,” Rabbi Shur replied.
Some 10 minutes later, Rabbi Shur stood at the front door of the Weiss family. Jonathan Weiss immediately recognized his childhood friend, Yeina Shur, and the two warmly embraced.
“If their embrace was connected to a power plant – it could generate electricity that would heat all of Kyiv…” a person who was present commented.
They sat down and shared memories. Weiss learned that the other boy who taught him verses was Mendel Gurary, who is today a Chabad Shliach in Antwerp, Belgium.
Those present marveled how you could make a child forget everything, but you cannot take away the footsteps that walked to shul, the hands that embraced the Siddur, and the mouth that recited the verses of “Torah Tzivah”…