By Dr. David Nesenoff
I only remember his first name. We all sat at Rabbi Yossi Schildkraut‘s S. Paulo Shabbos table. There were families, friends and visiting businessmen. Michel, a father of four, moved to Israel from Brazil; he was now back in Brazil just for a couple of weeks for some meetings.
After the fish, meat, rice, beans, vodka and scotch, we sang. Nigunim, other melodies without words, songs with words, banging on the table, clapping and then the old favorite “Jerusalem of Gold” crept into the medley. We smiled and laughed when Michel continued on after the first stanza; after all, who knows all the stanzas to that song? Michel knew all three, as the rest of us only joined in for the refrain, “Yerushalayim shel zahav.” We finished up with all the appropriate harmony followed by the awkward moment awaiting the next musical request.
But Michel quietly noted to all that the golden song about Jerusalem had been written right before the 1967 war and that following the battle of six days an additional verse was added. He began to softly sing that final stanza in Hebrew, the words that captured an eternal moment of time when Jerusalem was once again home, “We have returned to the market, the cistern and the square; the shofar calls on the Temple Mount in the Old City.”
And Michel began to cry. The Shabbat table was still. His voice cracked and he paused. Soon, I was tearing as well. The reality of our people’s history, legacy, frailty and future emerged right there among the challah crumbs and the stained table cloth from my spilled wine.
I was on a 10 day speaking tour in Brazil with audiences in S. Paulo, Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro, delivering the message of the Rebbe, “We are b’nai Yisroel; we are the children of Israel.” Yes, children are eternal and that is why we have an eternal relationship with the land that G-d gave us. I have had the merit of offering my humorous presentation, laden with the Rebbe’s words, in Australia, Ireland, England, Canada and throughout the entire United States. But there in Brazil, at that Shabbat table, the children of Israel did what children do. They cried.
The Portuguese greeting and mantra “tudo bem” (“all is well”) was uttered by all the shluchim during my inaugural journey to South America. Tudo bem, Baruch Hashem. These emissaries indeed fulfill their personal commitment to the Rebbe’s vision of reaching every Jew in the world. And the Jewish souls they have found, collected and gathered are warm and searching and eager and questioning and learning and trying and struggling, but tudo bem, all is well.
I must admit that although my Chabad global speaking tours have made me a seasoned traveler, I was a bit nervous prior to this trip to Brazil. I’m not sure why but there were enough reasons that fed my apparent hunger for apprehension and anxiety. And then when I arrived at the Miami airport departure gate as I waited for the boarding announcement, I noticed a white-bearded chosid sitting there. His hat was upside down resting on a chair so a clue to his chossidic “brand” was hidden.
“Are you Chabad?” I asked.
In a secretive manner he replied, “I try to be.”
He kept his cards close to his chest, not revealing very much about himself while he interrogated me. He then borrowed my U.S. phone to make some local calls; he had me watch his luggage while he left to pray; and upon his return presented his business card. The One Above quells our fears and protects us on our travels. My new flying companion was none other than Rabbi Shabsi Alpern, Brazil’s Head Shliach.
When I arrived in S. Paulo, Rabbi Dovid Goldberg shared with me some of the woes of the largest South American country that he now calls home. There is crime, corruption, and a high cost of living, but tudo bem, all is well.
The Jews filled his shul that evening and they laughed and they cried and they laughed as I spoke. I am often told in various countries and in regions of the U.S., “The Jews are different here; their humor is different.” But it is proven time and time again that the very first Jew who was born to Abraham and Sarah was not named “Sadness” or “Sobriety.” His namesake Laughter, Yitzchak still runs through our veins. Like children we cry; but like our very first of kin, we also, all giggle and laugh the same.
I had the honor of meeting with Mr. Meyer Nigri, whose father, may he rest in peace, just recently passed away. Mr. Nigri has not missed a kaddish for his father and has gone to great lengths to do so.
His business responsibilities like his philanthropic responsibilities are both enormous. Literally over 200 tzedakah commitments including the famous Shluchim Online School, the Brazilian Simcha Fund, K-Space buildings and programs for young people to meet each other, and he enthusiastically supports the good work of Rabbi Dovid Grossman‘s Zoharim Youth Village in Israel, to mention just a few.
And yet Mr. Nigri’s endless time, personal attention and warmth shown to me, a visitor, measured in the great footsteps of Abraham’s hospitality.
CO-STARS OF BRAZIL
There was a bris. Rabbi Schildkraut mentioned that the parent’s siblings all met at his shul and they all married Jews as well; and there have been many brisim. I asked the “what ifs.” What if the shul wasn’t here? What if Chabad wasn’t here? What if the Rebbe didn’t send shluchim to Brazil?
Rabbi Schildkraut, who is so loved for his personal genuine warmth, simply shrugged and answered me with his beautiful silent wide smile, that can only be translated as “tudo bem.” His menshlach sons whom I met, Shmuli and Berel, obviously learned well from their parents who have successfully raised a family and a community while mastering a foreign tongue in a far off environment.
To hear Rebbetzin Schildkraut tell a story in fluent Portuguese, one need not comprehend a word to thoroughly understand her enthusiasm and zest for teaching Yiddishkeit.
My dear talented friend Rabino Mendi Labkowski of Curitiba, who is so joyous, takes on all tasks with simcha and a kibbitz. His father-in-law, Rabbi Yoseph Dubrawsky, has built a community with expertise and with great blessings from the Rebbe.
My interpreter (and a talented author) Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Beuthner confessed that from his glass booth he interrupted his interpreting on more than one occasion because I made him laugh. We both farbrenged into the night with Reb Mendi and so many others from all different backgrounds.
Some visitors to the famous Rio de Janeiro may stay up a bit late for the Carnivale festival, but Rio’s shliach, Rabbi Yehoshua Goldman, and I shmoozed till the early hours of the morning discussing the endless endeavor to understand the deep phenomena of the Rebbe’s global mission.
And my new dear friends, Rabbis Dovid Goldberg, Dovid Weitman and Eliyahu Rosenfeld are co stars along with their shluchos and beautiful families who build, teach, console, cook, cater, help, host, care and drive stick shift cars in heavy traffic that will come to a complete stand still as the World Cup soccer/football event converges on Brazil.
But long after the global sporting saga concludes, the goals of the Rebbe’s pioneering teams will continue to further their explorations into these cities and beaches and forests and Shabbos tables that are filled with the ingathering of Jewish souls.
Rabbi Yossi Schildkraut opined, “We shluchim stepped foot into these unchartered places not knowing what to expect, but I believe the Rebbe knew very well from the start what we would accomplish.” Reb Yossi grinned under his full, wise, chasidishe beard, “We shluchim said to the Rebbe that we have no experience; we don’t know the language; we have no business skills; we are shy and not trained for this.” And Reb Yossi said that the Rebbe answered, “Perfect, you are the right ones for the job, go.”
“DO MORE JEWISH”
My shlichus also continues as I travel and speak to Chabad centers and Jewish communities and institutions. Students lined up so respectfully to chat with me after my presentation at the Renascenca Jewish School in S. Paulo. One young man decided that he would now put on tefillin everyday; another student told me that he would “upgrade” his Shabbos observance. Three teenage girls told me how they were inspired and wanted to “do more Jewish.” My speeches encourage the “doing” of Jewish and not just the “feeling” of Jewish.
And so at Rabbi Schildkraut’s Shabbos table, I wiped away the embarrassing tears from my eyes hoping no one would notice that I was also crying along with Michel. It seems we were all moved when he became emotional. Michel’s sweet quivering voice continued to sing the final words of the song’s updated stanza, “And from the caves in the rocks, one thousand suns glow again; we will go down to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho.”
Perhaps Michel cried for missing his wife in Israel; perhaps he cried for missing his four little ones back at home. Or perhaps he cried because we are indeed just children. We are forever the children of Israel who cry and yearn to return to the Temple Mount in the Old City. And those additional words Michel sang to us are indeed correct; we will go down to the Dead Sea; and we will return by way of Jericho.
And I am learning first hand that we will also return to our Temple Mount, our Yiddishkeit, our Torah and our mitzvot by way of Brazil …and by way of all the foreign lands and sacred homes of all the Rebbe’s precious shluchim. Yes, Baruch Hashem, all is well, tudo bem.
To all my new friends in S. Paulo, Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro, Thank you! Obrigado!