Yisroel (Steve) Rambach of Springfield, IL, writes about his fascinating trip to 770, but first tells about his path to Judaism through the help of his local Shliach. Enjoy reading his personal diary, and what he learned along the way.
The Past: Growing up in Judaism
My upbringing of Judaism was near nonexistent. I was forced into going to a Reform Sunday school for two and a half hours every Sunday until I was sixteen. Each session consisted of thirty minutes of Hebrew study by an overbearing man who belittled me not in words but body language weekly as to how dumb I was. Having a language deficiency, I never picked up Hebrew and was never qualified to becoming Bar Mitzvah. Thus, I was not qualified to be a man in the Jewish eyes.
By the time I was in my twenties, I felt completely ‘excommunicated’ from the entire Jewish community.
At the age of 28, I was not only a child but unofficially ‘excommunicated’ by my ascribed religion. I joined the ranks of Martin Buber, Moses Maimonides and Spinoza, as my consolation prize. At least no one knew that if you are excommunicated everyone has to stay 6 feet away from you at all times. Looking back, that might have been the tipping point in my search of God.
I always explained to people that I was brought up Jewish, joined a Methodist Book club, and traveled the globe researching and being enveloped by the religions of the world. Many interesting things happened.
Along comes Mendy: The road back to Judaism – 2013
Mendy is a young Orthodox Rabbi from Chicago and started visiting Jews in Springfield in 2013. The first time I met him he was wearing a big black hat and a dark suit jacket, just like the men I saw during my trip to Israel. He would come during the major Jewish religious holidays with presents and explanations about what the holiday was about. It wasn’t that I was totally ignorant about Judaism. I had amassed something in my Sunday school career.
Mendy was a fun guy. I enjoyed seeing him 3 or 4 times a year. Then comes the earthquake announcement: “I’m moving to Springfield to set up a Chabad.”
Now that appeared problematic. I have no desire to become Orthodox or learn anything about them which seemed to me a religion on the far right. Holiday visits were good enough for me. He was a friend but moving here was more than I thought I could handle. At least he didn’t know I was unofficially excommunicated. But as life has its twist and turns, I began to get sucked into the Chabad events. Mendy doesn’t do things half way. In fact, I liked him so much that I said “I will photograph your events.” That increased the volume of my participation.
Along with events, the special holiday visits continued. 2016 – One night of Hanukah he brought presents and two of his friends with tall hats. I served Kosher wine. Celebration. Mendy says let’s hear about a miracle that you have had this year. I said having a religious relationship with an Orthodox Jew was my major miracle. Libby answers I think it would be a miracle if you studied with my husband about Judaism. We began to have weekly sessions. It was kind of a Jewish Book Club with only the two of us participating.
We started with the book The Ultimate Jew by Professor Herman Branover. It is about the great Rebbe – Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
The following book was the Tanya which is the most influential Hassidic manual of Jewish spiritual thought ever written. I love philosophy; this was and is right up my alley.
Somewhat later he asked “Are you interested in going to New York with me?” This year Libby and I are not traveling because we are in the process of remodeling our kitchen. I was grateful for an opportunity to escape.
I said yes. And then he asked: “Do you have a Hebrew name?”
“Would you like one?”
“When we go to New York, you are going to get your Hebrew name. Names are usually given at birth, but now you will get to pick yours. We will do this at 770.”
770 is the Hassidic Jews’ Most Holy Place. (Hasidic is a member of a sect founded in Poland in the 18th century by the Baal Shem Tov and is characterized by its emphasis on mysticism, prayer, ritual strictness, religious zeal and joy.)
I remembered a person I meet in the book The Ultimate Jew called the Baal Shem Tov (Yisroel). He is one of the most interesting people I have ever read about. He was a mystic, teacher and loved everyone from the common man to the higher ups. I could relate to his life from what I do at Lanphier.
I walked out of his house and was thinking my Hebrew name would be Baal Shem Tov (Yisroel) but I needed to research.
I read a few books; Baal Shem Tov: Faith, love and joy of the Legendary Kabbalah Master; The Legend of the Baal-Shem Tov – Martin Buber; The Tremble of Love-A novel of Baal Shem Tov – Ani Tuzman.
After hours of reading, my first instinct bore out. Yisroel will become my name.
He was a healer and spiritual guide. It is said that everywhere he went he encountered the Shechinah, the Sacred Presence. He was a teacher who saw love everywhere and beckoned it forth from the hearts of rag pickers, ruby merchants, midwives and murderers (Ani Tuzman). I hope it can be said that in my life I connected with many people in my own way similarly to what the Baal Shem Tov (Yisroel) did in his life.
Travel: Thursday June 22, 2017 – St Louis to New York
We stayed at Rabbi and Miriam Swerdlow’s house. I became kindred spirits with Miriam and had some interesting talks. She is perceptive, a noted national speaker and my age.
After telling her my religious upbringing story and that I was going to get a Hebrew name and studying the Tanya, she said to me, “it looks like you’re coming home.”
Friday June 23, 2017: – 770 – Brooklyn, New York
My goal on this trip was to immerse myself in Orthodox Judaism. I ate exclusively Kosher and spent a good deal of time at 770. (770 took the name of its address on Eastern Parkway.) This site is open 24/7.There is constant praying and socializing. The atmosphere was like something that I have never been before.
Before each prayer, a path from the high platform to the Ark is made for the Great Rebbe who they believe is the Messiah. I’m talking about genuine excitement of the Coming of the Rebbe. I asked Mendy, “Why do you think he is the Messiah?”
Mendy said “We stopped seeing him in 1994. He never lied and he said – not in these words – that he was the Messiah.”
To understand the atmosphere of 770, I need to explain some history of Moshiach.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon known as Maimonides (b 1135) is one of the greatest, most prolific and influential Torah scholars and philosophers of the Middle Age. He was born in Spain in the year 1136 and set the parameters of who would be the true Messiah.
“One day there will arise a dynamic Jewish leader, a direct descendant of the Davidic dynasty, who will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, gather Jews from all over the world and bring them back to the Land of Israel. He will be Moshiach. (Hebrew word for “messiah”.)”
Judaism believes that through this leadership, humankind can and will change. The leadership quality of Moshiach means that through his dynamic personality and humility, he will inspire all people to strive for good. He will transform a seemingly utopian dream into a reality.
All mankind will worship one G-d, and live a spiritual and moral way of life. The Jewish nation will be occupied with learning Torah and its secrets. His unique example and leadership will inspire mankind to change direction.
Maimonides states that Moshiach will first rebuild the Temple and then gather in the exiles. At this time, all Jews will return to full Torah observance and practice.
All the nations of the world will recognize Moshiach to be a world leader and will accept his dominion. In the messianic era, there will be world peace, no more wars nor famine.
Moshiach will be heralded as a true Jewish king, a person who leads the way in the service of God.
The Talmud states that it will be before the Hebrew year 6000. (The year today is 5777.)
“Why does everyone believe the Rebbe is the Moshiach?” I asked Mendy. He said “That is what the Rebbe said before he was no longer seen. “I will not be with you physically but I am still with you.”” Mendy said the Rebbe never lies.
Maimonides set four criteria for the Messiah:
- Studies a tremendous amount of time studying the Torah
- Does every Mitzvah to perfection
- Fights the wars of God
- Makes it his responsibly to bring Torah and Mitzvah to every Jew in the world.
He founded the Chabad system that has enhanced the spread Judaism worldwide thus making him the only person to fulfill all four criteria.
“In general,” the Rebbe says, “mankind must strive to perform more acts of goodness and kindness. The Jew is mandated to learn and be aware of the messianic redemption, and strengthen his or her faith in Moshiach’s ultimate and imminent arrival. The more fulfills the charity, service and Torah, the sooner Moshiach will return.”
People from all over the world come to 770. Jews fly to 770 to get married, hold Bar mitzvah, etc. The complete atmosphere was more intense than even the Wailing Wall that I visited in Jerusalem. 770 was specifically exciting emotionally for any day the Messiah will come!
The surprising thing to me is that I walked into 770 as a stranger but I knew many people. Mendy’s two brothers and friends of Mendy who came from various places in the country to visit the Springfield Chabad were all at 770. It was like I was at home. And if I didn’t know them, they came to me.
It reminded me of the experience I had when my dad took me to his Jewish fraternity in University of Illinois Champaign. We entered the house and people were coming at me like I was their long lost friend. Turned me off. These people at 770 were genuine. I started inviting people to my naming not realizing they would perhaps be there because it was part of the mainstream events.
The Sabbath – the time of the sunset
At sunset, I emptied my pockets of my wallet and cell phone. I could not use my camera. I didn’t touch them again till sunset the next day. Non-Wired, unplugged I was. My conception of the Sabbath was total prayer. [You cannot drive and if you are going to a particular destination and do not make it by sun set you stop the car and walk or stay there till the next sunset.]
We ate dinner at Rabbi and Miriam Swerdlow’s house. It started at around 9:00 pm and lasted to 1:00 am. So much food and conversation. It had to be at least a seven course dinner. This was also the longest Sabbath of the year due to the arrival of summer. After dinner I went to bed and Mendy went back to 770. It was fun. The Sabbath is a time for family and many of our host and hostess’s family came. We sat at a gigantic table that seated 25 and filled it.
Saturday June 24, 2017: – 770 – Brooklyn New York
Shabbat (“Sabbath”) is the centerpiece of Jewish life, according to the Talmud, Shabbat is equal to all the other commandments. Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the following evening after nightfall.
Sabbath is a holy day, so on Friday night, a special prayer over wine is made called Kiddush (sanctification). After Kiddush, Shabbat is celebrated with a huge meal. Actually, there are three meals, the night Sabbath starts, one the next day and a smaller one in the late afternoon. The Shabbat meal often includes heartwarming stories, songs and Torah thoughts so that the meal is a delight for the soul as well.
We started at 770 with Torah and prayers.
Then to a special Farbrengen (joyous gathering) to celebrate the Rebbe. As Mendy stated “he cannot been seen or heard but we know that he is present.” L’Chaim (to Life)!
Where I sat at the Farbrengen, we ate hummus, chips and other snack foods. It was like a college bull session. Mendy, I would guess, slept about three hours a day spending most of the time in New York praying and going to Farbrengens and prayers.
We left at around 1:45 and headed to lunch-dinner at Mendy’s uncles house, Shimon and Margula Roumani. Shimon is a professional photographer. He has taken many of the famous pictures of the Rebbe. It was fascinating talking to him.
Dinner lasted till around 6:00 pm. It was fantastic. It was a time for connectedness, laughter, storytelling and eating a lot of food for a long period of time.
I left full, tired and grateful for having the chance to directly participate. Not ever been involved in a Sabbath, I assumed everyone prays all day and night. How wrong was I.
Sunday June 25, 2017: -770- Brooklyn New York
Today I get a Jewish name
But first Mendy and I had to go to mikvah. It looks like a miniature swimming pool but it is more complicated. The mikvah offers the gift of purity and holiness.
The mikvah must contain a minimum of 200 gallons of rainwater that was gathered and siphoned into the mikvah pool in accordance with a highly specific set of regulations. The rainwater definitely softened my skin. I enjoyed it.
On to my favorite coffee shop, Chocolatte, for a latte. This is on the ground floor of a Jewish children’s museum that we toured during our stay and was quite interesting.
Yisroel – My Hebrew name
The Midrash (early commentary on the Torah) relates that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of three virtues. The first merit mentioned is that they didn’t change their names. This is considered significant, because all their names led to their ultimate redemption. Moreover, it is said that by maintaining their own language, the Jews effectively separated themselves from the Egyptians, which decreased their involvement in idolatry. The same can be said for keeping their Jewish names.
In general, the Hebrew name of every object is the conduit for its divine energy. It is the channel through which the soul’s energy reaches the body. It is said that parents receive a glimmer of divine inspiration when they give their child a Jewish name. Maybe that would be true for me; after all, I researched it and choose it.
I had two choices of receiving my name; a side room or up on the platform in the middle of the huge room for $100. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was on the big stage called the Bimah. (This is a platform in a synagogue holding the reading table used when chanting or reading portions of the Torah and the Prophets.)
The moment they called “Yisroel son of Floyd” to the platform my name became official.
My name was called and I stood above the masses of people with Mendy to my right.
I stood next to Rabbi Yisroel David Shmueli who was the Torah reader and next to him was Rabbi Nochum Kaplinsky who was the handler making sure all is running as it should.
I was really nervous because I knew no Hebrew and had to read a two-page section from a prayer book. I could only read it because the works were spelled out phonetically. I’m not a good reader in English but Hebrew is worse. Way worse.
Rabbi Shmueli showed me where we will read in the Sefer Torah. This Sefer Torah is a handwritten copy of the Torah. It must meet extremely strict standards of production. It is stored in the holiest spot within the synagogue. I used the belt of the Sefer Torah at the beginning and at the end of the reading. I held the two wooden handles.
Blessing on the Torah
Yisroel: Bless who is blessed
Congregation: Blessed be God who is blessed for all eternity.
Yisroel: Blessed be God who is blessed for all eternity.
All of a sudden Rabbi Kaplinsky came over to me and draped his prayer shawl over my shoulders. Now that was special.
Yisroel: Blessed are You, God our God, King of the universe, chose us from among all the nations, and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You God, Giver of the Torah.
The Reading of the Torah takes place.
Yisroel: Blessed are You, God our God, King of the universe, who gave us the Torah of truth, and implanted eternal life within us. Blessed are You God, Giver of the Torah.
Rabbi Shmueli: May He who blessed our fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, bless Yisroel son of Floyd because he has come up for the honor of God, for the honor of the Torah. In this merit, may the Holy One, blessed be He, protect and deliver him from all trouble and distress and from any affliction and illness, and may He endow all his efforts with blessing and success together with all Yisroel his brethren; and let us say, Amen.
Mendy concluded the naming by saying Yechi (a prayer for the coming of Moshiach).
Like any other ceremony, the party follows. Mendy’s uncle Shimon came and I felt was honored that he took the time to participate and photograph the gathering. Shimon also asked someone to make food appear, and the food appeared. People wandered in and out congratulating me and asking how I chose my name. We drank toast of Russian vodka and it was fun.
We followed up the naming by going out to breakfast and then back to 770 to write to the Rebbe. Mendy, as mentioned, explained that the Rebbe is not seen or heard but is present. He communicates through past letters. Now was the time to ask him questions or for blessings to pour in. Caleb and I sat down and wrote a letter to the Rebbe.
1 Tammuz 5777
I am excited beyond my comprehension to have had the opportunity at the age of 71 at 770 to be given a Hebrew name. It was here today that my name became Yisroel named after Baal Shem Tov. I learned about him for the first time when I read The Ultimate Rebbe by Herman Branover, Avraham Nayeh. That led me to Baal Shem Tov who is one of the most charismatic, fascinating people I ever read about. The key thing that attracted me to him was that he was a teacher and loved the common people.
I am a teacher and college counselor and will be starting my 50th year at my high school, Lanphier, working with students as a teacher and counselor. I retired and then was able to come back to hopefully make a difference in people’s life.
I joined a Chabad headed by Mendy Turen. Because of my studies with him, he led me to you and then to 770. I am asking you for your blessings to allow me to continue what I am doing for many more years with good health and keep my passion growing to help other to lead a productive life which in turn will help their families.
Please bless my wife and my three children (listed by names) Please bless my grandchildren (listed by names)
770 is a phenomenal place. Help me to emulate the good that you and Baal Shem do and have done.
Yisroel, son of Ruth
Mendy came back with a book of Rebbe’s letters and told Caleb and I to randomly pick a page and read the letter which would address what we had written.
The Rebbe replied
By the Grace of God
3rd of Iyar 5732
Brooklyn, New York
Blessings and Greeting
I duly received your letter. As requested, I will remember you in prayer for the fulfillment of your heart’s desire for good, especially that you should have true nachas which is Yiddish Torah nachas for each and all of your children.
In the present day and age, when it is desired to influence children, experience has shown that it is more effective if it comes from friends or acquaintances, rather than directly from parents. Children are less inclined to accept advice, guidance or suggestions from parents because they think that their parents still consider them immature, or wish to impose their authority on them, etc. Therefore, it would be well that you should find friends that would speak to your son, but of course, they should do so in a way that would not arouse his suspicion that they have been asked by his parents to speak to him.
Inasmuch as all members of a Jewish family constitute one body, it is clear that an additional effort by one member of the family in matter of Torah and Mitzvahs is of benefit to all the family.
This is particularly true in the case of parents who, in any case, have to set an example of high standards. Needless to say, there is always room for improvement in all matters of Torah and Mitzvahs which are infinite, being derived from the infinite. Although these should be observed for their own sake, they are at the same time also the channels and vessels to receive and enjoy G-d’s blessing in all needs.
May G-d grant that you should have good news to report in all of the above.
Caleb, a lawyer, did the same as I did and the Rebbe’s reply dealt with his questions. I read Caleb’s letter and understood it had nothing to do with what I wrote but everything to do with what he wrote. Amazing!
What did I take away from this experience?
I literally had no formal connections to the Jewish community. In my mind, I was a child which led to excommunication. The search for God turned to reading books and traveling but it still lacked a sense of religious belonging- social connectedness. I felt like tumbleweed being blown around the prairie haphazardly. I had Jewish roots but stunted Jewish experiences. That is not negative for my call to God continued to strengthen.
Mendy then comes into my world bringing me community via Chabad, Tanya (structure), 770 (participation). I no longer feel like an excommunicated child. And then when the Baal Shem Tov (b 1701), a Jewish mystical rabbi, leads me to a Hebrew name it all seems like a Rod Sterling twilight zone episode.