Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Kratz, caretaker of 770, and Rabbi Yehuda Pevzner, Shliach and Director of Mitzvah Tank NYC , arrived in Lower Manhattan, where they parked their tank on a busy street corner and proceeded with another routine day of mivtzoim.
Then an elderly man approached, and things started getting interesting.
“The truth is that when we asked him if he was Jewish, it was a joke. Why would we ask a priest, dressed in long flowing white robes, with a huge cross dangling across his chest, if he was Jewish?” said Rabbi Kratz.
But the priest actually answered “yes.”
“What do you mean? Was your mother Jewish?”
He answered, “My parents were both Jews.”
The elderly man explained that in an attempt to save him as a child from the Holocaust, his parents handed him over to the church, where he lived out the duration of World War II. He remained after the war and began studying to be a priest r”l. In his school, he was constantly bullied. When he complained to his teacher, himself a Jewish-born priest, the teacher told him that a Jew will always be persecuted…until he becomes a successful priest. And so it was… He became ordinated and served a long career as a priest until his move to New York 15 years prior.
“Why don’t you come to synagogue?” Rabbi Kratz asked the man.
“Is a priest allowed to come?” he asked with real sincerity.
“I work for the Lubavitcher central synagogue in Crown Heights, and I invite you to come.”
Rabbi Kratz handed the man his business card and promised to keep in touch. Seeing he needed help, the pair helped him hail a taxi and gave him a chair to sit on until it arrived. After all, the man is an almost 90-year-old Jew…
“I talked to him about speaking to people about the Holocaust. He demurred, saying that we have to pray that it will never happen again. I encouraged him to speak to the young people about it, thus ensuring that it won’t happen again,” Rabbi Kratz said.
Before leaving, the elderly man, who until recently had no visible connection to Yiddishkeit, said he would stay in touch, and try to visit 770. “Make sure to prepare some gefilte fish and kugel for me,” he told them. “Or at least some chopped liver.”
Even after decades of living as a priest in foreign lands, his Jewish spark was never extinguished. It flickered deep inside. All it took for it to burst aflame was a brief encounter with the Rebbe MH”M’s Shluchim.