Yosef Groner is a Chabad rabbi in Charlotte, North Carolina. His accent is straight out of Brooklyn but if you listen closely you can hear an occasional southern drawl. Fifteen years in the Tar Heel State must have had some effect on the gregarious rabbi.
It’s a week after Rosh Hashanah, and Groner is preparing his Yom Kippur address. He takes a call from one Harvey Yelnick. The name is vaguely familiar but otherwise meaningless to the rabbi.
“Rabbi Groner speaking,” he says leaning back with a smile, one hand cradling a black receiver the other fixing a blue velvet yarmulke on his thinning hair.
“Hi Rabbi, this is Harvey Yelnick, you don’t know me but I have to say, you guys don’t even know what you do. I’ve never met you but I have to thank you.”
“Well, you’re very welcome,” Groner chuckles, “sounds like you have a story….”
“Indeed, I do. It regards my daughter, Debra.”
Debra’s in her early thirties, Yelnick says, living in Los Angeles. She has a great job, loves the weather, even the people. The problem is that each year before Rosh Hashanah she puts up a fight about going to a synagogue for the High Holidays. This year, just before Rosh Hashanah, Yelnick calls his daughter to wish her a good year and to offer his annual nudging. Debra is a good daughter but she is also honest:
“Pops, I’m not going to any synagogue this year. I’m sick of it. It’s meaningless to me. I don’t understand it, I don’t get it—none of it resonates with me anymore. Why should I pay two hundred and fifty dollars to listen to some rabbi preaching at me about world peace when I could be at the office finishing a report? This Rosh Hashanah I’m going to work. For me, Judaism is dead.”
Debra’s words are like a dagger in her father’s heart. Yelnick feels deeply for his daughter but he knows she’s stubborn. Once she’s made her mind there’s not much use in trying to change it. Yelnick hangs up the phone with a heavy heart. He doesn’t consider himself to be the most religious Jew in the world, but once a year on Rosh Hashanah a Jew belongs in a synagogue. Where had he gone wrong in educating his daughter? Why had he failed to pass on to her the same feeling he had for the Jewish faith?
As he sits in his synagogue that Rosh Hashanah, Harvey says an extra prayer for his daughter—and for all the sons and daughters of Israel out there, in Los Angeles, Chicago, Tel Aviv, walking about oblivious to the holiness of the day, lost to the tradition of their people.
Over on the West Coast, Debra Yelnick is walking down Wilshire Boulevard, oblivious to the holiness of the day. She’s three blocks from her office on the corner of Poinsettia and she’s reaching for her cell phone to dial her voice mail. She decides against it when she sees a Chasid walking briskly in her direction. She’ll wait until he passes before making the call. It occurs to her that she has nothing in common with this coreligionist of hers, that their worlds are so disparate and unbridgeable. She stops at a red light and sees the chasid walking over to a homeless man sitting beneath the awning of a Persian rug store. The chasid wishes the man a good morning and asks him if he is Jewish. The homeless man’s face lights up and he says yes and that his name is David.
Have you heard the shofar yet today, David? the chasid asks. Don’t think so, David replies. Not to worry, says the chasid, as he removes a ram’s horn from inside his caftan. He removes the kipah from under his hat and places it on David’s dry and matted hair.
The chasid brings the shofar to his lips—and Debra to tears.
The light has turned green but she’s not going anywhere. The cry of the shofar now reverberating on Wilshire Boulevard commands her full attention. She hears in its primal sound something she’d never heard in it before: the sound of a soul crying, the voice of a princess yearning to return to the Palace.
The office down the block is now the farthest thing from her mind. As she makes her way back home, considering her synagogue options—maybe that new agey one, down in Venice—she “processes” the experience she’s just lived. Here’s a homeless man who most people try to steer clear of lest they catch some disease by proximity. Yet the chasid does the exact opposite—he walks over to the man and treats him like a human being. He says to him you’re a Jew like any other. Rosh Hashanah and the mitzvah of shofar is your heritage just as much as the greatest rabbi’s.
She saw Jewish unity in action, she saw a man who valued a stranger and believed in the power of a mitzvah. She saw that Judaism was very much alive….
“So rabbi,” Yelnick concludes, “I just have to say thank you.”
Groner fingers his tie. It’s a bluish-greenish, in a style that went out some time in the early Eighties. His ear is red from pushing the phone for so long against it. Finally he speaks:
“Well, I’m not sure what I did but thank you for telling me this beautiful story. I hope we run into each other one of these days, Harvey.”
“Absolutely, rabbi, absolutely. When my daughter called me after Rosh Hashanah and told me the story, I almost cried. It was the greatest gift G-d could ever have given me. You don’t know how grateful I am, Rabbi Groner, you don’t know how grateful I am…"