We are saddened and our hearts are broken once again by the tragic events in Poway, California. We have all been touched in one way or another by the work of Chabad and, as it turns out, my roots run quite deeply at that particular Chabad in Poway, San Diego.
Twenty-six years ago my non-Jewish sister-in-law was walking in a mall in San Diego when she saw a rabbi. She approached him and gave the rabbi her husband’s (my brother’s) name and phone number so he could be contacted. Each year the rabbi called my brother, attempting to establish a connection. On the fifth year of calling, a conversation ensued and a friendship began, and my brother’s two non-Jewish children began going to the Chabad school run by this rabbi.
My brother would tell me from time to time about his Rabbi Mendy. I politely listened because in my mind I thought of myself as a serious Jew, and anyone involved with Chabad was playing small-ball, not like the major leaguer I felt I was.
Eleven years ago, when my brother was diagnosed with cancer, I felt it to be as appropriate a time as ever to visit my brother and finally meet his Rabbi Mendy, bestowing honor upon my brother. On Shabbat, I planned to stay at Rabbi Mendy’s house and I would read the Torah in shul, as I felt this would further honor my brother David, as he could be proud of his kid brother.
At the Shabbat table that evening, Rabbi Mendy said a most profound thing to me, which changed my entire perspective on life and Judaism. He said, “Donn, you grew up with the idea that if somebody is sitting at a Shabbat table, but in an hour will be driving their car, you consider the mitzvot they do now as worthless. We, however, consider each blessing they make and each mitzvah they do as if the world had been created for that moment.”
There is another even more impactful event that happened at the Poway Chabad. At some point during his illness, my brother was provided with tefillin by Rabbi Mendy. A few months after my initial visit, when my brother was weakened by chemotherapy and radiation treatments and was toward the end of his life, I flew back to California. On Shabbat I stayed at Rabbi Mendy’s house, adjacent to the shul, once again. My brother’s wife drove David on Friday evening right before Shabbat to the Poway Chabad shul. It takes a healthy person 30 seconds to walk into the shul, but for my brother and his depleted body, it took five minutes and sapped him of all of his energy.
Shabbat was coming in, and the sun was rapidly setting as he entered the shul sweating and out of breath. We grabbed a wooden library chair and he plopped down into it. Rabbi Mendy approached him and asked quietly, “Reb Dovid, have you put tefillin on today?” It was literally seconds before Shabbat and David had sunk into the chair. We lay the tefillin on his arm and head, and with his remaining energy he uttered the words of Shema Yisrael, breathing deeply and trying to catch his breath between each word.
As I describe this scene now, I shed the same sweet tears I did when I witnessed that beautifully sad but sublime event. My life has been worth living if just to witness that scene, seeing my beloved brother proclaiming his belief in God and unifying His name, even as he suffered, knowing his time and his number of breaths were limited. My brother David loved Judaism and kindled the love of Judaism in me when I was 5 years old. Yet he was not ritually observant. But at that moment, he was most profoundly observant, perhaps more than I will ever be.
As for my brother’s non-Jewish son, he said Kaddish for his father the entire year and ultimately made aliyah and served in the Israel Defense Forces. He speaks Hebrew fluently and has converted to become fully Jewish.
Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld and his family were in Florida when this tragedy in Poway took place. We send him, his congregants and friends and our brothers and sisters in Poway blessings of moral and spiritual strength, health, healing and happiness. We pray for their well-being and, as requested by Rabbi Rubenfeld, will try to do more mitzvot with deeper love and connection for am Yisrael, our Jewish brothers and sisters.
By Rabbi Donn Gross
Rabbi Donn Gross is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Dovid in Caldwell.