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Thursday
Oct112018

SHLICHUS ENCOUNTERS OF A CHASSIDIC BUSINESSMAN

For R’ Meir Zigelbom, a Lubavitcher Chassid from Miami and a businessman, traveling is what he does year round. * He often unexpectedly meets Jews and he visits shluchim, seeing how they live and what they contend with. * He gives us a glimpse into the life of a Chassid-businessman who has experienced surprising encounters in out of the way places.

Chabad House in Houston, TexasAt a recent meeting, when I suggested that I interview my brother, Meir, eyebrows were raised. “You want to interview your brother?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why not? Because of our relationship, perhaps I can do a better job of recounting his unusual story.”

“Okay,” said my colleagues, happy that I had given them one less job to do.

Then I was left with the dilemma, should I write as a brother or as an objective person. I decided to minimize my own words and focus more on his stories.

SURPRISING ENCOUNTER ON A CARIBBEAN ISLAND

I would hear my brother’s stories now and then when we had occasion to spend Shabbos together or at family events. I asked and he told.

He is in the textile business for many years. He represents textile companies who import expensive fabrics from various countries and he markets them to stores and factories, which are also in many countries around the world.

A Lubavitcher businessman is not a regular businessman. The Rebbe taught us that you are not alone in the world and you don’t end up in distant places “just because.” In every location there is a mission, a goal. Between business deals, look for the “Chassidishe deal.”

“My business motto is built not only on ethics and trust, which are things that any businessman needs if he wants to remain relevant for the long term,” says R’ Meir. “My name is Jewish and most of my customers identify me as an Orthodox Jew. It is important that they know that a Jew does business in an honest fashion. In this business, there are so many opportunities to make a kiddush Hashem and to give the Rebbe nachas.”

His base of operations is his home in North Miami, in the Beis Menachem community led by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Marlow. From there, he sets out at the beginning of each week and returns home at the end of the week. Sometimes, his trips last even two or three weeks in a row, mainly when he travels to present his wares in distant countries or attends exclusive expos at the ends of the world.

There are shluchim in some of the places who help him out and whom he helps in return. There are also places that don’t have organized Jewish communities and even places where a Jew is a novelty.

“I once went to the Bermuda islands, beautiful islands in the Atlantic. There are a number of main, larger islands surrounded by numerous smaller islands. The island I was on was small, 22 kilometers long (about 14 miles). Due to space limitations, families cannot have more than one car.

“One day, I finished work and went to the local market in the afternoon. I have a hobby of trying exotic fruit. It was a Thursday and a ship had just laid anchor. I was standing and watching when suddenly, a young man approached me and said in English, ‘Are you here for Shabbos on the island?’

“I said, ‘Not that I know of. Why do you ask?’

“I realized that if he was asking, he was Jewish. The truth is, he surprised me. I did not think any Jews lived there. ‘I live here,’ he explained. ‘How about making Shabbos together?’ It turned out he had been in Eretz Yisroel as a student and now lived on the island. As I stood there and watched the berthing, he was surprised to see a Jewish face in this out of the way place. Since I planned on returning home for Shabbos, I took the opportunity to strengthen his Judaism in a conversation that went on for a long time.”

When traveling to places like these, there is no way of knowing when something interesting might happen.

“One night, actually, to be more precise, one morning, I arrived at the airport in Aruba at 4 a.m. I mistakenly thought my flight was leaving at seven. When I walked in, I was surprised to see that the airport was dark and empty.

“I checked things out and saw that my flight was in fact at 9:00. I sat down to wait. When the skies brightened, I stood up and wrapped myself in my tallis and put on t’fillin. Suddenly, I heard someone call out, ‘Is that tallis and t’fillin?’

“The truth is, I was frightened. I had been sure I was the only one there and it turned out, someone was sitting on the side, someone who knew what tallis and t’fillin are! You have to understand that in far-out places like these, there are few, if any, people with knowledge of even basic Judaism.

“I looked toward where the sound was coming from and saw a young man who exclaimed excitedly, ‘I see a Jew, I see a Jew!’ After davening, I went over to him and began a conversation. He was from Venezuela and his name was Alizaro Gonzalez. I knew that his name was common among descendants of Spanish forced converts. I was amazed by his knowledge of Judaism. He quoted many verses from Tanach and displayed a lot of familiarity. I was happy at the opportunity to put t’fillin on with this lost soul but he smiled and said that his mother is not Jewish. Nevertheless, since he was a child, he loved reading about Jews. He was able to tell me about the era of the Mishna and the Gemara and more.

“I asked him again and again, ‘Are you sure you are not Jewish?’ He laughed and said, ‘I checked with my grandmother and she said no.’ We kept in touch for a long time afterward.”

SURPRISE BIRTHDAY GIFT IN WOODLAND HILLS

What stands out about his stories is how the igniting of sparks seems all the more luminous due to the distance and isolation of the places that he visits. It might be putting on t’fillin with just one fellow, but when it happens in a place like Woodland Hills, California, a small place, it has a special flavor.

“When I got to Woodland Hills, I met a Jewish businessman. He was in his 70’s and was irritable, sarcastic and cynical. It wasn’t pleasant being on the receiving end of his sharp tongue and it wasn’t easy to gain his trust when it came to business after he spent a long time telling me about all the different companies who cheated him over the years.

“With time, our business dealings began to build trust and he slowly began to regard me with some affection. In every conversation, after we discussed business, he would ask me, ‘How are you bachur’l’ or would call me ‘yingele.’ He was old enough to allow himself to do so.

“One Elul I visited him on business. I felt confident enough to ask him for a birthday present for my birthday which was that day. He seemed taken aback; he wasn’t expecting such a request. He looked inquiringly and I said, ‘I want five minutes of your precious time to put t’fillin on with you.’

“He was silent. I sensed an intense inner battle taking place. I added, ‘I will put the t’fillin on you and show you what to say.’ He finally blurted out, ‘Okay, why not?’

“Before he would change his mind, I ran to the car and got my t’fillin. I put them on him and he read what I showed him to read from the siddur. At the end, as I removed the t’fillin, he said to me, ‘I grew up as a boy in Connecticut. There were other Jews there but none were religious. I remember that before my bar mitzva, my father took me to someone like you (he said, pointing at my yarmulke), by the name of Rabbi Fleischer. My father asked him to put t’fillin on with me. When he took off the t’fillin he said, ‘Try and see to it that this isn’t the last time.’’

“As he told this to me, he got red in the face and he cried and said, ‘I am 76 years old and today is the second time I am putting on t’fillin.’ He gave me a hug while still crying. This was so contrary to his usual tough demeanor.

“Before we said goodbye, I told him this was the best birthday present I ever got.”

 A DIFFERENT SORT OF PARTING

“These days I go to Houston a lot, but this story happened the first time I went there. I walked through the market to see who the serious players are in the textile industry. I was advised to speak to a certain businessman. I called him and introduced myself. He was very reserved and was not happy to have me come. ‘You want to come? Fine, but I’m not promising to buy from you.’ I wasn’t fazed. That’s usually how it is in the beginning.

“It was Elul and although our meeting was to get acquainted, we ended up closing a nice deal. He then warned me, ‘Listen, you can fool me only once. I just gave you a chance. If everything will be in order we will continue; otherwise, this is your first and last time here.’ I responded, ‘When we start working together, you will regret you didn’t know me earlier.’

“Since he was Jewish, I suggested t’fillin and he agreed. At the time, I was reading stories told by Gil Locks, who is active at a t’fillin stand at the Kosel. He said he encourages people to close their eyes and imagine those beloved to them surrounded by light and to use the opportunity to pray for them.

“I put t’fillin on him and then said, ‘I will give you a few minutes with your Maker and you can imagine those who are beloved to you surrounded by light and ask for whatever you want for them.’

“I left the room and closed the door quietly behind me. When I went back in, I saw that his face was tearstained. When I removed the t’fillin he gave a big sigh and said, ‘You really threw me, you shook me up.’

“I said, ‘I didn’t shake you up; it’s your neshama that experienced an awakening in a way that it hasn’t for a long time.’

“The next time I went to Texas, I called him a few times but could not get through. I called someone else who told me that after 40 years, the person I was trying to reach suddenly closed his business, to the amazement of the entire guild of textile merchants in the area, and he died a short while later.

“I felt that it was kind of like the neshama returning to its Father in heaven a moment before leaving this world, as though this was the only thing his neshama was waiting for.”

THE REBBE CONNECTS ALL TYPES OF JEWS

R’ Meir travels often to a myriad of places. Here is a partial list: Texas, California, New York, Chicago, Canada, the Caribbean, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Latin American countries like Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.

In nearly all of these places, there are shluchim of the Rebbe (though not yet in Honduras), and R’ Meir is helped by them, mainly with food and a minyan. “I also try to reciprocate with donations and davening for the amud in their communities.”

R’ Meir has a terrific voice and when he is the chazan, you are in for a treat. On the Yomim Nora’im he davens in Great Neck for the shliach, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Geisinsky (see sidebar). “I am able to repay the shluchim, if even in a small way, by davening for the amud.”

He has stories about this too.

“One Shabbos, I had to stay in Puerto Rico with the shliach, Rabbi Mendel Zarchi. After the davening, a clean-shaven guy came over to me with interestingly shaped sideburns. He hugged me and said in Yiddish, ‘Your davening reminded me how I used to go with my father to shul in my childhood. It awakened in me a lot of nostalgic longing.’ I was happy about the anesthetized place within him that I managed to awaken.

“When I went back the next day, Sunday morning, for Shacharis, I suddenly heard a thunderous noise from the street. I went over to the window to see where the noise was coming from and saw a motorcycle zooming down the street. The rider stopped near the Chabad House and as he took off his helmet, I saw the man’s distinctive sideburns. I realized yet again that even the ‘Ahrelistim’ [slang for former Toldos Aharon adherents who left the fold], as they call themselves, have a G-dly spark that is always burning inside them.

“Another time, I was hosted for Shabbos by the shliach, Rabbi Levi Cunin, in Malibu, one of the most beautiful cities in California. It’s on the water and the houses cost a fortune. I went to the Chabad House and met with a fascinating array of Jews with seemingly no connection between them. What they have in common is the Rebbe.

“One of them is sort of the shamash of the Chabad House. He has been living for years in a cheap caravan near the Chabad House and has become a part of it. He says Kaddish by heart (which is rare in places like this). It turns out he says Kaddish for a Jewish actor in Hollywood who died, who he was a big fan of.

“There was someone who came over to thank me at the end of the davening. He introduced himself and then I discovered he is a producer of a well-known series of movies, a wealthy man who is highly regarded in the movie capital of the world. There are many other interesting types there and I think only a Chabad House can create such an amazing connection between such disparate characters.

“As I tell this to you, I am reminded of another Shabbos, one that I spent with the shluchim, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Groner’s family, in North Carolina. After the davening there was a big kiddush. I sat with everyone but sort of observed from the sidelines and saw some graduates of the Lubavitch yeshiva system, alongside businessmen, doctors, a baal t’shuva who is a member of long standing in the Chabad House (his son is already a shliach), and a woman who wore a kippa … They all lustily sang a niggun attributed to the students of the Tzemach Tzedek.

“When I shared my observations afterward with the shliach and his wife, I added that it appeared to me that for them these are the moments of truly feeling the warmth of Shabbos and that this keeps them going all week. This inclusiveness and connection that I witnessed, only the Rebbe could accomplish.”

LONELINESS AND MESIRUS NEFESH

R’ Meir’s car quickly swallows up the hundreds of miles through the Rio Grande Valley on the highway that connects Houston and the border with Mexico. He has a five to six hour trip ahead of him through hot desert, swarming with jackals and desert animals. Occasionally, he passes an isolated gas station.

What do you eat on these long trips?

“If I don’t have the opportunity to eat with shluchim, I manage with fruit and vegetables or granola and canned goods that I take with me.”

These tiring trips are among the many that he takes, which are all part of his fulfillment of “with his life he brings his bread.” Weeks of exhausting travels whether by car or plane. Naturally, when it comes to Shabbos, far from home, he yearns for a Jewish, even a Chassidic, atmosphere; for Shabbos food and oneg Shabbos. “There is nothing like arriving for Shabbos and eating hot, Jewish food, though I try as much as possible to be home for Shabbos.”

I assume the loneliness throughout the week isn’t easy …

“It’s the shluchim who live in scary isolation,” says my brother, and through his stories he illustrates the isolation the shluchim live with day after day, month after month, year after year. “Each time, I am amazed by their mesirus nefesh. They only have each other and the children. That’s it. I know that when I come, a Lubavitcher guest, I bring a breath of fresh air with me.”

Even today, in the era of speedy communication?

“Yes, even today. Video conversations are not a substitute for family, friends and a community. Think about not being able to go out with the kids to buy ice cream or sit in a local cafe and buy pizza, which are basics in every Chabad community in the world. These are trivial things but are representative of the situation as a whole. This is their life.

“In addition, they need to undertake all sorts of jobs, jobs that usually a family would share with the community, with teachers, etc. In many places, the shluchim are the rabbanim, the parents, the teachers, they prepare their own food, they host, they bury the dead, and many other responsibilities.

“Take this fleeting moment that I saw in the lives of shluchim. They are putting their children to sleep and there’s a knock at the door or the bell rings. A person walks in and sits down. He didn’t come for anything specific; he came to talk, to feel close, to feel some togetherness. Then they need to draw on their patience, after a long day, serve something, smile, sit and listen, advise, etc.

“I see it with the children of shluchim sometimes. They have no one aside from themselves. On one of my visits to Rabbi Shimon Pelman in the Dominican Republic, I saw one of his daughters talking with her brothers in a very motherly tone. I complimented her for her dealing with her brothers so nicely and asked if she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up, ‘because it looks to me like you are very good at it.’ She immediately responded, ‘No, I will be a shlucha when I grow up.’”

It’s definitely a life of sacrifice.

“Sacrifice? Listen to what happened with the brother of the shliach, R’ Sholom Pelman, the shliach in Guatemala. Life is difficult there in the shadow of street gangs and nonstop violence. Every business that has any wish to survive has security guards outside and when I come, they escort me inside to protect against any robbery attempt or even murder. When I leave they escort me to the car and from there I drive directly to the underground parking lot of the hotel. You can’t just walk down the street or hail a taxi on the street; it could end very badly. Life there is like being inside a bubble.

“Those are the conditions that the shluchim there are living under. They live inside a fortified compound surrounded by a wall and a barbed wire fence, with full-time security. I was standing there when suddenly the children arrived with their father. They exited the car and entered the house, dragging with them large canisters of milk. They have no other chalav Yisroel. After that, the shluchim and their children worked hard at straining the milk, and only then poured it into bottles that went into the fridge.

“This is the life of mesiras nefesh that the shluchim live. For me, these are not stories, but facts of life that I encounter on a regular basis.”

SANCTIFYING HASHEM’S NAME IN THE EYES OF THE NATIONS

The yarmulke on his head, the full beard and Jewish appearance, serve as a symbol and example also for non-Jewish business people, who absolutely expect a Jewish businessman to be an exemplar for them.

“I receive a lot of respect from people, thanks to the yarmulke. Even in the most far off places, where no Jew is ever seen, I do not take it off,” he says, which is not something that is readily assumed in the world of American Jewish business.

“Thanks to the yarmulke, many people approach me and begin conversations about Judaism, although they are not necessarily Jewish themselves. In Bermuda, the owner of the hotel where I stayed went to work on me. It turns out that he also serves as a local pastor, and he tried to win souls for his religion. I very quickly set him straight about his mistake,” he says with a smile.

“On one of my long trips through the Rio Grande Valley, I stopped in a convenience store on the side of the road to buy a cold drink. I immediately discerned that the owner was an Arab, along with his son who was in the store. In conversation with them, I found out that he is a former resident of Beit Lechem, and he left and immigrated to the United States in 1949. He owns the gas station and also produces souvenirs from wood.

“I wished him ‘salaam aleikum,’ and he, in surprise, answered me, ‘ahlan wa sahlan marhaba,’ [a traditional Arab expression of welcome to visitors]. Afterward, when I made a loud blessing on the drink, I was amazed to hear father and son answer ‘Amen.’”

These anecdotes are no doubt amusing, but the impact is often more substantive, such as the following story:

“I work with a couple from Taiwan, very devout Christians, who own one of the most exclusive textile companies in the world. They are considered ‘top of the line’ in their field in the United States, and the highest tier designers use their materials exclusively.

“I once traveled with them to a large textile fair in Europe. At the end of the day, we sat in the hotel lobby in order to discuss what we saw and what we still need to find. At one point, the man gave me a really long look. I asked him what it was about, and he told me, ‘I am pleased that G-d had me meet you.’ I answered politely, ‘I am also very pleased and happy to work with you.’

“He continued in a gentle tone, ‘No, you don’t understand. My wife and I heard and read a great deal about the Jewish nation, that it is the Chosen Nation on the part of the Creator. Over time, we were burned a number of times by business people who are members of your nation, and it hurt us that we developed such a negative view of the Chosen Nation. However, these were facts on the ground and I can’t argue with the facts. But since we got to know you, we both know that we were right in our earlier approach toward the Jewish nation, and we admire the Chosen Nation. What happened with those individuals was only a mishap.’

“There is no question that a Jewish appearance and proud Jewish behavior, along with the building of deep trust, generates a Kiddush Hashem with Jewish colleagues and also with those from the gentile nations. The following was said to me by a gentile businesswoman from S. Francisco, ‘You always come here and spread good energy. You are Orthodox, and it looks like you enjoy doing what you believe in, and this brings you happiness.’”

So, what are you really, a businessman or some sort of shliach?

“There are many activities of spreading Yiddishkait or Jewish messages, which I give over and carry out in the course of my work. I am not exclusively a person involved in business, but first and foremost a Jew and a Chassid. Anybody can sell textiles; the job is to be more than that. On more than one occasion, I have encountered Jewish dealers who have since passed on, and some who did not even merit to have a proper Jewish burial. I say Kaddish for them or donate a farbrengen for the elevation of their souls. That is also a form of business…”

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