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Thursday
Aug162018

TURNING A BUS RIDE INTO A CHASSIDIC EXPERIENCE

If, in Beitar Ilit, you were to ask about theChassidishe driver,” everyone would know whom you mean. On his bus, you are greeted with a big smile and are sent off with warm blessings. On the way, you can help yourself to a cold drink, listen to Chabad niggunim, Tefillas HaDerech, and a reminder to count the omer, and even sell your chametz! And of course, you would hear his usual prayer, “May we merit to change our route since Moshiach will come and we will drive directly to the Beis HaMikdash.” * Meet Rabbi Moshe Dovid Cohen, the Lubavitcher bus driver who took the concept ofbus driverto the ultimate level, who considers each trip a shlichus, and shows how it is possible to spread Chassidus even on a bus.

By Zalman Tzorfati

photographs are from Sh’arimIn a short film recently publicized, you see a Lubavitcher Chassid with a long gray beard, sitting behind the wheel of a city bus, take the drivers microphone and announce, “Good morning and welcome to the passengers of Line 298, from the city of Torah and Chassidus, Beitar Ilit, to Yerushalayim, the holy city, via the Derech Chevron road. First off, lets announce for those who say Tefillas HaDerech, we have already left Beitar Ilit and it can be said.

“For your convenience there are bottles of water in the fridge in the front of the bus. There are also cups, self-serve. If someone would like to volunteer to be the waiter and serve the passengers, that would make it easier for people to take a drink.

“We also ask that if you have any garbage, not to throw it on the floor, nor between the seats or between the wall and the seats. There are garbage bags here for whoever needs them and there are napkins and tissues as well. Help me treat the honored passengers with respect, both those on this trip and those who will ride the bus later.

“We truly hope that we will have to change the bus route because we will hear that Moshiach arrived and we will immediately go to the Beis HaMikdash.

“May you have a good day and a successful day.”

He concludes and shuts the mike. In the background you can hear the Rebbe’s voice growing louder, “Kein BaKodesh Chazisicha, Lir’os Uzcha U’Chvodecha.”

This scene is definitely unusual for travel on public transportation, but the passengers of the buses in Beitar are already used to it.

FROM SHLICHUS TO SHLICHUS

“I am a shliach,” says R’ Moshe Dovid Cohen, a Lubavitcher Chassid from Beitar Ilit who works as a bus driver. “I’ve been on shlichus all my life and decided there is no reason to stop. So what if I’m a bus driver; the Rebbe’s shlichus, spreading the wellsprings, can be done anywhere, all the more so on a bus.”

R’ Moshe Dovid is the son of the mara d’asra of the Chabad community in Beitar, Rabbi Asher Lemel Cohen, a famous posek in the chareidi world, and the brother of Rabbis Yeshaya and Elchanan Cohen, shluchim in Almaty, Kazakhstan. When R’ Moshe Dovid talks about his former shlichus role, he is referring to the many years he worked in Eretz Yisroel as the representative of the Chabad House in Kazakhstan and provided the logistical support for the shluchim at a time when you could obtain nothing in Kazakhstan.

“For many years I worked for my brothers. They were shluchim there and I was the shliach here. I would be on top of everything that needed to be sent to them and it used to be almost everything. Even tissues and toilet paper had to be sent from here, not to mention food and basic provisions. I would also travel the world to arrange what they needed. It all entailed lots of bureaucracy and it required someone full time.”

About his switching to driving a bus after years of shlichus, he says:

“Over time, the gates opened, things became easier and you can now get everything in Russia and Ukraine. My work on behalf of the Chabad House in Kazakhstan diminished. I have a large family to provide for. I got a driver’s license for driving buses and thought of being an independent driver, but things worked out otherwise. Nine months ago, I was hired by the Kavim bus company and decided that my shlichus did not stop; rather, it is just beginning and in a big way.”

FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE

When I ask R’ Moshe Dovid to describe what a bus ride with him is like, he immediately invited me to see for myself.

“It’s better that you come and see for yourself. When a Beitar newspaper wanted to do an article about what they called the ‘Chassidic Bus,’ I told them to send someone to travel with me a few times and write what he sees.

“To me, every trip is a Chassidishe farbrengen. I play Nicho’ach niggunim, authentic Chabad niggunim, and there is no trip without a conversation about Chassidus, the Rebbe, and Moshiach. Often there are vertlach and Divrei Torah and then I repeat ideas from the Rebbe.

“During S’firas HaOmer, I couldn’t play Nicho’ach because of the music, so I played recordings of the Rebbe singing at farbrengens. You have no idea what a transformation it makes. People listen to the Rebbe sing and are moved. People have come over to me during the trips and shared stories of the Rebbe and stories about encounters with shluchim. Once, an older woman came over to me from the back of the bus just to tell me that her children were born in the Rebbe’s merit. ‘We did not have children for many years. We asked the Rebbe for a bracha and had two children,’ she said very emotionally.

“This is aside from my revolutionary approach to customer service in that I try to serve the public to the best of my abilities. I try to welcome with a smile and bless each person who boards. If I see someone running in my direction, I wait for him, of course. In the refrigerator next to the driver’s seat I keep cold drinks and cups, tissues and wipes for the passengers. By the way, in addition to gashmius offerings there is also ruchnius. There is always a Chitas, a siddur, T’hillim, and other s’farim for the passengers to borrow.”

HOW DO PASSENGERS REACT TO THE DELAY?

“I get only positive feedback like, ‘It’s hard to get off your bus,’ ‘Traveling with you is an experience,’ and ‘After a trip with you, the entire day is more positive.’

“Boruch Hashem, in the nine months I’ve been on this bus-shlichus, I haven’t heard even one complaint. On the contrary, there isn’t a trip without enthusiastic feedback, and sometimes very enthusiastic. At home I have dozens of thank you letters that I got from passengers and that’s in nine months of work. My mindset is that I am here to serve the public, and the public senses this and reciprocates in kind.

“A week and a half ago, I got a route on Motzaei Shabbos that had to start in Yerushalayim. They gave me an inexact address and by the time I figured out where the station was, I was a half an hour late. Usually, when a driver is even a few minutes late and people are waiting for him on Motzaei Shabbos in the summer, with suitcases and children falling asleep in their arms, the passengers are annoyed, and they vent. But when I arrived at the stop, people saw it was me and boarded quietly. They said, ‘If it was to travel with you, it was worth the wait.’”

ONLY A LUBAVITCHER COULD …

You mainly drive religious people, many of whom have views that are not quite like that of Chabad. What do they think of the Chassidishe farbrengen throughout the trip?

“They think that it’s great! The positive feedback crosses lines and views. Distinguished rabbanim who traveled on my bus told me that only a Chabadnik could take something so material and simple like a public bus and turn it into a spiritual experience.

“A Litvishe guy came over to me after hearing the Rebbe sing ‘Tzama Lecha Nafshi’ and asked me in surprise whether in Chabad they also sing this niggun. I asked him what he meant by ‘also.’ He said that by them, they sing it at the third Shabbos meal.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN PEOPLE’S DAY

“Generally speaking, the religious public has the trait of gratitude and people come to express their appreciation and thank me. Rabbanim of the city, many of whom I’ve had on my bus, told me afterward that they are amazed by the special atmosphere on the bus and that it’s amazing to see the peacefulness that it generates in the passengers. A few rabbanim even spoke with my father about it and told him that the simcha and the niggunim on the bus affects the entire city and other drivers.

“One of the passengers once wrote me that when he has had a hard day, he knows that the solution to his problems is a ride on the bus with R’ Moishe. Many others have said that they wait at the stop especially to be able to get on the bus and hear the niggunim and a good word. When I switched routes, passengers told me they were considering checking the route of the other bus and adjusting to that, because it is hard for them to give up my ‘good morning.’

“There was a time when I worked early in the morning and I would take people to daven at sunrise. People told me that after the bus ride, their davening and their entire day were completely different.”

SELLING CHAMETZ WITH THE BUS DRIVER

Sh’arim, a local periodical distributed in Beitar Ilit, accepted R’ Moshe Dovid’s invitation and sent a reporter. The reporter wrote what he saw in the expanded holiday issue last Pesach:

“On the glass window near the door hangs an ad announcing that for the first time, perhaps in history, one can appoint the driver to sell one’s chametz to the rabbanim of the city. The ad said, ‘Reminder! Mechiras Chametz! This year, you can do it on the bus too. Sign the form now … There is no reason to postpone signing the power of attorney document to sell the chametz till the last minute. Sign it now! Don’t miss out.’”

“This ad is a direct continuation to the mitzva program launched on the bus, starting from my first day on the job,” R’ Moshe Dovid explained to the curious reporter. “The trip on public transportation is an integral part of the life of those who use it regularly, and as such, I try hard to adapt it to the religious public who rides it. Selling chametz is very important, but unfortunately, due to the stresses of the holiday, people sometimes forget to do it. I have seen people run to my father in the afternoon of Erev Pesach and ask whether they can still sell their chametz. They are disappointed to hear that according to Halacha, there is almost no solution after the time for burning chametz has passed.

“This is the main reason I put up that ad and dozens of passengers signed to sell their chametz last year. There are also people who are not at all familiar with the concept and when they see the ad they ask me, since when do we sell chametz? What’s wrong with the Rami Levy supermarket chain that sells a full line of chametz on the shelves, and other questions like that. When I explain to them about selling chametz they are surprised to hear it. They readily sign their name and address and carry out a kinyan, which makes me their agent to sell their chametz.”

THE CHILDREN LOVE RIDING THE BUS

The reporter for Sh’arim continues:

“The children who boarded the bus were welcomed with a big smile. R’ Moshe Dovid asks them, ‘Who is going to learn well today?’ They chorus, ‘Me,’ and crowd around him to have their bus tickets validated. During the validation process, the driver asks them whether they know the Four Questions yet, and when they say they do, he says to the father, ‘Now it’s your turn to learn the story of the exodus from Egypt well so you can give a good answer to the Four Questions.’ The door is closed already, the sign that the trip from the stop has already begun, but then there is a light tap at the door. A huffing young man left home a minute late and saw the door was already closed and was disappointed, but a dear man like R’ Moshe Dovid would not allow a beloved kollel fellow to be disappointed so quickly. He happily opens the door and chastises him in a friendly manner, ‘How did you even think to make me lose out on the opportunity of driving such a wonderful young man like yourself? It’s good you ran and gave me the merit to help in a mitzva, the mitzva of Torah study.’ The puffing fellow thanks him warmly and after a few seconds he settles himself down and even hums the niggun ‘Tzama Lecha Nafshi’ which can be heard over the sound system.

“We went from stop to stop and the bus was full. R’ Moshe Dovid shows no sign of tension and despite the dozens of children crowding around his seat, he does not grumble or issue even the slightest warning. When I asked him about it he said, ‘Personally, it doesn’t bother me when they stand here. If it makes them happy to stand near the front window, why should I withhold this joy from them?’

“One of the children who came to validate his ticket asked the driver to allow him to take the printed ticket from the machine himself and his request is honored on the spot. Words are inadequate to describe the joy of that child as he pressed on the buttons as R’ Moshe Dovid instructed him, and upon receiving the freshly printed ticket he ran to his father to tell him excitedly that he extracted the ticket ‘himself’ from the driver’s machine.”

RESPECT FOR THOSE WHO LEARN TORAH

During the trip we noticed the outstanding cleanliness of the bus with no empty chip bags or bottles, no leftover food and not even dust. “I clean the bus for every trip,” says R’ Moshe Dovid, “even though that’s not my job and usually, between every shift, they clean the bus at the terminal. But I feel I should keep my hostel clean if I’m hosting Torah scholars here, kollel members, and righteous children who are going to yeshiva. It’s not respectful to host them in a dirty vehicle, so I always keep cleaning supplies with me and make sure the bus is clean.”

FIRST TRIPS

R’ Moshe Dovid began working during Tishrei of last year. His first holiday on the bus was Sukkos. “Sukkos was the first time I opened the Chabad House on the bus. We played Chassidishe niggunim for Sukkos and Simchas Torah and the passengers got up to dance, so we also had a Simchas Beis HaShoeiva.

“Later, on 19 Kislev, Chag Ha’Geula and Rosh Hashana L’Chassidus, I placed a sign in the front window of the bus in which I blessed the passengers and all Jews with a good year in the learning of Chassidus and the ways of Chassidus. On Chanuka we had a menorah taped to the windowsill. Purim night I took the bus from the terminal at the end of the night shift and my family decorated it with balloons and other fun things. During Purim, we played lively Purim niggunim to the great delight of the travelers. On Purim I even got some mishloach manos from passengers who wrote heartwarming thank you cards.”

AN EXAMPLE FOR OTHER DRIVERS

How do other drivers react? What do they say at the company about the “traveling farbrengen?”

“The company is very pleased. It is constantly trying to raise awareness about the trip experience among the drivers, and when passengers are satisfied, there is no better marketing than this for the company. Boruch Hashem, my direct supervisors support me and encourage me. I put t’fillin on with them and the other drivers every morning, so the shlichus is not only for the passengers but also for the staff.

“The other drivers are also starting to get into this mindset. When I started nine months ago, the drivers laughed at me. I told them that they have to change their approach to passengers and they would discover that religious passengers are terrific. They told me, ‘You’re new, you’re still enthusiastic. Wait a month, a month and a half, and you will speak worse than we do.’ Today, they are slowly starting to learn from me.”

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