Weekly Chasidic Story #1239 (s5782-01)
29 Elul 5781/Sep.6, 2021
Seemingly, it didn't strike anyone as unusual that
the elderly rabbi with the long white beard remained asleep even as the plane
landed and people disembarked.
Connection: ROSH HASHANA
format for more convenient printing
Non-stop to Bangkok
Rav Sholom Schechter, an elderly rabbi, was on a return flight to Israel
with a stopover in Athens where he would board a connecting flight. It was two
days before Rosh Hashana, and his past few days in New York had
been exhausting. Fund-raising, selling Torah books, packing, and preparing for
his trip home had all taken their toll on his seventy-year-old body. Exhausted,
he fell into a deep sleep as the plane traversed the Atlantic.
He had asked someone to wake him when the plane landed in Athens, but evidently
his request was forgotten. Seemingly, it didn't strike anyone as unusual that
the rabbi with the long beard remained asleep even as the plane landed in Athens
and people disembarked. He remained asleep throughout the stopover and awoke
only as the plane roared down the runway, taking off to its next destination.
The captain greeted everyone and detailed the flight plan. Their next stop was
Rabbi Schechter blinked his eyes a few times in disbelief. Lebanon? What happened
to Athens? He realized he had slept through Athens, and unlike a bus, he couldn't
just get off. His baggage was probably on its way to Israel, but he most certainly
This obviously Jewish man would be in danger in Lebanon. He discussed his predicament
with the flight attendant, who discussed it with the captain. They suggested
that he stay aboard the plane in Lebanon, and disembark at their next destination
Rabbi Schechter knew that there were Jewish communities in Bombay and Calcutta,
but en-route the captain informed the passengers that due to civil disturbances
in India, only those people holding Indian passports would be permitted to disembark.
Rosh Hashanah was only a day off. Checking plane flights and schedules, Rabbi
Schechter realized that he had no chance of getting back to Israel on time for
the holiday. He couldn't help but wonder where in the world this incredible
journey might take him. He would have to get off at the next stop after India,
wherever it may be. He soon found out: Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.
By the time the plane taxied to a stop at Don Muang Airport and Rabbi Schechter
was cleared through customs, it was only a few hours before Rosh Hashana. After
some desperate inquiries, he was told that there was indeed one synagogue in
Bangkok, and it was in the center of town. He made his way there, hoping that
someone would be kind enough to invite him home. The people turned out to be
more than kind.
[Beth Elisheva is Bangkok's oldest existent synagogue. In May 1993, Rabbi
Yosef Kantor, the first and head shliach (emissary) of Chabad-Lubavitch in Thailand,
accepted an invitation by the Jewish Association of Thailand, to serve as our
Community Rabbi and rabbi of Beth Elisheva. Thanks to his inspiring leadership,
the Jewish Community now enjoys regular Shabbat and holiday prayer services,
kashrut facilities and an educational program. Today, Kantor is Thailand's Chief
He had no trouble conversing with the congregants, for most of the men who attended
the synagogue spoke English. He was invited by the president of the synagogue,
Mr. Atlas, to be a guest in his home, and it was there that Rabbi Schechter
stayed for the next few days.
At the Atlas' table, Rabbi Schechter ate only some cake, fruit, and vegetables
that his daughter had packed for his trip, and matzah, which his host provided.
He was introduced to Mr. Atlas' children, two of whom were brilliant young scholars
studying at Oxford University in England.
When he came to the synagogue the next morning, a surprise was waiting for him:
Not only was there no mechitzah (partition) separating the men from the
women, but the congregants were all sitting together. Rabbi Schechter decided
to pray alone in a side room, where he could still hear the prayers of the congregation.
After Shacharit (morning prayer), he asked the rabbi if he could address
"My dear Jewish brothers and sisters," he began, "I am grateful
to G-d Al-mighty who has granted me the privilege of being with you this Rosh
Hashana. Many of you probably know that my original intention was to be in Eretz
Yisrael with my family, but G-d in His wisdom decided that I be here with you
in Bangkok. I deeply appreciate your hospitality and friendliness, and I feel
I owe you an explanation of why I did not pray together with you this morning.
"Every Jewish synagogue is a micro-model of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy
Temple that stood in Jerusalem. Thus, its sanctity is to some degree comparable
to the sanctity of that most holy site. In order to ensure that there be no
frivolity or diversion of attention from the sanctity of the Temple, the Rabbis
decreed that men and women should not mingle there. Similarly, a synagogue in
which men and women sit together loses some of its sanctity. With all due respect,
this is why I did not join you."
Rabbi Schechter's words were eloquent, and moving, yet respectful. He did not
talk down to them nor criticize them. Afterwards, he encouraged them to create
Torah-study groups so that they could become more knowledgeable about the traditions
and customs of their forefathers.
When he finished speaking, an unbelievable thing happened: A Dr. Frankel, one
of the members, walked up to the front and began speaking spontaneously. "I'm
sure many of you feel, as I do, that it is an honor to have such a distinguished
guest in our presence. In deference to Rabbi Schechter, may I suggest that we
separate before we continue with the Torah reading and shofar blowing, so that
he can pray with us."
In an instant, two hundred people were on the move. The men stationed themselves
on the right side of the synagogue, and the women went to the left. And so they
remained for the entire holiday.
The next morning, Rabbi Schechter was asked to speak again. The Atlas boys were
present. The older of the two, Morris, possessed an inquisitive mind, and was
taken with Rabbi Schechter's speech. They had subsequent discussions, and a
strong bond was forged between the two.
Morris had never been to a yeshiva, and had little idea what Judaism
was about. Yet here was an Orthodox man who touched his heart. By the time Rosh
Hashana was over, Morris had made a decision. He was going to interrupt his
studies at Oxford and transfer to Ohr Somayach (a yeshiva with a program for
men with minimal Torah background) in Jerusalem. After much negotiation, Mr.
Atlas agreed that his son could try it for one semester. The young scholar went
off to Israel, and the one semester ended up lasting for three fruitful years.
During those years he became a true knowledgeable Torah-based Jew, and was the
catalyst for his younger brother to come to study in Ohr Somayach as well.
Subsequently, both Atlas brothers became Orthodox Jews living in London, strongly
committed to Torah and mitzvot, and deeply indebted to the rabbi who slept through
his stopover in Athens. Back in Bangkok, the classes which Rabbi Schechter organized
also bore fruit; some women are now observing family purity laws for the first
time in their lives.
Source: Lightly edited and supplemented by Yerachmiel
Tilles from one of the books (The Maggid Speaks) in the famous "Maggid"
series of collected stories by Rabbi Paysach Krohn.
Connection: ROSH HASHANA
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor
of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them
live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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