It was the summer of 2008, on a Shabbos afternoon in Brooklyn, New York, in the Hebrew month of Elul. It was the Shabbos before the yahrtzeit of my paternal grandfather Zeida Shmuel. I always make a special effort to be in New York during his yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, to accompany my father to Rabbi Shain’s shul on the block where my parents live.
Following davening, our morning prayers, there is always a kiddush. Being the guest shaliach with a greying beard, the “young people” ask me to farbring. (A farbringen is a Chassidic gathering where words of Torah, Chassidic stories, and old Chassidic melodies are shared.)
There are two usual stages to a kiddush. During the first, the whole shul stays to eat, say l’chaim, and converse. After many have left, the second stage usually begins. The remaining chevra gather in a more serious manner, for more l’chaim, and deeper, more personal reflection and discussion, interspersed with Chassidic words of Torah, insight, and song.
A few hours later into the second stage of the kiddush, after I had already walked my father home and returned, a young teacher said to me, “Reb Sholom Ber, you were privileged to stand by ‘The Mountain’ all your life, by our beloved and holy Rebbe, of blessed memory. You saw, you heard, you merited to be chosen to be a shaliach of the Rebbe, to be his personal emissary to Seattle and the entire Northwest. But I am ‘just a simple melamed.’ I don’t feel fully accomplished and fulfilled.”
The entire room fell silent, as the 30 to 40 yungerleit and yeshira bochrim turned to hear my response.
“How long have you been a teacher?” I asked.
“I’ve been a second grade teacher for 15 years,” he responded.
“How many students do you have?” I asked him.
“About 22 to 25,” he replied, “7- and 8-year-old boys.”
I said to him, “So in the 15 years of your career, you have interfaced daily for one school year, between six and eight hours a day, with between 350 and 400 students. You taught them Torah, provided inspiration, serving as a model that they hopefully will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I cannot, in all my years in Seattle, point to 400 adults that I have taught Torah, for even just one year, for six to eight hours every day.”
The young rabbi seemed taken aback as I continued.
“Do you know the birthdays of all of your current and former students?” I asked him.
“No, I do not,” he replied.
I then said, “Could you imagine if a young teenager named David, Chaim or Boruch would receive a call from their former teacher, wishing them yom huledet same’ach, happy birthday? Can you envision the impact on a young man’s life that a former teacher remembers, and cares enough, to call him and wish him a happy birthday and ask how life’s treating him? That call, at that moment in his life, can truly be a turning point, lift him out of despondency, or inspire motivation.”
I continued in this vein, elaborating on the impact. When I concluded, I saw tears in the young man’s eyes. He rose to his feet, and in front of everyone declared, “Rabbi Levitin, I hereby make a hachlata [commitment] to begin the process of writing down my current students’ birthdays, and track down my former students’ birthdays as well.”
We embraced, and the whole chevra joined in a warm, lively, spiritual Chassidic dance, cementing the “deal.”
During the course of the farbringen, I had mentioned the date of my birthday, being the 28th of Tevet, which corresponds to the 20th of January in the year of my birth. Six months later, during a cold, rainy Seattle day, I received a call on my birthday. “Rabbi Levitin, happy birthday!”
Not recognizing the voice as belonging to any of the boyhood friends that remember to call, or any of my family, I asked, “Who is this?”
“I am the young rabbi you inspired,” he said. “I marked your birthday on my list.”
Just as I had counseled regarding his students, I too was moved by his call.
Now, whenever I see this rabbi during my trips to New York, he says to me, “My list is always growing. Thank you for adding a new quality to my shlichus [vocation in Jewish education].”
This past summer, he took me aside and related to me the following story. In the summer of 2010, he called a former student of his out of the blue, to wish him a happy 15th birthday. The student was very touched, and they conversed for many minutes. This summer, when he called to wish him a happy 16th birthday the boy’s mother answered the phone.
“Rabbi Fuller,” she said, “my son has been waiting for your call a whole day.”
So my friends and fellow educators; rabbis and rebbetzins, Bar and Bat Mitzvah teachers, friends and family; imagine how the world would be impacted, especially those who are involved in the noble profession of being educators to our young men and women, if we all dedicated ourselves to reaching out on special occasions like weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. Emails are good, but not nearly as good as a phone call. Imagine the profound impact we would have by simply calling our friends and especially former or current students to join us for a Shabbos meal, or just to get together and chat. The effect would be profound.
There are many waiting for your call.