Sometimes we don’t know our life’s calling until it calls on us. That’s the way it happened for Rabbi Reuven Nathanson, OU Rabbinical Field Representative (RFR). Cleveland born, Rabbi Nathanson earned his Master’s in Public Health from Tulane, University in New Orleans and decided to stay. The OU and thousands of kosher consumers are glad he did.
Rabbi Nathanson remembers the day the rabbi of the synagogue he attended received a phone call asking if he would be interested in supervising a plant that made kosher frozen yogurt desserts. He turned it down, but referred the offer to Rabbi Nathanson, who promptly accepted it. “I was familiar with the process and thought why should the OU continue to fly someone out of Chicago to New Orleans to inspect a plant that was less than ten miles from where I worked?” he said. “I told them to stop spending all that time and money; they’ve got someone local to work for them. That was my first assignment” Today, as a regular RFR, his assignments take him to plants throughout the West Coast region, gathering a trail of stories with each journey – sometimes unusual, sometimes touching, always human
On the morning of his four-hour drive to Fresno, California, Rabbi Nathanson had every intention of completing his job and returning back home. Running late, he decided to skip his usual breakfast stop at home and, instead, hurried, with tefillin in hand, to get started on the Fresno trip. “I didn’t want to take the tefillin because it was the middle of a hot summer and could easily go as high as 100 plus degrees. To leave them in the car, they would cook, but I just went,” he said.
He finished the inspection and during his drive back, he remembered an adage of his father’s. “You stop driving when you’re out of gas.” He pulled off in an area where there was a gas station 3,000 feet high in the mountains that separate Los Angeles from Central California – far from any other signs of civilization. While washing up in the restroom, a truck driver approached him.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked, taking Rabbi Nathanson by surprise, never imagining this man could possibly be a Jew. Totally at ease with his newfound landsman, he told Rabbi Nathanson that two months ago he took his wife and son to Israel for his son’s bar mitzvah, that his son requested marking the special occasion at the Kotel. Rabbi Nathanson asked him if he took the opportunity to put on tefillin while he was there.
“It was my son’s bar mitzvah.”
“Seems to me you’re the reason I had to drag my tefillin on this sizzling summer day.” They walked across the parking lot to his truck and the man put on tefillin for the first time in his life.
“Really, why didn’t you put them on at your son’s bar mitzvah?”
“Nobody asked.” Today, somebody did.
Have Chulent Will Travel
Rabbi Yakov Blugrond’s kashrut inspections take him to exotic spots across the globe. In over a decade of traveling for the OU, he’s been just about everywhere but Mars, he says, since no request has come in for hashgacha in that region yet. “However, I do know that the moon is not cholov Yisroel; it’s gvinas akum.”
A Rabbinic Field Representative doesn’t have to venture into outer space for an interesting encounter. It could happen as close as…Turkey. I’ll let the transcontinental rabbi take it from here.
I traveled to Istanbul to supervise a large company with various production sites. One of them stood at the border of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Since I knew I was going to have to stay over Shabbat, I found a hotel in close enough proximity to a Sephardi shul. I came to Turkey with the normal operational equipment for a long distance mashgiach – a small piece of meat, a little crock pot, a few frozen challot, a box of matzot, and a jar of gefilte fish. I requested a hotel room on the lowest floor possible, so that I wouldn’t have to climb too many flights on Shabbat. I also made sure they disconnected the electricity from my hotel room door so that I could open it with a key rather than a card. Before I left for work on Friday morning, I put up my chulent. My Shabbat in Istanbul was set.
On Shabbat morning, as I walked through the lobby, I noticed a fellow wearing a yarmulke. I wished him “Shabbat Shalom” and “Shalom aleichem” We exchanged our reasons for being in Turkey. Turned out he’s an American physician who came to deliver a series of lectures at a university here. I asked my new acquaintance if he wanted to join me on my walk to shul. He gratefully acquiesced, saying he wasn’t aware there were any shuls in the area. I asked him what he planned to eat for the Shabbat. He said he had a can of tuna and some matzot. I told him to forget the tuna and come to my room after davening for some hot chulent. He couldn’t believe it.
As we walked towards the exit, the receptionist called out to us saying the hotel manager requested a word with me. I entered the manager’s office, curious as to what he wanted. “I feel uncomfortable telling you this, but the maids are reporting a scent of something cooking coming from your hotel room,” said the manager. I explained that it’s the Sabbath day and we aren’t allowed to cook, so on Friday I prepared a special traditional food made of meat, barley, beans and potatoes. Telling him that this is what we eat for lunch. “Oh, you mean you made chamin! Why didn’t you tell me? I would have gotten you the food.” The hotel manager was a Sephardi born in Istanbul. His family found themselves in Turkey the same way my family wound up in Holland at the end of the 15th century after their expulsion from Spain. I said, I’ll tell you what – at 1:00 we’re eating in my room. Come join us.
He came, bringing with him a few bottles of beer. The three of us had our seudat Shabbat. We sang Israeli zemiros, regular zemiros, Sephardi zemiros. We had a mizumim to bentch. We spent the time enjoying our hotel room #205 Shabbat together until it was time to go for mincha. The manager came too.
The hotel gave me the royal treatment for the rest of my stay. As our time there drew to a close, the doctor from America bid me a warm farewell, and we each went our separate ways. I felt happy to have shared an unexpected Shabbat – enhanced by the company of my fellow Jewish travelers.
Concern for a Fellow Jew Isolated in Iceland
On another OU overseas odyssey, Rabbi Blugrond trekked to the most northern point of Iceland. During his first day there, he walked down the street in search of a supermarket. His eyes fell upon a particular building with a magen Dovid etched into its façade of stone. This surprised him. “I research a place before each trip to see if there are Jews in the area,” he says. “As far as I knew, this one had none.” He decided to investigate further and entered building. The place had been converted into a restaurant. He asked a worker if the establishment was owned by Jews. “No,” said the woman. “We had one Jewish person here. His name was Epstein. He arrived during the war.”
She told Rabbi Blugrond that Mr. Epstein had opened up a nickel and dime store there on the main street, built a prosperous business, and married a local woman (a non-Jew). After he died, the business closed down and distant relatives in America, his only living heirs, sold it to the restaurant. She told him that if he’s interested in seeing it, Mr. Epstein’s grave was in the local cemetery. “You just go down the street a few blocks and you’ll see the cemetery. He’s buried right next to the fence.” He thanked the woman and left.
Rabbi Blugrond went straight to the Department of Archives of Iceland, which happened to be next door to the hotel. The records confirmed that this lone Jewish refugee from Europe’s churban had indeed lived there. “Now every time I go to Iceland,” says Rabbi Blugrond. “I make sure to visit my friend, Mr. Epstein, and say some tehillim at his grave.”
Jewish Identity Comes in All Shapes and Guises
In the thick of society’s secular tangle, the road to Jewish identity takes strange twists and turns. Some a bit morbid.
Rabbi Nathanson met a non-Jewish fellow in the Research and Development department of a food manufacturing company. “Every job he gets, he winds up serving as the kosher contact,” says Rabbi Nathanson. “Unfortunately, he’s married to a Jewish woman who has absolutely no interest in Judaism. The couple views their children as gentiles.” One day, the man approached Rabbi Nathanson with an unusual request. “I was watching TV with my wife last night and out of the blue, she tells me she decided that when she dies she wants to be buried as a Jew. Can I have your business card, so when the time comes, we can call you? But there’s nothing wrong with her now,” he assured. Rabbi Nathanson informed the man that he and his wife could not be buried next to each other or even in the same cemetery. “If that’s what she wants to do, it’s okay with me,” he responded.
Rabbi Nathanson no longer visits that particular plant, but still receives atypical kind of regards via the current mashgiach there. “Tell Rabbi Nathanson that my wife’s still alive, but we’ve got his number.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer for the Communications and Marketing Department at the OU.