By Shterna Karp for Ami Magazine
One of the first things Rabbi Chaim and Chayale Slavaticki did after moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2011 was to order hundreds of pounds of shmurah matzos. With Pesach weeks away, delivering matzos for the Seder night was a perfect way to meet the local Jews.
Rabbi Slavaticki began on the main roads. He drove up and down Sunrise Boulevard, Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard, pulling into the parking lots of any buildings he passed. There were a few Jews who he knew lived there, but for the most part, the rabbi would walk to the secretary’s desk, peek behind the stack of boxes to ask if there were any Jews around, and start visiting the offices or apartments that the secretary directed him to.
Two days before Pesach, Rabbi Slavaticki pulled up to the office of a doctor he and Chayale had met in Home Goods. When the doctor had passed the couple in the aisle and greeted them with a warm “good Shabbos,” the Slavatickis stopped to chat. The man told them about his practice. “Come visit anytime,” he said to Chaim and Chayale. On Erev Pesach, Rabbi Slavaticki took him up on the offer.
The doctor was in the middle of a procedure when Rabbi Slavaticki signed in at the reception desk. “If you want to wait a minute, he said he’ll be right out,” the receptionist said. The doctor entered the waiting room a minute later. He was still in his green scrubs, his surgical mask pulled down beneath his mouth. “Ah, my friend the rabbi!” he said in welcome. Rabbi Slavaticki handed over the matzos. “Look, I can’t chat right now,” the doctor continued, “but that woman in the corner of the waiting room is Jewish. Maybe she’ll want some matzah too.”
The lady was sitting with a magazine, her forehead tight and her frown bordering on a scowl. When Rabbi Slavaticki walked over to her and cleared his throat, she didn’t look up. Clearly, she had no interest in speaking to the rabbi.
Rabbi Slavaticki tried again. “Hi. Can I offer you some matzah for Passover?”
The woman stood up so fast that her purse spilled off her lap. “Leave me alone. I’m not religious.”
In warm and friendly Florida, where people greeted the dogs they passed, this cold reaction startled Rabbi Slavaticki. “I just want to give you some matzos for the holiday,” he said.
“I don’t want anything from you.”
“It’s free,” Rabbi Slavaticki offered, thinking that she had misunderstood.
The woman did not reach out to take the box Rabbi Slavaticki held out for her. “I don’t believe in organized religion!” Her voice fell at the end of her pronouncement.
Rabbi Slavaticki retracted the box and instead reached for one of the shiny new business cards in his jacket pocket. He left it on the chair near the woman, knowing that she wouldn’t take it if he handed it to her. “You can always reach out to me if you need something,” he said before heading to the door.
The Slavatickis’ first Pesach in Florida passed in a blur of matzah deliveries, silver foil and Sedarim. The hot sun got hotter, the snowbirds went back to the North and summer came. The encounter in the doctor’s office fell behind new stories, and the woman became just another one of the many faces the Slavatickis met each week.
Rabbi Slavaticki was at the local car dealership just days before Rosh Hashanah trying to convince the owner, a friend of his, to do just one mitzvah before Yom Tov and put on tefillin. Their exchange was interrupted when he received a call from an unfamiliar number.
The lady on the line introduced herself right away. “It’s Maya.* I am the rude lady from the doctor’s office a few months ago.” Rabbi Slavaticki pulled up an image of the woman with squared shoulders who had spoken to him curtly in the waiting room before Pesach.
“My father—he’s 78—he’s in the hospital and the doctors gave him 48 hours.” She paused. “He asked to see a rabbi, and you’re the only one I know whose number I have.”
Rabbi Slavaticki asked for the name of the hospital, said goodbye to his friend at the dealership and drove the 15 minutes to meet Maya in the hospital lobby. “My sister, Samantha,* is here from Atlanta,” Maya said, “but she didn’t want to come down and meet a rabbi.”
She filled Rabbi Slavaticki in as they took the elevator up to the hospice. “My father is in stage four now. The doctors said he’s going to go soon. We’re Jewish, but we never did anything Jewish, so I’m confused about why he wants to see a rabbi. My sister and I never had a bat mitzvah. We never went to a temple or synagogue, even on the High Holidays. We spent our Sundays having fun, not at Hebrew school. We are completely unaffiliated,” she reiterated.
Samantha was in the hospital room at her father’s bedside when Maya and Rabbi Slavaticki opened the door. When she saw the rabbi, she got up and walked to the corner of the room, where she stayed for 20 minutes, her arms crossed and her eyes narrowed, as Rabbi Slavaticki and her father, Ronnie,* spoke. With a weak voice that cracked after every few words and was so low that Rabbi Slavaticki had to bend down to make it out, Ronnie told the rabbi about the last 78 years. He spoke about his good position at a newspaper company, his wonderful daughters, and his life as “a bad Jew.”
“There’s no such thing as a bad Jew,” Rabbi Slavaticki countered.
“But I never did anything Jewish,” Ronnie said. His voice broke again, and Maya offered him water from the cup on the nightstand. He waved her away.
“Maya and Samantha, can you give us a few minutes?” he asked his daughters. Maya turned, beckoning a reluctant Samantha to follow.
Rabbi Slavaticki moved closer and sat in the chair Samantha had vacated earlier. Now alone, Ronnie began speaking again. He stretched out a hand, withered and soft, and Rabbi Slavaticki held it with both of his.
“I was born a Jew,” Ronnie said. “I want to die a Jew too.”
Rabbi Slavaticki nodded. “Don’t worry, Ronnie. When the time comes, I will do everything to make sure you have a traditional kosher burial.”
Ronnie shook his head. “No, I want to die a Jew.” Rabbi Slavaticki tilted his head in confusion and waited for Ronnie to explain. “Rabbi, I was born a Jew, but I never had a bris. I want to die a Jew. The door is closed. Do whatever you need to do.”
Through his tears, Rabbi Slavaticki smiled. “I didn’t expect that last line from you,” he said. “And I am not a mohel, but I can make it happen.”
Ronnie put his other hand on top of Rabbi Slavaticki’s, their hands forming a solid pillar of human connection. “Time is not on my side anymore. Promise me, please, that I will die a Jew.”
When Rabbi Slavaticki left the hospital room, Maya and Samantha were waiting right outside. He pulled out his phone and scrolled through his contacts. When he glanced up, he could see the two sisters through the doorway, hovering over their father’s bed, fussing with his blankets, trying to protect him from whatever was to come.
After calling several mohalim, Rabbi Slavaticki located one in southern Florida who could make the trip that afternoon. He poked his head into Ronnie’s room to share the good news—and the nurse there raised her eyebrows. “You want to arrange a circumcision here?” she asked. “There’s no way the hospital will approve.”
“What are you afraid of?” Ronnie said. “That the bris will kill me?” He took a deep breath and spoke an octave lower. “I’m dying anyway. Bring me whichever waivers you have and I’ll sign them.”
At that, Samantha took a step closer. “You can’t,” she said to the nurse, with a glare that brooked no argument. “My father is not in his right mind right now.”
As she began to vent about the crazy hospital personnel who were allowing a strange rabbi to manipulate her father, Rabbi Slavaticki slipped out of the room and asked the receptionist at the nursing station to page his good friend, a Jewish doctor who practiced in the hospital. Over the phone, Rabbi Slavaticki explained the situation.
“We need to make this happen,” the doctor said. He hung up with a promise to call back as soon as he worked something out—and less than five minutes later the nurse waved Rabbi Slavaticki back over from the waiting room. The doctor was on the line again.
“I spoke to a friend up in legal,” he said, “and she said that if you find a mohel who is a doctor and who is insured under the same umbrella policy as the hospital, they will let you do the bris.”
The information from the legal department was a great start, but Rabbi Slavaticki wondered where he would find a mohel who fit the qualifications. Hours went by as he passed Ronnie’s dying request along and asked everyone he knew for leads about a doctor who was also a G-d-fearing mohel insured with the hospital’s policy.
When he exhausted all options in Florida, Rabbi Slavaticki spread his search and called mohalim in Georgia and Alabama, then in the Carolinas and Virginia. Further and further he expanded his search—until he touched base with a frum doctor in Brooklyn, New York, who just happened to be a qualified mohel. “Get me a ticket and I’m coming down,” the Yid said when Rabbi Slavaticki explained why he was calling. Rabbi Slavaticki booked a flight on his phone and went to update Ronnie.
Ronnie chose his Hebrew name, Avraham, after the man who had had a bris at the age of 99. And the next day at three p.m., on Erev Rosh Hashanah, an elderly Jew was welcomed into the bris of Avraham Avinu.
Rabbi Slavaticki sat with Ronnie afterward, squeezing his hand every time the pain spiked. With his eyes closed from exhaustion and a voice so weak it disappeared after every few words, Ronnie spoke. “People always talk about Jewish guilt,” he said, “but it never reached me. I had a good life, a good business, two beautiful daughters, a house, even a boat. I lived almost eight decades that way and I was happy. I never looked for more and I never wanted to.
“When that doctor came in and told me that I had 48 hours to live, it triggered so many thoughts. I had built a life filled with people and things—my family, coworkers, even cigars and wine. I realized that the one thing I didn’t have a relationship with was the one thing I’m taking with me—my soul, the only thing that will be left of me when everything else is gone.
“I can’t tell you where it came from, but as soon as the doctor mentioned the little time I had left, everything I had surrounded myself with evaporated and I felt empty. I had nothing. I thought about the bris I never cared to have before and asked my daughters to call a rabbi. At least now I have something to take up there with me.” Ronnie paused for close to a minute, struggling to get out his last thought.
“I’m ready to meet G-d now.”
It had taken Ronnie almost ten minutes to get these few sentences out. By the time he finished, both he and Rabbi Slavaticki were crying. Rabbi Slavaticki thought about this man who had grown up with nothing in the way of Yiddishkeit—no chinuch, Jewish community or understanding of Torah and mitzvos. Although he may be covered by layers of secular life, a Jew is a Jew. After 78 years, Ronnie’s soul fought its way out of the rubble and pulled him home.
Although the doctors had given him only 48 hours, Hashem gave Ronnie a few more weeks to revel in the new life he had just begun. He had his first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a full member of Avraham’s tribe, and on Sukkos, Rabbi Slavaticki walked two hours to the hospital with a lulav and esrog. Ronnie’s hands shook as he held the four species and said the brachah for the first time in his life.
Days later, as Jews around the world prepared to receive the Torah again before Simchas Torah, an elderly man in a Florida hospital passed away, his hands filled with the holy things he could take with him.
After their father passed away, Maya and Samantha made arrangements for his cremation. Echoing his promise to Ronnie, Rabbi Slavaticki tried reasoning with them. “Your father is a holy man,” he told the sisters. A funeral according to halachah was the only fitting arrangement for a Jew who, at close to 80, had made the choice to turn his life around. Eventually, both daughters agreed. Maya paid $2,000 toward the expenses and Samantha gave $695, not a penny more than she would have chipped in for the cremation. Rabbi Slavaticki’s Las Olas Chabad Jewish Center absorbed the remaining $9,000 in expenses. At the time, this was the Slavatickis’ most astronomical expense, and they struggled to pay it off.
Three years later, the Slavatickis hosted a siyum sefer Torah at their shul. The woman who donated the Torah invited her friends to come for the live music, dancing and seudah. When Chayale Slavaticki went through the mail a few days later, she found a check from a woman in Atlanta.
The enclosed letter read: I was at the siyum sefer Torah you hosted last week. Watching the parade accompany the scroll down the streets of Fort Lauderdale and hearing people speak about their connection to the Torah’s timeless values woke up a part of me that I didn’t know existed. I never planned to give my son a bar mitzvah, but after the siyum sefer Torah, I made arrangements for him to learn with our local rabbi.
This check is to cover some of the costs of my father’s Jewish funeral. Thank you for taking care of him when I wouldn’t.
With a grateful heart,
*Names have been changed.