The Yom Kippur walk to shul was 40 minutes long, the weather was 90 degrees, and not one person had confirmed they would come. But the shliach’s decision to endure it transformed the lives of two unfamiliar passersby.
By Shterna Karp; originally printed in the Rosh Hashanah Ami Magazine
“Maybe we should move the Yom Kippur davening to our house,” Bracha suggested to her husband, Rabbi Avremi Slavaticki. It was 2019, the couple’s first Tishrei in their new hometown of Decatur, Atlanta, a small city with a population of less than 2,000 Jews.
When the Slavatickis first moved down with their children, they didn’t know the name of even a single Jew. Then they knocked on doors, scrolled through phone books, and approached strangers on the streets. By Rosh Hashanah, they had five Jews who committed to join them for the tefillos.
Even without a minyan — or perhaps because of it — the yom tov was meaningful for the shluchim. Five whole people! They’d just moved to town and found five souls that were eager to burn brighter!
Yet, as they ticked off the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the shluchim considered changing their venue. The original plan was to hold Yom Kippur services in the same rented recreational center they’d used on Rosh Hashanah. Yet it was an hour’s walk from the Slavatickis’ home and with the weather reports predicting a scorching 90 degrees on the fast day, was it realistic to make the trek?
And so the shluchim debated — to stay or go?
“I guess we can invite everyone to our house and daven here,” Rabbi Slavaticki said.
Bracha considered what the change of plans would mean. No one had committed to join them for Kol Nidrei yet, but the shluchim had already publicized the event. “What if someone shows up to the rec center and we’re not there? And besides, even if no one is there, maybe someone will see a Yid walking through the streets and it will affect them.” Bracha had no idea how true her words would become — twice over, in fact.
The matter was settled. Even though it meant forty-five minutes of walking — each way — they would stick with the original plan. The Slavatickis’ would mark their first Yom Kippur in the rec center, and maybe they’d be lucky enough that others would join them.
On Erev Yom Kippur, the Slavatickis drove over to the rec center with a trunk-load of supplies. They had toys for the kids who would surely come and food for those who would need to break their fasts. “We’ll have at least as many people as we did for Rosh Hashanah,” Rabbi Slavaticki said out loud, reassuring himself just as much as his family.
When the sun set on that holiest day of the year, Bracha davened Kol Nidrei in her living room, while Rabbi Slavaticki and his five-year old son, Mendel, waited for people to join visit the makeshift shul. As the sky grew darker, the little boy was tired — and disappointed. “This isn’t a regular shul,” Mendel complained to his father. “Where are the other kids? The chazzan?”
Rabbi Slavaticki crouched down to look his son in the eye. “We’re shluchim now,” he explained. “We don’t have a regular shul anymore because we don’t live in a regular town. We’re here to find as many Yidden as possible, or even just one, and introduce them to Yiddishkeit.”
Mendel was excited once he understood his purpose. “I can show the Yidden where to find a Machzor when they come,” he said, running over to the pile his parents had prepared. Every time there was a sound, Mendel looked toward the door, eager to greet their new friends. But it was usually a noise from outside; the door to their shul stayed still.
The clock ticked on, and on, and on, and no one came to join them.
After an hour, Rabbi Slavaticki beckoned to his disappointed son. “Come, Mendel, let’s start.” He showed his little boy the place in the Machzor and began to daven, his voice echoing loudly through the empty room. Rabbi Slavaticki sang slowly, stretching each tefillah so that maybe, just maybe, someone would join them before they finished. Then the last tefillah was over, the last echoe faded, and it was time for the Slavatickis to go home.
Each step on the way back was long and heavy. Rabbi Slavaticki and his son stopped to rest every few blocks, worn out from the heat and worn down from their disappointing evening. If even one person had shown, their effort would be worth it, but no one had been there, so what was all of it for?
We should have just done it at home, Rabbi Slavaticki thought. We didn’t gain anything from doing it at the rec center anyway.
They were twenty minutes from home when they heard the loud shouts of “Jews!”
Rabbi Slavaticki’s heart paused its beating for a moment. Anti-semites? He pulled his son closer, sheltering him from what was to come, and watched as a man emerged from the blackness.
“I appreciate the Jews!” the man shouted.
Rabbi Slavaticki looked up, confused. The man wasn’t there to bother them? “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Nothing really,” the man explained. His voice had a lilt that Rabbi Slavaticki recognized as a French accent. “I just noticed you’re Jewish so I wanted to tell you that I think the Jews are good people.”
“Oh,” Rabbi Slavaticki unclenched the tight fist he’d been squeezing around his son’s hand. “Today’s actually the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, you know. Do you have anything to do with judaism?”
The man, Alex*, lit another cigarette and took a puff. “Not at all. I grew up Christian but now I don’t believe in anything.”
“Everyone needs a little faith,” the rabbi told him. “But tell me, is anyone in your family Jewish?”
“No, but my grandmother was. She gave it all up after the Holocaust. She said Judaism was a cursed religion and that none of us should ever associate with it.”
“Which grandmother?” the rabbi asked, his mind already racing.
“My mother’s mother,” Alex answered.
“Ah!” Rabbi Slavaticki reached out to put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You’re just as Jewish as me!”
Alex shook his head back and forth. “Nonsense, rabbi. Look at you in your white coat. I’m here with my cigarette and a phone. I haven’t served your G-d for a single day in all my fifty years. You’re going to tell me that I’m just as Jewish as you? That’s nonsense, total nonsense.”
“Yes, you’re just as Jewish as me and my son!” Rabbi Slavaticki argued. And you’re also the reason we had to come out here tonight. You’re the reason we schlepped for hours even though no one showed up, because there was a Jew — one who didn’t even know he was Jewish — waiting for us to meet him.
After a few more minutes of conversation on the roadside, Alex’s objection was waning. “Maybe you’re right and I am Jewish…” he obliged the rabbi. He memorized the shliach’s email address, promised to be in touch after yom tov, and with that, Mendel and Rabbi Slavaticki continued home.
“How was it?” Bracha asked as soon as they came in.
“Great!” her husband exclaimed. Then, “No one came.”
It took some story-telling to adjust the non-sequitur. The shliach told the shlucha about the tiring walk, the empty rec center — and the one person they met on the way back. True, no one came, but their shlichus was never supposed to be a numbers game. They’d found just one soul that night, and one soul is more than enough reason for the schlep across town.
On Yom Kippur morning, the shliach and shlucha wondered about the choice of venues again. Yes, they’d met Alex and flamed the tiny embers of one Jewish soul, but they couldn’t ignore the fact that no one came to the rec center. Was it worth the long walk? Again, they came to the same decision — the rabbi had to be there in case even one person showed. So, again, he donned his kittel and began the weary walk to the other side of town.
Rabbi Slavaticki was taking the shortcut through a small park when, like the night before, he heard a shout. “Happy Yom Kippur!” an older man greeted him as he jogged by.
“How do you know it’s Yom Kippur?” the shliach wondered.
“What do you mean, rabbi? Of course I know Yom Kippur. My name is Rob Cohen.” (Name has been changed; not featured in photo above.)
“Good yom tov, Rob!” Rabbi Slavaticki sent a warm smile and explained that he and his family had just moved down to open a synagogue for Decatur’s Jews. “Why don’t you come to services?”
Rob gave a little chuckle. “Me? Coming to services? Rabbi, the last time I was in a synongue was more than sixty years ago, when I was 12.” He chuckled again and picked up the pace of his jog, running away from the rabbi.
The rabbi ran after him.
“Why are you so against coming to shul?” the shliach wanted to know when he caught up the Rob. He wondered what the passerby thought of the scene — a rabbi in a long white jacket and an old man in workout clothes running alongside each other. They were an unlikely pair.
They continued that way until the rec center — Rob kept a steady pace and the rabbi struggled to get some words out between breaths — but somehow they managed a conversation. Rob told Rabbi Slavaticki about his secular wife and children, and the rabbi tried to convince him to join him for the Yom Kippur tefillos. “You’re here already anyway,” he said when they reached the door of the rec center.
“I just came with you because I was jogging anyway, but I don’t plan to come in.”
“When’s the last time you honored your father?” Rabbi Slavaticki asked, referring to Rob’s father’s passing, which he had mentioned during their jog.
Rob looked away for a brief moment, the sadness shadowing his eyes. “When I buried him thirty years ago.”
“There’s a special Yzikor prayer said on Yom Kippur, a tribute to the souls of parents who passed on. Don’t come to shul for G-D, don’t come for me, and don’t come for yourself,” the shliach said. “Come to shul for your father and say a prayer in his merit.”
There was a lull as Rob considered. “Okay, for my father — I’ll come back after I get dressed properly.”
“Yizkor will be at about 11 a.m.,” the shliach shared, thinking about the empty hall the night before and wondering if his new friend would be the only one there.
“Rabbi, I’ll be there at 11, but I’m going to sit on the side, say the prayer, and leave right away. Don’t expect anything more from me.”
Three Jews showed up for Yom Kippur davening that morning, and like Rob promised, he was there at 11, but unlike his promise, he didn’t leave right after Yizkor ended. He stayed in the shul until after Yizkor, then he stayed until Musaf was over, and then he stayed longer to speak with the rabbi. It was as though the short Yizkor tefillah had unearthed his years of wonder. He asked Rabbi Slavaticki question after question about Judaism and faith, and he nodded thoughtfully to each of the shliach’s responses.
“You know, rabbi, do you want to know the real reason I came to synagogue this morning? I was bored after I retired from teaching public school, so I signed up to be a substitute teacher and was assigned to a local Orthodox day school. Everyone knew I was Jewish right away — being called ‘Mr. Cohen’ gave it away — so they spoke to me about Torah and Judaism.
“I had to admit to them that I didn’t know anything. Right before the High Holidays break, my students asked if I would go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. I refused, but when you told me to come and honor my father, I thought of my students. They’re going to be so happy when I tell them that I prayed on Yom Kippur. Being here in shul has been great,” he ended, “I learned a lot and I’m grateful you answered so many of my questions, but this is where it ends. I don’t want to get sucked into Judaism so please don’t reach out to me.”
Of course, the shliach didn’t listen. He tracked Rob down that week and invited him to visit the Slavatickis’ sukkah. After enough invitations, Rob accepted, and at seventy-two years old, he walked into a sukkah for the first time. A few weeks after that, sixty years after he turned 13, Rob celebrated his bar mitzvah by laying tefillin. And more than half-a-century after he left school, Rob began learning again — this time about Yiddishkeit, Torah, and the mitzvos.
When Rob’s brother passed away Purim-time, it was he who tried convincing the secular family to have a kosher burial. “Isn’t it ironic?” he told the shluchim. “I used to be the most unaffiliated of all my siblings — now look at me.”
Every step of man is determined by Hashem, the shliach remembered. This is why I walked all the way to the rec center on Yom Kippur.
Because of the schlep across town that they almost cancelled, Alex discovered that he’s a Jew (and later committed to learn more about his newfound faith when he went back to France). Because they didn’t move the tefillos to their home, Rob became one of the founders of Decatur’s Chabad House who is heavily-involved in expanding the city’s Jewish community. Because there is Someone guiding the steps of man, the lives of two Yidden were transformed.
Rob has become fully invested in his Yiddishkeit, and even played an instrumental role in setting up Covid safe high holiday services this year.
For the next 5 hours, every dollar you donate to Chabad of Decatur will be matched! Visit jewishdecatur.raisegiving.com to help the Slavatickis reach many Yidden like Rob.