Springtime each year brings me back to Germany, where I spent two Passovers running a seder in the ancient medieval town of Speyer. The first year, 2008, had gone off without a hitch. My fellow Chabad yeshivah classmate and I had organized a Russian-language Passover seder for the town’s local Jews, most of them from the former Soviet Union. The next year, we decided to go back. The city was scenic, the job was strenuous but exciting, and we knew what needed to be done. What could possibly go wrong?
On the third day of our sojourn, a Shabbat morning, as German hotel staff banged on our door to evict us from the room, we realized precisely how much things could go wrong.
A scheduling mistake meant our room was being handed over to a group of muscled, head-shaven, tattoo-covered goth rockers in town for the Satanic Stomp psychobilly music festival. Alone and disconnected from the world, we found ourselves unceremoniously thrown out of the room, left to fend for ourselves in a little German town on the Rhine. A few hours later, homeless, parked in uncomfortable metal courtyard chairs with a lone multi-day Yom Tov candle on the table between us, and surrounded by crates filled with potatoes and oranges, we glanced nervously as the scowling leather-clad punk rockers sat themselves down at the next table over.
It was the start of an interesting friendship.
* * *
A little background: Since 1943, pairs of Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva students have been sent out during their summer breaks to invigorate isolated and underserved Jewish communities throughout the United States. The Roving Rabbis program, or Merkos Shlichus as it’s formally known, was founded under the auspices of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and by the 1950s, under the watch of his son-in-law and successor the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, international destinations (which could include places like Iran, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka) were added to itineraries. The students were expected to write detailed reports of their work and the conditions of local Jewish life, all of which was reviewed by the Rebbe himself. He also encouraged the yeshiva students to maintain contact throughout the year with the communities they had visited, asking them, for example, to make sure local Jews had shmurah matzah.
By the late 1980s, the climbing number of Israeli backpackers heading to the Far East, combined with the flood of Soviet Jewish emigration, meant that thousands of Jews were far from home or a typical Jewish community environment for Passover. In response, Lubavitch yeshivah students, or bochurim, began traveling away for Passover as well, arranging seders wherever needed.
Depending on the place, what’s demanded of the Roving Rabbis can range from simply showing up and leading a pre-arranged seder, to being charged with finding a suitable venue, creating advertisements, cooking the food, enlisting volunteers and hiring staff. For my partner Mendy Gurevitch and myself, it was something in between. We were able to base ourselves out of Chabad-Lubavitch of Offenbach, near Frankfurt, whose kitchen prepared the food for our communal seder and those of three more cities. Together with matzah, wine, kippahs and Haggadahs, we packed up the food—minus the chicken soup, which, the year before, had spilled all over the trunk of our car—and headed off to Speyer.
The local Jewish community in Speyer had a room loaned to them by the city where the seder would be held, adjacent to which was a small kitchen where we needed to warm everything up. Koshering a kitchen during the year is one thing, but koshering for Passover is a whole other matter. In cases where they aren’t familiar with every pertinent detail of the law, such as kitchen koshering, bochurim tend to get a little extra zealous. Mendy and I blowtorched every surface in that little kitchen into oblivion.
That evening we got there early to finish setting up, put on tefillin with the men before sundown, and help the women light Yom Tov candles. The seder that followed was fantastic. Fifty people showed up. We sang, we laughed, read the Haggadah, ate the Biblically mandated amount of shmurah matzah, drank the Rabbinically prescribed four cups of wine, opened the door for Elijah, and at the end cried out “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
Once over, a few community members volunteered to stay and help us clear off the tables. Mendy and I had been too busy running this public seder to ourselves properly go through all the seder steps, so as the time approached midnight, we were ready to head back to the hotel and start our own seder from scratch.
“Thank you so much boys!” the community head told us. “This was the greatest seder we’ve ever had!” Blushing with pride, I was sure that was so. But then came the but. “But we have a problem.” Problem, what problem? “We accidentally only booked your room for three nights. You’ll need to move out of your room on Saturday.”
Indeed, we had a problem. Passover that year began on a Wednesday evening, which meant we would be staying in Speyer from Wednesday until after Shabbat on Saturday evening. They had accidentally booked our room for only three nights, and checkout was 11 a.m. Shabbat morning. This we could not do. On Shabbat a Jew cannot carry in the public domain, move items prohibited for use on the holy day, nor even plan activities for the time after Shabbat is out. In other words, we had to checkout at the time they liked, but we could never leave.
We obstinately stood our ground. It was Shabbat, there could be no compromise. The next day, a hastily arranged meeting with the hotel’s German proprietor bore no fruit. We must vacate the room, he told us in German (a language we did not speak), pointing at his guest ledger to show that it was being taken by someone else. We could not, we responded with a mixture of Yiddish and hand motions, pointing emphatically to our kippahs to stress how serious we were.
For the next two days we kept ourselves busy taking walks through the town, which although beautiful, has in fact a long and deeply tragic Jewish history. The first mention of a Jewish community in Speyer dates back 1,000 years, and many renowned scholars originated there, such as Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid (1150-1217), the leader of Ashkenazic Jewry who was also the son and grandson of the city’s rabbis. But Speyer’s Jews were also brutally attacked and at times utterly destroyed during the first, second, and third Crusades; during the Black Plague; and via various other edicts. Rabbi Yehudah himself, the author of Sefer Hachasidim (Book of the Pious) was forced to flee Speyer in 1195.
The city is one of the Kehilot Shum, an acronym for Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, once-glorious sister communities whose Jews suffered terrible fates, and whose destruction is commemorated in the Kinnot lamentations recited on Tisha B’Av. Unlike places like Spain—where I spent Passover in 2007—in Speyer vivid signs of ancient Jewish life still exist. Today you can see remains of a synagogue dating to 1104, and even more remarkable a medieval mikvah from around the same time, a grand, detailed and beautiful structure that leads 32 feet below the ground and would put many mikvahs of our day to shame. There we also ran into a few American Jewish tourists, to whom we later delivered shmurah matzah.
Try as we did to convince ourselves that the eviction would not take place, the appointed day eventually came. That Shabbat morning we got up early and readied ourselves for battle. We prayed and sat down for a quick Shabbat meal with matzah and gefilte fish. The polite knocks at the door began at 11 a.m. I felt bad for the hotel staff, who were being tasked with expelling some pretty visibly Jewish Jews from their room. (The previous day at the meeting with the owner we got the distinct feeling he was worried this could become an international incident.)
The knocks continued until noon when we finally opened the door in partial surrender and walked out. Halachically, we could not prepare our things to be moved out, so our passports, phones, wallets all still lay on the nightstands.
I can only imagine the hotel staff’s faces when they saw what was going on in there. The kitchenette, table, counters, backsplash—we had fanatically covered all of it in thick aluminum foil to make it kosher it for Passover. We had come well prepared, thus an inordinate amount of food stuffs filled the refrigerator and lined the kitchen walls, including bottles of wine, boxes of fruits and vegetables, and sundry pots and pans. For what seemed like forever all we could hear was the sound of aluminum foil and masking tape being peeled off every surface where we had anticipated placing food, including all those annoying little refrigerator shelves. Meanwhile Mendy and I sat in the sunny courtyard sulking.
When the staff finally managed to unwrap the present that was their room, they began packing our things, carefully folding our clothes into our suitcases and placing our money and documents into the zippered pockets. They proceeded to schlep everything and place it around us at our new campsite, and soon enough we were surrounded by luggage, fruits and vegetables, wine, boxes of matzah, and all the rest of our stuff. It felt exactly as you would imagine.
The first hours in that courtyard were sort of humorous. Our fellow guests, all of them Germans, waved politely as they left the hotel in their neat outfits for a day of sightseeing. This eye sore, they must have thought behind their smiles, will surely be gone by the time we’re back. Boy did we show them. “Hallo!” we cried out in German as they came back from a long day in the picturesque town. “Tschüss!” we cheerily offered as they left to go back out. Their frozen smiles and robotic waves were still there, but you could tell they were getting less comfortable with the stakeout in the courtyard.
Mendy and I went through the daily Torah study schedule, doing that day’s allotment of Chitas, i.e. Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya. I studied three chapters of Maimonides, along with the one I usually did. There is a Chabad custom to study a blatt (both sides of a page) of Tractate Sotah during the 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, thus finishing the entire tractate. We threw ourselves into that as well. The air got chillier as the sun started its slow descent, but Shabbat would be over after 9 p.m. We still had hours to go.
That’s when the new occupants of our room rolled into the hotel. To me, their shaved heads and leather-spiked jackets shouted skinheads. The group of men and women was relatively large and took a few rooms. We avoided eye contact with them, and they with us. If they wanted to fight, we would surely lose, but we would go down swinging. The threat level skyrocketed when these goth rockers ordered a bunch of beers and took up seats at the table right next to us.
The biggest of the guys turned to me, his jacket chains jingling. “We heard what happened with the room,” he said in a thick German accent. “We’re really sorry about this big misunderstanding.”
“Don’t even think about it, it’s no big deal!” I responded, as casually as possible.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Mendy, a better rabbi than I, wisely added. “It’s all in God’s hands.”
A flowing conversation ensued, as we explained some of the tenets of Judaism, specifically, why we had not been able to just leave the room and were now stuck in that miserable little courtyard wondering of our friends in faraway countries, our loved ones at home, and if sitting outside for so long is this bad, marathons must be deathly.
We discussed how it felt being Jews in the middle of Germany and the concept of Divine providence as expounded by the Baal Shem Tov. The goth rockers were from Bavaria, and, Germans being the organized people that they are, had booked their rooms for the Satanic Stomp festival eight months earlier. They got super excited when they heard I was from Boston, asking me if I knew the Dropkick Murphys. I did, I said, from Red Sox games.
They offered us beer, which we could not partake in because it’s leavened, but we popped open our Passover seder wine, and said l’chaim with our new goth friends. They liked the meaning and intent of l’chaim and took turns enunciating the word. I don’t remember how many hours we sat with them, but it was quite a long time.
As sundown approached we prayed mincha, then maariv, and once three stars had shown themselves finally recited havdallah on the last bit of our wine. It was finally time to leave. In some small, seemingly insignificant way, we knew, we had changed one tiny part of the world.