Days before my mother passed away, I asked her if she wanted me to say Kaddish. This prayer, traditionally recited by males, can be said up to three times a day for 11 months and a day after a parent dies. I had no brothers and little to do with traditional Jewish ritual but felt that this would be a meaningful way to honor my mom. When she said, “Yes,” an unbreakable pact was made. I had no clue just how big of an impact that answer would have on my life.
At the time, I was living in Upstate New York, and the only place to say this prayer was at the University Chabad House. I quickly became addicted to making sure I said Kaddish once a day in an Orthodox setting, which meant that in order to say the prayer, I needed 10 men (ie a minyan) to be present. It was difficult for the middle-of-nowhere-Chabad to guarantee a minyan and this began to frustrate me. The pressure that I had put on myself to say this prayer was stronger than any other force in my life, and I was not willing to make any compromises.
Then one weekend, I decided to visit my sister in Brooklyn, a place where in some neighborhoods going to minyan is like brushing your teeth, and one weekend later, I decided to move there.
It was the Sunday morning of my visit, and my sister recommended a synagogue close to her apartment where I could fulfill my daily Kaddish. Unfortunately, there was no minyan. I would have to try again in the evening. She knew of another place that was pretty minyan reliable, and we planned that we would go together. That evening, as I sat waiting for her outside of her work place, I was worried we would miss the service. Once she got in the car, I quickly plugged in the address and began driving. After a few minutes of anxious silence, as we were heading over a bridge, my sister turned to me and asked, “Where are we going?” I immediately replied, “To that place you recommended.” She said, “The place I recommended is in Brooklyn. Why are we going over the Manhattan bridge?” It turns out as I was putting in the address, I failed to notice that there were two options: Brooklyn or Manhattan. I clicked Manhattan.
My sweaty palms struggled to make the U-Turn. We changed the destination and both my heart and car accelerated as we noticed just how far out of the way we traveled. My sister called the Rabbi and gave me regular updates on where they were in the service. Imagine a basketball game that you continually want to go into overtime so that your team has a chance to win. That’s how I felt. I was praying for overtime. Every light was red, every street was crowded and every venue was having some kind of event that forced us to take multiple detours. I was beginning to feel like the game was over and that I lost. Meanwhile, my sister, was convinced that all of this was happening for a reason.
When we arrived to the synagogue, they had finished praying. My stomach dropped, and I felt helpless. The Rabbi calmed me down by assuring me that there were many places in Crown Heights that prayed every 10 minutes and that I would have no problem finding a place to say Kaddish. He told us to go to a place called 770 on Eastern Parkway. Looking back, I cannot believe that my sister and I did not know what this address was. To me it was like hearing some special code to get into a secret club while in fact it was a place that anyone and everyone living in Crown Heights knew about.
We drove to the mysterious address and wandered inside. I still had no clue where we were. My sister began figuring it out. Eventually, she turned to me and said, “Ari, this is the place that was in all the videos mom watched. This is 770. This is where those Rebbe Videos were made."
You see, in the last days of our mother's life, she watched Rebbe videos non stop. For years, she had a deep connection to the Rebbe and choose to have the films playing while in the hospital. Upon making big decisions, she often would ask Rabbis, "What would the Rebbe do?" She aspired to be the best person she could be and used the Rebbe as her guide.
As my sister and I continued to register that we were in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Headquarters, we called our Rabbi and all the other people who we thought would see this happenstance as we did: an incredible, odd, how can this be situation! How happy our mom would have been to get a selfie of us there!
Shortly after exploring the women's section, a fragile old lady, who I later would know to be a regular at 770, came up to us and offered to give us a tour. Of course, we had no clue that this was normative practice there and felt like this was yet another sign that we were in the right place at the right time. Our angel was another person’s Average Joe.
We got the tour, said the prayer and were about to leave when I asked the woman what her name was. Whether or not it was actually a dramatic movie-esque reply, to me that entire night felt magical. The woman was walking away from us in a light drizzle as she called out, “Chaya Razel.” At the time, my sister and I were not aware that pretty much every other woman and her mother goes by the name Chaya in Crown Heights. We were in our own world, captivated and shocked to hear that her name was the same as our mother’s: Chaya Razel. Not only was it odd that they had the same name, but it was odd that Chaya was an added name accidentally given to our mother when our niece, Tzipora was born. My mom would always look at her and say, “Hiya!” And eventually, Tzipora started calling her Hiya, which morphed into Chaya which is a name not ironically given to those who are sick because of its meaning: life.
All of these signs or coincidences or miracles, or just being naive, brought me here. Sometimes I wonder, "How did I get here?" But I think the better question is, "Why did I get here?" When I look back and think about why I did the things I did, I am able to find compassion, understanding and even harmony in the notes I played. May we all blessed to hear that inner song and realize that while we may not know where we are going, where we were sounded pretty good.
Love and blessings,