ZHMERYNKA, Ukrain — In every place on Merkos Shlichus, one of the best things to do, is to make a get-together of all the local Jews. This we did, in Zhmerynka, Ukraine. It was last Friday, where we stood for hours in a tiny kitchen in the local Shule cooking food, with the meager kosher ingredients available in this part of the world. We were told to cook for, “Fertzig menschen” (“Forty people”), and thus we pealed 10lbs of potatoes (and did much more).
Our event was called for 5:00pm. We weren’t ready till six. It didn’t really matter, in fact, it was good for them to have nothing to do except schmooze and get acquainted with one another. Finally, we told the people, “Let’s begin”. Much to our dismay, as we exited the kitchen all we saw were twenty-five people. That’s a nice number, except its almost half of what we had anticipated, and so we pitied our sweat drenched bodies and skinless fingers.
Nonetheless, putting on smiles, we donned Teffillin on those who wanted, and offered Shabbos candles to the women. We then sat down together with all, drank, ate and made merry. Of course some Torah was said. We discussed the importance of Kashrus, and to our joy, they decided from now on to only serve Kosher meat in the Shule.
When our lovely event was over, and most people had left, the Rosh Hakohol suggested we return tomorrow, to make another, “Farbrengen” so as not to let the food go to waste. “Now, now”, we thought, “Friday afternoon is one thing, after all since Shabbos comes in way after our bed time, we can give respite to our sorry legs and travel to our hotel via taxi. But Shabbos day we will have to walk close to an hour!”. After five minutes of discussing it, we decided we will return the following day, much to the joy of Zhmerynka’s Rosh Hakohol.
The next afternoon, after a hasty Shacharis-Musaf-Mincha-Kiddush, we began our hike to the Shule. Hike, not walk. The average road in Ukraine seems like it last saw a work crew seventy years ago. Our good friend Dimitri came to the hotel and acted as our guide. After 45 minutes of off-road experience, we came to the Shule feeling like we won the World Cup. Greeting us, were fifteen local Jews who were very happy we actually came. Again we spoke about Kashrus, drawing an analogy from how healthy eating is good for the body, so to eating Kosher is good for the soul. To our satisfaction, most of the guests had healthy appetites and finished all our potatoes.
When the last Jew left, we were faced with a dilemma; stay till Motzei Shabbos, or return to the hotel. In the end we decided to leave for the hotel. We assured Dimitri, that not only was he an excellent guide, but teacher too, since we were convinced we knew the way back. Off we went, into the sunset, along those hole-riddled roads behind dilapidated buildings. Lost in conversation, we were abruptly interrupted by a man by the name of Matyash, who excused himself, invited us into his home and told us that he was extremely glad he saw us. Intrigued, we accepted his invitation. He told us how he was searching for salvation, and repentance for his sins. We followed him into his self-built house, and met with his three guests who also happened to be Jewish, and ex-drug addicts. Two sisters and a brother, they were. One used drugs for five years, another twenty, and the other thirty-one. We told the latter he is living proof there’s a G-d in the world. He acknowledged, and defying his jolly nature, became serious, and said, “Slava-Boga” (“Thank G-d”). As part of this amazing Hashgocho Pratis (Divine Providence), it began raining confining us to this home, in case we had thoughts of leaving.
Of course, what do Jews do best when they get together if not eat. Before we knew it, we were seated at a food-laden table of all types of delicious smelling food. This time we didn’t have a hard time broaching the subject of Kashrus, as Matyash’s wife’s bewildered look at our polite refusal to eat, said it all. During the course of our conversation, one of the ex-drug addicts started singing MBD. We were shocked. I mean, what’s the chances, that someone not religious in Zhmerynka, Ukraine would know MBD? To our amazement, Matyash too was well versed in MBD’s hits. Before long, Shabbos was over and MBD’s deep powerful voice made its way from the stereo player to our astounded ears. The amazing part was, contrary to our assumption, Matyash wasn’t Jewish, but yet, still a great fan of MBD.
Sunday afternoon we returned, laid Teffillin on Chaim Boruch (ex-drug addict of 31 years), told his sisters about Shabbos candles, and explained to Matyash how a gentile can find salvation by adhering to the seven Noahide Laws.
At the end of our rainy day, we realized, that not everything is meant to go according to plan – our plan, that is.