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Airport Encounter

by Esther Stern

One cold wintry day, the Rosh Yeshivah of Telz, Cleveland, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, was lining up at the airline checkout counter of Cleveland's airport, about to embark on a trip to New York. One of his close students had enclosed nine Cleveland-New York airline tickets inside the invitation to his wedding.

Rabbi Mordechai Gifter and eight of his students ascended the aircraft. After packing away their hand luggage in the overhead compartments, they settled back in their seats, readying themselves for two hours of flying time. They could already see themselves joyfully wishing the groom "Mazal Tov" and dancing at his simchah.

But God had other plans.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," a voice blasted over the loudspeaker. "Due to a fierce blizzard in New York, we shall not be able to land at Kennedy Airport. Snow on the runway is knee-deep. All departing aircraft have been grounded, and incoming aircraft have been rerouted elsewhere. Ground controls have advised my co-pilot and I to head towards Washington National Airport."

And so it happened that Rabbi Gifter and eight of his students found themselves spending the long afternoon hours in the Washington airport, while many miles away the wedding of their dear friend and student was being celebrated without them.

The murky gray of the weather outside slowly turned to inky black as afternoon slipped into evening. It was time for Ma'ariv, the evening prayers. Searching for a private corner where they could daven, the group came across an airport cleaner mopping the floor.

"Excuse me," one of the students politely asked, "do you know of an empty room where we can say our evening prayers?"

From the man's reaction, it seemed that he had never met observant Jews in his life. His mop clattered to the floor in alarm and he stared at them open-mouthed as if they had fallen from the moon.

One student stepped forward. "A place where we could pray," he explained, enunciating each word loudly and miming a man praying.

That did the trick. The cleaner nodded slowly and directed them to a storage room where they could daven undisturbed.

The group commenced their prayers. Instead of leaving, the cleaner stood silently at the door, watching them intently, a dazed expression on his face. After they had finished, they were astonished to hear him ask, "Why don't you say Kaddish?"

"We need a minyan for Kaddish -- that is, ten adult males," one of the boys explained, "and we're missing one man to complete a minyan."

To their complete surprise, the cleaner responded, "I am a Jew. I will join your group to complete the minyan. Please," he begged, "let me say the Kaddish."

Rabbi Gifter and his students willingly agreed. The lanky airport worker, sporting a green staff apron, abandoned his mop and pail and self-consciously walked to the center of the room. Haltingly, he began reciting Kaddish, stumbling over the unfamiliar Aramaic words. Realizing that his knowledge of the text was virtually non-existent, the group patiently helped him along, word after word, until he had pronounced each difficult word in full.

After he had finished, the worker took a deep breath and said softly, "As you can see, I wasn't brought up as a practicing Jew, and I barely know anything about Judaism. I had a terrible fight with my father about ten years before his passing. After that, all contact between us was severed. I did not even attend his funeral.

"Last night he appeared to me in a dream and said, 'I know you're angry at me -- you didn't even come to my funeral -- but still, you are my only son. You must say Kaddish for my soul with a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish men!'

"'How can I say Kaddish?' I cried out, afraid he would disappear before he had a chance to advise me, 'I barely know how to say the words! And how will I find a minyan?'

"'I will arrange it for you,' he reassured me, and then I woke up.

"Now here you are, exactly nine of you," continued the worker, his voice full of wonder. "Heaven-sent -- literally -- so that I can say Kaddish for the benefit of my father's departed soul!"

Rabbi Gifter then told him their side of the story -- how they had come into the picture at that point. "See how God runs the world!" Rabbi Gifter marveled. "See how He orchestrated our meeting together! Nine invitations to a wedding, a raging snowstorm in New York, the airplane's rerouting to Washington National Airport, missing the wedding -- all this happened so that you should be able to say Kaddish for your father!"

The amazing chain of events had such a profound impact on the airport employee that it did not take much persuading on the part of Rabbi Gifter to encourage him to continue saying Kaddish with a minyan. And that precious mitzvah was the starting point of this man's complete return to his Jewish roots.

Reprinted with permission from InnerNet Magazine

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