A dream in darwin
by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
This Shabbos, the Third of Tammuz, will mark the 18th Yohrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe - Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn (o.b.m.). The Rebbe's leadership, teachings and inspiration touched hundreds of thousands and had an unmistakable impact on world Jewry. The following story, which I was privileged to be part of, expresses how far the Rebbe's reach actually was and how his impact continues to be felt years after his passing:
The address 30/55 Parap Road simply didn't exist. This was the conclusion reached by myself and Zevi Shusterman, my classmate from Melbourne's Chabad Yeshiva, as we made our way through the streets of Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory.
It was four days before Passover, the 11th day in Nissan, 2006. Zevi and I were in Darwin as part of the "Merkos Shlichus" program - an international movement inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe whereby Rabbinical students volunteer each Passover to visit remote Jewish communities in order to raise awareness of Torah, Mitzvot and Judaism. Our main "mission" was to arrange a public seder for the local Jews. But we also wished to pay personal house visits to the fifty or so known Jews of Darwin.
One last search at the reverse address, 55/30 Parap Road, would be our last, before admitting defeat. As we walked into the courtyard of 55 Parap Road, four large buildings surrounded us. It was the epicenter of a large commune for the unemployed and underprivileged; the scene of primitiveness coupled with substance abuse was startling.
Overcoming our initial fear, we approached a group of young men and ambitiously asked them if they knew of a man by the name of Joseph De Backer. We had heard of him from a local Jew who happened to have come across him in a local post-office a few months before. The men motioned to us to go upstairs. Reaching the fourth floor, we found a group of older men, whom we assumed to be the commune elders. When we repeated our question to the elders, the men simply shrugged their shoulders. But just as we turned around to leave, one of the "elders" announced that there was a man named Joseph who lived a further flight up.
With a box of handmade matzah in hand, we excitedly approached a door that bore a tiny mezuzah. Assuming nobody would refuse a free matzah offer, we knocked and called out, "Joseph! We brought you matzah!"
An old, life-weary man came to the door with tears streaming down his face. Before exchanging any words, the old man strangely poked and prodded our arms. "I can't believe it!" he muttered, repeating the words again and again as he gazed upon us. We just stood there, speechless and perplexed.
After a few moments, Joseph calmed down and invited us inside. We sat down at the table and Joseph began telling his story:
"I am a survivor of Auschwitz. After the war, trying to run away from everything, I moved to Perth. I married a non-Jew with whom I had a son. After my business failed and I was divorced, there was nothing left for me in Perth. My only reason to live was now my son, who serves in the Australian Army and is stationed in Darwin."
Joseph took a sip of tea, then continued with his tale.
"I moved to Darwin to be near my son and found shelter with my few belongings in this government commune. I slowly lost all contact with the outside world. I have no internet, email, not even a telephone. I venture out of the house only to buy the bare essentials. Even my son rarely visits me anymore.
"I knew from when I was a little boy that around April there is a Jewish holiday. I didn't remember much about the holiday, but I knew that for a period of time bread was forbidden, and we ate flat crackers. Yesterday, my meager memories of the holiday and Jewish identity left me feeling especially lonely and depressed.
"I had trouble falling asleep last night; but when I finally did, I had a dream that two rabbis brought me the flat crackers for the holiday. That's why when you two rabbis arrived at my door, I thought I was hallucinating. I poked and prodded you to make sure you were real!"
We were overwhelmed and moved by Joseph's tale. We spent several hours speaking and listening to a man all but forgotten by society. Tears of joy streamed down Joseph's face as we helped him don tefillin and say a prayer.
Before taking our leave, we gave him all the Jewish reading material we had, including a booklet entitled "The Rebbe: An Appreciation," which contains several articles about the Lubavitcher Rebbe as well as pictures of the Rebbe.
Joseph walked us down the hall to the stairs, thanked us from the depths of his heart and bade us farewell.
A year later, I returned to Darwin. I was looking forward to meeting all the Jews whom we had encountered the previous year, but none more so than Joseph. The Jews of Darwin, after hearing from us about Joseph's plight, helped him and improved his lot.
As I entered the old man's apartment, we embraced, then sat down to talk. As Joseph spoke of the community's help, I noticed that the apartment's walls were covered with pictures of the Rebbe, neatly cut out from the brochure, "The Rebbe: An Appreciation."
I casually remarked upon the pictures on the wall, assuming Joseph had simply found them to be nice pictures with which to decorate his apartment. But Joseph turned to me with a tone that was anything but casual.
"You don't remember the dream? It's because of this man that I have reconnected to Judaism after so many years and it's thanks to him that my lot has improved so much! The least I can do is have his picture on my wall".