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How a medical student in Rome found his Chabad origins

Friday, May 6, 2022

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Over the years the Passover Seder has always been the largest event we organized, we started with 50 people and over the years we reached close to 300 people. Even though during the year there are Shabbat meals, the Pesach Seder, both because of the quantity and because of the type of food requires a different organization, so every year we hire a team of waiters and cooks for Seder night.

This year, after two years of Covid, we lost contact with the staff who worked in previous years, some have already moved to other places, some have started other jobs, so we decided to look for a cook and he would cook for Purim so he would know the kitchen and we would get to know him.

We realized quickly that even though the cook knows how to work fast but we will need a cook that knows the Jewish kitchen, for Purim we brought one of the students who likes to cook, but for Passover he returned to Israel, so we asked the students and was told that there is a new guy named Jonathan and he is not just a cook, but a chef!

Jonathan came maybe once or twice for a Shabbat meal at the Chabad house, so I did not really know him well and was a little worried that he would not be able to take on the job, firstly because he is studying and because he has a job as a tour guide.

I invited him for Purim but he could not come, so I invited him again for a Shabbat meal and, thank G-d, he came and I introduced him the idea of cooking for the Seder Pesach, he immediately got excited and said he would check and give me an answer.

After a few days he answered that he was indeed available (or cleared his schedule) and we immediately started working on a menu, dishes, orders of fruits and vegetables, plates, trays, etc. In one of the meetings before Pesach I asked him how much he takes, he immediately said that he does not want to get paid, he wants to volunteer for Chabad, but I did not feel comfortable, he had already worked a good few hours to build a menu, shopping list, dishes, etc. I told him I must pay him, so he let me understand that if I will pay him what he usually takes, which is calculated per person, the price we charge people for the Seder will not cover the cost.

Jonathan took this job very enthusiastically, he worked for three consecutive days, and he came up with ideas on how to improve the experience of the Seder, for example, he asked for fresh fish so he could add ceviche to the menu, and after the Seder some people pointed to this addition as something they did not expect.

In one of our conversations in the organization of the Seder the conversation turned to the issue of faith, Jonathan said that although he is not religious and does not keep mitzvos he has very great faith in the matter of Divine providence and we talked about some examples that happened to us, he also was interested to know more about the Mitzvà of tefillin.

In the meantime, the two Yeshiva students from the Roving Rabbi “Merkos Shlichus” program, Shneur Wilansky and Zalmi Chanowitz, arrived and became friends with Jonatan and put on tefillin with him every day.

The Pesach Seder went smoothly, everyone praised Jonathan’s work, and when people went out one by one they thanked for the wonderful Seder, and for the fine food.

Of course, I kept thinking how can I really thank Jonathan, my wife came up with an idea to give him a gift, something he would choose and if he wanted good pair of tefillin, I immediately wrote to him about the idea and without hesitation, he chose the tefillin!

I immediately brought the bag to embroider his name on it, in the meantime, I have already talked to him that since he is Ashkenazi I will give him Arizal tefillin, but when he came to take the tefillin I forgot all about it and took out Sefardi tefillin, I changed the size of the head but then I told him that maybe he should check with his family with Ashkenazi origins they have since there are different types of Ashkenazi Tefillin.

He informed me then that his great-grandfather, Yehuda Astrachan, was a Shochet in Riga. I immediately turned to Rabbi Glazman, the shliach in Riga, within a few minutes he sent me a photo from the book of Rabbi Menachem Barchan with a description of “Leib Astrakhan” who was a Chabad Shochet killed in the Holocaust, the fact that he was Chabad was not known to the family until now!

Jonathan received the Arizal tefillin, the ones usually used by Chabad, with great excitement and did not stop thanking for the privilege that he had to be a part of the Passover Seder and how much it brought him energies, etc.

I am sure that from above Rabbi Yehuda Leib Astrakhan, after whom Yonatan’s father is named, is filled with joy to see that his descendants reconnect with Judaism in the Chabad way he chose then, and on the other hand there is no doubt that he transmitted to Yonatan the enthusiasm to help others.

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