I am a 16-year-old student at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Maryland. This past summer I decided to volunteer at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Greater Washington. In the beginning I wasn’t very comfortable about spending my days in a nursing home. But that would all soon change.
One job of the volunteers is to ask the residents if they would like to go to the daily services. Most residents are receptive; even those who choose not to attend are generally pleasant about it.
There was one man, however, who would get very angry when asked. One time he even cursed one of the volunteers. The volunteer was extremely upset so I decided to go to speak with the resident.
“The volunteers are only here to help and there is no reason to curse at them,” I told the man firmly but respectfully. The resident asked me to wheel him to his room and when we arrived there he told me to sit down. “I want to tell you a story,” he said.
He had grown up in a prominent religious family. Everyone had been murdered by the Nazis except for him and his father. In the concentration camp that they were in, someone had smuggled in tefilin shel rosh – phylacteries worn on the head. Every morning the men would sneak a chance to put on the tefilin, even if for just a second.
“The day before my Bar Mitzva, my father had heard that a man had a whole pair of tefilin (the tefilin worn on the head and the tefilin worn on the arm). That evening, the man who had smuggled in the tefilin was killed by the Nazis. My father,” the resident continued, “after hearing of the man’s death, went to the man’s bunk to get the tefilin so that I would be able to put on a complete pair of tefilin for my Bar Mitzva. On his way back to his bunk, my father was seen by a Nazi and shot, right in front of me. Somehow, I managed to take the tefilin and hide them.”
The resident paused and then said to me, “How can you pray to this G-d, a G-d that would kill a boy’s father right in front of him. The father who went to get tefilin so that I could pray to Him?” The man then turned to me and said “Go to my dresser and open the drawer.” I did as I was told and I saw an old, worn black bag. The man told me to bring him the bag. I brought it to him and he opened it and showed me the contents. It was the pair of tefilin that his father had died for. “I keep these to show people that this is what my father died for, these dirty black boxes and straps. They were the last thing my father ever gave me,” he said.
I left a few minutes later, totally speechless. I went home. I didn’t eat supper and barely slept that night. But when I woke up the next morning, I put on my tefilin, I prayed, and then I went to the Hebrew Home.
When it was time to bring the residents to services I avoided that man’s floor totally. Then I was notified that we were one short of a minyan and one of the residents needed to say “Kaddish.” I went up to all the residents and none would attend. I had no other choice but to ask the man.
The man was in his room. I asked him if he would attend services as there was a man who needed to say Kaddish. I expected him to say “no,” but instead he asked, “If I come will you leave me alone?” His reply took me by surprise. I said, “If you come I will leave you alone.”
I don’t know what made me ask him this question, but then I asked him if he would like to bring his tefilin. I was ready to apologize when he said, “If I bring them will you leave me alone?”
I told him, “yes.” The man took his tefilin and I took him down to the synagogue. He asked me to wheel him to the back so that it would be easy for someone to wheel him out as soon as the services were over. I did as he requested and showed him how to put on his tefilin. Then I left to do some other work.
When services were over I returned to help bring residents back to their rooms. I walked into the synagogue. The only person left in the entire room was the resident I had brought in, still sitting in the back in his wheelchair with his tefilin on. Tears were pouring down his cheeks.
“Should I get a nurse or a doctor?” I asked him. He did not respond. Instead, he said over and over again, “Tatti (Father), Tatti, it feels so right.” He was staring down at the tefilin on his arm.
After he calmed down I brought him back to his room. He told me that during that hour he felt as if his father was back with him.
Every morning after that, when I got off the elevator on his floor, he was waiting, holding his tefilin, ready to go down to services. One day I got off the elevator and he wasn’t there. I asked one of the nurses where he was. She told me gently that he had been taken to the hospital and they had just received word that he had died. I was taken aback and asked her to repeat what she had just said.
Time passed and I was notified that I would be given an award by the Jewish Home for my work as a volunteer. After the ceremony a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you, you saved my father’s life.”
I had no idea who this woman was. “I’m sorry, but I must have forgotten who you are,” I told her.
“We never met, but you knew my father,” she said. She told me her father’s name and I immediately recognized her as the resident’s daughter. She told me that before her father passed away, he asked his daughter to bring him his tefilin. He said he knew he would soon be passing on and he wanted to put his tefilin on and pray one last time. Soon after that he went into a coma. His daughter told me, “You truly saved him and made his last moments comfortable.” The man died with his tefilin on as he was reunited with his Tatti.
We never know what kind of an effect we will have on another person. But we do know that every little thing we do counts.