It was a chilly Shabbos morning in 1984 when my friend, a pearl importer, and I were walking up the long steep road to the hilltop synagogue in Kobe, Japan.
When we finally reached the flat street on top of the hill, I was out of breath. There was a feeling of joy and accomplishment when the shul came into view. Only 50 more feet to go!
The two of us completed the minyan, which was composed of Kobe resident foreign exporters and New York pearl importers. The credit for getting 10 Jews together from all over the Kobe, Osaka and Tokyo areas went to the local Syrian religious leader, Rav Yoseph Gamliel. To accomplish this feat, Rav Gamliel must have had spies in every hotel lobby in Japan!
The shul’s outstanding architectural features included a beautiful green marble floor and brass-laced mechitzah. The Sefer Torah was kept in a decorative metallic encasement. The credit for building the shul went to Jewish Iraqi-Afghani businessmen, which accounted for its Sephardic flavor.
After the morning service, the community invited us to a simple, tasty kiddush. There were three long, linen-covered tables set with large bowls of tuna salad, egg salad, potato salad and small bottles of grape juice. According to the shul’s custom, the participants related their names, where they were from, and their mission in Kobe. We all got to know one another, which resulted in a warm Shabbos tisch.
A very distinguished gray-bearded rabbi sat at the head of the table. He introduced himself as Rabbi Berel Levy. He wished everyone a good Shabbos, and explained that he was a mashgiach for the OK Labs.
He told us, “This trip has turned out to be a very illuminating one for me. Hashem sent me from Brooklyn to Osaka, Japan to check on the kashrus of a Japanese company’s new snack, banana chips fried in coconut oil. The bananas were fine. However, the coconut oil was imported from Singapore/Malaysia, and shipped in vats by boat to Japan. My job was to check the vats from point of origin to finish. This meant that I had to travel to Singapore.
“After getting settled in Singapore, I attended a Shabbos kiddush where I was introduced to a very nice young man. He was also from Brooklyn, and attending medical school. At his side was a lovely young gentile lady. The man introduced her to me, and then took me aside for a private conversation. He explained that he was in love with this young woman, and had just given her a diamond engagement ring. However, he had not had the courage to break the news to his parents. He asked me to visit his parents and told me how beautiful and fine his fianc? was. He then gave me his phone number.
“Two weeks later I was back in Brooklyn, in his parents’ apartment, and called his number.
” ‘Hello, Rabbi Levy. Is that you?’ ” he asked excitedly.
“Yes, it’s me. I just gave your parents your news, and we are dealing with a nightmare scene. Your mother is clutching her chest with one hand, and hanging on to the kitchen table with the other. Your father fell to the floor, and is kneeling on both knees. I have to call Hatzolah. I don’t want to be responsible for what is happening here. The only way to save your parents is for you to break your engagement, and ask your parents’ forgiveness. Should I call the ambulance, or are you going to give me your word that your engagement is over?”
“Yes, it’s over! It’s over! Please tell them I am sorry. I am giving you my word.”
“I thought Hashem had sent me to the Far East to check on fried banana chips. It turned out that my trip had an additional dimension. We never know when Hashem will make us a messenger for a lifesaving mission.”
This story is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Berel Levy, z”l, and all the rabbis who put their lives at risk by flying overseas to supervise the kashrus of food products.
George H. Gisser has recently completed his exciting new children’s book, to be released soon, entitled, Happy Kappy – The Flying Kangaroo. His creative cartoon, “It’s Kappy Time,” can be seen onwww.kappythekangaroo.com.