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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
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With Gun Pointed, I Became A Rabbi


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Reading further, I was deeply moved that the time had finally come for Yosef to reveal his true identity to his brothers. I read, “Now Yosef could not restrain himself…” Then, “He cried in a loud voice.” And then my eyes saw the much-anticipated words: “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?”

At that exact moment of Yosef’s truthful words, I heard loud noises from downstairs in the shul. They were footsteps and voices, both of them coming closer to me. It didn’t make sense. It was 11:30 p.m. If it was my roommate coming back at this hour, he would more than likely be coming home alone – certainly not with a group making such loud noises.

The footsteps were getting closer, the voices were getting louder, and my fear was increasing. Then a wonderful thing happened. I told myself, “Stay calm. Whatever’s going to happen is going to turn out better if you stay calm.” The best part: I listened to myself.

I stared at the door as it opened. I stared at the cylinder that came through the door. I saw the shock of blue coming in.

I saw a gun pointed at me and heard the policeman, with three other policemen behind him, ask in an agitated way, “Are you the rabbi?”

With great emotion, I responded, “Yes, I am!”

I figured it was what they wanted to hear.

Then all four policemen plopped down on the sofa and chairs and let out immense sighs of relief. I realized that they had come up the same dark stairs, with the same creaky floorboards.

The first policeman I had encountered said, “We had gotten a call that an intruder had been trying all the doors and had finally gotten in.”

That clearly explained their relief. They had been expecting a prowler and instead got the rabbi.

But I wasn’t the rabbi, and I knew I had to inform them of that fact. But first I reserved a moment to reflect on the rich irony. Just when I’m reading about Yosef’s revelation of truth to his brothers, I, one who so values honesty, lie about who I truly am. But I figured that as worked up as the policemen were, telling them a lie was the best thing I could have done.

“I’m not really the rabbi,” I said to them. Whatever calm they were experiencing regressed quickly into a suspicion that something was very wrong here. So I told them the truth of what was going on, including the details of which door to use when entering the building and that I ate dinner out.

One of the policeman then said, “Call the people you were at to verify your story.”

“They could be called,” I said, “but they’re not going to answer the phone. It’s the Sabbath.”

This seemed to anger them, and one of the policemen severely criticized me for leaving one door of the synagogue open. I explained that it was my roommate’s idea and that since it was his apartment, I followed his instructions.

Another policeman read the riot act to me, basically saying that he didn’t like what had happened. He added in a very strong tone, “We’re going to be leaving now. Tell your roommate never to do this again!” I agreed to do so.

Making a move to leave the apartment, the lead policeman stopped, as if he had another thought.

“Maybe we should work him over just to teach him a lesson,” he said, smiling. I was hoping that he was just kidding.

The second policeman said, “I’ll hold him and you could get some good punches in.”

And the third policeman said, “It would serve him right.”

They were heading out the door and I figured this whole unexpected encounter was about to end.

But more of the unexpected was yet to come. Just as the last policeman was about to walk out, he said to his colleagues, “My mother’s never going to believe that I went to shul on a Friday night.”

Thanks to Hashem, I had remained calm at the key moment – and even did some kiruv work to boot!

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The first and only time I said I was a rabbi was also the first and only time I had a gun pointed at me. What led me to that moment was my need to stay on the Upper West Side for a Shabbos and a hospitality committee that arranged for me to stay with a man who lived in the former janitor’s apartment on the fifth floor of a synagogue.

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The five-year-old boy was in a church in Puerto Rico with his parents. As they and his grandparents were Catholics, that made him Catholic – as far as his young mind could figure.

I was preparing a shiur to honor the memory of my father, Paul Magill, a”h, on the 20th anniversary of his passing, and I was looking at that week’s sedrah, Parshas Re’eh. I was struck by the words, “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others, that you did not know.”

Feeling more alone than at any time since arriving in New York, I looked inside myself for anything that could anchor me to bring me back to who I was, to move away from illusions of romance to my central sticking point. Suddenly and unexpectedly, being a Jew meant more to me than anything else in the world.

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