I looked up from my paperwork to see the young man who had coughed slightly to get my attention. He had startlingly deep blue eyes and was dressed like a typical yeshiva bachur, wearing a black suit and hat.
“Hi, my name is Ben Zion,” he started. “I’m hoping you can help me out. I volunteered with NCSY in the States, so I thought I might be able get a little help at the NCSY Center here. Now I’m learning at the Mir, and I’m working on a kiruv program. I was hoping I could find some good source materials, so I don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel.”
It was Elul, 1989, and I was sitting at the front desk at the O.U.’s NCSY Israel Center in Jerusalem. I ran the volunteer programs for American yeshiva boys and seminary girls, who were learning in Israel for a year or two. Ben Zion was running his own show, so I understood he was not going to join one of my programs, but I was happy to help facilitate his.
I offered Ben Zion some programming materials and use of our phones. The phone part was no small thing in those days, as this was years before cell phones. Students like Ben Zion carried a stash of asimonim (those phone tokens with the hole in the middle), and waited at pay phones to make their calls. Ben Zion came to my office fairly regularly, usually with a long list of people to call.
When he left, he always said, “Thank you so much!” Having access to a phone and a place to spread out his papers helped him immeasurably. Of course, I didn’t take any credit for the success of his programs – but I felt good that I helped to make his work easier.
I left Israel the following February to do a semester of coursework at UCLA. In July, I was still in Los Angeles. Ben Zion finished the z’man a little early, so that he could participate in a kiruv program in Australia. After he left Israel, he stopped in New York to visit his family before heading out to Australia. He contacted me in Los Angeles, and said that if I would still be there when he flew, he would ask that his flight to be booked through LAX, so we could meet at the airport for a short visit.
Ben Zion called the program administrator and was told that his flight was already arranged. He was scheduled to fly from New York to San Francisco, and from there to Hawaii, and then, after another stop or two, Australia. The whole trip would be around twenty-four hours!
Ben Zion asked if it was possible to fly via Los Angeles instead of San Francisco. Word came back that if he wanted to go via Los Angeles, he would have to make an extra stop in Chicago. With so many hours of flying and so many different stops, who would want to add an extra stop and extra time to such a long journey? But, of course, to see me it was worth it. (Yes, I’m modest, too.)
There was another glitch in Ben Zion’s travel plans. He was scheduled to leave during the day of the sixteenth of Tammuz, which meant that during the night of the seventeenth of Tammuz he would cross the International Date Line. This resulted in him totally missing the daytime of the seventeenth of Tammuz. What was he to do about fasting?
Ben Zion was worried. Would he have to be mashlim, and fast on another day? Should he just not fast? Should he not put himself into that situation at all? He was, of course, travelling to do a mitzvah, but this travel schedule meant he would miss out on the mitzvah of the Shiva Assar b’Tammuz fast.
Ben Zion asked the sh’aila, and was told not to fast. He would simply miss it. Although Ben Zion respected the rabbi he asked, he still felt uneasy. He left New York feeling troubled.
Ben Zion arrived in Chicago. He was in the airport, riding a moving walkway on the way to his Los Angeles-bound plane. Who should he see coming his way, riding the walkway in the opposite direction? There was Rav Ahron Soloveichik, z”l!
Ben Zion grabbed his carry on and jumped over the railing of his moving walkway. He sprinted over to the moving walkway going the other way and, careful not to land too close to Rav Ahron’s wheelchair, jumped over the side of the railing near Rav Ahron.
Ben Zion caught his breath and apologized to Rav Ahron for barging in on him at the airport. But would he mind answering a sh’aila? Rav Ahron graciously agreed. Ben Zion explained about crossing the International Date Line, and missing the daytime of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz. Rav Ahron gave Ben Zion his answer: do not fast. No need to make it up. No need to do anything else. Have a safe trip!
Ben Zion arrived in Los Angeles all smiles. “See what hashgacha pratis it was that I made the plan to see you and had to go through Chicago?!” he said, and indeed it was.
Many years later I moved with my family to Ramat Beit Shemesh. Our apartment building was two doors down from our shul, Ohr Shalom, which is referred to as “Soloveichik,” short for “Mosdot HaRav Ahron Soloveichik.” Our rav, Rav Chaim Soloveichik, is the youngest son of Rav Ahron, z”l.
I told Rav Chaim the story about Ben Zion meeting Rav Ahron in the airport. Rav Chaim had not heard the story, and was pleased to learn another good story about his father.
Our oldest son, Yekutiel, was born on the seventeenth of Tammuz, so the day has a special significance for our family. This year, as it sometimes does, the day falls out on Shabbat – so we can really celebrate. We await the day when, b’ezrat Hashem, this fast day will be turned into a day of rejoicing.