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My First Shma

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After reading the story about Jewish orphans, and after it brings you to tears read this story. 

I’ve never prayed before this moment. I have at times I said “god help me” as I felt turbulence on a plane, or the time I spent a month in a hospital with Hepatitis in Ukraine when I was ten and I prayed to not wet my bed. But never have I opened a prayer book and read a prayer. 
It was June 10th, 2013 and I came out of the subway in Crown Heights. I expected to look for a Chabad and around me was a teaming religious life. Like being in the Antarctic surrounded by penguins or on a set of orchestra, men and boys with wide brimmed hats, white shirts and suits streamed in all directions. Pregnant women with kids walked every which way. A large modern gray building was on one side with a giant picture of child’s face. I was standing on a park lane dividing traffic. I asked for directions to Chabad and I was pointed to a building directly in front of me: brown, two or three stories, no markings and nothing special about it.
I came up to it. Confused. As I walked down the steps a man stood perched against the building. Thick gray beard, disinterested eyes. 
“Is this the Chabad?”
“Yes. Do you want to go inside?”
He takes me inside.
Inside is more like a giant classroom or library. Lots of desks with old men and boys paired up, young men reading, young men discussing, boys praying. Groups of people praying. A complete mess.
He sees the camera in my hands.
“Do you want a picture?” 
I usually don’t care but sure. He takes a picture of me in front of the large ark at one end, it blends in with the rest of the building.
“Where are you from?”
“San Diego, but I was born in Ukraine.”
“Have you put on your tfillin?”
“Would you like to?”
He goes and finds the strange Tfillin. Two small boxes made of cowhide containing the Shma Israel Prayer inside.
I take off my watch and he puts on the first box on my bicep.
He wraps the cow hide strip around my arm, up to my wrist.
“Hold this.” I hold the rest of the band, and we say a prayer.
“You can’t speak now or you’ll have to say the prayer again.” I keep silent.
He puts the other on top of my forehead and finishes off the wrap around my hand.
“This is for Shem.” He points to how he ties the band.
“What language do you want to read in? You probably need Russian.”
“I’m OK with either…” He ran off before I could finish.
He came back with a book and somehow found the right page. 
“Read from here to here.”
I began to read and something began to shake me. These words, these beautiful words spoke to me. I could feel them through my fiber as if I had heard them a million times. This was prayer, it was no god but it was something it. It was my ancestors, it was my genes, it was some kind of return to something deeper, some kind of inner core. A deep calmness set through me as we took tfillin off….
I thought of this moment as I read the story of the kids in Poland, the one phrase that can get to a Jew that was brought up as a Jew.
Hear o Israel, Our God, God is one.
At Chabad in Crown Heights

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