In the summer of 1992 I was 13 years old. I lived in Miami Beach with my family. 1992 was a year of major transition. My Bar Mitzva was a big part of it and it was also the first year that my parents agreed to send me to yeshiva away from home. The yeshiva I attended was located in Oak Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The yeshiva was very super-chassidish and I was determined to make a good impression and because I loved the school very much and wanted to return for the following school year. It was during that school year that The Rebbe had the first stroke and I was for the first time learning about appreciating my relationship with The Rebbe, a subject very common to the students and faculty of the yeshiva.
Because the yeshiva did not have a summer program for my age, I attended the Masmidim program associated with Gan Yisroel Montreal. It was a fun camp and I felt like I belonged. I was making friends and succeeding in my learning and growing in chassidishkite. Unfortunately, I had a fight with one of the counselors in the camp and I was ultimately kicked out of camp for retaliation and participating in a "Raid" on the bunk of the counselor I fought with.
Before I was actually sent home, a group of staff members from the camp woke me up in the middle of the night, ganged up on me and physically beat me in public forum. They tried to repeatedly humiliate me that night and video-taped the entire torturous event for their own entertainment. Please Note: That I recognize that we were all kids back then and I have forgiven every single person involved without reservation.
The Green Mile or Walk of Shame was how I felt while in the car being driven from Montreal to New York. I was literally beaten down and humiliated on top of getting kicked out of camp, it was the longest 6-hour drive ever.
At that age, nothing could be worse. I was at the lowest point of my life and I felt useless and scared. Crown Heights was a ghost town during that part of the summer. My parents were in China for business and barely reachable, with nobody to defend me or even speak to I fell into despair. Every person that I did meet would inquire into my wellbeing and we would inevitably reach the point in the conversation that I would dread... I would have to re-live the entire horrible experience again and then be judged by the listener so uncomfortably. I wanted to bury myself with shame.
My sister, who got married earlier the same year, introduced me to her neighbor, Reb Mendel Okonov OBM. She insisted that I speak to him about employment in the summer camp that he directed. On one hand, I was depressed and I did not think that I was employable, I dreaded the thought of having to recount the event yet again, just to be judged and then rejected. On the other hand, I could not afford to turn down any potential opportunities because I did not want to risk having to tell my new yeshiva that I wasted away the better half of my summer. After some deliberation I decided to go and meet Reb Mendel.
The first time I met Reb Mendel I was so distraught and anxious about my expulsion from camp, I just blurted out "I was kicked out of camp", I figured that I would just lay it out and save the anxiety of waiting for it to come up during the interview. His response shocked me, he said, "wow that is such Hashgocho Portis! I need a learning teacher to teach my son's bunk. Do you know how to learn Chumash and Mishnayos?", he asked.
There might have been tears in my eyes as I replied "yes.. yes.. Yes.. I certainly can" I was so surprised that he didn't ask me why I was kicked out. A spirit of life came in to me as he informed me that I was hired. That night I was in 7th heaven and I could not conceal my excitement. I remember telling my siblings that I must have made a very good impression on him for Reb Mendel to trust me teaching his son's bunk. It was all so fast, a total 180 in perspective, maybe this was meant to be! Suddenly I had purpose and meaning, somebody very important actually needed me, and even liked me.
The next morning Reb Mendel personally drove me to camp on Ocean Parkway, when we arrived he smiled to me like a friend and wished me good luck, I was exploding with gratitude inside as I whispered the only words that would come out... thank you.
My prayers were answered I was given another chance and I worked very hard to teach the children and help them learn. Everyday that week I got a ride with Reb Mendel to and from camp, at the end of the week Reb Mendel thanked me for working as a learning teacher and I think he actually gave me a few bucks and said: Zaki, you are a very good learning teacher. Those words changed me more than the immediate effect, it made me want to be that guy for somebody.
Fast-forward 30 years at the Shiva of Reb Mendel, I sat with Dovid and recounted the story. Dovid informed me that he remembers that first day that I taught his bunk, and indeed he remembers a term-of-art that I taught the children that day, he remembers that I taught them the concept and definition of the term "Rhetorical Question". Dovid must have a good head B'H and I guess I was actually useful that day.
I grew up very fast that summer in 1992. I learned a lot of very hard lessons and I became tougher and smarter than ever before. Most of all I learned the power of a kind word and a warm smile from the wise heart of a chossid that decided to lift a jew from despair with genuine love and affection. You taught me compassion.
The love you showed me that summer 30 years ago is paying back dividends and B'H, today, I am in a position to help many people. I will continue to be that guy for those brothers and sisters in need, I will make you proud. I love you Reb Mendel, Thank you for believing in me!