Story and photos by Anthony Lanzilote Special to the Jewish News
Chabad teens touch souls with their devotion to Jews and Judaism.
For more than two decades, students at the International School for Chabad Leadership on the Harry & Wanda Zekelman Campus in Oak Park have spent their Friday afternoons traveling throughout Oakland County bringing Jews closer to their faith. They are lamp lighters whose job is to touch souls.
The Friday Boys, as they are called, visit office buildings and strip malls delivering Chabad newsletters, Shabbat candles and interpretations of weekly Torah portions. You may have seen them on Friday afternoons, distinctive in their black hats and black suits, with tzitzit strings hanging outside their white shirts. They also enthusiastically celebrate Jewish holidays, often with an entire office. And they help men — who are willing — put on tefillin
and recite the appropriate blessing.
Levi Uminer, 16, and Moshe Weiss, 14, are close friends and Friday Boys partners. Every week, a few hours before Sabbath, they hop in a van or small bus with other boys to be dropped at their recurring route along Northwestern Highway in Southfield. There, they meet with a series of regulars.
“Every Friday, I look forward to them coming,” says Murray Goldenberg, a Southfield-based photographer. “I find it fascinating how much they really know about Judaism; they are so far educated beyond their age.”
The boys are willing to endure all types of weather to complete their weekly rounds.
“It gets pretty tough going out in the winter when there is snow and sleet and our hats go flying into Northwestern,” Levi says. He prefers the warmer weather of his hometown, Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Moshe, a native of Charlotte, N.C., views trudging through Michigan winters as a personal responsibility. “If you had a family member that lives right near you, would you not go through the snow — go through anything to meet them? We’re all children of God.”
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson had a number of “revolutionary ideas,” says Rabbi Mendel Shemtov, director of the International School for Chabad Leadership. “One was to send out these emissaries.” But, in 1994, the idea that yeshivah students as young as 13 could fulfill this role was far from certain. That first week, Shemtov rented a small school bus and dropped his students off on Civic Center Drive in Southfield.
“I was excited, but within two and a half minutes, they all came piling out of the building — security got a hold of them,” he says. Seven years later, the program had barely started to take hold. “But we waited it out another three or four years, and it really took off.”
The program will only be complete, Shemtov says, “when every Jew is met. Every Jew, and by way of them, every person should be touched. The soul should be touched and [the Friday Boys] are the lamp lighters.”