Hannah Turner, a journalism student who recently found out her grandfather has cancer, spent an emotional and comforting weekend in Crown Heights with Chabad on Campus.
Right before leaving to a Chabad on Campus trip to New York City with 15 other Jewish kids from the University of Missouri, I found out my grandfather has cancer. The prognosis is pretty terrible; if we’re lucky, he has a month to live. Papa is the sweetest Southern man you’ll ever meet. He has worked his entire life at an electric plant in the tiny town of Lewisburg, Tennessee and always ends our phone calls with the reminder to “study hard.”
Suddenly this trip I had so been looking forward to was overshadowed by this heartbreaking news. I had actually been on this trip two years before, so I had seen the sights. We went to Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chabad Rebbe’s Ohel and, of course 770. I remember laughing the entire time I was in New York the first time. This time was different as I couldn’t fully commit to enjoying myself.
My amazing rabbi and rebbetzin, Rabbi Avromi and Channy Lapine, were the first people I told about Papa. My rebbetzin immediately sent me a link to Chabad.org where I could find the appropriate prayers to say for him. She then asked for his name and his mother’s name so she could pray for him, too. Then, I told my best friend about what was going on. She offered to say mishaberach, the prayer for those who need healing, with me. Now it wasn’t just me praying for Papa.
As the weekend continued, I began to understand why this program is called “Pegisha,” which translates to “an encounter” in Hebrew. I found that to be very fitting as my friends and I met new Jews from all across the globe. We ate amazing challah, and for the first time in my life tried kosher Mexican and Chinese foods, which I have to admit were incredible. I listened to stories from a speaker about the Jewish mob and how they saved American Jews during the Holocaust. I also met with a rabbi from Manchester who explained the connection between Judaism and superheroes. Jews from all over the globe game together to dance during havdalah and celebrate the miracle of Shabbos. I even had a question and answer session with my rabbi and rebbetzin about relationships and finding Jewish love on the steps of the synagogue while freezing in the New York City wind. We didn’t care, we were just happy to be there.
But all the time, Papa was on my mind. My dad told me to focus on the good times. So, I thought about late nights playing cards at the kitchen table and him cutting my grapes in half as a kid, because for some reason they tasted better that way. I thought about sitting in the basement and looking at old photos of him and my grandmama when they first met, and I thought about listening to him snore over the soundtrack to old Western movies after he had fallen asleep.
The last night I was in New York, my best friend and I ventured over to 770 by ourselves. I didn’t really want to go. I had never felt any connection there, but she insisted. As soon as we entered, I felt my heart deepen. There were probably thirty Jewish women praying there, and upward of fifty Jewish men downstairs. I stood in front of the bench in the back row and closed my eyes. I must have said every prayer for healing I could think of while silently rocking back and forth. No one looked at me. No one spoke to me. But there weren’t just a few of us praying for my Papa anymore. Now there were at least 80. How could 80 strangers be praying for my Papa? How could I be so blessed to have wandered into a room of people that were there to pray with me?
That’s pegisha. That’s my tribe. That’s what it means to be a Jew to me. It’s a community unlike any other that is a web of support that holds you up. It’s a commonality throughout the world and throughout time that will always be there for you. My pegisha was never being alone in the pain of losing my Papa.
Hannah Turner of Austin, Texas, is a senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.