Seeing the wider world has always been important for my wife Debra, and after we got married, I immediately saw why she wanted to see the vast heritage of the world and learn how others live. Debra’s motto, one she has repeated constantly throughout our travels, is from a pasuk of Tehillim (104:24): «How great are Your works, O Lord! You have made them all with wisdom»
(מָֽה־רַבּ֬וּ מַֽעֲשֶׂ֨יךָ ה כֻּ֖לָּם בְּחָכְמָ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ).
Our marriage started with my learning shechita, which ended up helping me serve as a mashgiach and shochet in camps all over the world, including memorable summers throughout the former Soviet Union.
Obviously, once you have small children, and the everyday life expenses amass, travel becomes vastly more difficult, but Debra was not to be deterred. We had heard so many people say to us “It goes so quickly so cherish every moment,” that we became determined to ensure that we spent quality time together as a family exploring the world that Hashem has given to us. We then set upon an ambitious plan to visit the “lower 48”—the contiguous states of the United States of America—before our oldest sons graduated high school and left to study in Israel. Debra utilized the newest resources on hand to plan how to travel on a budget. She also ordered a big plush map of the U.S. and pinned all the states that we had already visited as a family. Given our travels to family members, we were already one-eighth of the way to our goal.
Fortunately, the explosion of kosher food in grocery stores throughout the country has made what has been historically the biggest challenge for Jewish travelers much less of a hurdle. Those shechita skills that we depended upon in the former Soviet Union were not called on. We did set out other ground rules that made travel a bit more challenging. We wanted to ensure that our children realized that our traditions do not take a vacation, so the number one rule was that we had to do our absolute best not miss a minyan. Not a Shacharit nor Mincha/Maariv. Minyan attendance ties us to Torah observance, keeps our relationship with Hashem strong on a daily basis and allows us to connect to the Jewish people wherever we go. The second rule, seemingly obvious but by no means simple, was that we had to actually do something in each state. For example, stopping in an airport en route to someplace else was simply not enough.
Thankfully, there were so many Internet resources that helped pave our way. Websites like Dan’s Deals help us capitalize on cheap flight and or cash back credit card deals. Go Daven and the like helped plan our route as it made finding the vast majority of minyanim across the U.S. relatively easy. Coming with five males over bar mitzvah age clearly helped in these last years. Having friends across the U.S. who opened their homes to us, the advent of AirBnB and last minute hotel deals helped keep us within a budget as well.
We have been fortunate to meet so many special people thanks to our search for minyanim throughout the country. We were lucky to be in Montana one Shabbat shortly after Rabbi Chaim and Chavie Bruk adopted their first child (they have since adopted five children) and we celebrated a bat mitzvah with the Levertov family, the Chabad rabbi, in Santa Fe, Mexico. We participated in a bar mitzvah while in Iowa since the minyan was a part of the celebration. On one trip, we met a man at minyan who turned out to be on our flight. When we got stuck in the Atlantic City airport at 1 a.m. due to a snowstorm, he and his wife took us into their home and found us a ride back to West Orange. Mi k’amcha Yisrael.
I always knew that the U.S. had a diverse collection of small Jewish communities. Before the 1880s, many Jews settled as peddlers in the South; There was an early 1900s Galveston Plan to settle Jews in Texas; and Rabbi Milton Polin, z”l, my rabbi growing up, once headed shuls in Cheyenne, Wyoming and Louisville, Kentucky. However seeing the shuls in action so many years later was another thing entirely.
Of course, some states were more difficult than others. North Dakota topped this list. There was no minyan in the state at the time we visited, and it lists fewer exciting sites to see. We soon discovered that so many people who embark on a states tour leave North Dakota for last that the Visitor Center gives you a button that says “the last state.” In order to include North Dakota, we needed to make a six hour roundtrip car ride from Minnesota. We called a family meeting in which we gave our sons the option of just skipping North Dakota as we recognized the stress it might impose. The boys voted unanimously to travel in and out in one day. We left right after Shacharit in Minneapolis, drove to Fargo, North Dakota where we visited the un-asterisked Roger Maris museum—two rooms in a mall—then played laser tag and drove back for Mincha/Maariv and a trip to the Mall of America.
As befits every adventure, we did end up with some crazy minyan stories. One city featured two shuls, and neither had a consistent daily minyan. Not knowing the politics, we contacted both to find out davening times. On Friday morning, we came to one shul and we were told how great a nes (miracle) it was, because not only were we the minyan but there was nobody who could lain the parsha. Unfortunately for us, I did not know that parsha and ended up staying up all Shabbat night with one of my sons learning it. Right before Shabbat started we got a call from the other shul, who was also excited because they too expected us to make their minyan. We ended up attending both minyanim.
As with travelers all over the world, getting to places in time for Shabbat is a constant worry, especially the need to be cognizant of different time zones. Unfortunately we forgot this when driving through Alabama on the way to spend Shabbat in Atlanta, Georgia. As we drove, we noticed the GPS clock change ahead one hour, resulting in Debra getting a speeding ticket and us making it to our host’s home a mere half hour before candle lighting.
We have seen so much of Hashem’s beauty in the natural parks of the United States, within the special people we have met and much quality time as a family traveling. Over the years, we missed only a handful of minyanim. Most notably in the Grand Canyon and in Yellowstone, where we got stuck behind a herd of buffalos. But these were rare events.
Last month, we skied the mountains in Utah, and completed our mission—just a few months before the oldest two boys head off to yeshiva in Israel for the year. Hopefully, due to their travels, they will go with a more expansive view of the world and the wonders of Hashem’s creation. And they will go with the knowledge of how to find a minyan anywhere.
By Rabbi Marc Spivak