In the hours following Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death Monday, many shared stories of their own encounters with the renowned rabbi, whose influence touched almost every aspect of contemporary Jewish life.
Among those who had a story to tell was Elishai, a teacher who works with immigrant youth.
Elishai heard the story from an older man he happened to meet on a bus. The other man wore clothing that clearly identified him as a religious Jew, including a long coat and black hat, and he engaged Elishai in Torah learning during the ride.
As the bus approached their destination, the older man turned to Elishai and asked him about his work. Elishai told him about his young students, and noted that many of them feel far from Torah and religion.
The man was silent. After a few minutes, he began to tell Elishai a story:
“Next month, I’m going to take early retirement from the beit din [court of Jewish law – ed.] where I have worked as a judge for the past 25 years. But you should know that I didn’t always look like this. These clothes, the beard… it’s not something I learned at home.
“My parents were older Holocaust survivors, and they didn’t have the emotional ability to give me the attention I needed. I spent my time in the streets, and before my bar mitzvah [at age 13] I was already practically a criminal.”
By age 15, he said, his antics had earned him the inglorious title of "the criminal" among his local community.
He and his friends often spent the Sabbath playing soccer near a local synagogue, and the ball would often fly into the synagogue courtyard. One week, he recalled, “I kicked the ball hard. It flew out of the field and toward the synagogue just as the rabbi came out.
“The ball hit his black hat and knocked it to the ground. My friends and I fell down laughing…
"The rabbi came over.
"‘Shabbat Shalom, would his honor like to make Kiddush, or to join the game?’ I asked, mockingly, but he was not upset. He looked at me and asked, 'Where are your parents?' and I answered, still mocking, ‘My parents are dead.’
“The rabbi said, ‘Come with me.’ It amused me, so I decided to play along and go with him. We reached his house. He went in and I followed. He made Kiddush and gave me some to drink, and asked, ‘Are you hungry?’
“’Starving,” I said.
The rabbi gestured to his wife, and they set the table and gave me food. I ate like someone who hadn’t eaten in a week. The rabbi ate just a little, and mostly looked at me and talked. I later realized that I had eaten his share, too.
“When I finished eating, he asked, ‘Are you tired?’
"‘Exhausted,’ I said.
"The rabbi offered me a bed. I went to sleep, and slept there the whole day. When I woke up it was Saturday night. The rabbi asked me, ‘What would you like to do?’ I told him I wanted to go to the cinema and see a movie.
"‘How much does the cinema cost?’ he asked. I told him one and a half shekels. He gave me the money and sent me on my way, and before I went he told me, ‘Come again tomorrow.’
“I came again tomorrow. I ate, and slept, and got money for the cinema. One more day, and one more. Over time I discovered that there were 12 kids like me, from off the street, who came to this rabbi’s house. I couldn’t be ungrateful, and I also really loved him.
“With time, he started to teach me about the mitzvoth [commandments]… He bought me tefillin. He would sit and teach me… Thanks to him, I eventually went to yeshiva, and ended up learning to be a rabbi, and ultimately, a judge on a beit din. He married me off, came to my children’s weddings, and was sandek at my grandsons’ brit milahs.
“So don’t despair of your students,” the older man told Elishai. “You see me as I am today, a judge in a beit din, but once I was just like them. Just love them. Love them like they were your own children.”
As the two began to descend from the bus, Elishai asked the man, “What was the rabbi’s name?” The man responded, “What do you mean, was? It still is. He’s very old, 92, but thank G-d, still alive.”
“And what is his name?” Elishai asked again. “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” his fellow passenger answered.