Comfort and prayer with the tribe

Sarena Krojanker (left) and Hannah Turner on the subway in New York City during the Chabad trip.


I just found out that my grandfather has cancer. The prognosis is pretty terrible. If we’re lucky, he has a month to live. My sister and I have always affectionately called my grandfather Papa. He’s the sweetest Southern man you’ll ever meet. He worked his entire life at an electric plant in the tiny town of Lewisburg, Tenn., and always ended phone calls with the reminder to “study hard.”

I found out this news just before leaving for a trip to New York City with 15 other Jewish kids from the University of Missouri. Our fearless Chabad rabbi and our kindhearted rebbitzen, Avromi and Channy Lapine and two of their five children, accompanied us. The program was called “Pegisha,” which translates to “the tribe” in Hebrew. I found that to be very fitting.

Now, I had been on this trip once before, two years ago, so I had seen the sights. We went to Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chabad Rebbe’s Ohel and, of course,  Chabad 770, where the rebbe lived and now Chabad followers pray. I remember laughing the entire time I was in New York the first time. This time was different.

My amazing rebbitzen was the first person I told about Papa. She immediately sent me a link to where I could find the appropriate prayers to say for him. She then asked for his name and his father’s name so she could pray for him, too. Now there were two of us praying.

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Then, I told my best friend about what was going on. She offered to say mishabera with me. That’s the prayer for those who need healing. Now there were three of us.

I wandered the pegisha with my friends meeting new Jews from all across the globe. We ate amazing challah, drank kosher wine, 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, England, about how Judaism is related to 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 rebbitzen 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.

On the last night that I was in New York, my best friend and I ventured over to 770 by ourselves. I didn’t really want to go. I never felt any connection there, but she insisted. As soon as we entered, I felt my heart deepen. There were probably 30 Jewish women there, praying upstairs, and upward of 50 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 three of us 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.