Almost forty years ago, Rabbi Chaim Drizin, emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in San Francisco, received a call from a Reform temple in Sacramento, California. They wanted their kids to experience a truly Chassidic Shabbat, and they wanted to know whether he would run a Shabbos program out in the mountains at their camp. He agreed.
Rabbi Drizin called Rabbi Avrohom Levitansky, of blessed memory, and Rabbi Moshe Engel, and asked them to take part. Rabbi Engel lived in Long Beach and Rabbi Levitansky lived in Simcha Monica, so they arranged to fly up north together in order to join Rabbi Drizin.
There was only one problem. Rabbi Levitansky and Rabbi Engel were not able to arrange a flight until Friday afternoon. They had been told that the campsite was about 40 minutes’ drive from the airport, so they were confident that they would make it in time for Shabbos.
As it happened, they landed in Sacramento as planned and were in for a nasty shock. They were met by a teacher from the camp, Jack, who informed them that the camp was a two-and-a-half hour drive away! It was five o’clock, only two hours until Shabbos. The two rabbis told Jack to drive like mad. However, he missed the exit for the highway that lead directly to the camp. With this delay, their hope of getting to the camp before Shabbat faded away.
The rabbis began to discuss where they would spend Shabbat, as there was no way to make it to the camp on time. Finally, a minute before Shabbat, Jack pulled off the road in a gas station in the town of Auburn, California. The rabbis quickly emptied the car of whatever they would need for a Shabbat stay: their prayerbooks, challahs and wine. But where would they go? Where would they sleep?
After praying the Friday night service, the men began trudging around Auburn looking for a motel room. But being that it was Shabbat, they would not handle money. No motels were willing to grant them a room under those circumstances, despite their promises to pay as soon as Shabbat was up. Finally they found a seedy room over a bar, and there they spent the night.
The next morning, they walked back to the gas station to find that their food and prayerbooks had been taken! The two men prayed by heart to the best of their ability. The manager of the gas station offered them soda and snacks from the machines, which they gratefully accepted.
As the day wore on, the two rabbis wondered at the Divine providence that brought them to Auburn. For what possible reason had G-d caused them to be stranded in this town for Shabbat? They met no Jews in the city, nor did they encounter anyone who served as a clue to the mystery.
After Shabbat, Jack drove up again to take them to the camp. He told them that he had gone on ahead to the camp, and when he told the campers what had happened to the two rabbis, they did not believe him!
The two rabbis arrived in the camp and were greeted by a rousing welcome from the 100 teenagers participating in the Temple’s Shabbaton. The rabbis sang, spoke and shared stories with the students until late into the night. One of the songs they taught turned out to be a real hit with the kids. It was a song about keeping kosher, and it went like this: “All the animals that I eat must chew their cud and have split feet. Kosher meat just can’t be beat, so throw away that ham. Throw away that ham and bacon—I won’t eat it, you’re mistaken! I’m a Jew and I’m not fakin’—I want kosher meat to eat.”
The evening ended, and the rabbis were left with the mystery of why they had traveled all this way, spent Shabbat in a gas station and gone through all this just to teach some songs to the kids.
Quite a few years passed before they got the answer. Rabbi Engel was invited to spend Shabbat in Park City, Utah, with a group from a “Conservaform” Temple. A young couple in their early 20’s drove him from Salt Lake City to the campsite. They were to be the chaperones on this trip. “Are there many people who keep kosher here in Salt Lake City?” he asked.
This was before a Chabad House was established in Salt Lake City.
“A few older families keep kosher,” the husband said, “and so do we. We are the only young couple here who keeps kosher.” This was very intriguing to Rabbi Engel, and he asked, “What makes a couple your age commit to keeping kosher in the middle of Salt Lake City?”
“I’ll tell you why,” the wife said. “It’s going to sound like a crazy story. I once went to a Shabbaton and these rabbis who were supposed to come got stuck in a gas station. They came after Shabbos was over, and that night they sang this crazy song about kosher. The song began with ‘all the animals that I eat’ and ended with ‘I want kosher meat to eat.’ I was so touched by what they did,” she continued, “that even though I was sixteen, and I couldn’t keep kosher at home, I decided that when I had my own home, it would be kosher.”
How shocked the couple was when Rabbi Engel told them that he was one of the rabbis who had been stuck in the gas station! That’s when Rabbi Engel realized that he and Rabbi Levitansky had made a bigger impact by spending Shabbat in a gas station than they would have had they made it to the camp in time for Shabbat.