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A chance meeting brings closure

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YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN, if ever, things in life will come full circle. 

A few months ago, I was at a Shabbat meal. Among the other guests was a young man named Shalom. It was obvious that Shalom had an interesting story – along with tattoos and large holes in his earlobes where earrings used to be, he had payot (religious sideburns) and wore the black hat worn by some Orthodox Jews.

Shalom mentioned that he went to public school in Brooklyn, New York, and was a wrestler in high school.  

My only connection to wrestling is that in spring 2007, I ran the Yeshiva University Henry Wittenberg Wrestling Tournament, an event that brought together wrestlers from 10 Jewish high schools across the United States.

Prior to the tournament, I received an email from a public high-school student. He wrote that he would like the chance to connect with young Jewish wrestlers, such as himself, and asked if he could participate. Sadly, insurance issues led me to reject this young man’s request. As a former Jewish public-school student, and one who also yearned for a greater connection to Judaism, this decision was particularly difficult for me. 

Fast-forward to the Shabbat meal a few months ago. After putting two-and-two together, Shalom and I figured out that he was the student I had rejected!

I told Shalom that the fact that I remember that single rejection over 12 years later shows how heavily the decision still weighed on me. Now, after 12 years, I finally had a chance to ask his forgiveness, which he gladly gave me.

So who was Shalom before our single correspondence, and what happened to him afterward?

Shalom Reuven Mendelsohn, or Elliott Carcamo, as he used to be called, grew up in Brooklyn. His Jewish mother and non-Jewish father raised him in a secular home. The family was poor. By the age of 15, Shalom had moved 10 times. 

Shalom got into wrestling in sixth grade. As an overweight kid who got picked on, he had anger and aggression; wrestling had a big influence on him. 

Shalom had a handful of Jewish friends. One of those friends went to MTA, the Yeshiva University high school for boys. Even though the team’s coach (who was the one who referred Shalom to me) allowed Shalom to practice with the MTA team, Shalom felt like an outsider among the upper-middle-class Jewish wrestlers. A pair of their wrestling shoes cost more than his wardrobe.

Over the years, Shalom explored different religions. Nothing stuck. And with his tattoos, red Mohawk and piercings, his local synagogue didn’t accept him.

The only thing that really stuck was his gang. Where he lived, you were either in a gang or a target. 

He barely graduated from high school and couldn’t get a wrestling scholarship due to his poor grades. 

By the age of 20, Shalom was working as a bouncer and feeling very down. One day, he passed a booth advertising free trips to Israel. He befriended the rabbi running the booth, who went on to meet with Shalom weekly and introduced him to people who Shalom says, “Treated me like a person.” 

To get to Israel, Shalom needed a letter from a lawyer since he had a criminal record. The rabbi helped him get that letter. 

Another thing Shalom needed was to get out of the gang. There were few ways to get out, and going to Israel was not one of them. But the gang leader told Shalom to go, make something of himself, and never come back. He even gave Shalom money to pay for his passport, a suit and luggage. 

Shalom spent three hours on the flight to Israel crying, since he knew his life was changing. 

Among the trip’s many activities, it was Jewish studies that resonated with Shalom. He knew he wanted to stay in Israel longer. He got blessings to do so from several people back in the U.S., including his mother, since he was helping to support the family.

An extra month became an extra year, and now, six years later, Shalom is studying at Aish HaTorah to become a rabbi, does motivational speaking, and is writing his biography.  

For a long time I had wondered what happened to the young man I rejected from a wrestling tournament. Now I’ve come to know a young man who has miraculously defied the odds – and who has helped me come to terms with a decision that weighed on me by showing me that his life is now better than it has ever been. 

DANIEL STIEGLITZ (dstieglitz@gmail.com) lives in Jerusalem, where he works as a Life Coach. His collection of short stories, “Tavern of the Mind,” is available for paperback and Kindle purchase on Amazon at www.amzn.to/2Izssrz.