The following story is told in various versions by people who have heard it directly from Reb Meir or from individuals who know him well. But the most detailed – and presumably accurate – account comes to us from Rabbi Yosef Tendler, dean of the preparatory division of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Maryland.
It should be mentioned at the outset that when Rabbi Tendler was contacted for this story, he said he’d be happy to share it but that unless we have the permission of the young man, we should not use his name. At the time of this writing, we still have not tracked down the protagonist for his consent and so we will refer to him as “Daniel”. We understand that Reb Meir loved this story and we would be delighted if you, “Daniel”, are out there and would step forward, introduce yourself and fill in the missing pieces of this tale.
For many years, Rabbi Tendler’s wife was a nurse at Camp Mogen Avraham in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. One summer, a 20 year old “pioneering” counselor at the camp approached him and requested an interview for admission to the beginners program at Ner Israel. Rabbi Tendler sensed that the young man had a story to tell so the rabbi asked that he first explain how he came to be a staff member at this Orthodox summer camp. This is the story that Daniel told:
Once upon a time there was a Jewish couple living somewhere in rural Vermont. The husband was an executive with a large company; the mother, a school principal. When it came time for them to send their eldest child to high school, they wanted him to get the best possible education in their area. The school that offered the highest academic standards was the local Catholic school. And so, Daniel was enrolled.
All went well for Daniel-the-Jew at the Catholic high school and before he knew it, he had just one semester left to graduate. Brother Adrian, a faculty member at the school, called Daniel to his office and said: “Daniel, you are short just one half of a credit for your high school diploma. I would like to propose that instead of sitting through an entire semester of classes to earn your half-credit, you write a paper about a religious figure of your choice.”
Daniel appreciated and accepted the offer. Although he only attended temple with his family twice a year, he decided to visit the temple’s library to do his research. Daniel came across a book about Rabbi Akiva and chose him as the subject for his paper. When Daniel reported back to Brother Adrian and told him about his choice, Brother Adrian was perplexed.
“Why did you choose to write your paper about a Jew?” Brother Adrian asked.
“Because I’m Jewish” replied Daniel.
“All these years at our school I did not know you were Jewish” said Brother Adrian. “But if that is the case, I would like to teach you something about your religion.”
So Brother Adrian began to teach Daniel what he knew about Judaism – and it became obvious that he knew quite a bit. Daniel enjoyed learning Chumash and then Mishna with Brother Adrian and he was inspired by it all. At some point, he asked Brother Adrian how he knew so much about Jewish subjects.
Brother Adrian explained: “When I was younger I wanted to be a missionary and I thought there could be no better place to pursue that goal than the land of Israel. So I took a trip there and found my way to the Western Wall. Before long, a religious Jew approached me and asked if I would like to know more about the Jewish religion. Thinking that this could be helpful to me in my work as a missionary, I accepted his invitation and was brought to a yeshiva called ‘Aish HaTorah’. I stayed there for several months, learning about Judaism and studying its holy texts. I was very enthused by what I learned and saw the depth and beauty of the religion. Everything that I learned over there, I am sharing with you, Daniel.”
“If it was as inspiring for you as it is for me, why didn’t you convert?” asked Daniel.
“It’s very difficult to change the life you are used to” was Brother Adrian’s reply.
But Daniel was sufficiently inspired to try to change his and eventually had the opportunity to work at Camp Mogen Avraham. When Rabbi Tendler heard Daniel’s story, he said he would be pleased to accept him into Ner Israel. Unfortunately, though, Daniel’s parents would not permit him to attend.
Some years later, Rabbi Tendler was in Israel and ran into Daniel. His parents had allowed him to go study at Ohr Somayach. And he lived happily ever after, forever grateful to Brother Adrian – and Reb Meir.