ìMake me an angel that flies from Montgomery… Just give me something that I can hold onto.îóJohn PrineTolstoy tells the story of an angel disconsolate over the worldís random sadness. Who, after all, understands the reason for Jobian tests such as the early death of a parent, or the abandonment of children through bitter circumstance? Godís answer to this angel was to throw him out of the leaden sky and into the Russian snow. There, vulnerable and mortal, he learns that no one is really abandoned but is buoyed by the acts of grace by those living in Godís name.If any fallen angels are reading this ó you know who you are ó fall out of the sky to Montgomery Street in Brooklyn. Youíll meet a woman there, Devorah Benjamin, of humble means. Unlike chasidic legend, she and her husband Shmuel never caught a fish in whose belly was a diamond. That would be too easy. God has given this Lubavitch husband and wife nothing more than the simple salary earned by pre-school teachers in frugal yeshivas. They live with their two children in a modest two-bedroom apartment ó but to close your eyes there is to be in a tabernacle, a place where angels are taught lessons.Devorah, 27, knows of the random sadness and so she has taken it upon herself to help those without parents or those without money at that particularly lonely age when one wonders about affording a date or, dare they dream, a wedding.
Many are orphans, children of broken homes, or disowned by non-Orthodox parents in vengeance for their child becoming chasidic. ìSome,î she says, ìcome to me for money, for advice, to help pay for a date, to pay for clothing or to buy a gift.
Devorah estimates that, ìBaruch Hashem [Blessed be God], I have raised with the help of my husband and few friends over $250,000 and made over 500 weddings,î since 1992. The official name of her tax-deductible operation is Keren Simchas Chosson Ve Kallah, the foundation for the happiness of bride and groom, and Devorah says she runs it out of her apartment without taking a nickel for herself.
She says of one groom-to-be: ìHe lost his father when he was 7 years old. His mother is Russian.î She bought him a new shirt and gave him $50 for a taxi in which to transport his date.Where does she get the money? ìI go to door-to-door,î she answers in her hardscrabble British accent. Sheís from Manchester, where her father was a kashrut mashgiach [supervisor] and her mother a teacher.
How much can she raise door-to-door? ìMamish, I do it by miracles. I have to raise $1,000, maybe $2,000 a week. Purim time, here in Crown Heights, in the shuls, we went around with a bucket and raised $10,000, just coins and dollar bills. Itís a very special community, Crown Heights.ì
Sometimes when my landlady gets money thatís dropped off, she wonít tell me who gave it because people want to give anonymously. Single boys, single girls, I get $10 from one, $100 in pennies from another. People donít realize what pennies can do. I took the pennies to a clothing store and we bought one fellow some clothes.îDevorah says one upcoming wedding will cost ìabout $12,000 and Iíll contribute between $5,000 and $7,000. Next Thursday, Iím making a whole wedding for 120 guests for $6,000.
When it comes to making weddings for the poor ó sometimes three or four a month ó the entire chasidic neighborhood helps out.ìWe use a one-piece band,î says Devorah. ìMy photographer gives me a break. The bridal gown is loaned. The officiating rabbi doesnít charge. The flowers might be donated. The caterers give me a break. Someone volunteers to do the makeup for the brides, free. We order just basic invitations, nothing fancy. We get basic benchers at a good price. Everything is simple, but kovodik [with dignity]. We donít want anyone to be embarrassed. Weíll serve fruit, soup, chicken, potatoes and vegetables, salad and dessert. We serve family-style, putting the food in the middle of the table.îNo matter the extra expense, thereís always a large table for more than a dozen uninvited people that might walk in off the street in need of a hot meal and a simcha. If the bride and groom have small families or no families, the Benjamins might invite boys and girls dorming in nearby yeshivas to ìcome and dance and make it very leibidik [lively], to make the chosson and kallah happy,î says Devorah. ìThe main thing is the simcha.
A few years ago she was exhausted, ìI was thinking of stopping. We had just done three major weddings. I felt overwhelmed. I wanted to ask the rebbe what I should do,î but the Lubavitcher rebbe was in the Other World. ìSo I took down a book of the rebbeís letters, and on the very page I opened, there was a letter the rebbe wrote years ago to someone else: ìThank you for continuing your holy work. The money you collect should go for clothes and jewelry for the wedding.îNow, says Devorah, ìevery guy that comes to my house, I make sure that he has clothes to wear and a piece of jewelry to give to his bride.îOne Brooklyn mother told us, ìDevorahís helping me pay for whatever I canít do, even for the paper goods for the Shabbos Kallah,î the gathering of the brideís friends and families on the Shabbat before the wedding. The chasidic mother explains that she tries to make ends meet, ìbut with six children and three foster children…îAnother bride, Miriam, a young woman from Argentina, explains in her soft Spanish accent that her mother still lives in their rural hometown, Casares, and her father, a grocer, died when this bride was 13. Devorah was making her wedding.Miriam says she grew up ìtotally secular,î but three years ago met a Chabad rabbi in Buenos Aires. ìSix months later, I was in Machon Chana,î a seminary for newly chasidic women in Crown Heights.ìAll the time in Machon Chana,î says Miriam, ìI saw Devorah Benjamin helping the other girls. No one calls Devorah; when a girl becomes engaged, Devorah calls the kallah, offering help. Even if they donít need the money, maybe they need her advice on where to get the best things. But most girls in Machon Chana do need financial help. Devorah will buy the bride gifts for her chussan, such as a tallis and a becher [kiddush cup].îLetís take our leave. Watch through the windows of this small apartment on Montgomery Street. Thereís Devorah on the phone, surely making arrangements. In the living room, Shmuel talks to a groom-to-be. Perhaps it is for people like this, in every generation, that God Himself made the Israelites His bride under the clouds of that desert mountain. Many are acquainted with the Bible, but others, like the Benjamins, know one verse perfectly and make it their own. Itís a verse said in the Grace after the wedding meal, and every meal thereafter: ìI was young and also old, but Iíve never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread.î