Fern Reinbeck, religious school director of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, who made the trip possible, simply says she is “paying it forward.”
The story begins about four years ago in Doylestown, Pa., where Reinbeck was working as a b’nai mitzva tutor. A student with dyslexia was having trouble learning Hebrew, and her father was concerned she would be unable to lead services at her upcoming bat mitzva.
Reinbeck, with commitment and persistence, was able to teach the girl to read Hebrew in time for her bat mitzva “without any transliteration at all,” she recalled.
“She led the entire service in Hebrew, and she chanted over 20 verses of Torah, and her Haftora,” Reinbeck said. “Not only did she lead services, but she continued religious school through her confirmation in 10th grade, even though she wanted to quit before I started tutoring her. She then went on to become an aid in the religious school, volunteering her time to help other children read Hebrew.”
The girl and her father were so grateful to Reinbeck for her help that they gave her an incredible gift: two-round trip tickets to Israel.
“At the time, I wanted to take my son, but he was in high school, and he wasn’t ready to go because of things that were going on over there,” she said, “so I just held on to the tickets.”
Fast forward two years, and Reinbeck is living in Pittsburgh and working at Beth El.
A regular shopper at Whole Foods, Reinbeck soon befriended Mo, who was a gregarious cashier there.
“Mo is the most incredible person in the world,” she said. “He touches everyone he comes into contact with.”
Eventually, Reinbeck began shopping at Right by Nature, a market across the street from her home. As fate would have it, Mo soon began working there as well.
“One day, he told me his family history,” Reinbeck said. “He said he had stopped going to school to help his family. He told me he had siblings here, but that he also had four half-brothers and two grandparents in Nigeria whom he had never met. He was born here, but his father was born in Nigeria, and hadn’t been back to see his parents in 20 years.”
The wheels in her mind began to turn.
“I can’t even imagine what it would be like not to meet my siblings and grandparents,” Reinbeck said. She decided to try to help out Mo.
“I still had the gift of the tickets,” she said, “but I found out I could go to Israel through the Agency for Jewish Learning for a nominal cost, so I didn’t really need to use the tickets.”
Reinbeck got in touch with the father and daughter who had given her the gift, and asked if it was okay with them to pay their gift forward so that Mo could meet his family.
After contacting Continental Airlines to see if such a transfer was possible, the father called Reinbeck back to tell her it could be done, that it was “only a few thousand miles more.”
Fifteen thousand miles more, which, naturally, would increase the costs of the tickets.
Reinbeck told the father that she wanted to pay the difference herself, but he insisted on taking care of the additional cost.
“This is truly a combined mitzva,” Reinbeck said.
Mo and his parents raised enough funds to purchase a third ticket, so the three of them will be heading off to Nigeria together for two weeks.
“When I told Mo and his mother and father about the tickets, his father almost started to cry,” Reinbeck said. “His mother said she had never seen his dad so happy.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)