Wrong Number? Right Address!

Shifra Manowitz -
A full interview with Harav Elbaz appears in our Inyan magazine, this week, starting on page 6.
A full interview with Harav Elbaz appears in our Inyan magazine, this week, starting on page 6.

They may have erred — not just in their dialing… But their very phone calls are proof that they are searching for the way home… 

After scrambling around for the phone in the muddled mess of cartons, bags and household items, I finally found it at the fifth ring and answered with a breathless “Hello.”

Shalom. Efshar l’daber im Rabbi Elbaz?” (“Is it possible to speak to Rabbi Elbaz?”)

Oh, they want Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, not me.

In the past two days, every call that I’d received at my new phone number gave me a sense of reassurance. Before our move, when I had learned that we would not be allowed to transfer our old phone number to our new apartment, it was a tad unsettling. For most of us, our phone number is an access code that allows our friends and family to keep in touch with us at all times. You get somewhat attached to your phone number and when it’s switched, it just adds another dimension to all the change and adjustment that come along with a move. So whenever someone called me in my new apartment, I was relieved that they were becoming familiar with my new phone number. Luckily, my new number had a series of zeros in it, which made it easier for me and my acquaintances to commit to memory. I was still reachable, and that gave me a good feeling.

But now someone was calling for Rabbi Elbaz. Oh, well.

Zeh ta’ut,” I told the caller, and explained in my stilted Hebrew that he must have dialed the number wrong.

A few days later I received another “wrong number” phone call. “Zeh Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim?” It was a woman with a heavy Sephardic accent. Once again, I told her politely that she’d dialed incorrectly. When the third phone call came two weeks later, with the caller asking for Rabbi Elbaz, I knew that Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim must have a very similar phone number to ours.

I took out the phone directory and looked up Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim. Sure enough, their phone number had three consecutive zeros followed by a four, while mine had four zeros in a row followed by a four! So anyone who was trying to reach Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim and mistakenly dialed one extra “0” reached the Manowitz residence instead.

Thus began my unofficial job as surrogate secretary for Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim. Curious as to what kind of yeshivah I was fielding calls for, I did a bit of research and found out that Ohr Hachaim is a well-known outreach institution in the Sephardi community across the country. Rabbi Elbaz, who stands at the yeshivah’s helm, is a prominent figure who has been successful in drawing many secular Jews closer to Torah.

In due time I mastered the correct Hebrew version of, “You’re looking for Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim? You dialed an extra zero by mistake.” By now the sentence practically rolls off my tongue as soon as I identify an “Ohr Hachaim call.” And then if the person apologizes, I respond with a gracious “No problem; have a nice day.”

I actually find it quite amusing to see how I can sometimes classify the character traits of callers depending on their reactions.

“This isn’t Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim? Oh, so then who is this?” Curiosity is surely one of this fellow’s traits.

“What do you mean, I dialed one extra zero? I dialed the number of Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim!” Ouch, this one is high-strung!

“I dialed one extra zero? Oh, so you must get such phone calls often, don’t you? I’m so sorry for bothering you. Have a good day.” Ah, that’s a thoughtful individual.

There are those who, after hanging up, call right back, probably hitting the redial button — perhaps they are of the sort who cannot easily accept the fact that they had erred, even if their error is nothing more than a tiny glitch of their finger on the phone’s key pad!

And then there are those who not only apologize but even add a classic Israeli salutation such as “Tihiyeh briah” (Be well) or the more touching “Hashem yevarech otach” (G-d bless you).

When I receive phone calls for Ohr Hachaim, they are from North, South and Central Israel. And because I know that this is an institution that does a lot of outreach, I know that most of the calls are from nonobservant people.

Admittedly, sometimes it gets a little frustrating if I rush in breathlessly through the front door after hearing the phone’s urgent ring, only to hear someone ask for “the Rav,” or when someone keeps pressing redial. Still and all, I’ve taken on this unsolicited role with relative grace, and I try to redirect the callers in the most courteous manner possible.

I’ll never forget the time when my husband picked up the phone and the eager voice of a young father on the other end said to my husband as soon as he answered the phone, “Kvod Harav, honorable Rav, I want to give you the honor of being sandak at my son’s bris this Tuesday.”

My husband warmly wished the caller mazel tov on the birth of his son but apologetically informed him that he was not “the Rav.” After confirming that the new father was indeed trying to contact Rabbi Elbaz, my husband told him his mistake and wished him “gidul kal” — an easy upbringing.

Another episode that’s etched in my memory is the time when the phone rang at 2:30 a.m.! My husband stumbled out of bed to answer the phone and all that his sleep-fogged brain could make out was that the caller wanted to make a donation to Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim because his car had stalled and he was stranded on a highway. The poor fellow was obviously hoping that the merit of tzedakah would help him get over the hassle as fast as possible and without undue aggravation.

My husband groggily informed the nocturnal traveler that he hadn’t reached Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim’s automated phone service but rather a private home. The man contritely apologized for having disturbed our sleep and my husband managed to wish him good luck before he hung up the phone.

All these episodes occurred within the first half-year after we moved into the apartment.

And then I made a most astounding discovery. At first, when the realization hit me, I thought I had imagined it, but now, more than three years later, I can say with certainty that it wasn’t my imagination at all.

Each year, as the fiery summer heat starts to wane and the cool Yerushalayim nights herald the oncoming autumn, there is a sharp rise in the number of calls we get from people trying to contact Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim. It didn’t dawn on us immediately, but as the days were being crossed off on the Elul page of the calendar, more and more people were trying to contact the yeshivah.

One man wanted to know when Selichot was starting. Another wanted to verify whether the candle-lighting times on the new yearly calendar were accurate, because his wife had resolved to start lighting candles for the new year and they wanted to be sure that she would be lighting on time. Yet a third wanted to make a donation to the yeshivah… These were only the ones who immediately started voicing their query before discovering their dialing error! So many countless others called asking to speak to “the Rav” or questioning if they had reached Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim.

Whether it was through teshuvah, tefillah or tzedakah, the common thread running through all these phone calls was a burning desire to bond with spirituality, the powerful longing of a Jewish soul to reconnect with its roots.

If I were to graph the frequency of phone calls that I received in error for Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim, the graph would show a sharp increase during Elul and Tishrei, peaking at an all-time high during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. In fact, last year I decided to actually keep track of the “Ohr Hachaim phone calls” during one week in each of the summer months, if only to lend more credibility to my thesis. Here are the results of my informal study, called “Calls Per Week.”

Iyar: 2

Sivan: 3

Tammuz: 1

Av: 2

Elul: 6

Tishrei: 7

If the Manowitz family is receiving a greater number of “wrong numbers” during the month of Elul — and this trend repeats itself each year — then the statistics would indicate that a greater number of individuals are contacting Ohr Hachaim during this time period! In emulation of the Kedushas Levi, we can take this to mean only one thing: the members of the Jewish nation, even those far away from Torah, are still awakening from the cry of the shofar. Their souls are stirring from their spiritual slumber and they’re yearning — oh so mightily — to return to their Father.

They may have strayed far, these souls, but when the Days of Awe draw near, the dormant spark inside each Jew flares up into a glowing flame — a flame whose warmth penetrates my soul and helps fire up my own teshuvah process.