Any time I’ve told someone the story of my travels to Panama during the year that I was saying Kaddish for my father the responses were almost always “That’s a great story” and “You should write it down so you don’t forget it.” For many years I’ve intended to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard if you will, but somehow never managed to attempt the task. As the tenth Yahrzeit for my father, Dr. Mitchell Greenbaum, a”h, was approaching, I thought, “If I don’t write it now I may never get to it, and I’ll likely forget some of the colorful details as well.”
When my father passed away in February 2007 I was fortunate enough (and still am) to be working at a company with a significant percentage of frum Jews, where catching a Mincha minyan was an easy task. The company was going through some organizational changes that summer, and I became senior vice president of operations of a different division. Same company, different business unit, new job and new boss. As luck would have it, my new boss, Keith, was one of the smartest, most talented and decent people you could ever hope to work with, and 10 years later I still feel the same way about him. We discussed my new responsibilities, the staff I had inherited with the new position, how to fill some of the vacant staff positions and our plans for the next year. The one request I had when accepting this new position was no business travel for the next six months until I had completed saying Kaddish. I had travelled extensively during the earlier part of my tenure with the company and I was glad the travel aspect of my job had been dramatically reduced during the previous few months. I was truly happy to have more time at home with my family and less time on the road. At the time that I accepted the new position I was also lucky enough to have never missed saying a Kaddish. I was hoping to maintain that record for the remaining six months and knew that if I began travelling again, it would be considerably more difficult. The reply I received from Keith was, “Not a problem. We’ll have to do some travelling in the future, but it’s not likely to be necessary until the early part of next year.” Delighted with that response, I dove head first into my new position to learn everything I could about the various people and departments that were now my responsibility.
One morning over a cup of coffee Keith asked me if my passport was up to date. Had six months flown by that quickly or was I detecting a change in plans? I quickly checked my calendar and saw it was September and just about five weeks since I began my new job, so yes it looked like change was imminent. We had received marching orders to consolidate our global customer service operations as quickly as possible and our target location for the consolidation was Panama. “You mean the place with the canal?” I asked. “Not to worry,” replied Keith, knowing exactly what I was thinking, “they have a great Jewish community in Panama. We’ll all go to shul together and you’ll be able to say Kaddish.” Ok, I wasn’t thrilled but maybe we can come up with a workable scenario. Our secret weapon in the minyan strategy was going to be our colleague Simi, who is married to Esther, a lovely woman who just happened to have been born and raised in the Panamanian Jewish community. Esther would make sure we knew where the various shuls were, the schedule of minyanim and most importantly the location of every kosher restaurant in Panama City. We began planning our trip and soon realized we couldn’t leave early in the morning or I would miss Shachrit. If we left in the afternoon I could catch an early Mincha but then I would miss Maariv. The solution was to daven Shachrit and an early Mincha in the US and Esther would direct us toward a late Maariv minyan somewhere in Panama. But there wasn’t a late Maariv minyan anywhere to be found in Panama. New solution? She’ll organize one. After all, we were starting with Keith, Simi and me, so Esther only needed to get seven more men. I had my doubts but I gave it a shot.
A few days after the Yomim Tovim were over the day of our first trip to Panama arrived. We organized an early Mincha at work that Monday and headed for Newark Airport to begin our journey. The flight was thankfully uneventful and we quickly cleared customs and immigration at Tocumen International Airport in Panama. We drove the half hour to downtown Panama City and upon arrival at our hotel, much to my surprise and delight, there were seven Jewish men of all ages waiting in the lobby for us. I was astonished to say the least. Who were these men ranging from young teenagers to adults, including a distinguished white-haired gentleman, who were waiting for me in a hotel lobby at 11p.m? I didn’t know any of them and they didn’t know me, but thanks to a call from Esther and a deep-seated sense of responsibility these men felt for their fellow Jew, they were there to assure me of a minyan and the opportunity to say Kaddish. We went up to one of our hotel rooms and davened Maariv followed by Kaddish. It was an amazing example of the responsibility of one Jew for another and certainly one of the most moving davening experiences of my life.
The next few days were quite manageable as the three of us went to minyanim at Sinagoga Shevet Achim, the main shul in Panama. It was there that I had an opportunity to meet Joey Cohen, the distinguished white-haired gentleman who had been part of the minyan that first fateful night in the hotel. You would be hard pressed to find kinder or nicer man and it was soon decided amongst the three of us that although he was actually Esther’s uncle, he would be referred to as my adoptive Panamanian grandfather from that time forward. After a successful few days visiting various companies to handle our customer-service inquiries, the three of us went to a very early Shachrit minyan Thursday and began our journey home. We arrived back at Newark Airport and headed straight to our office in time for Mincha. My record for saying Kaddish was holding up. Little did I know that was just the end of Round 1.
About a month later we needed to return to Panama to finalize business arrangements with our newly selected vendor. Not wanting to impose on my new Panamanian friends again and go through the “meet me at night in the hotel lobby” routine, I reached out to Esther for her advice. The next day Esther called to tell me there was a high school basketball game scheduled for the evening of my arrival and if I could get to Panama earlier than last time I could go straight to the gym and daven at the Maariv minyan held after the game. That sounded great to me but presented a new dilemma—how do I daven Mincha if I leave New York earlier in the day? The new solution to an old problem was to fly to Miami early in the day, catch a cab to an early Mincha in Miami, head back to the airport and take an early connecting flight to Panama. That all came off without a hitch until the flight from Miami was delayed, first for an hour then two hours, then three. I walked all through Miami International Airport trying to gather together a minyan, but I quickly learned that’s easier said than done. After a few hours of trying, I called Esther and told her to cancel the ride she had arranged for me from the airport to the gym as there was no way I was going to make it. It was a good try and I had a good run but my luck had finally changed. Her response was “Don’t give up and call me when you land in Panama.” Little did I know she was once again mobilizing the troops in Panama from her kitchen in New Jersey.
I landed in Panama sometime around 10:30 p.m. and immediately received instructions from Esther: “Get through Customs and Immigration as quickly as possible. Your ride wasn’t cancelled. I have a plan.” When I got to the Passport Control lines I saw Keith and Simi at the head of the line. They had taken a much later flight than I did, but because their flight wasn’t delayed they arrived earlier than I did (so much for my brilliant plan to stop in Miami). So I pulled the classic New Yorker move and waved and hollered to them and yelled, “I’m sorry I’m late” and ran to the head of the line where they were standing. Yes, I’m sure I made a wonderful impression on the 100+ people waiting in line behind them. I got out of the airport, found my ride and was on my way. But where was I going? The driver told me he’s taking me to the gym. I called Esther and confirmed that the basketball game was long over and everyone had gone home. Esther said, “Let me talk to the driver” who then received very firm and precise instructions about a change in plans and a new location to drop me off. Even though I only understood part of the Spanish conversation and was only hearing one side, the look on the driver’s face made it clear he was following instructions exactly as he was told, for fear of retribution from “that woman on the phone.” About half an hour later we pulled up to a luxury apartment building in the Punta Paitilla section of the city and a man about my age opens the car door and says, “Hi. I’m Simmy Cohen (not to be confused with my friend and Esther’s husband with the same name) and you must be Harley. Come with me.” It was now close to midnight as I walked into the beautiful marble-floor lobby of the apartment building with Simmy Cohen. As soon as we walked in, Simmy Cohen and his father (Joey, my adoptive Panamanian grandfather) got busy on their cell phones. Within minutes a group of young men, mostly sleepy-eyed teenage boys in their pajamas, started drifting into the lobby from the building elevators. Suddenly we have a minyan and Simmy says to me, “Mizrach is that way. It’s your minyan. You daven.” And so began my lesson in how to lead davening with a giant lump in my throat while using every ounce of willpower to hold back the flood of tears desperate to break through. Somehow I managed to get through Maariv and finish davening by reciting Kaddish once again. I thanked everyone for their kindness and apologized for dragging them out of bed in the middle of the night. Somewhere during the course of Maariv my colleagues had arrived to assure I had a minyan as well.
Afterward the three of us headed to our hotel for the night, chatting about our plans for the next day, but I knew that I had just witnessed an astounding act of chesed by nine of my fellow Jews, two dear friends and colleagues, and a Panamanian princess who lives in New Jersey who refuses to accept defeat when it comes to Yiddishkiet.
By Harley Greenbaum
Harley Greenbaum was born and raised in Fairfield, CT. He moved to Oceanside, NY with his wife Sari shortly after they were married where they raised their four children. He is a past president of the Young Israel of Oceanside where he remains involved in synagogue affairs and is an active member of the Oceanside Fire Department. He stills travels to Panama once or twice a year on business and looks forward to seeing his Panamanian friends at Synagoga Shevet Achim.