"Hey, Rabbi K. I really enjoyed your class today. Could you
find some time for us to get together and talk?"
"Sure, but right now, I'm pretty busy."
Life for a rabbi at the Ohr Somayach introductory program can
get hectic at times, but we eventually found ourselves
mutually available and seized a relatively quiet corner in
the dining room.
He looked impressed. He should have been, probably having
heard that I am notoriously lousy with names, and must have
asked his name already four-five times. Funny, though, I
never forget a face. Like that guy on the Netanya beach. I
kept staring at him and finally got up the nerve to ask him
his name. It turned out that we had gone to [secular] high
school together about a dozen years before. And he hadn't had
a beard then, either...
Well, Justin had a question. "How does one go about getting a
Jewish name if one doesn't have one?
"Interesting question. I once asked it myself when I was a
student here many years ago."
"What did they tell you?"
"My rabbi told me I could choose one that seemed suitable and
had some meaning to me. He said that Paul, my given name, was
usually changed to Pinchas or Pesach, but any name I liked
was fine. He encouraged me to think about it, and when I felt
I was ready, I could ask my friends and rabbis to begin
calling me by the name I had chosen. After I had been called
up to the Torah by that name and been called it for three
weeks -- it was considered validly mine."
"How did you choose your name?"
"My father had already passed away by the time I came to
yeshiva. My mother was still struggling with my new identity
as an observant Jew: my dress, which included kipa and
tzitzis, my eating habits, and Shabbos. I asked her
about a Jewish name, but a new name at this point was just
too much. `Your father and I liked the name Paul well
"Shortly before this, I had attended a class about dealing
with Christian missionaries. We were given some historical
background which included the apostle Paul, who had turned
from zealous Jewish persecutor of early Christians as Saul of
Tarsus to a convert; he became an avid Christian zealot and
persecutor of Jews. Having also learned the great
significance which the Torah accords to names, I felt the
definite need for a change.
"Pinchas was a likely choice for me. Another famous zealot,
he had left an honorable mark on Jewish history. I felt a bit
like a zealot, myself, having rejected the false world around
me, which was proving to be a fight."
"And so you decided on that name?"
"Not right away. I guess I needed a push in the right
direction. It came when I was visiting the Ohr Somayach
branch in Monsey and the gabbai called me up to the
Torah. He asked me my name and when I said `Paul,' looked me
in the eye and announced, `Yaamod, Pinchas ben ???'
Hearing this for the first time came somewhat as a shock, and
I could barely whisper, `...the son of Benjamin.' He echoed
it with a smile. Later, he told me that I looked like a
Pinchas to him. I took on my Hebrew middle names, Yitzchak
Baruch, shortly after, believing these to be the Hebrew names
of my grandfathers, Isidore and Bernard, which I already
So much for me. "How about you? Have you thought of a name,
"Yes. Yisroel. But I'm not sure I'm ready for it, yet."
"Because I understand that it represents high levels of
"True. It was given after Yaakov had struggled with the
representation of evil, the angel of Esav. It does represent
the more elevated part of the Jewish nation, but it also has
a more basic level meaning, simply, `Jew.' But if you feel
you're not quite ready for it now, wait a while. Perhaps
Hashem will help you out with some guidance, a push in the
right direction, just as He helped me."
I invited him to discuss the matter at some future date,
whenever he felt like it, but he never did, and I forgot the
A few weeks later, Rabbi Geffen, director of our introductory
program, asked me to `gather the troops' for a seudas
bris for Yisroel Meir. I must have looked puzzled because
he added, "For Justin." I still looked puzzled, so he added,
"You know Justin. You helped him with his name." The blank
look finally gave way to a big grin to express my joy over
the rare victory at coupling name and face. "So, he just had
a bris. And that's the name he took? Interesting!"
We all gathered together that evening at the home of one of
Ohr Somayach's warm friends. The atmosphere was charged with
emotion. Several of the rabbis spoke, but I was really
waiting to hear about the name.
Rabbi Geffen explained that it had been a spontaneous
decision. That morning, someone had come around collecting
for Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. He mentioned that everyone should
all give extra since it was the Chofetz Chaim's
yahrzeit. "I turned to Justin, whose bris was
scheduled for that morning, and asked him how he liked the
name Yisroel Meir. He said he liked it a lot. In fact, he
mentioned having considered the name Yisroel, already, but
had not felt ready for it. `Rabbi Kantrowitz said I should
wait a while, see how it sits in my mind, and perhaps wait
for some kind of sign.' Justin smiled to me and said, `I
guess this is the clarity I was waiting for.'"
It was my turn to speak. I was deeply moved and honored. I
told my side of the story and added that not only had Hashem
deemed him worthy to be called Yisroel, but even Yisroel
Meir, a Yisroel of illumination, as evidenced by his bright
smile that evening, and a Yisroel Meir named after a leader
of his generation, on his very yahrzeit!
To myself, I added, I guess there's more in a name than
even I imagined. I had better be more careful about