When Perla Cohen took her first steps closer to Judaism, she was an Economics student at the University of Lyon, France. She joined one of the Torah classes that Rabbi Shmuel Gurewich, a Lubavitcher shliach, held on the campus once a week. Since Perla's family lived out of town, she was frequently invited to stay for Shabbos in the house of the Gurewich family, and over a period of time she developed a strong and close relationship with Rebbetzin Gurewich.
Despite all this, Perla was in no hurry to make a firm commitment to the path of Torah and mitzvos. It always took her a long time to decide to take on a given mitzvah. At some point, however, under the advice of Mrs. Gurewich, Perla agreed to affix a mezuzah at the entrance to her studio apartment.
After a few weeks, Perla took down the mezuzah. Some girlfriends had warned her that it was risky for a Jewish student living alone in a French town to put a mezuzah on her door, publicizing the fact that she is Jewish. These frightening warnings motivated her to remove that "security risk" from her apartment.
About two weeks later, she found a note from the postman on her front door, saying that a package had arrived for her, but since she was not at home, it had been delivered to the neighbor upstairs, on the fifth floor. She went upstairs and the neighbor, a man in his seventies, told her that when the postman was there, he was passing by on the staircase, and agreed to take the parcel for her. He handed her the package, she thanked him, and as she was leaving, he quietly said, "Shalom." She turned around, surprised, and asked, "Are you…Jewish?"
"Yes," answered the neighbor, "and I'd like to ask you something: why did you take down the mezuzah on your front door, two weeks ago?" Perla stuttered and tried to explain to him the 'security risk'.
"My dear," he said, "let me tell you: I lost my entire family in the Holocaust, my wife and my children. Since then, I've been running away from the Jewish religion. It's too painful. No Yom Kippur for me, no kosher food, and no commandments. I looked for a place to live as far away as possible from Jews in order not to see their faces.
"About a month ago, the elevator was out of order, and I had to climb the staircase by foot. When I came to the first floor, I looked up and saw a door with a mezuzah fixed to the doorpost. I had not seen one for 30 years, and the sight suddenly took me back to the past. Memories began to flood my mind. I stood there for half an hour, touching the mezuzah, unable to control my tears.
"Since then, I have stopped using the elevator. I use the staircase so that I may stand in front of the mezuzah for a while, caress it, and delve into my thoughts. I felt this was the only thing in my life that connected me to Judaism, to my past.
"So I was shocked and disappointed when two weeks later I no longer found my mezuzah, my Judaism, for which I had begun to yearn -- a life to which I now long to return with a full heart."
That day, two Jewish souls joined the Chassidic community in Rabbi Gurewich's home in Lyon. They are Perla Cohen, who later established a magnificent Chassidic home together with her husband, another returnee to traditional Judaism (they are now happy grandparents); and Mr. Avraham Londert, who, at the age of 70, began a new life in the merit of one mezuzah.
Adapted from Chassidic Gems, as heard from Rabbi Gurewich by the compiler, Tuvia Litzman.
From the forthcoming book by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin.