It was a night of miracles. The American Airlines Arena in Miami was jam-packed this past Tuesday as the NBA ‘06 finals went into game three at Dallas 2, Miami 0.
The thousands of cheering Miami fans knew this game was crucial. Losing would almost certainly cost them the championship since no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 loss. The Heat were praying for a miracle.
Outside the arena, earlier that afternoon, Rabbi Zev Katz, director of Miami’s Chabad on Wheels was also praying for a miracle.
The charismatic young rabbi was looking for a place to park his unique mobile synagogue, a full size, state-of-the-art bus that serves as a Chabad House. The bus was usually parked on Lincoln Road in Miami’s hip South Beach neighborhood, but Rabbi Katz goes where the Jews go and tonight the Jews were rooting for their team at the downtown AA arena.
Security was tighter than ever for this all important game and Katz knew he didn’t have a prayer of a chance to park his synagogue close by. “I knew there would be thousands of people there” he says “thousands of possible Mitzvot to be performed that night, and I needed to be up close and personal.”
As a last-ditch measure, Katz telephoned an old friend and Yeshiva classmate who was well connected in the real estate business and asked if he could help.
“It turned out that he owned a parking lot right across from the AA arena” says Katz, the wonder of it still evident in his voice. “Directly across, and I got permission to use it.” One miracle down, one to go.
Micky Kranz, a Heat fan from Boca Raton was among the many visitors to the Chabad site. “It was an amazing scene” he says. “Hundreds of people were milling around asking the rabbi questions, taking brochures, putting on tefillin, making blessings on the drinks that were provided, and checking out the Jewish books on board. It was amazing that so many Jews took the time to stop by and re-connect with their Judaism on their way to the game of the year.”
For Katz, this was not a new phenomenon. From his vantage point on South Beach, where Jews of every description come to vacation, he has seen his Chabad on Wheels project expand exponentially from its humble beginnings in an old rented van five years ago.
Today his Chabad is housed in a brand new 26 foot bus complete with an extensive Jewish library, Judaic gift shop, flat screen TV where Jewish videos are always on and wireless internet access. “People come here from all over the world” says Katz “and they ask me where they can find a Chabad House in their community or in some location they’re planning to visit. In ten seconds I can e-mail my colleagues in that area and introduce them to these people and assure them of a welcome when they arrive.”
The Chabad on Wheels concept has now been expanded to include a permanent facility. “Remember, the people we reach are largely unaffiliated Jews who don’t feel comfortable in a synagogue” says Katz. “But after climbing in to our bus and enjoying our welcoming style, they will often say ‘I want to pray where you pray’.”
Chabad’s new location on Pinetree Drive can seat 350 people for Shabbat and Holiday services and recently served as the venue for a very successful guest lecture series. Rabbi Katz is particularly proud of their Friday night services which are followed by a Shabbat dinner every week. “We get a lot of young singles who are meeting each other here on Friday nights” he says “and that’s very gratifying to us.”
Meanwhile back at the AA arena, the Miami fans were not happy. It was the fourth quarter and the Heat were down by 13. With only minutes to go and their championship dreams dying, the team clamped down on defense and in a nail- biting wild finale won 98-96.
Katz, only half jokingly, claims that the two miracles are connected. “Who’s to say that the good deeds and Mitzvot performed in our mobile synagogue that night didn’t help answer the prayers of their many fans.”
He plans to be on hand for Sunday’s game as well and he’s pulling out all the stops. “We will have a slew of Yeshiva students helping out and we’re putting in larger supplies of tefillin, candlesticks and brochures as well as giving away lots of free drinks and snacks. Who knows, we might see more miracles.”