Before we get to the “Rusty Nickel” story, here’s the Shabbos House UAlbany background how it came about – and how it went down:

Years ago, in our first years at Shabbos House, when I still served as Kosher Kitchen Mashgiach on Dutch Quad (now its on Indian) a student came down to lunch one Thursday and came over to me with a request. “You know we have this weekday Minyan we’re trying on Mondays and Thursdays, and we’re always short a couple of guys. So I call people’s rooms (back then before cell-phones there were room-phones) especially the guys who went to Yeshiva and should know what a Minyan means, but I get such pushback and they’re upset that I am nudging them for morning Minyan. Mendel – how about this Friday Night when you speak, say something about the importance of coming to Minyan and being there for the rest of the community.” I heard him out, lets call this first guy A. and said I’d think about it.

An hour or two later B. (we’re just calling him B.) came down for lunch. He, too, had a request of me. “You know Mendel, that guy A. is driving me crazy. This semester my first class on Thursdays is after 2pm and there’s no way that I am getting up at the ungodly hour of 8am for Minyan when my first class is six hours later. You know I come to Shabbos Minyan all the time, and I daven in my room, and that guy is harping on my Yeshiva education and trying to guilt me and others into the Minyan. Maybe this Friday Night when you speak during the meal say something about live and let live, about not imposing and guilting everyone else. Everyone does what they can, in the way they want, and A. should really bug off.” I heard B. out, too, and said I’d think about it.

That was pretty unusual! Two guys should come by the same say and suggest a theme for my talk on Friday Night! I gave it some thought, thought about the people involved and the circumstances, and decided I would go with the theme that B. suggested. Here’s the story I told that Friday Night:

The Rusty Nickel

This story goes back to the late 1700’s or maybe early 1800’s. The Alter Rebbe of Chabad and his colleague and in-law the beloved Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev were traveling through, and came to a certain village in their way. In those days people didn’t take the highway and bypass every town and exit on the way, you stopped through. The people in that village were in great distress. Why? There had two poor orphans in their town, unrelated to one another, a boy and a girl. Despite their limited resources the town came together to raise these orphans, provide for their needs and care for them. As they reached adulthood, they decided to marry each other, and the town once again supported them, providing them with the start-up needs for life and the expenses of a Shtetl wedding. 

But it was the day of the wedding and they found themselves in a sudden crisis! Out of the blue, without warning, the local police-chief swooped in on the wedding day and arrested the groom! The townsfolk knew this was all about money and the police-chief would want a ransom, so they asked him: “How much do you want to release the groom?” He replied: 1,000 rubles. The townsfolks were devastated. They already spent all this money on the wedding and couldn’t ask the poor people to give more. What could be done?

But now these holy Rabbis had arrived in town. They were well-known and respected and perhaps if they’d approach some of the wealthier folks in town, they’d be better received and be able to raise the some to release the groom in time. The Rabbis asked them to draw up a list of the ten wealthiest Jews in town whom they could approach. That’s when an argument broke out among the townspeople, should they put the miser’s name on this list or not? The Alter Rebbe insisted that they do, and list him first. The townspeople tried to dissuade him, after all time was of the essence and they knew this miser well. He would give them a rusty nickel, not a penny more. And the wedding was on hold! But the Alter Rebbe insisted on seeing him first.

The delegation headed by the Alter Rebbe and the Berditchiver went to see the miser in his well-appointed home. He received them warmly and listened attentively to the plight of the couple. He pledged his support and went back to a strong box from which he withdrew a rusty old nickel and gave it to the Alter Rebbe. The local delegation was furious, but the Alter Rebbe was thankful and blessed the miser with appreciation for his contribution. No sooner did they leave the house, the man ran after them and apologizes for not giving enough, and this time gave a whole ruble. Again, the Alter Rebbe thanked him, again they left, and this time he came after them with an larger sum. This repeated itself, until he gave the whole sum: 1,000 ruble to ransom the groom!

He then explained the story of the rusty nickel. Some twenty years earlier, he was just building his way up in the world, and was asked in the street by a beggar for money. He found a nickel (a small Russian coin) in his pocket and gave it to the beggar. The man looked at him and threw it back in his face. “The way you are dressed, you give a coin like that!? No way!” shouted the beggar. The soon-to-be-miser was upset. He vowed never to give another cent to charity until someone accepted this nickel from him. And no one did! Until the Alter Rebbe came and appreciated whatever little he was willing to give.

I told this story that Friday Night, and concluded that in our Jewish campus community at UAlbany everyone gives in different ways. Some people devote their all, participating, invested, helping out in every way possible, and there are others who give the equivalent of a rusty nickel. If you refuse that nickel, if you don’t appreciate it, you’re not likely to get any more. Even that nickel may stop. So Raizy and I learned to value and appreciate everyone’s efforts and involvement, without expectation, without judgement, just appreciate it, without comparing it to what others are doing or what they should be doing… and wonder of wonders, often people end up doing more, giving of themselves more, when appreciated and valued like that. 

Here’s the irony – we will never forget this. That Friday Night, A. was there at Shabbos Houe, but B. wasn’t (he may have been away, or maybe overslept). A. came over to me after I spoke, and said, “That was beautiful Mendel, but a shame that B. who was supposed to hear this wasn’t here tonight!” Ugh…