March 18, 2009

Taking Notes

2009 1508 page27 capHE AEROFLOT REPRESENTATIVE BERATED THE STOCKY MAN IN FRONT OF me. “You must check in your carry-on bag, then you will have to pay overweight,” she said, speaking in Russian.
The man replied in English. “But the bag isn’t mine . . .”
The Aeroflot woman cut him off. “If you don’t check in the bag, I’ll report you,” she said, still speaking Russian.
Seeing the apparent language barrier, I asked whether I could assist. The man grinned and shook his head. “She understands me perfectly well,” he said, turning away with the offending bag. “I’m waiting for a friend who will take the bag.”
Twenty minutes later I was sitting at my gate at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport waiting to travel to Zurich, and then on to Davos to cover the World Economic Forum. I had prayed for weeks for guidance on how I might share Jesus at the annual gathering, but then a worrisome development had come up. The most important sessions and news conferences all seemed to have been scheduled for the Sabbath hours.
“Hello again,” the stocky man said, taking a seat next to me at the gate. It turned out that he was an American rabbi from the Moscow Choral Synagogue and his tardy friend—now in the first-class lounge—was Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi. The two were also heading to Davos.
2009 1508 page27The chance to quiz my new acquaintance, Avraham, about Sabbath issues was too good to pass up, so I told him I was a Seventh-day Adventist and asked how he planned to handle Davos events scheduled for the Sabbath hours. Avraham smiled broadly. “That’s a tough question,” he said. “Why don’t you ask Rabbi Lazar?”
Walking to the baggage claim area at Zurich’s airport several hours later, I put the question to Rabbi Lazar, a slight man with a long wispy beard and black hat. “Jews have strict rules for what we can and cannot do on the Sabbath,” he told me. “For example, we cannot answer a cell phone. We cannot even write on a piece of paper.”
As for Davos, however, he saw a loophole: A person could attend an event without breaking the Sabbath if his motivation was to help others and he did not participate actively.
The rabbi paused. “If you don’t plan to go to any events on Friday evening, may I invite you to our Shabbat feast?” he asked.
I accepted the invitation. But as Friday neared, I reconsidered, worried that I would not be able to resist the temptation to write about a meal attended by a group of Russian billionaires. I sent Avraham a brief, apologetic e-mail.
Arriving back in Moscow the next week, I spotted Avraham at the end of the passport control line and waved for him to join me. Avraham was annoyed that I had rejected Rabbi Lazar’s invitation, and he chided me for missing what he described as an excellent speech by Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
Then Avraham stunned me. He said that when the minister had begun to speak at the meal, an Israeli reporter had opened his notebook and started taking notes. “I went up to him and said, ‘As a Jew, how can you write on the Sabbath?’” Avraham said. “But the reporter continued to write, so I told him, ‘I know a journalist at the forum who is a Christian and is not writing on the Sabbath because of his faith. But you? You are a Jew and should know better.’”
After that, Peter’s words to the young Christian church took on a new meaning for me: Keep “your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12, KJV). Jesus allowed me to share my love for Him at Davos after all. 
Andrew McChesney is a journalist living in Russia.