Close encounters of the uncomfortable kind

Anyone living on a kollel budget knows how difficult it is to make ends meet, especially with a growing family. So a few years ago, when I was still learning full time and living on a meager paycheck, I agreed to take care of the maintenance in our building. Instead of hiring an outside company or a superintendent, every condo owner paid a certain fee towards my salary, and I was responsible for all of the maintenance issues. I made sure that the outstanding bills were paid on time and that the elevator got fixed whenever it stalled. Taking care of the garbage and washing the floors in the lobby and hallways were also my responsibility, so I hired some people to take care of that too. The first floor of the building was commercial, with a pharmacy and medical clinic occupying the space. There was a constant flow of people going in and out all day long, and the maintenance of that part of the building was a lot more intense than I could handle so they hired their own maintenance crew. The only thing we shared was the supply closet, a large walk-in space where mops, pails, detergent and garbage bags were stored. I had copies of the keys to both the clinic and the pharmacy, and was given the combination to other locks as well. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. Several years have passed since then.

The clinic and pharmacy have been replaced by an upscale kosher restaurant, but even that isn’t enough to make me forget that fateful morning. It was the Friday morning before Shavuos, and I’d been up learning the whole night before. (During my yeshivah days, I had started mishmor, learning all night every Thursday. )The sun was just rising over the horizon and I needed to get some rest. When I reached our building, I immediately noticed that the light was on in the pharmacy. That was strange; it was just after vasekin; no one was due to be in the clinic for several hours. Then I saw that there were some lights on in the clinic too. My hands suddenly felt clammy. I was sweating. No one had been down there when I finished cleaning the hallways the night before. I was the last person to leave the clinic, and I was sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the place was dark and deserted. Something wasn’t right, and I was going to confront that something right now.In hindsight, it wasn’t the most brilliant course of action. There could have been armed robbers down there or some other dangerous individuals. But I was so tired from being up all night that I probably wasn’t thinking clearly. I just pushed the buttons on the combination lock and the door swung open. Facing me on the raised desk where the receptionist sat and welcomed patients during was a black hat. “That’s weird,” I remember muttering to myself. “What’s a black hat doing here?” I took another few cautious steps down the hall and came face to face with a yungerman. His face was turned towards me, and he was sitting in front of a computer screen facing the other way. I watched in frozen silence for a good 30 seconds as he perused whatever it was he was looking at, using the mouse to scroll through the pages. I could see he was on sites he shouldn’t be.

At that moment he looked up and our eyes met. I knew the man’s last name, as he was a member of my community. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew his family. To say that I was uncomfortable is an understatement. If the perfectly-waxed clinic floor could have opened up and swallowed me whole I would have been grateful. Oddly, I was the one trying to save face, while the other guy’s reaction was rather blasé. He looked at me unflinchingly, then picked up the can of soda he was drinking and took another sip. Not knowing what to say but desperate to say something to ease the tension, I blurted out a ridiculous question. “Have you seen the guy who cleans this office anywhere?” “No,” the yungerman replied. I turned around and fled. I could have asked him if he had seen the Big Dipper or if he owned a Ford Explorer for all the sense it made. But by then I was running on fumes. Instead of going upstairs to the safety and comfort of my own home where I could think about what had just transpired, I ran down the block and back to the shul I’d just come from. My friend, who had just said goodbye to me 20 minutes before, jumped out of his chair when he saw me. “Are you okay?” he asked in alarm. “Your face is white! You look like you’re in shock. What happened?” Before I knew it, the entire story tumbled out in a 60-second, somewhat incoherent, stream. Luckily, I had the presence of mind not to reveal who the man was. My friend helped me compose myself until I was ready to attempt to go home—again. I didn’t know it at the time, but I later learned that this yungerman had access to the pharmacy and clinic because he delivered medical supplies to them.

The warehouse of the company he worked for was located several hours away, but because he lived in the same neighborhood as the clinic they allowed him to make deliveries at night when he got home. He would leave the boxes in the clinic so the staff could inspect and unpack them the next morning I called my rav, someone I trusted and felt would be able to guide me on how to proceed. He listened closely to everything I told him and asked a fair number of questions until he was satisfied. He explained that there were two aspects of the problem. The first involved “Lo saamod al dam rei’echa.” I was obligated to inform the owners of the clinic about our confrontation and tell them that there had been unauthorized use of their computer systems. That was not very difficult, as I knew one of the owners from my yeshivah days, so I just picked up the telephone and called. As soon as I told him what happened he was quiet for a moment and said, “Oh, so that’s what it was. I’ll take care of it immediately.” When I asked him what he was referring to, he explained, “In the past six months, the computers at work have been getting infected with all sorts of malware and viruses. My technician kept telling me that someone was viewing inappropriate websites, and that’s how all the bugs were being downloaded. No one at the clinic could figure out what was going on. But don’t worry; now we’ll password-protect every single computer and customize our Internet access.” Remember, this was in the days when there was less awareness of the dangers of the Internet in the frum community.

The second thing I needed to figure out, the rav continued, was what to do about this yungerman. There was no one-size-fits-all solution. “It all depends on who he is and where he’s standing in his Yiddishkeit. If he’s a guy who doesn’t care about anything, there’s nothing to gain by confronting him. And you certainly won’t accomplish anything by notifying his family. All you’ll do is possibly turn his life upside-down and ruin his marriage and his children’s lives. And don’t think you’re going to stop him from doing whatever he wants to do anyway; if he doesn’t use the computer at the clinic he’ll find another one to use elsewhere. “On the other hand,” he went on, “if you find out that he’s really a regular guy who unfortunately got trapped in the web of Internet addiction, you have an obligation to speak to him and let him know where he can get help. Point him in the right direction before his marriage and family life fall apart.” For days, I pondered whom to approach. Who could tell me what this yungerman was really like? I couldn’t ask close family members and I didn’t know any of his friends. Besides, I’m shy by nature. That’s why I was the one who fled the clinic that morning rather than the person who was doing something wrong. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was no way in the world I would ever have enough courage to confront him. I rationalized a million times and invented countless excuses as to why I wasn’t the right person to do it and would only ruin things. I also managed to convince myself that he would never accept whatever I told him anyway. So I did nothing. But I was tormented. Often, as I made my way home from shul after learning all night, I wondered what ever happened to him. Was there anything I could have done to save him? Or had I already saved him—by remaining silent? Last year, on Erev Shavuos, I got a phone call. The caller did not say his name. All he said was. “I wanted to thank you for letting me find my own way back.” There is no doubt in my mind who the caller was.


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