How did a homeless teen sleeping at a Starbucks in Times Square become a Chabad shliach, husband, and father of three with a fourth on the way? The story of Rabbi Matisyahu Devlin was shared on Tu BiSh’vat earlier this week, when he spoke at the Chabad of Forest Hills North, hosted by Rabbi Mendy and Chaya Hecht.
“Tu BiSh’vat is ‘ki ha’adam eitz ha’sadeh.’ Man is meant to grow and sprout,” Rabbi Hecht said. “Increase in more Torah study.”
His guest was born in York, Pennsylvania, a small city with few Jews, plenty of American flags, church steeples, and traditional families. Devlin’s parents were intermarried and, as his mother was not religious, she let his father decide the education of their 11 children. “My mother did not convert to Christianity, and she thought that it would be nice if we would be raised in a religion. So, we were baptized and very involved in the church. It was a big part of our lives,” he said.
While the church taught obedience, Devlin’s father was a doctor and encouraged his children to have a “thirst for knowledge.” As he grew, Devlin asked questions that the church would not answer, and he became friends with the “wrong crowd.” At the same time, while he was often in detention, he continued to maintain good grades.
“I grew up in a family that looked up to a higher power, a purpose in life,” he said. While attending his Catholic high school, he looked into other branches of Christianity, but not his mother’s faith. “There was a notion that Jews were lower than other people. I had classmates with Jewish last names from their fathers. Jacob Goldstein was a quarterback and people still threw pennies at him.”
In his senior year, Devlin wanted to strike out on his own. After failing to hold a series of low-wage jobs and paying for his apartment, he drove to New York with a feeling that it was the place for free spirits. “Many nights, I would sleep in my car and then it was towed. I was definitely homeless,” he said of his life in early 2009. He slept on the subway and ate at Starbucks. It was at this low point that he had his first encounter with Chabad.
“A teenage boy and a girl sat next to me and I started talking. I had never seen a kipah in real life.” That teen, remembered as Mendy (unrelated to Rabbi Hecht), told Devlin that he is a Jew and they spoke for nearly six hours. “Your mother is Jewish and she passed on a Jewish soul to you,” Mendy told Devlin.” Feeling intrigued, he took up Mendy’s advice to take the “3” train to Kingston Avenue and walk into the Chabad world headquarters on Eastern Parkway. “In my mind it was a Jewish homeless shelter.”
Upon entering this world-famous shul with his shoulder-length hair and ripped jeans, he was asked to put on t’filin and advised to visit a yeshivah down the street. Having grown up in the church, he spoke of the contrasts in appearance and feeling. “I had never been to a synagogue in my life. Definitely not the cathedral look. You see  as a communal place where people want to be.”
Putting on the t’filin, he recognized the biblical verses of the Sh’ma and understood why it wasn’t taught at Catholic school, as it focused on the Jews. Without a home, he returned to that Starbucks in Times Square, where divine providence struck again. “I had a kipah on my head, and I saw a Jewish couple – they were on a shidduch date.” The man was a French Jew from Netanya studying at a Chabad yeshivah. Upon learning of Devlin’s situation, the bachur and his date drove him to a dorm in Crown Heights. The couple did not marry, but their date contributed to Devlin’s growth in Yiddishkeit.
At the yeshivah, he understood the importance of being a mentch, gave up drugs, and had an appearance in a National Geographic documentary on chasidim. Months after he drove from York, he called his mother and was welcomed to return home. The excitement of his Jewish self-discovery wore off. He enrolled in college, partied, and behaved recklessly. At age 19, he fractured his skull while skateboarding down a steep curve. He was put in a medically induced coma. “My father wanted a priest with the last rites, but my mother said no, never to give up. She called the yeshivah to say T’hilim for me,” he said.
Against the predictions of doctors, Devlin’s swelling went away, he was taken out of the coma, and he was ready to walk again. “I spent less than six days in the hospital.” This incident sealed the deal for Devlin. Instead of college, he returned to yeshivah and learned there for five years. Initially, his father was disappointed, but he eventually expressed pride. “As an academic, it spoke to him and my becoming a mentch.” Mutual friends set up Devlin on a date with his wife Nechama. The Argentina-born baalas t’shuvah became involved with Chabad while in college and followed up her interest in observance at a seminary in Israel.
“I look at my life and see divine providence, being an active part of G-d’s hand in this world. So many puzzle pieces falling into place.”
The couple initially led the campus Chabad House at the University of California-Riverside and recently moved to Miami where his in-laws live. He teaches at Yeshiva Torah Ohr in North Miami Beach and lectures about his experiences at Chabad Houses across the country. His parents have since divorced. His mother now lights Shabbos candles, listens to lectures, and has a mezuzah on her door. His siblings are not religious but are aware of their heritage, thanks to Devlin’s son Mendy who insisted on sending menorahs to them.
Rabbi Matisyahu Devlin’s story shows the potential for observance and leadership among the most disconnected Jews, namely a homeless teenager with an Irish last name, brought up as a Catholic who struck up a conversation with a religious young man.
By Sergey Kadinsky