Guest Post By Paul Shaviv
|Speaker of the Israeli Kenesset Yuli Edelstein addressing Chabad Shiluchim|
On Sunday I was a guest at the closing dinner of the annual Chabad 'Kinus Shluchim 5775 - 2014'. This took place in a huge hangar-like space in the Brooklyn dockyards that had been transformed in to a hi-tech event hall for the occasion. (There is a good eight-minute video by Hillel Engel on YouTube.) More than five thousand people sat down for dinner.
There were two main speakers - one was Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, who spoke brilliantly about his time in the Soviet jail, and his early contacts with Chabad in Soviet Russia. The other was a UK Chabadnik from Wimbledon (home of the tennis tournament), Rabbi Dubov, who spoke for too long but it was hugely entertaining, and at times very moving.
It was hugely impressive. There are just under 3,000 Chabad families serving as 'shuchim' in eighty countries all over the world -- from Tashkent to Tasmania, in many African countries, in China, S Korea, and everywhere you can think of, including 49 US states. No other Jewish presence comes close to this.
The theme of the Kinus was ‘The Rebbe is with you on your journey’. For the record, none of the speakers implied that the Rebbe was still physically alive, and references to the Mashiach were all carefully phrased in the future tense. But the spiritual presence of the Rebbe was electrically and tangibly alive for all of these shluchim. It is the belief that they have a spiritual partner as their immanent support that gives them the ability to live and work in total physical and spiritual isolation. That, I have to assume, is the secret of a Rebbe and his Chasidim.
Think what you will of Chabad, the Rebbe, or Chassidim in general, but it is undeniable that Menachem Mendel Schneerson personally inspired (inspires) the existence and promotion of Jewish life for thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Jews who would otherwise be totally lost. On campuses, in communities, as individuals - Chabad is there for them, with unbounded love, “one Jew at a time, one mitzvah at a time”. Many other Jewish groups and streams look totally desiccated by comparison.
What interested me too were some of the items that got huge applause -- the IDF, Israel, battling Antisemitism. Support for Israel and Israelis was unequivocal (what other Orthodox group would invite Yuli Edelstein as their main speaker?) They also had no hesitation in showing men and women equally in all of the videos, displays and photos.
The future, my friends, might belong to them......
I was invited to the Kinus by my (young) friend, Rabbi Didy Waks, who with his wife and two very young children is just opening Chabad on the campus of Hamilton College in upstate New York. He will do well. At he Kinus, I had the enormous pleasure of meeting my old friend and teacher Rabbi Shmuel Lew, from London, England – now a senior, beloved and respected figure in Chabad worldwide. It is, I realized, exactly fifty years since we first met. This story illustrates the power of Chabad.
In 1964, as a 14-15 year old, I was running a Jewish youth group ('Jewish Youth Study Groups') in a large, gloomy synagogue in Golders Green. The Jewish community in the UK in those years was deadly – demoralized, semi-Victorian, stultified and without any spark or direction. We were all expected to quietly assimilate. I had read in the local Jewish newspaper something about a new organization called ‘Lubavitch’ that had opened up in London.
I called them, explained who we were, and asked them to come and speak. We fixed a date. (Years later, Shmuel Lew - maybe Faivish Vogel - told me that it was the very first 'cold call' invitation that Lubavitch ever received from an Anglo-Jewish organization.)
Come the appointed Sunday evening, at 8:00PM I went outside to the synagogue entrance to wait for the 'Guest speaker'. We didn't really know what to expect. What did a “Lubavitcher” even look like? After a few minutes, a small white van came slowly round the corner. It stopped. It looked as though it might seat three or four people at most. The doors opened and six, maybe eight bearded, hatted figures piled out. To this day I do not know how they all crammed into that small van. We greeted them and they came into the room where we met, singing and clapping.
As reserved, polite English boys and girls we didn't quite know what to do. A “Rabbi Lew” introduced someone who he said would speak -- Rabbi Berel Baumgarten, the 'Rebbe's shaliach" [what on earth did that mean?] to South America, who was passing through London. But fifty years later I remember what he said, because it blew me away completely. "The Rebbe told me to go to South America and spread Yiddishkeit. So I packed a suitcase with tins of tuna and boxes of matzah, and I took a plane to Argentina. I got off at the other end and looked around, wondering what to do next....."
I cannot describe the impact of those words on me. The idea that someone would 'get on a plane' to an unknown destination with the single intention of spreading Yiddishkeit was like a revelation. Not only was it mind-blowing; it was inspirational. There were people in the world who really cared about the survival of Judaism and Torah!
I didn't become a Chabadnik, but I have spent my entire professional career in Jewish education, eventually heading the two largest and most important mainstream Jewish schools in North America – TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto, and Ramaz in New York. A part of that choice, a part of that career and a part of that inspiration, belongs to Berel Baumgarten.