As the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread through North America a year ago, Rabbi Nechemia and Raizel Schusterman were starting to plan for their 18th year of service to the Jewish community of Peabody, Mass. Located in the state’s North Shore region—known for its rich industrial history—it was immediately evident that the pandemic could have serious economic consequences.
“As soon as it became clear that the Covid lockdown was not going to last for just a few weeks,” said Raizel Schusterman, “we realized that this difficult time was a perfect opportunity to shower our community with more love and unconditional support than ever before.”
To that end, they coined Chabad-Lubavitch of Peabody Jewish Center’s 18th year as the “Year of Love.” Chabad of Peabody is a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch of the North Shore, under the leadership of Rabbi Yossi and Leah Lipskier, and with many in the community struggling due to the pandemic, area residents have received a wide range of Jewish enrichment opportunities at a discount or free of charge.
There have been free Shabbat take-home dinners, steeply discounted Hebrew-school tuition and affordable mezuzahs. With the “Flowers for the People” program, anyone in the community has been able to call Chabad and provide them with the name and address of someone who is sick or in quarantine, and a box of fresh flowers and Shabbat candles will be delivered to their door.
“It was beautiful to see how the people who were in a position to support our community during this challenging year were even more generous than ever,” Raizel Schusterman told Chabad.org.
For many in the community, perhaps the most exciting of all of the anniversary-related programs is a chance to buy and own a letter in a Torah scroll that is being completed in honor of the completion of Chabad of Peabody’s 18th year in August. Writing a scroll with their community was a long-time dream of the Schustermans, and after discussing it with David Moldau, a longtime friend, they learned that it was a dream of his as well. Moldau and his wife, Harriet, are dedicating the Torah in memory of Harriet’s parents, who escaped Poland in the late 1930s on one of the last ships to leave for the United States.
Moldau says his Jewish journey has been deeply enriched by his relationship with Chabad. Although he currently lives in Longwood, Fla., he makes sure to visit Massachusetts often and feels very close with the Schustermans. He notes that since he moved to Florida, he has since gotten to know Rabbi Yanky Majesky of Chabad-Lubavitch of North Orlando.
“Chabad is special,” he says. “They reach out to you, and you reach back.”
Zooming and Cooking
Nancy Fast first met Rabbi Schusterman one morning in the halls of the local JCC. She says that since then, she and her family have become a part of the Chabad of Peabody family.
“They welcome everyone, no matter how religious. They never push me. Raizel makes everyone feel comfortable and at home,” she says.
Fast adds that her grandchildren enjoy attending the Chabad Hebrew school, and that her daughter has formed a bond with Raizel Schusterman. She admiringly notes the manner in which Chabad quickly adapted to the current climate, moving their activities online, including Hebrew school, adult-education classes, and other monthly and holiday programming.
She says she loved watching Raizel Schusterman and her fellow female emissaries from across the world join together on Zoom to cook up a storm for Shabbat, each shlucha demonstrating the cooking of her own specialty dish, pointing out that the candid and affectionate way in which they related to each other was “hysterical.” She and her grandchildren also enjoyed Chabad’s outdoor Chanukah program, where they watched Jewish movies, shown on a big theater-like screen.
When the pandemic set in and the world was just getting used to using Zoom as a means of communication, Raizel Schusterman was already very familiar with the software, having used it while she trained to become certified as a positive psychology practitioner. The rabbi and rebbetzin began “Candid Conversations,” in which the Schustermans discussed various topics in Judaism and interviewed members of their community.
A Year Filled With Packages
With many local residents homebound for much of the year and public gatherings at a minimum, the Schustermans sent out packages throughout the past 12 months that helped them to connect with the community and enhanced the excitement of Chabad’s 18th year there.
“Chabad of Peabody” masks and paraphernalia were sent out before Purim, and for Shavuot, they sent out packages of fresh blintzes. Boxes packed with honey and other treats were sent before Rosh Hashanah. For Chanukah, everyone on their mailing list received a free box of candles. “We figured that many people have a menorah, but since most people weren’t leaving their houses, candles would be helpful,” said Raizel Schusterman. Many of their programs during the Year of Love were “donation optional.”
Billy Flaxer lives in Peabody and works in real estate. He has been close friends with the Schustermans for all 18 years since they’ve been serving the community. “Before Rabbi Nechemia and Raizel moved here, my wife and I, and our parents, were involved with Chabad of the North Shore in nearby Swampscott. Then Chabad of Peabody opened right near our house, and we started going there. Chabad helps integrate Judaism into your daily life,” he says. He adds that “the Chabad teachings I’ve been exposed to have taught me to live with the awareness that G‑d is with you all the time.”
Flaxer, who puts on tefillin six times a week, says his grandchildren attend the Hebrew school and have already signed up for Lag BaOmer with Chabad of Peabody. “My grandchildren mark four generations of Jews who are proudly involved with Chabad.”