By Samuel G. Freedman
On a drizzly and drunken New Year’s Eve in 1978, I twisted two bunches of my shoulder-length hair into curls hanging alongside each ear. Then I popped a thrift-shop fedora atop my head. Thus attired, I threaded my way through the revelers in Times Square, tugging on the sleeve of one after another, and asking in my best Yiddish accent, which actually was pretty lousy, “You are Jewish?”
This spectacle amused mostly me. I was imitating and ridiculing the young men of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect, whom I’d often seen descending on civilians from the mobile homes known as “mitzvah tanks.” They especially targeted the ones like me, whose dark hair and olive skin raised the odds they were Jewish. The Lubavitcher shlichim, or emissaries, wanted us to put on tefillin, the phylacteries an observant Jew dons each weekday morning, or to wave the lulav and etrog, the branch and fruit associated with the holiday of Sukkot.
Not that I even knew the term shlichim at that point in my proudly agnostic life, or cared a whit about the mitzvot, the 613 commandments that covered tefillin and the lulav and etrog, among myriad other things. No, all I knew was that these intrusive hucksters, barely old enough for their beards, frail and reedy under their wide-brimmed hats, gotten up in the black garb of eighteenth-century Poland, were good for only one thing: a cheap laugh.
A few days after Thanksgiving in 2008, I strode solemnly into a brownstone a block off the Columbia University campus, where I have been a journalism professor since 1993. The building served as the Chabad house for the shliach, or emissary, at Columbia, Rabbi Yonah Blum, as well as the residence for his family. I sat on the faculty advisory board for Chabad at Columbia, and had strongly and successfully advocated for Rabbi Blum to be designated a university chaplain.
Over the previous several years, I had visited the Chabad house for many joyful occasions – Shabbat dinners, Sukkot celebrations, most recently the ritual when Rabbi Blum’s son received his first haircut, by Jewish tradition at the age of three. The event on this afternoon was quite different. Rabbi Blum was convening a memorial service for two shlichim, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, who had been murdered by Islamist terrorists at the Chabad house in Mumbai.
The journey I had made from mocking the Chabad movement to admiring it was hardly mine alone. It very much paralleled a growing regard for Chabad in the broader Jewish world. A mere sliver of the Hasidic subset of the Orthodox denomination that in the United States represents barely 10 percent of Jews, Chabad has left its footprints around the country and indeed around the globe, dispatching its shlichim to the most distant and improbable places – Alaska, Nepal, Paraguay. They assist primarily non-Orthodox and even nonobservant Jews with services ranging from nursery school to Torah study to prison ministry to Passover seders for backpackers. The killing of the Holtzbergs in the course of doing good, doing nothing but good, offered a profound and tragic example of the Lubavitcher ethos.
What struck me most, though, was not how the Holtzbergs died but how they lived. We Jews have mourned enough martyrs to tide us over for the next few millennia without adding more names to the list. The grit embodied by the Chabad shlichim, who now number 4,500 in 1,092 cities in 73 countries, should not be measured only by the courage to face death. The attack in Mumbai may have brought the Chabad story to the non-Jewish world more fully than ever before, but that story would be as impressive and instructive were the Holtzbergs today alive and doing the things they had been doing right up until November 26 – making challah, teaching Talmud, welcoming tourists and diamond merchants and Israelis footloose after their army service, even slaughtering chickens themselves in the proper kosher way.
What the Holtzbergs typified was the kind of guts required to leave a small, clannish, predictable, secure, and in many ways unchallenging enclave and step on faith into the wider world, the world of doubters and disbelievers, the world of pop culture and consumerism, the world in which a Jewish community might consist of a couple dozen families from horizon to horizon and believe that they, the Chabadniks, have something vital and essential to provide it.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe and in large measure the originator of the schlichim system, once declared that the emissaries’ role was “paving the unbeaten path.” He elaborated on that imperative in another address, saying that “God wishes for His mission to be carried out,” meaning both in terms of being fulfilled and taken to the farthest compass points of Jewish presence.
In Chabad theology, the concept of ahavat Yisrael, the love of all Jews, is a transcendent value. And any mitzvah completed by any Jew – lighting Sabbath candles, putting on tefillin, hearing the Purim narrative read aloud – brings the messiah closer. To accomplish this, the rebbe taught, “The shliach must throw his entire being into succeeding through his own efforts,” using “every resource and every avenue,” “body and soul,” both “physical and spiritual” energy.
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