By Leibel Baumgarten
When the Rebbe began sending shluchim throughout the world, my grandparents, R’ Menachem Mendel and Sarah Nechama Baumgarten, they were eager to enlist. The wrote letters to the Rebbe stating their willingness to go on the Rebbe’s shlichus, wherever he would send them.
They received a note from the Rebbe stating that their shlichus was to be “here in Crown Heights.” The Rebbe wrote an infrequent (if ever) used term, “meguyasim — [they are] drafted.”
And indeed, they toiled as soldiers in the Rebbe’s army, pioneering the concept of a “Chabad House” right here in Crown Heights. As the number of shluchim increased, so did the number of baalei teshuvah and not-yet baalei teshuvah coming to Crown Heights to learn, live or visit.
Their doors were open to all. Every Shabbos meal had the dining room packed to capacity. On Simchas Torah and other occasions their basement was strewn with mattresses for people to crash a any hour of the morning, without even knowing whose house they were in.
As the years went on, and the needs of the baal teshuvah community grew, my grandmother became a shadchan and taught kallah classes. My grandparents became friends, guides and mentors to dozens.
It is impossible to count the number of people who were impacted by their generosity and hospitality. So many who were nurtured at their Shabbos table became community leaders and shluchim themselves. Even among the Crown Heights and shlichus communities, how many learned the art of an open home and guiding others in a loving, caring and dignified way from them?
In addition to an open home and all they did for the community in Crown Heights, they often traveled to various college campuses to run Shabbatons, taught Hebrew School classes in the Tri-State area, and did whatever it is that was asked of them with enthusiasm and commitment.
Once, after running a Shabbaton in College Park, Maryland, my grandparents stopped by 770 before going home to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe. A full report would come later, this was just soldiers returning to their general before heading home. It was about 2:00am, and the Rebbe had just finished yechidus. As the Rebbe saw them in the entrance hallway, the Rebbe gave them a wide smile and left.
Rabbi Hodakov gave my grandfather an emphatic yasher koach. Puzzled at Rabbi Hodakov’s uncharacteristic exuberance, my grandfather asked what had happened. Rabbi Hodakov explained that for the past week the Rebbe had appeared to be a dour mood, and nothing that was tried seemed to cheer the Rebbe up. The smile to my grandparents had been the first smile they had seen from the Rebbe in a week.
My grandfather was a committed shliach; a devoted soldier who epitomized kabalos ol. To him, every word the Rebbe said was sacrosanct. While he would have loved nothing more than to daven with the Rebbe in 770, he followed the Rebbe’s urging and davenned in the small shul next-door his home to ensure it remained open. In the summer, when many made their way upstate to be with their families, he wouldn’t miss a farbrengen.
While doing his Shlichus he worked incredibly difficult jobs to make ends meet. No job was too demeaning, no hour too early to rise. Hardened, though never embittered, my grandfather was as tough a character as they come. Yet his love for the Rebbe and his fellow Jew could never be disguised.
On the Shabbos following Chof Beis Sh’vat, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs when he got up to make kiddush. It had been an emotional week for everyone, but even so, those at the table questioned this sudden outburst. Eventually, through the tears, he explained that he couldn’t help but think about the Rebbe who was making kiddush for the first time without the Rebbetzin.
On Friday morning, my grandfather passed away. Today, the Rebbe’s faithful soldier made his way to 770 one last time to report to his general. There is no doubt that, as always, the Rebbe will be smiling broadly, thanking him for service.
The family will be sitting Shiva at 1608 Carroll Street, Brooklyn, NY. Five minyanim are needed. Shacharis: Two at 7:15 am, two at 8:20 am one at 9:00 am. Mincha & Maariv bizmana.