By Rabbi Shmully Hecht – Yale/New Haven
For Part 1
… Alas, my son was on the phone hundreds of miles from family, imploring me to pick him up from summer camp where I had wrongly dropped him off. The dilemma was that I had nowhere to take him were I to go fetch him.
My first drop was a nonstarter. Patently problematic. The physical accommodations were simply not up to par. Though the supermajority of Chabad mosdos do not lack essentials of hygiene and nutrition, the time has come to rethink our pecuniary priorities and allocation of charitable dollars. No campus Chabad House or any for that matter would ever welcome the public to a facility riddled with deficiencies and defects of the magnitude I witnessed in that summer camp. Chabad outreach centers boast some of the finest architectural centers in the Jewish world. From Moscow to Bal Harbor.
The time has come to concentrate on the Inreach Educational Centers serving our children and elevate them to noble standards. Many of our camps and Schools have already set the tone. The remaining stragglers must be encouraged to follow suit and financially supported to accommodate same. Charity starts at home. The era of fiscally capitalizing our local mosdos in sync with our outreach institutions is upon us. Philanthropic status should no longer be measured exclusively by how many Chabad houses we patronize, rather by how well we pay our mechanchim. They don’t have benefactors and supporters. They live on fixed income and in most instances are underpaid. The system needs an overhaul. Our children’s teachers, principals and administrators are the heroes of our communities.
It’s time to highlight their daily sacrifice and devotion. A family doesn’t have to move to New Guinea to be a Chabad superstar.
Heroism starts in the kindergarten classroom in Brooklyn and Monsey. The schoolteacher puts in no less effort, toil, sweat and tears than our most celebrated emissaries. Every schoolteacher should have full insurance, own a nice car, a fine home, and cease struggling to pay their bills. School teachers shouldn’t be on food stamps and section 8 housing. Its frankly bad for morale, degrading, and a wholesale societal dishonor. Our accountants and lawyers aren’t living on government subsidies. We wouldn’t respect them if they were. Would you be diagnosed by a Neurosurgeon on the dole?
Thank G-d since that summer some eight years ago the above-mentioned institution has successfully upgraded their center, no longer enduring the challenges it suffered at inception. But my son wanted out and deserved no blame. I was back on the road again. I’m on my way, son. I’m on my way. What wouldn’t we do for our children! … and I would walk five hundred miles, and I would roll five hundred more just to be the dad who rolled a thousand miles to show up at your door.
Guo Xinzhen grew up in the Henan province of China and was kidnapped at the age of two. Apparently, child abduction is rampant in the Great Republic. Some estimates have the figures as high as two hundred thousand annual cases. We’re speaking of a country with a one-child-maximum, per family policy. Yeh, let’s snatch the little boy and sell him in the open market. Deal with it, mom. I’ve got my own child to feed. The underwear factory ain’t payin’ much and the Indonesians are pillaging us with their predatory pricing. You know… a bit of supplemental income. A chunk of quick cash. Side gig: toddlers for sale; for more info see our Facebook page. Deal with it, Sir Xinshen. Life’s tough. Tell Walmart to pay up. The West has been killing us on labor for decades. Where’s Mao when we need him most. He should never have died. Maybe he didn’t. Conspiracy theories. He’s alive and hiding out in Beijing. Not to mention the Vietnamese competing with us head on. We should have knocked them off years ago. Light up the South China Sea once and for all. Bring back the Khmer Rouge. Nixon should never have pulled out of Vietnam. Add it to the list. Let’s get the youth back to Tiananmen Square. A rally of a few million. Bring back the Ming Dynasty. Life in the rice paddy really ain’t cutting it. Any takers for a two-year-old? Ripe and ready for knitting, sowing, welding, loading and unloading.
Utter evil in broad daylight. No words. The encouraging news is that they seem to now have a death penalty for kidnapping. Even the Commies learned something from the Bible. It’s in the ten commandments. If the Chinese keep examining our texts, the world would be a better place. Surely a safer one. The Pentagon would cut its budget in half and reduce the China desk by epic proportions. And we can frankly live without the knockoffs. Not to mention the human rights abuses and trafficking. Perhaps a JLI course in Mandarin on the ten commandments. Seven Noahide Laws in Cantonese. Bring it up at the next Kinus. Chabad is growing immensely in the Orient. We saw it first. Rabbi Avtzon went out in the eighties. Merkos sets global trends. China is the new frontier. Let’s roll.
Thanks to DNA testing and the recent PRC’s Government crackdown on this calamitous craze, Guo was recently reunited with his parents in their hometown of Liao Cheng in the eastern province of Shandong. They found him alive. After twenty-four years. And they arrested his kidnappers. The devils should be hung in the public square, but only after reading the Ten Commandments in Biblical Hebrew followed by every Chinese dialect. It should be broadcast to every single one of their billion-plus citizens. Then the crows should munch away at their suspended skulls for twenty-four months. An appropriate Chinese kidnapper’s severance package. And the woodpeckers can finish them off slowly as they work their way down the rest of their bodies. Woodpeckers and Crows are omnivores. They would do a fine job. I assume the next guy will think twice before taking someone else’s kid home for a quick online sale.
The torturous ordeal has come to an end after twenty-four years! With heart-wrenching tears, hugs, and embrace, the Xinshen family finally found peace. Father, mother, and son were seen on international media weeping incessantly. Yes, chasidim cry at the Ohel. Some even on Yom Kippur. But his family was bawling. A Messianic reunification. The most incredible part of the story is that Guo’s father Gangtang spent years riding across China on his motorcycle looking for his only son. A famous film was made about his ordeal with the hope of raising awareness and finding the little boy. Heart-wrenching is an understatement. With an oversized printed photo-banner of two-year-old Guo hanging like a flag on the back of his motorbike, dad trekked over three hundred thousand kilometers in pursuit of his beloved. He literally stood on street corners bannering stop signs and handing out photos of his only son, begging strangers to search their communities for a possible alien child. He burned through endless yards of rubber tires and ten motorcycle engines. Over the years Mr Xinshen was instrumental in helping multiple other families reunite with stolen children, but no sign of Guo. Until now.
What wouldn’t parents do for our children. Each one is a firstborn. Three hundred thousand miles on a dirt bike in search of a missing toddler! Hashem have mercy. I once lost my child in a department store in Saw Grass Mills Mall. I started screaming on the top of my lungs and had every single shopper in audible range looking for him instantly. We found him in five minutes. It felt like unending purgatory. Not many parents would last twenty-four years. Insane.
I picked up my youngster on Sunday morning and brought him home. Interim respite but no sign of relief. We made a few more phone calls. Implored and beseeched for mercy with various Mosdos. Punting incessantly for a stroke of luck. Third time and counting.
Then a promising response. Another out-of-state summer program for Chabad teens suggested I bring my son immediately, albeit with no formal assurances that he could stay. The director reminded me that I was late, camp had started the week prior, and they were practically full. Quasi indemnification and upfront disclosure. They were however trying to find one more bed. “Drive him up and we’ll work it out.” After an emotionally draining and physically exhausting few days, I hit the road again. Wha’ts a few hundred more miles on the car. You’ll get another oil change. And frankly I had no choice.
I gazed into the rear-view mirror and observed my innocent son falling asleep in the back seat. Bna karah diavuah. Bni Bchori Yisroel. Atem kruyim Banim. Our children are an extension of our limbs. We are an extension of the divine. Father and son back on the Interstate. Jewish family escapade seeks bed. It was a dreary rainy night. No visible stars. An indiscernible moon. Ominous clouds and fog. A nasty tempest was passing through the Northeast and every so often the gales would veer my car ever so slightly out of lane. I held the steering wheel tightly to avoid swerving onto the shoulder as tractor-trailers blazed by, spraying my windshield with gushes of water. Grip that steering well I thought and keep your eyes on the road. Precious cargo in rear. It certainly beats a one-man search and rescue motorcycle ascending the mountainous unpaved roads of interior China. Always keep perspective and count your blessings.
The Rebbe was sandik at my father Rabbi Sholem Ber Hecht’s bris. Yes, he held him at his circumcision. There are others that had the similar zchus. They are among the most pious. The Rebbe told my late grandfather Rabbi JJ Hecht that prior to the bris he had asked his saintly father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, to prescribe the specific duty of a sandik. The Rayatz told the Rebbe, “men darf shtark haltin dem kind.” Hold the baby tight! Most often, sublime levels of spirituality are attained by the simplest and most basic physical act. To consummate the ultimate covenant and seal the apical pact that bonds a Jewish boy with the Creator, we perform a simple surgical act on the physical body. Noninvasive celestial surgery. No MD required. Dad should do it or delegate to a Mohel. That said, the bris is the eternal bodily keepsake constantly reminding us that, as my grandfather often proclaimed, “We were born on the mountaintop of human civilization and are simply unique.”
Asceticism is not celebrated in Judaism and is generally shunned in Chabad philosophy. Always be wary of Jews that return from India claiming they experienced a spiritual metamorphosis. The longer he or she pilgrimaged, the higher you ought to raise your antennas. Chances are they are hallucinating or confusing an ephemeral high with spiritual ascendancy. In too many instances Ashrams take advantage of ignorant folk who disregard or deliberately choose to evade their own inborn Jewish souls. To their credit, the senior clerics often send the Jews home advising them to return to their Jewish roots. Many of the exotic bald Hindu monks in white robes roving the hills of Tibet run a great racket. I hear they now take bitcoin. Scratch selling your new products on Amazon. Open an ashram and run some ads in some college papers. A good business perhaps. A spiritual haven that will enhance your life, not.
It is unnecessary for Jews to escape to the Himalayas and meditate in the Tibetan hills. “Just hold the baby tight,” said the Friedeker Rebbe.
Ubinidun didan. It is time to briefly lift our heads out of the Bible, cease excogitating, and stand up on the train to let the old lady sit down. Make some room. Share some space. Simple.
I drove and mused about my back seat passenger’s dreams. I’d wager we dream more intensely when it rains. After all water is a sign of blessing; so said the Besht. Freud may have something on it. If he doesn’t, write it up and submit the thesis to a Psychoanalytic journal. Get it published and apply for tenure. Second-rate university journals love novel theories. Dreams and Rain. One thing I am sure of is that late-night automotive jaunts enhance our introspection. I would not indulge in self-pity for my son. I was to focus on the responsibility. Just drive Hecht. Thirteen-year-old boys look forward to an exhilarating summer and the first camp turned you down, the second was a disaster, the third was hopefully going to close the chapter. Take mental notes and prep yourself. It’s the bottom of the ninth.
We arrived at the rural campsite, made our way up the partially patched asphalt road and trekked to the office to engage in routine Chabad admissions diplomacy. The old-time bakeries always had you take a number and wait to be called before serving you the cheese danish. Now we drive a few round trips, one thousand miles or more in anticipation of getting our kids into camp.
A family with a child applying to Yale once requested that I assist them in offering the University President new carpet for all the College dormitories in exchange for accepting their daughter as a freshman. They had recently finished carpeting the White House and were happy to send a referral. It turned out that Yale was fine with the old carpet and the young lady ended up doing just fine in Community College. The story should not surprise you. Yale’s endowment is over twenty billion and growing, their credit rating is higher than most Fortune Five hundred companies, and they borrow money at lower rates than most municipalities. They have no issue turning down Oligarchs. Even white Jewish ones from Park Avenue. They’ll shampoo the carpet.
We parked. The storm subsided and I kindly instructed my son to wait in the car while I got out to commence the negotiation. It was like getting pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. You ask the cop if you can step out of the vehicle to talk while the children sleep, hoping he’ll buy your story. And don’t tell him you have a bladder problem. It’s a nonstarter. You are better off telling him you had a winged bat flying around in the car and you were trying to get rid of it by revving up to full speed with the windows open. Always travel with some feathers on your dashboard. Speeding plumes. Or perhaps convince him that a deer was chasing your vehicle since you passed the toll booth at eighty-five mph, and you feared that decelerating would kill it, as it hit you in the rear. Anything to avoid the burden of responsibility for leaving a corpse on the Interstate triggering a three-mile back up in a rainstorm. The deer fable should at least get his attention. When he starts arguing about deer velocity give him a shpiel about an article you read in National Geographic regarding the fastest deer in the world. Make up the name of some African country where they clocked the stag at 385 kmph. Call it something like MineGanga. You can pronounce it as you choose. Then ask him for the calculator on his watch to convert the kilometer to mile. If he’s not familiar with the Metric v Imperial conversion rate, have him google it. At this point you’re cordial, and cops aren’t that bright. He may buy it. At the minimum, your buba maises will help distract him and he’ll forget about the second ticket for not wearing the seatbelt.
After a lengthy back and forth with the camp director, I received my first Phd in Chabad mediation. It didn’t take seven years. Not even seven minutes. Curt and direct. Inferior to any conversation I’ve ever had at Yale with the most critical antagonist. A gibberish soliloquy, “Rabbi Hecht I am so sorry you traveled all the way here at this late hour but after lengthy discussions with the staff and assessing the logistics of running a smooth program we simply can’t take your child.”
“But I drove all this way, he has nowhere to go, all his friends are in camp, he can’t stay home for the summer, what can I do to help the camp, I’ll give you my firstborn…” Nadda. A laconic spew from the man in charge. Monomania. “Rabbi Hecht, you’re not listening. You’re simply not listening. NO!”
I will never forget that exchange. I beg forgiveness of our readers, but the brute had shoved a wrench into my intestines and was twisting my entrails as they disintegrated.
“You won’t take my son? You won’t take my son? You won’t take my son?” As my throat parched and my tongue began to stick to my pallet, I slowly descended into an incoherent monologue that was gradually fading into the ether. I felt my lips moving but could not hear anything. Was I going deaf or was Lubavitch hard of hearing? I was baffled. Where was the Rebbe? Oy Rebbe, Ayeka dear holy one, where is your spirit when we need you most? My pupils dilated and my vision blurred. I was breaking out with mydriasis in Buck Buck America. There wasn’t an ophthalmologist within 200 miles. It felt like my eyeballs were revolving inside their sockets and the retina was sticking to my palpebrae, as I began to twitch. My eyelid was trapped in a slow flutter. The man in front of me began to vanish as I gazed blindly into the abyss. Only his silhouette remained as I began to frantically search for the Messiah, rummaging through history. Avraham, Yitzchok, Yaakov Avinu. Rachel Imeini. Oh Mama Rachel. Rochel Mivakeh al baneha, said the prophet, Jeremiah. Rochel weeps for her children. Jewish prophets speak truths. The others are crucified. Please hold up my knees Mama Rochel. A transmutation was underway. I conjured up Kever Rochel and the masses of Am Yisroel passing the tomb of our Matriarch weeping over her grave. There I was among them, begging to escape the nightmare I was beholding. The fiendish chap was no longer upright in front of me. I was thousands of miles away in a telepathic trance with my only hope. Mama Rochel who cries for our children. Mama Rochel where art though? I am going deaf, dumb and blind on this semi-paved road and I have not even broken the news to my child, your beloved grandson. The ominous cloud of Chabad admissions destiny had dawned on me. No one is exempt.
Were we guilty of childbearing? Perhaps the communal sin of our time? Do the Chinese have it right? One kid and stop? Heaven forbid. We parents are guilty of nothing. It is unclear that the Camp Director was guilty. But there is right and wrong in this world. We will let the public decide.
I caught my bearings, regained my senses and stared this young fella in the eye. One pupil refocused, then gradually the other. I pondered what could possibly have gone wrong in his life. He was half my age, clearly held the reins of power at that moment, and my child’s fate was in his hands for the summer. A critical and formative summer, considering his age. I swallowed, cleared my throat and pleaded with him to make it work, explained the urgency of the hour and the lack of alternatives.
He performed his duties better that I did mine. For that alone, I credit him. Make sure to put a big fat check next to that line sir. We’re full.
He elaborated on how horrible it would be if G-d forbid one more child was accepted in the program. Common knowledge dictates that you can’t put an extra person onto a roller coaster. You can kill him, not to mention the other passengers. His demeanor was precise. Like a roller coaster attendant. Stubborn as hell and exercising his duty to the book. He had struck a piercing blow to my gut and a heart-wrenching shock to my entire existence. What a shame he called himself a michanech. I want to associate with Jews that give up their own bed for a stranger. Put up an extra bunk bed. Takedown some bookcases and throw in a cot. Fold up the ping pong table and lay out a mattress. Lubavitch has endless true leaders of that ilk. We encounter them every day. All over the world. At every age. Men and women, boys and girls. It defines us as Lubavitchers. Shame on you, I thought. Go run a boy scout camp in the White Mountains. Take a job as maître de in a small-town diner. How can you send this young boy home tonight for an entire summer and move on with your program? Revolting. I pleaded with the Rabbi. Yes, he was a Rabbi. I persistently offered endless solutions to his logistical problem of bedding, staffing, trip transportation, health dept legalities- to no avail. Cold and Numb. I wasn’t getting a ticket. He was towing my car with everything inside it to an unknown location, and cordially advising me to hitch a ride home a hundred miles from the next exit. At this point, it was no longer about me or my son. G-d blessed me with an Ace card as the story will tell. It was all about him. The cold-blooded adminstrator had no mercy. Could this be Lubavitch I thought?
The sole consolation was that this man wasn’t my son. My son was the innocuous child in the back of the car gazing through the window trying to decipher what could possibly be going on, as the rain trickled down and the heavens sobbed. Peeking through the raindrops on the car window, he was eagerly waiting to jump out of the car and enjoy his summer. He could not harm a fly.
My sole regret of the tragic incident is that it took me eight years to do something about it. Lord I beg forgiveness.
I got back into the car and my son knew it was strike three. He saw it on my face. He softly asked me, “Ta what are you going to do? What am I going to do for the summer?” I could sense the pain in his voice. I felt it in my stomach. It was vicarious between us. I was numb and felt dismembered. The de facto director had already pierced the skeleton of my existence. He was ironically the loyal and responsible head of a Lubavitch mosad. He cleared his conscience and had no reason to assume any guilt, shame or remorse. He was the gatekeeper. But what was I to do?
To be continued…
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