By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for COLlive.com
Spending Sukkos with my family in Crown Heights reminded me how there is no place on earth quite like it. No place is as alive. No place is as hospitable. What other community is there which every year opens its doors to, and fully absorbs, thousands of visitors – for an entire month!
It has been 21 years since I spent Simchas Torah in Crown Heights. For 11 years I was in Oxford and for the next ten I had responsibilities in various other communities. But this year I promised my family we would be at the Lubavitch hub.
It did not disappoint. If Crown Heights during Tishrei took the Ringling Brothers Circus to court to claim copyright for the moniker ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ it would win hands down.
On Hoshana Rabbah, as I watched thousands of people dance in the streets for the sixth night running without tiring, awed by the experience I asked myself how it was possible? Where did the energy come from? What the source of the exuberance? How on earth could any group of people be so utterly alive?
My friend Michael Steinhardt, the legendary philanthropist and founder of Birthright Israel, who stood alongside me that night watching the dancing, commented on the same. A world authority on the state of Jewry, he could not help but be overwhelmed by the electricity that filled the streets.
And yet, a refrain that I heard repeatedly over my time in Crown Heights surprised me. As I discussed the state of Lubavitch, many living in the community said to me, “Don’t judge Lubavitch by Crown Heights. Only the ziburis (loosely translated as the leftovers) of Lubavitch are here. The best went on Shlichus and left this place.” I am not exaggerating if I tell you that tens of people shared this strange sentiment.
Surrounded by such incredible people who set the standard for openness and human warmth, I wondered where such destructive self-loathing came from. Did all Lubavitchers feel that if they didn’t officially go on Shlichus they were second class? Was it right to live with such irrational self-denigration when, in truth, you were some of the most virtuous and beautiful people on earth?
So finally, on the last day of Yom Tov, when someone told me yet again that the best of Lubavitch had left Crown Heights and only the hangers-on remained, I decided I had to respond forcefully.
“Listen to me, please,” I told an elderly Chassid who stopped me to tell me that his son is a Shliach in Russia. “I got close to Lubavitch from about the age of nine. And I did so because after I went to Chabad camp they arranged for me to start coming to Crown Heights for Sukkos, Yud Tes Kislev, and Yud Shvat. I would arrive from Miami late at night with other kids and we would march into the homes of perfect strangers in Crown Heights. Still, the hostess would wake up, make us all dinner, give us all clean sheets, and open her home to us for a week at at time, even though she already had ten kids.
“Many of these families we stayed at were dirt poor. But they treated us like kings. And this happened year after year. And after a while I told myself that Lubavitchers are the nicest people in the whole world. And that’s what cemented my attachment to Lubavitch. I thought to myself that if Lubavitch could create people who were this hospitable and kind then there had to be something to the way of life. So let’s please get out of the destructive mindset that only the chaff of Lubavitch stuck it out in Crown Heights. Crown Heights represents the best of Lubavitch.”
And since I was a boy things have just gotten better. The Shule we davened at, Ohel Nassan, was quite simply the most festive Synagogue I have ever attended. My children were blown away by the exuberance and forced me, time and again, to daven every tefilla there because of its unparalleled joy. My dear friend Rabbi Chaim Miller, renowned in Chabad as the brilliant young scholar who produced the Gutnick Chumash, welcomed my entire family into his home, as he has for so many Shabbosim, even though we are a small invading army. And the Shomrim assisted me with my children when one nearly got lost in the huge throng.
I remain grateful to them all. This beautiful Yom Tov reinforced to me that although I grew up in Florida just a few hours from Disney World, Crown Heights is the real magic kingdom.
To be sure, to be a Shliach of the Rebbe is one of Judaism’s highest honors and I will always consider the Shlichus I did in Sydney, Australia, as a student, followed by my 11 years at Oxford, as some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The Rebbe’s Shluchim are heroes of the Jewish nation. But every global movement requires a hub. And Crown Heights is the vibrant, pulsating, heart of Lubavitch.
It would be nice if its residents saw it in that light and we no longer heard irrational self-denigration that makes anyone who didn’t go on Shlichus feel like they are second best. The simple fact is that there are people and places whom businessmen and professionals can reach that someone with the official title of Shliach cannot. And then there is the simple fact that Crown Heights is the warm and inviting home which Shluchim can always use to send those who are drawing closer to Judaism to see a vibrant and inviting Jewish community in all its glory.
Now more than ever the Rebbe’s vision that every person is a Shliach is being manifest. Everyone is needed and noone is second class.