By Rabbi Shmully Hecht – Yale/New Haven
– Part 2 of Gimmel Tammuz at the Ohel (Part 1 here)
Heading to the Ohel for Shabbos Gimmel Tammuz, I’m driving south on the 95 on a summer Friday afternoon. Against traffic. Traffic is Northbound at Latitude 41.3083° N, and Longitude 72.9279° W. It’s simply the weather. Connecticut shoreline, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and for the New England patricians Litchfield, Cape Cod, and Nantucket. Beaches, prairies, summer cottages, fishing, boating, horseback riding and antique shopping. Frankly, any destination to escape the City. But Jews have never followed the traffic I thought. We are the chosen few.
My first nine emails seeking a bed for Shabbos Gimmel Tammuz are kindly rebuffed. “I don’t have a place myself, I’m not going this year, Sorry no room, Now you wake up…, Why do you need a bed…Who do you think you are, I told you to buy a house at the Ohel… It’s 5 PM and I’m in Westchester. There goes the sun. I hit the Whitestone bridge and my brother-in-law Rabbi Shmuli Levitin, Shliach in Seattle, suggests a call to Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin. ‘He always saves a bed for cunctators like you Shmully.’
5:03 PM and a few short WhatsApp voice’s to Elkanah. “Elkanah my last resort is to extend a hammock across Francis Lewis Blvd. I would prefer to avoid shutting down the traffic on the fairway. An instant reply. “We heard about your predicament. We are buying mattresses. 227-98 120th avenue. We’ll see you very soon.” “What should I bring?” I write. “Your neshama” is his reply. OK, this looks like it’s going to get very expensive…
But I was a made man.
I arrive at “Home at the Ohel” which I instantly rechristen to “Boutique Four Seasons at the Ohel.” Architecturally designed, modern and high tech, multiple bedroom suites on two floors, elegant dining room, and a larger meeting room on the lower level. The place is spotless. The AC is blasting in addition to an outdoor space in the yard. Endless food is displayed throughout. New mattresses, pillows and linen are piling up as 8-year-old Avremel Shmotkin and 5-year-old Meir Shmotkin are setting the bedding for the overflow of anticipated guests. I ask Meir about the net weekend booking. 5-year-olds relay accurate numbers. “160” he replies, whilst carrying six pillows towering over his head. Good thing the housing inspector is not doing his rounds.
In the adjacent backyard, a feast is being prepared for what turned out to be the grand finale of a three-day Bar Mitzvah celebration of Yechezkel Deren, hailing from Greenwich, CT. Greenwich is a fine suburb of New Haven. Among the baalei batim arriving in 5-minute intervals were various members of the nuclear Shmotkin family. We chatted about former Yale students now living in their communities and the various degrees of their current involvement with Chabad. Senior family patriarch, Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin, had a few sardines.
“Hecht, stop with the ‘macht baal tshuvahs,’ he politely corrects me. “We don’t ‘make’ baal tshuvahs.” People do tshuva, we too should only be zoche to follow in their ways.” He is still in touch with Josh Richman – Yale class of 1998. Josh was Asst. Conductor of the Yale Symphony orchestra who embraced Yiddishkeit upon graduating from Yale and lives in Milwaukee. During his college days, he once costumed in my hat and Kapota at the annual campus Halloween party where he was performing. He opened the event for over 1000 students by welcoming them and then proudly announcing, “And Shabbat Shalom.” To a collective response from hundreds, “Shabbat Shalom” He told me today that it was that initial announcement that propelled his journey to Yiddishkeit. And that he had a daughter born on the anniversary of the event. He named her Sara Tikvah. There is hope my friends.
In walk the brothers Reb Mendel Shmotkin, Reb Levi Shmotkin, Reb Yudi Shmotkin, Reb Meir Shmotkin. Shliach Rabbi Yossi Zaklikovksy from Texas sends a selfie of us to Yale alum Eric Rubenstein as I text Eric for his and his mother’s Hebrew names. One should assume this is emblematic of the goings-on in multiple homes in the neighborhood as Chasidim reconnect in the final hour before Shabbos Beis Tammuz. We’re global now, interconnected and instantaneously, leaving little room for error.
Kabolos Shabbos. The tent is swarming with Chosids. Shliach to Thailand Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor and I delve into a maamer followed by a letter of the Rebbe. We kibitz for a few minutes about one particular Yalie now in Bangkok that frequents the Chabad House. I remind him that he was the iluy of the Mirrer Yeshiva before he dropped out and landed in university. Was a ben bayis here among the Shluchim. Thailand is his second stop. Perhaps he’ll come full circle, return to his roots and marry a Lubavitcher. We daven and trek to the tent. It’s 10 PM.
It is not merely a tent. It’s a pavilion. The size of an outdoor stadium. There is a lavish buffet feast at its center. Tables are set elegantly as far as the eye can see. Reb Abba Refson and the Ohel Squad of misadrim are known for their extravagance. A prelude to seudas livyason. Ashreichem.
I find seats with my brothers-in-law Reb Mendel Levitin and Shmuli Levitin. Shliach to Montclair NJ, Rabbi Yaakov Leaf squeezes in among us. Shliach to Columbia University, Rabbi Yuda Drizin is two seats over. A Covid-era Shliach. Double grind for the rookies. The Yale Columbia rivalry dissipates rapidly and the Jewish student name swapping starts. Kiddush, Hamotzi and one can barely hear themselves speaking. More tables are being unfolded and set up behind us.
The smartest fellow at the table is a chasidisher Yungerman seated to my left. An upper-middle-class professional in a kapota who possesses a brilliant mind. He personifies the fabulous combination of Torah and Derech Eretz and is a model for a term the Rebbe used, Chasidim that are made in America. The ones that will be at the front lines greeting Moshiach.
It’s way past midnight and the conversation turns somber. This chosid to my left is recounting in detail how he was forced to take his child out of a Crown Heights school because the administration felt it wasn’t “suitable for his daughter.” Days before the start of the School year he was compelled to relocate his entire family to another city and place his children in a non-Lubavitcher School. The sadness in his voice was tangible. I was seated at the Ohel alongside a yungerman who had graduated the best Yeshivas, gone on Shlichus, worked for Chabad mosdos and got the incessant run around from our own Schools, ultimately leading to his daughter’s expulsion 6 years before her bas mitzvah. I couldn’t have soup. Luckily, he had arranged some contraband spirits before Shabbos. He whisked out a half-gallon of Smirnoff and the farbrengen began.
What happened to Lubavitch we asked. We’re running off to the far corners of the world to find one Jew, print Tanyas in remote villages, build schools in antisemitic countries, hang mezuzahs on embassies and feed the hungry in swamps, yet depriving our own families a Chabad education. I envision the naysayers on their recliners smirking cynically. They comment under their breath. “Well Hecht you don’t know the whole story, you never met the child, we tried, there is a whole class to worry about, its healthier for the group, we expel one to save many…” sure; and throw in the cost-benefit analysis, why don’t you. Pull out your algorithm. Present the formula on the excel spreadsheet. Highlight the net positive results. Shame on us. In Williamsburg, it would never happen. Even in Lakewood I highly doubt it. (Shame on you Hecht for sharing this on COL, I’ll be told).
Gimmel Tammuz was a day to reflect. Personally, and communally. Deeply and painfully. I have sinned. I have erred. I have neglected. I have told tales to myself and my peers. Aren’t we exhausted by all the wonderful success stories that glorify Chabad and our achievements? Have we considered the masses never included in the glorious photos? I speak of our own children, too many today on the periphery. Enough of the triumphs. We’ve buried our failures in blindsight. How we can love the world if we don’t love ourselves. What are we doing in Anchorage and Zurich if we are driving our own families out of Crown Heights? For whom are we building schools if not initially at least for our own kin. The ones that are slightly on the margin or need a bit more. We have been desensitized to the internal crisis of indifference and complacency within the most hyper-local Chabad populace. Have we no room to move over for one more child in need of a little bit of extra time, care and affection.
Have we forgotten the simple meaning of the word sacrifice? YES, SACRIFICE. No Altar. No Temple. No High priest. Sacrifice in the simple meaning of the word. Mesiras Nefesh literally. To give of ourselves. With no commentary.
Historically we confronted challenges of various stripes that are thank G-d absent today. No Firepit. No lion’s den. No raging sea. The ancient world is extinct. No gallows. No Rack. No Gridiron. The medieval world has vanished. No KGB. No Gestapo. No Stasi. The commies, the Nazis and the fascists are a phenomenon of yesteryear. We are candidly living in the best of times. Sacrifice has redefined itself.
The fellow to my left has since told me that he has cried endless nights at the Ohel. Perhaps it’s time to stop the crying.
2:30 AM. I headed back to the Four Seasons. The Deren family farbrengen was unwinding with the remaining quorum of intergenerational night owls congregating in the bar mitzvah tent reminiscing and farbrenging. Elkanah was ambling through the house assuring everyone a place to sleep. I strolled into the living room and found one empty couch. The room was pitch dark with extra drapes adorning any possible crack of light from adjoining rooms. I could not sleep. They took their child out of our institution because she didn’t FIT. She was expelled because our mechanchim failed them. In essence, we have failed.
5:00 AM. A glorious site. There are mattresses lined wall to wall and scores of children in deep slumber alongside negel vaser at the edge of every mattress. Children from 4 years old and up. A slumber party at the Ohel. Pray, study, sing and listen to the wise. Contrast that to the Hamptons. Don’t go there… How blessed are we to have been born with the higher calling? The room is quiet. It’s the first and only time it is so and will remain such through the Shabbos. Every child sacred. Every child pure. Every child a generation. The Rebbe’s children arrived at the Ohel to pay tribute and grow spiritually, basking in the light of a Tzadik they never physically met. They are happily sleeping on the floor on military mattresses. Ashreinu.
By 6 AM everyone was vertical and a minyan was formed downstairs. We were called upon. Some had already been learning Chasidus. Danny Shapiro was davening. Schneur Minsky was learning Chasidus. Schneur was telling me how his greatest joy was giving young couples parnasah. And, that JEM’s My Encounter was his idea. To be investigated. The conversation was brief as he was deep in learning. Schneur and Danny are the pillars of Chabad. No formal titles. No accolades. No need for approbation. In it for the cause. Totally immersed. The ultimate Shluchim, with no formal titles. Rabbi Bentzi Sudak of England pops in. A second-generation Shliach who learned from the Master. We contemplated the dearth and therefore necessity for a mainstream book that would convey Chasidus to those totally alien to the cause. Preferably written by a layperson. Jews are tired of sermons from Rabbis. Bentzi embodies the unique blend of a critical mind and British humor. Rabbis should make their constituents cry and laugh. Those are the keys to going viral. Ari Greenwald, a spiritual communal leader and Shliach in Westlake Village California walked in with the Torah. A Classic anonymous leader and (rumor has it) anonymous philanthropist. Take initiative.
Kriah, aliyas, A mi sheberech and a few nominal financial pledges to great causes. Off to Mikveh and the Ohel. Shachris is over and it’s time to farbreng.
I walked over to the Shemtov House. Modest accommodations. The lineup was severe. Reb Levi Shemtov, Detroit. Reb Yossie Shemtov, Arizona. Reb Noteh Shemtov, Crown Heights. Reb Kasriel Shemtov, Crown Heights. At the head of the table is Harav Hadayan Yacov Barber.
Kiddush and a nigun. I relayed how a few years back I had gone into Mendy’s Deli on Kingston Avenue and was checked out by a Lubavitcher-looking boy. Yet he didn’t seem to be wearing a yarmulka. We exchanged a few words and he mentioned that his father was on Shlichus in a remote European Country. I gave him my cell phone and invited him to New Haven for any Shabbos. He never came. I neglected to stay in touch. Two years later I read about his death (allegedly from an overdose). I was sick in my stomach. And guilty. I understand there is now a tefillin stand on Union and Kingston. Excuse me sir are you Jewish? Yes, my father is the head Shliach in…
Here goes Hecht with the dirty laundry. Shut him down now.
My dear friends, there is no dirty laundry. We are living in turbulent times. And silence is death.
The mood was intensifying. Rabbi Barber took the lead. Undoubtedly, we have fantastic mosdos, yeshivas and batei sefer. Certainly, we have dedicated melamdim living on a limited income and tremendous sacrifice to educate our children. Indeed Lubavitch is wonderful. Look at all the wonderful photos on COLlive and successful Charidy campaigns swarming with Lubavitch entrepreneurs supporting the mosdos and the Shluchim.
Yet there is a plague. Our children have in too many instances been commoditized. During plagues, people react differently. As the population starts to shrink mankind shows its true colors. The delusional deny its existence. The naïve acknowledge it and then disregard it. The frightened go into a panic and escape. The brave attempt to contain it. The vulnerable commit suicide. The fearless heroes go to battle. For further reference, one only needs to read the reviews of The Plague, by Albert Camus published in 1947. He won the Nobel Prize in 1957. He died at 46.
Nuteh Shemtov is one brave hero. We are well aware of his work. Aliyah. Regrettably, there are few families that have been able to avoid Aliya’s chesed and unconditional love for our own children. Mine included. But the farbrengen was an attempt to pierce the root of the problem. Almost every single child in Lubavitch receives a childhood education with few exceptions as noted above. The trial commences in the formative teenage years, and herein lies the plague.
Mashke flowed. The delicacies circulated. A nigun was sung. There were heartbreaking cries. Our bochurim are being rejected, yes, rejected by our mosdos. Though most are ultimately accepted, it is all too often not the appropriate school. I would venture to claim that there isn’t a grandparent in Lubavitch today that hasn’t experienced a serious dilemma at some point in getting a teenager into Mesivta. Heartache, sleepless nights, anxiety, waiting, angst. There was no one at the table that was not either rejected or had dealt with a family member that was. No one is immune. The plague is ubiquitous. The rats are back.
The hanhalas claim they are preserving the integrity of their mosdos, they don’t have enough beds, they are short on funds, your child will drag down the class, there is a better place for your son. All of the above may be true. But the net result of this unfolding epidemic is a mivtzoim stand on Union and Kingston. For our own families. The rejects are most often the initial ones to check out of the Yeshiva system, entering the workforce prematurely, and ultimately embracing alternative lifestyles. A select few of the more fortunate parents have funds or connections. They then barter to open slots and inadvertently move other applicants to the bottom of the list. “What has happened to us Noteh, Ad heichan higanu.” Levi Shemtov was affirming the crisis. Rabbi Yossie Shemtov was confessing his own experience with traces of the plague. Rabbi Barber was demanding practical solutions.
Kasriel challenged us to authenticate our passion. Was this simply another barrage of howling in the wind, yet another critique of the system, or were we willing to do something about it. Kasriel is an askan in Crown Heights and I haven’t seen him in decades. Large brown loving eyes and high cheekbones, a radiating smile. I told him how good he looked and that he had lost some weight since our summers in the 1980s in Gan Yisroel. Something truly magical occurs when chasidim reunite at a farbrengen in the Shadows of the Ohel. Most often it brings out the best in us even if only momentarily. Collective childhood memories reinforce our unity and inseparable bond. At the Ohel, we are one family, indivisible with love and Justice for all. We reinforce the pledge of allegiance to the Rebbe and for all he stands.
Kasriel began: “When we visit my brother and his family in Tucson, we take the children horseback riding. On one such family excursion to Wild Horse Ranch, my son was given a horse that was simply not cooperating. It stood on its hind legs and refused to budge. Witnessing the standstill and hold up of the troupe the cowboy shouted “whip em whip em…” My bochur started to whip the horse.”
We downed a Lchaim. Where was this going, we wondered. A maaseh mit a ferd. Gimmel Tammuz…
“ …the horse didn’t budge so he whipped him again, harder and faster. ‘Don’t whip em hard’ the rancher shrieked, ‘whip em like you mean it, whip em like you mean it.’ And only then did the horse begin to move. A walk, a trot, a canter and a gallop. At the end of the trail I asked the fellow to explain the episode. The rancher wasn’t the cleverest fella. In fact, when we needed to tally the bill, he waited for his mom to calculate 19 times 12. He clarified that a horse doesn’t need to be whipped hard. The horse can sense if you mean it and complies when you do. Sometimes you simply tap the horse and off it goes.”
Rabbi Barber resumed the discussion and within a few moments, we resolved that the plague must come to an end. In that humble dining room we ten chasidim resolved that a committee of concerned citizens composed of parents from all walks of Chabad would be formed right then and there to assist and support the hanhalas of the Yeshivas in assuring that every single applicant to every single Yeshiva would be accepted. To the best of our ability the correct Yeshiva, not only best for the mosad, but for the bochur. No longer can mosdos operate in isolation of others. There would be a new responsibility undertaken by the collective of mosdos to no longer curate their particular mosad exclusively, rather ensure that every single bochur is also placed appropriately. Whilst allowing the Yeshivas to operate independently, the Vaad of Mosdos would centralize the system for Chabad globally.
A franchisee can open at 9 AM and close at 6 PM, while another member of the same franchise can stay open 24 hours a day. Yet, if you change the menu, you have forfeited the license. A simple database of every Chabad applicant to mesivta, ranked by abilities, strengths and weaknesses, along with a simple algorithm tweaked and monitored by human mechanchim would ensure that no child will be left behind. Additionally, transfers would allow for constant perfection of the individual chinuch and global network of Yeshivas. Through working in concert every Menahel and Mechanich will ensure that when his own child ultimately needs to leave his own home and local mosad (in cases where there is a better one out of town or when their mere age calls for a move) he will have an open slot elsewhere. The notion that we protect our own first, must end in Lubavitch. Every child is OUR OWN. Yes, we need more Yeshivas, more funds, additional and better-qualified mechanchim, incentives and of course parents’ cooperation. Chinuch begins at home. Over time the Vaad will deal with all of the above.
Over the past week a dozen of us, starting with the attendees of the farbrengen joined a WhatsApp group. We have successfully been joined by Rav Mordechai Farkash, listened to critical (no pun intended, important nonetheless) insight from the Rosh Rabbi Ezra Schochet and Rabbi Levke Kaplan, received interest from Rabbi Sholem Ber Lipskar and started conversing with hanholohs and baalei Battim from Yeshivas in multiple continents and cities across America. First, there was denial, then a rebuttal, then a dialogue. Meetings are happening, conversations are evolving, Merkos has been engaged and the existing Vaad under its auspices are in conversation with the leader of the group, Rabbi Barber. Supported by common folk like you and me. Please email him directly at [email protected]. If you are reading this, he wants to hear from you.
When 19th-century Hungarian physician and scientist Ignaz Semmelweis pleaded with the medical community to simply wash their hands to avoid puerperal fever, he was considered a lunatic. He believed it was killing thousands of mothers in childbirth. He was ultimately condemned to a mental asylum, where he was beaten by the guards and died 14 days later. At the age of 47, that is. His ideas simply conflicted with the medical community consensus at the time. It was only after his death that germ theory as we know it, was universally accepted. Imagine going to a doctor today that refuses to wash his hands. Imagine an OBGYN of same.
And If I am excommunicated for raising a ruckus, I will sneak across heaven and whisper to Spinoza that his original cherem of the Rabonim, now housed in the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam could have had him placed there for better reasons, and on more meaningful grounds. When Professor Steven Smith at Yale asked Rav Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) in the presence of many, “maybe I should stop teaching Spinoza?,” Rav Adin whispered with a smile, “and maybe you, can redeem Spinoza.” Steven Smith has never been the same.
Yodeinu Lo shafchu es hadam. We will first redeem ourselves and ultimately will redeem Lubavitch.
The author can be contacted at [email protected]