Part 2: Rabbi Shmully Hecht, Senior Chabad Rabbi at Yale, describes his Shabbos Gimmel Tammuz 5779 at the Ohel. For part 1, click here.
By Shmully Hecht, Senior Chabad Rabbi at Yale
But I digress. No sight of women. The Rebbe had spent countless hours standing on his feet handing charity dollars to the women, speaking for women, writing to women and reminding us that women were at the center of the Jewish people from the birth of our Nation and creation of Humanity. Equal partners, not in the progressive vernacular. Literally! On my way out of the tent I bumped into Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor,Director of Chabad of Thailand and other countries in the Orient, too difficult to spell in English. Every International tourist knows about Chabad’s activities in the East. Whether on Business or leisure you can’t miss them. Yosef Chaim and I embraced as friends and cousins and he relayed that he just returned on a four-mile walk from a hotel near JFK where women of all ages gathered for Shabos to be closer to the Ohel. My Saintly father in Law, Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin who leads Chabad of the Pacific North West, Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of Detroit Michigan, and others, had formed a vaad with various Shluchos and Nshei Chabad to arrange an entire Shabos for the nashim tzidkonios. Yosef Chaim told me that he repeated a story in his talk about the end of a Lag B’omer parade when the Rebbe mentioned specifically the participation of the boys and girls. My grandfather thanked the Rebbe for lifting his spirits to which the Rebbe replied ‘Ich hab deer ufgaheiben’ I lifted you up. I carried you.
Hundreds of tables, each seating ten men facing another ten, in deep conversation and melody. To the West we spotted Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar leading a farbrengen. A soul fest. Twenty-five men hovered tightly over his shoulder as he whispered. Rabbi Lazar is a busy man. When I invited him to speak at Yale on Yud Tes Kislev he told me he was booked that year and the next. I wondered if Putin knew how his Rabbi spent his time abroad. This was boot camp for the weekend, a spiritually and mentally-refreshing makeshift Chabad Landmark. It was assumed that this one Shabos with strangers and friends would stimulate us all to return to our outposts, invigorated and enlivened to spread the Rebbe’s message of unconditional love and a deeper perspective of the meaning of life. Was Reb Berel speaking in Russian I wondered, or in his native Italian, only to realize it was Yiddish of course. The mama Loshon. Academics in my neck of the woods presume Yiddish is a dying language. That’s Ok. Academics make many presumptions. Yiddish may have died in the bund and on Broadway but not among Chasidim. We couldn’t get close enough to hear so we journeyed over to the Montreal table where Rabbi Moshe New was conversing with a group of businessmen and lay leaders that had traveled south for Shabbos. “THE Rebbe,” and I quote, “is a rather objective term” Moshe explained. ‘Detached and impartial, irrelevant and of a past era, even implying indifference. MY Rebbe, on the other hand was personal and particular,” he continued. ‘The extent to which one can differentiate between that subtlety is paramount for our embodiment of the ideals he espoused. A true proponent of mystical and intellectual teachings must personify his teacher’s values in everyday life.’ And then a nigun, and then another. Reb Moshe and Levi finished that conversation at daybreak, with only short intervals for more song and spirits. Great philosophers from the ancients to the modern preached noble ideas, whilst living rather hollow lives. A chosid must embody his convictions and practice what we preach. If we are to have a semblance of the Rebbe’s integrity we must transform our every thought, action and deed.
And then Rabbo Ofen sauntered by. The man responsible for all Chabad activities with the Israel Defense Forces. Levi introduced us, and in Chabad style Rabbi Ofen went into a tirade reminding us that The Rebbe wanted every army base to have kosher mezuzos, having paid for many himself. Chabad was the greatest ally of the IDF and the State of Israel. Two global powers with embassies everywhere. Each with our own unique assignment of serving the Jewish People. My dear friend Guy, a former student at Yale who commanded a long range F16 squadron for the IAF used to joke that he had never been to Tehran but knew exactly how to get there. And there is an old saying that if you can find Coca Cola, Chabad is nearby.
We hopped over to the Spanish speaking table encountering philanthropist Eduardo Elszstain dialoguing with leader of Chabad of Argentina, Rabbi Zvi Grunblatt. Eduardo is the largest real estate developer in Argentina. He and Rabbi Grunblatt have been spiritual partners for decades. They are both well aware that the most valuable Real Estate assets in Latin America are the Chabad Houses…Every time their governments default on their currencies the Chabad Houses fill up. There are few atheists in a market crash.
Levi and I reminisced of Tzvi’s periodic visits to the Rebbe’s farbrengins in Crown Heights. The Rebbe would speak for up to six hours on a Shabbos afternoon . Zvi is blessed, not only with a genius mind but the gift of photographic memory. He was among the Chozrim who after Shabos would repeat the entire farbrengin almost verbatim for print and publication. I wondered if the Rabbi was repeating something he had heard 30 years prior, 35 years, 40 years…but again could not get close up and so I engaged with his son. I told Reb Mendel that I was in Buenos Aires for the wedding of my Mashpia Reb Asher Farkash twenty-five years ago to the exact date, only to be notified after Shabos that the Rebbe had passed away. Argentina’s Chabad headquarters was consumed with agonizing cries, and we thought the windows would crack from the pain filled shrieks. Men women and children flocked to headquarters all through the night. Mothers holding their babies, businessmen, community leaders, simple folk and great Rabbis. A state of despair, utter shock and melancholy. As if each of us was an only child who lost our father. The Shluchim huddled together in the offices calling frantically to find private planes that could be chartered to bring the masses to the Ohel. Buenos Aires mourned for days as Rabbi Grunblatt Senior reminded us that the work must and will go on. We would march forward carrying the banner of our holy Rebbe. “Chabad’s growth and the global dissemination of Chasidism over the past two decades echo your fathers message,” I told him. “It is forever etched in our memory and hearts. In fact, my seventeen-year-old son who like countless others is named for the Rebbe, departs this fall to Argentina to study under the tutelage of Rabbi Farkash.” “Please take care of him. And you too,” I joshed to Eduardo’s twenty-four-year-old son, an engineer and member of Chabad who was sitting with us. We were witnessing evidence of the intergenerational legacy of the Rebbe.
Latin Jews still speaking Yiddish. A vanishing language? Astonishing! When Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize in Literature, he said to the King of Sweden that his friends had asked him why he his pen was in Yiddish, a rather dying language. On the film of the event one sees Isaac Bashevis cheerily explaining, ‘I am a Jew, and Jews believe in the resurrection of the dead. I anticipate my friends returning from their graves and inquiring, Nu sidu epes tzu lainin, Nu is there anything to read… and so I write for them.’
The physical resurrection has not occurred but the Rebbe resuscitated the spiritual corpses of assimilation. From Brooklyn, New York to the far-flung Yiddish speaking communities of Latin America.
The hour struck three AM and there remained scores of Chasidim in various states of rumination. I thought about the cities represented in this tent. I couldn’t mark most on a map. Many I had never even heard of. But then, I spotted Rabbi Gopin of Hartford CT, sipping a Lchaim With Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of the Mayanot Institute in Jerusalem and Rabbi Bluming, Chabad’s representative to Duke University and Chapel Hill. Levi once again leaped forward carrying me with him. Everyone knows Levi for his charitable giving, always done discreetly. There is a code of silence among the beneficiaries of his kindness. When one travels with him there are no barriers to entry. Especially in Chabad circles. We spoke of Emmet Gilles who has been peer reviewed by friends and recognized as the top of his Yale Law School class. Emmet reconnected with his Yiddishkeit through the inspiration of Rabbi and Mrs. Bluming. He then went off to Mayanot to enhance his Jewish education, eventually learning smicha and now bikes to the Yale Law School in his borsalino and modest dress. He and I have a chavrusa in Kohelet where King Solomon elaborates on the vain nature of most things. Rabbi Gopin is friends with Emmet’s parents from West Hartford. A Prosecutor and Law Professor. There in front of us at this single table I witnessed the global reach and genius of Chabad. Rabbi Gopin immediately asked me if he could visit a common friend who was recently hospitalized, reminding me to go to the hospital for bikur cholim. A community leader never forgets the individual. Tanya teaches that Ahavas Yisroel, the obligation to love others as one’s self can be achieved by acknowledging that we are essentially one body. When a single limb falls ill, the entire body suffers. And vice versa. One of Abraham’s visiting angels appeared exclusively to heal him from his circumcision. I must get over to Yale New Haven Hospital.
Dawn was upon us and Levi suggested we rest our heads. We strolled the quiet street elated. The night was euphoric.
The U-Haul fuses had been disconnected before Shabos and I entered the van to rest. The sweltering heat was torturous, as the metal vehicle had retained the sun’s rays of the day. There’s a reason the Armored Brigades deserve the highest honors in War. I lied down on my Walmart acquisition and Levi departed. No matter how much twisting and turning, I could not rest my eyes. Sleep I thought? Not tonight. Not on this sacred ground. I rested a bit, made my way back to the prayer tent with the rising sun and found many colleagues already praying and reading the Torah Portion of the day. Korach, who rejected and challenged the first Rebbe, Moses of old. A mere cursory reading of the Bible dictates how that ended. Infinitely worse than my sweltering U-Haul.
Among the morning visitors I noticed an old friend, Rabbi Moshe Krasnanski, director of Chabad of the Town, in a rather prominent Montreal Neighborhood. There is a rumor that circulates the Yale Law School that during his Berkeley days, former Dean Robert Post was the smartest man in California. I always assumed Moshe was the smartest man in Canada. Hubris on both fronts. Let it be, I say. Having already heard the Torah portion, I engaged with Moshe. He would definitely justify the night of no slumber. We discussed Rabbis tolerating dissenting opinions in our centers. We found common ground in the notion that light shines through all darkness, The Talmud teaches us that a candle in the sun is a useless exercise, hence all voices must be heard and dialogue was a key component of any truth seeking community. To be continued, I remarked, and had him commit to a Yale visit next semester to share insights with the students. Leonard Cohen wasn’t the only Canadian Jew who should resonate at the Ivy League. It was Shluchim like Moshe and his wife that inspired us to go on Shlichus when we spent Shabos farbrenging in his home as Yeshiva students in Montreal.
And there was Rabbi Wohlberg, Dean of the Talmudic Seminary in Manchester England. I had spent the summer of ‘92 with him in the Catskills at the Ivy League Torah Study Program. Despite my father’s hesitance to allow me to teach the college students that summer, the Rebbe gave me his personal blessings to attend. My father of course gladly conceded. Among the students who Rabbi Wohlberg taught that summer are great Jewish Scholars today. Among them Rabbi Chaim Miller, author of the Gutnick Series and biography of the Rebbe. I assured the Rabbi that I would send him unforgettable photographs of a summer that changed the lives of twenty-five University students, many of whom now inspire thousands, through their work and publication of Jewish thought. Dan Williams was there too that summer. Last I saw him, he was Reuter’s Jerusalem Correspondent. Beats London or Prague. The individual is paramount in Chabad. It was never simply about numbers. The Rebbe not only taught this to us, he breathed it into every fiber of our existence.
But we were craving. Thirsty and probing. Still searching for the sense of it all. Were we to be doomed to perpetual visits to the graveside until the resurrection? I sought out a place to lay down my talis as the midday sun loomed overhead. I hopped over to Rabbi Refson’s office and found other Campus emissaries. Abba’s brother Rabbi Refson from Univeristy of Georgia and Rabbi Yitzi Steiner of Chabad of University of Minnesota were schmoozing. Proteksia I thought. We talked about campus life, the recent convention of Campus Shluchim and whether we were tired of serving 18 year olds as they enter college for the seminal years of their lives. Having a few years of age seniority, I relayed that when we are exhausted and mentally fatigued we have an obligation to resign. Personally, the arriving freshman class of 2023 will be as exciting to meet and teach as were the students that greeted us at Yale 23 years ago. Food for thought.
I lost Levi so I headed North bound again on Francis Lewis Blvd. On the corner I beheld what appeared as a super luxury RV parked at a movie set. The ones Hollywood stars use to put on their makeup and prep for a film recording. This fully decked out lorry must have been 40 feet long and I pondered which chosid had a license and the audacity to drive it out of the Cruise America parking lot in some rural town, perhaps in the outskirts of Pennsylvania. Was there a grey market for CDL licenses, I wondered? Inside I found some leading businessmen from Crown Heights, the neighborhood the Rebbe called home for all of his American life and headquarters of the Chabad movement. The place where moreover, the Rebbe constantly prompted us to accept, as the source of all blessings. Kan Zivah Hashem Es Habrachah.
In popped Aron Lipsker, of the Aleph Institute. Always fun to be around, until you discuss his work. Aleph is the Organization the Rebbe established under the auspices of Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar to support prisoners and their families. Spiritually and Materially. Aaron was accompanied by his 14-year-old son. A precocious young man and no less a chosid. We exchanged names of persons we both knew were desperate for Aleph’s help and guidance. Yes, the incarcerated and their loved ones. Innocent and guilty alike. The Rebbe knew no boundaries. After all we are all guilty of something. A few L’chaims and Aron was out cold on the couch. It seems like he too caught little sleep on Friday night. I was glad to be among soulmates. Rabbi Zalman Greenberg of Chabad at Lehigh University was loudly reminding us to be honest about our state of moral decay and the spiritual degeneration in our homes. Harsh words with succinct smattering of truths. His brother Dov and his wife direct Chabad at Stanford University, and the night prior Levi Drimmer was being praised for trucking them the kitchen appliances when the Chabad House was built. Where was Levi I thought?
I nibbled on the herring. Schmaltz herring, pickled herring, maatjes herring, spicy schmaltz, spicy pickled, spicy maatjes, smoked and tangy herring, hot pepper smoked… Clupeidei marination at its finest. A years worth of Omega-3 fatty acids for all of us. As the melodies started to roar and RV fill up with Chasidim, the herring sauces started to flow right over the table onto that shampooed carpet from Rural Pennsylvania. They will never get that smell out, I thought. Unless of course we wash it away with some vodka. But no one was going to waste the Vodka. The vodka was there exclusively to cleanse the soul. In moderation, soul-bleach. In excess, it was poison. I turned to my left and there was Mendy Greenberg a computer programmer from Crown Heights and financial partner of his siblings’ Mosdos. Mendy is sharp as a razor. I pondered which algorithm he had recently developed that inspired him to make the trek. It was ridiculous. The Rebbe promised us Moshiach and we had relocated to a cemetery. Was this plan B? I got into the driver’s seat of the immobilized RV and threatened to start up the engines, turn the behemoth around and park it at the gates of the cemetery demanding the Lord bring the resurrection. The consensus was I wouldn’t survived the aftermath. An abomination of such high order. That devious ploy would be a disgrace to everything this Shabos represented, cried the masses. Indeed. But the alternative was a 26th yahrzeit and a 27th to the end of time. As the vote went up for count, we downed another Lchaim, sang another nigun and the door swung open yet again. Up the stairs came Rabbi Moshe Gutnick hailing from Sydney Australia, the Av Beit Din; no jokes.
Reb Moshe was accompanied by his two sons, my first cousins. Perhaps out of respect for the wise, we shut down the blasphemous idea, as novel as it was. As I nibbled on a snacker topped off with the one delightful herring I had not yet devoured, Reb Moshe and I conversed about a friend we both knew that was suffering from depression. Brainstorming about possible remedies and helping the family was the order of the hour as the windows of the RV fogged up temporarily containing this bastion of souls. Reb Moshe reminded us all that this special day was one to be dedicated to active resolutions. We kibitzed with the businessmen about our often-mundane lives interrupted by short intervals of anecdotes about the importance of charity and tithing from all our dealings. Wealth creation was a worthwhile pursuit so long as charity was the end game. There is no wisdom without bread. Period. In this den of lofty schemes, the demand was made for practical betterment of our lives. Midday was long gone; we had come around the dark side of the moon and in search of answers I headed one final time to the banquet hall tent.
To be continued…