On the 25TH Anniversary of the Gimmel Tammuz: Shluchim Speak Out

The Jerusalem Post

Twenty-five years after the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s death, Chabad continues to spread across the world and impact countless Jews. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to his followers as simply “the Rebbe,” was the seventh and last leader of the Chabad Lubavitch hassidic movement. Until his death 25 years ago on 3 Tamuz, he revolutionized the Chabad movement and built it into the influential force it is today. 

Schneerson stressed the importance of Jewish outreach and sought to bring Judaism to every corner of the world. His goal was to create a Jewish community anywhere Jews could be found.

His drive inspired him to create a global network of emissaries, known as shluchim, who enter communities and college campuses where there are few, often assimilated, Jews and introduce them to more traditional practices, ultimately building synagogues, schools, camps and community centers when the demand for them increases. As of 2017, Chabad recorded a total of 4,700 emissary couples worldwide who spend their lives fulfilling Schneerson’s vision.

Many believed that a movement unified by its devotion to an heir-less leader – a leader some even believed might be the Messiah – would sputter in the wake of his death in 1994. But the opposite proved true: between 1994 and 2002, 705 Chabad institutions were founded, with over 3,500 institutions in more than 85 countries operating today. 

The Magazine spoke with shluchim from around the world, from Argentina to Australia, to discuss their mission, their challenges and the magnitude of the increasingly widespread movement to which they have committed their lives. 

Perth, Australia

When Rabbi  White, born in Sydney, first met his wife, Odeya, an Israeli, he asked her if she would be willing to go on shlichut.

“Would you even be willing to go to a place like Perth?” he inquired, having recently visited the city to assist the rabbi there.

“She said, ‘Where’s Perth?’

“And I said, ‘It’s in Australia.’

“And she said, ‘Well, I mean, why not?’” 

Perth, located on Australia’s west coast, is roughly a four-hour plane ride from the next major Jewish communities in Sydney and Melbourne. “It’s the most isolated community in the world,” says White, who codirects the Chabad there. 

“People say, ‘Rabbi, we have respect for you, but for your wife, a 100 times more,’” he adds. “I at least knew the place. She didn’t know the place at all. But the Rebbe needs a shlucha somewhere, so she came. ”The Perth Chabad was established 25 years ago – just before the Rebbe’s death – as the Jewish population there grew following the wave of South African-Jewish immigration in the ’80s and ’90s.

Working so remotely from other Jewish communities does not come without its challenges. The couple shoulders the variety of responsibilities that in larger cities might be divided among many Chabad houses: educating children, welcoming Jewish travelers, helping the poor and bringing Jewish practices such as keeping Shabbat to the city’s 6,000 Jews, most of whom are not observant.
“We don’t have access to that much manpower,” White says. “But one of the advantages of being part of Chabad is that you’re part of a big network. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The Whites utilize the materials of the Jewish Learning Institute for their teaching at the Hebrew school (a job they hold in addition to their directorship of the Perth Chabad), and connect their students to other rabbis via Skype and recorded talks. “We do run big programs where we attract a few hundred people, but our main focus – even within these big programs – is to be able to focus on each and every individual,” says White, attributing this outlook to the Rebbe. “Even though the Rebbe created Chabad houses all over the world, anyone who went to speak to the Rebbe, he spoke to them as an individual.”

Miami

‘We are not creating a community that will be here permanently with us,” Rabbi Chaim Lipskar, co-director of the Rok Family Shul at the Chabad Downtown Jewish Center in Miami, says. 

At the downtown Miami Chabad, hundreds of young professionals beginning their careers and looking to start families convene to find community, but they don’t tend to stay longer than three or four years before moving elsewhere, Lipskar says.

“We have that challenge in many ways, but we also get to inspire them at a very powerful age. That just gives us more of a chance to continuously impact more people.”

Chabad in Miami is booming. As of 2014, South Florida as a whole was home to the third-largest Jewish population in the United States. Today, there are over 2,100 Chabad centers statewide. “Young people are searching more than ever,” Lipskar asserts. “They’re not being affiliated with synagogues at their age, and they’re not getting married until later, so this is a critical space for us to be in, in order to affect their lives… and give them spiritual guidance.”

The oft-voiced lament that American Jews are increasingly disconnected from their religion does, Lipskar believes, hold truth. But Chabad spaces catering to young people, like the Rok Family Shul, are beginning to counter that, “hopefully changing the wave of assimilation and intermarriage,” Lipskar says, to “win over that fight and bring Jewish people closer.”

This generation of young Chabad Jews includes many who were never able to meet the Rebbe, or were not yet born when he died. Lipskar, who visited the Rebbe with his parents many times as a child until the Rebbe died when he was 12, feels it is his duty to use recordings, videos and his own personal experiences to impart the Rebbe’s teachings to his mentees.

“In many ways, today we have way more content available to us than we’ve ever had, whether it’s a video, whether it’s through the Internet,” Lipskar explains. “Nobody’s ever going to say that a video or teachings can replace an in-person connection with the Rebbe, but the Rebbe left us these teachings in order to continue his mission of ultimately bringing the Messiah, so that’s what we wake up for every morning and do.”

Argentina

‘You know those shluhim that you hear about, the ones stationed in the middle of nowhere? That’s us,” says Rabbi Ari Sigaloff of Chabad Argentina, who has dedicated the majority of his adult life to serving small rural communities there. 

Home to a vibrant Jewish community, Chabad of Buenos Aires has been active since the 1950s. Yet it wasn’t until five years ago that Chabad began consistent outreach in smaller cities.

While eating lunch with other Argentineans in a Brooklyn yeshiva, Sigaloff says, it suddenly hit him. “Let’s start a revolution,” he told his friends, who were skeptical at first. “We can take a trailer full of kosher food, Jewish guides, manuals and tefillin around the entire country, bringing Judaism to the most remote areas of Argentina.”

This was the start of MitzvahTank Argentina – a project that started in 2014 with eight ambitious yeshiva boys, two trailers and an unstoppable drive for spreading Torah. To date, MitzvahTank has reached around 2,000 rural Jews in communities all over Argentina, says Sigaloff, who was only 20 when the project began. “We go to cities that most Argentineans have never even heard of, middle-of-nowhere holes in the wall… but even if there is one Jew, we will be there to offer tefillin and allow them to share their story with someone who can make them feel less alone.”

Sigaloff explains that MitzvahTank is the ultimate embodiment of Schneerson’s vision.

“The Rebbe changed the value of mitzvot,” he explains. “Before, the Jewish perception was that you either do all the mitzvahs or none…you couldn’t put on tefillin and then eat a ham sandwich. But the Rebbe believed that every mitzvah has a transcendent value in and of itself that connects us with God.”

He adds that this perspective is what inspires him on a daily basis.

“We offered tefillin to a 74-year-old man for the first time in his life. We gave him his bar mitzvah and watched as it brought him to tears. That’s why we do this.”

Mumbai, India

On November 26, 2008, members of an Islamic terrorist organization based in Pakistan carried out a series of attacks throughout the city of Mumbai. One of the targeted sites was the Nariman Chabad House, where its co-founder, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, was held hostage and then killed along with his wife, Rivka, and four other guests. Live recordings from the attack, later released by Indian intelligence, caught the Pakistani handler telling the terrorists at the Chabad house that “every person you kill where you are is worth 50 lives,” showing that this brutal strike against the Jewish community of Mumbai was more than intentional.

The Holtzbergs founded the Chabad house in 2003 to serve as a center for the local Jewish community, as well as a place for Israeli and Jewish tourists to feel welcome when they visit Mumbai. Even following their deaths and the tragedy, the legacy of the young couple lives on, as the Nariman Chabad House is a thriving epicenter of Jewish life.

“Obviously Jews know, when they come to this city, the first stop will be at the Chabad house, to get a sense of home,” says current co-director Rabbi Yisroel Kozlovksy, who has been at Nariman since September 2012. He and his wife arrived at the Chabad house just two years before the building was rededicated in 2014. 

More than a decade after the attacks, involvement in the Chabad house is stronger than ever, according to Kozlovsky. 
“Although we have a lot of security, there’s no fear,” Kozlovsky says.

Today, the Chabad house still runs educational programs, including the only Jewish school in Mumbai, which serves over 150 children, as well as countless other services, including bar mitzvah classes, communal meals, kosher food and holiday celebrations. Kozlovsky says that the 2008 attacks have also brought international recognition to the Chabad house.

“We’ve seen tens of thousands of people stopping by, not just Jews but people from all over the world, either to eat schnitzel, join a class, daven, or to get help in whatever they need.” At its peak, the Jewish population of Mumbai numbered around 30,000. Many Jews began emigrating from India around the time of the country’s independence in 1947, but more so during the ’70s with waves of immigration to Israel and the US. Now only about 4,000 Jews remain in Mumbai.

Kozlovsky says that today the Jewish community, though small in numbers, is strong, as even less religious Jews feel deeply connected to their roots. “It’s our job and mission to get them closer and expose them to everything Jewish,” he says.

Iceland

The last thing you would expect to find in the land of fire and ice? A thriving Jewish community.

Rabbi Avi Feldman became the first permanent rabbi of Iceland when he and his wife made the historic decision to establish a Chabad house in the capital of Reykjavík last May, which is also now the first synagogue in the country’s long but sparse Jewish history. “We felt that this was a place we could establish a Chabad house and make a tremendous difference, and so far it’s been a very special experience,” says Feldman. 

Though some might have second thoughts before settling in a land so remote, Feldman explains that his commitment to Judaism is what motivated him and his wife to bring Chabad to Iceland. “You don’t really know what it’s like living somewhere until you’re actually there, but we were very committed to Iceland and the Jewish community and, of course, to shluchim in general and the Rebbe’s call, that we should all do whatever we could to create possibilities and opportunities for Jewish people wherever they are to celebrate Judaism.”

In only a year, the Chabad house is making strides by encouraging the involvement of the small community. Last Hanukkah, on one of the coldest nights of the year, the Chabad house lit up a menorah on the main street of Reykjavík, something that has never been done in the city’s history. “Standing in front of the menorah, I remember thinking it’s so amazing how everyone is coming together to celebrate Hanukkah like never before,” Feldman recounts. 

The Reykjavík Chabad may be historic, but it still parallels the other Chabad houses around the world in its commitment to spreading Jewish traditions to even the most unlikely audiences. “We always try to make ourselves available to anyone who wants to learn,” says Feldman.

New York City: A view from headquarters

When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad and the father-in-law of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, fled Poland at the start of World War II, he went, like many others, to Brooklyn. He lived there until his death in 1950, and as he laid the groundwork for many modern Chabad institutions both locally and abroad, New York City became the headquarters for the movement as a whole. The nexus is at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, famously known as 770, where the Rebbe once received people from all walks of life – many of whom waited for hours for a glimpse or a few minutes with him – and distributed dollar bills to each one, appointing them as his personal shaliach to give it to the charity of their choice.

Today, the city serves as the site of the Annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, which draws 5,500 shluchim for one of the world’s largest sit-down banquets each year. But, day by day, the Brooklyn headquarters also orchestrates connections between the Chabad centers scattered across the continents.

Rabbi Mendy Shanowitz, who co-directs a network of Hebrew schools in Lower Manhattan, also heads a department at the Chabad headquarters to bolster the education of the children of all shluchim. “These children, they don’t find themselves in an area where they have those same types of resources as children in an area like New York, California, Argentina,” he says. 

Resources like a book-trading network, run out of the New York headquarters, ensure the children have access to whatever texts they may need, but Shanowitz emphasizes that his department is “not here to fill some holes with regards to their education. Rather, our focus is to make these kids feel very special, because their parents moved out on shlihut. They are there as ambassadors of the Rebbe, ambassadors of Yiddishkeit, or Judaism. And they’re able to have an effect on their surroundings.”

To that end, the headquarters oversees regional Shabbatonim around the world, where the children of shluchim – who may live three or four hours away from one another – can spend time together. “It creates camaraderie, it creates friendship, and there’s a common denominator between all of them that they are all shluchim,” Shanowitz says. 

Today’s Chabad leaders, in pouring their energy into supporting the next generation, are emulating what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK’s United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, once identified as the Rebbe’s greatness: “Good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness. Not only did he lead, he was a source of leadership in others.”