Monday, November 14, 2016

Living with the Rebbe for a weekend

Everyone's got a story of the Rebbe.

My mom met the Lubavicher Rebbe, Menchem Mendel Schneerson, four years before he died. It wasn't a vacation, celebrity tour or religious pilgrimage. It was a trip of critical necessity. At four-years-old, my sister was dying of Leukemia.

Together with my uncle, she stood  in a winding line leading down from 770 Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights, the residence of the Rebbe. They were among the hundreds of faces the Rebbe would greet that day with a blessing and a crisp dollar bill. It was encouraged that the recipient could use the bill for charity.

"When two people meet, something good should result for a third," the Rebbe would explain.

Mom remembers being very overwhelmed for her turn; she didn't hear what the Rebbe told her and my uncle. But my uncle did, and like a precious heirloom, she shared it with me.

"He told me not to cry in front of her, in front of Shana," Mom said.

She recalled that instead of one dollar, the normal amount, the Rebbe handed her three bills.

"Shana lived three more years."

Call it what you want, Divine Providence or hokus pokus, but Mom was telling me that she believed in miracles. She believed in doctors, yes, but she also believed in the inexplicable. And it was exactly the frame of mind I needed an hour before Chabad's 2016 Shabbaton.

Let me tell you about the Shabbaton's vibe. The climate can only be described as a honeycomb. A large conglomerate of orchestrated chaos. 1,000 students, Chabad shluchim and speakers buzzing and migrating. A hive of Jews choosing to sing and dance together for, in some cases, their first Shabbat ever.

And the people. I meet Bella, a girl from University of Florida who explains the scarcity of Jewish campus infrastructure, the lack of Kosher food, the struggle to find a "nice Jewish boy."

I barley breathe during a Rabbi's story going from a devout Catholic altar boy to a drug-addicted homeless man sleeping in Starbucks and then to a Chabad Rabbi.

I swap business cards with Rosh Lowe, a Miami news anchor who explained how at 19 years old he eloped at Las Vegas's The Little White Chapel and just celebrated his eldest son's Bar Mitzvah. How he made the TV network recognize that unplugging for Shabbat wasn't a compromise.

I listen to a boy I'd called my friend for the past three months... but this time I really listen. Listen with swampy eyes, and red raw lips and a shrug thats shrugs to the pit of your stomach. A shrug that says I'm bowing to you inside, but that would be weird to say out loud.

And all these feelings, this entire Shabbaton, was fulfilled by a following of devout people whose sole mission is to love their fellow Jew. A lesson they learned well from their leader.


Yellow flags cut the night sky in twirling spirals held in a sea of black and white. Men are holding other men by the shoulders, marching in a circle as if cranking a wheel at the center. The air smells of fall leaves and faint sweat. They're calling out in Hebrew, beckoning for the Rebbi they lost 12 years ago to join in. There's a Farbrengen outside 770.

The Rebbi's home and synagogue makes me believe that for a moment I am back in Poland. The iron grated windows, dark wood, bare benches and tattered book covers. I feel like I can peel back the velvet windows shades and find myself buried under a mountain of snow, or beneath the ocean or anywhere else but New York City in 2016.

It feels nice, it feels nostalgic.

And I want to say thank you. Thank you for my mom, whom you gave hope, and the following you endowed with love and kindness that is felt by every college student who has ever stumbled into Chabad on a Friday night, and gives nothing in return. We drive to the cemetery, to the Rebbe's "Ohel."

Many people  discouraged me from writing a prayer to the Rebbe, calling it Christianity, idolatry, even heresy. But they forget I am a writer. So I do:

"I am not praying to you. I am visiting you, and after this shabbaton I realize that you get many visitors, including G-d. Thank you for making the introduction. He'll take it from here. Dear G-d...."

I fold my letter and throw it into the white embers that layer the Rebbi's grave like a white chocolate torte. I send my prayer along with the prayers of a million minyans, and hope it will be heard.  For that too, I owe the Rebbi.

So as I leave the place, I put a nice crisp bill in the charity box. A good result for a third. He'll get it into the right hands.

Farbrengen it on