December 4, 2008
That makes no sense to most people who know me: I'm not highly observant, I don't pray at a Chabad house, and the only time I danced with Jon Voight at the Chabad telethon, I embarrassed myself by chewing gum on camera.
But it's true: My Jewish identity was nurtured as much by Chabad as it was by the Reform synagogue I grew up in, the Conservative shuls I've belonged to, the books I've read and the conversations I've had with Jews of all stripes. Like so many Jews of my generation, when I left my Jewish home, I found a Jewish home, wherever I traveled, with Chabad.
I walked into my first Chabad house when I was 19. That's the perfect age for a searching, wandering Jew to receive what Chabad offers at its 4,000 houses in 73 countries -- welcoming, hospitality, acceptance. It makes a lasting impression.
It's also why I have always had a scandal- and gossip- and politics-resistant affection for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Yes, I know it's far from perfect and has its share of issues. But whether in Thailand or San Francisco, when I wanted a place to spend a holiday, to pray on Shabbat or just to connect, there was always one of those perennially cheerful Chabad rabbis, a motley collection of tossed-about Jews and some schnapps. And I was home.
That's also one reason why the tragedy that unfolded late last week in Mumbai, India, has sent me reeling. I felt for the innocent Indians gunned down in the train station, the hotel and café guests murdered in cold blood, the whole city paralyzed by fear and bloodshed. But my thoughts kept returning to what happened at the Chabad house there, where terrorists killed six people, including Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg, the house's young rebbetzin and rabbi.
I didn't know the Holtzbergs, but I've known the kindness and hospitality of so many Chabad emissaries like them. So when I received an e-mail from Hillary Lewin, a graduate student at Yeshiva University who spent many days with the Holtzbergs, I could picture exactly what she described for me.
In fact, what's exceptional about the Chabad house in Mumbai that Lewin describes is how common it is by Chabad standards. She wrote:
"The Holtzbergs were running a remarkable operation. Their lives never stopped. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.
"Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people.... For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei Torah [words of Torah] to share.... His wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas.
"On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi's home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors.
"We called these rooms our 'healing rooms,' because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.
"I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, 'Be my guest, because I'm not leaving this place.' Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats."
(To read Lewin's complete letter and view her photos, visit jewishjournal.com).
Two years ago, Mark Ballon wrote a story for The Journal on synagogue security during the High Holy Days. One synagogue president said his shul had spent $400,000 that year on the holiday security measures. What struck me then -- and seems utterly poignant now -- is what Rabbi David Eliezrie of the Chabad of Yorba Linda said: He wasn't spending a dime for security.
The money, he told Ballon, was better spent on student scholarships for Jewish day schools than on installing security cameras and renting armed guards.
Wasn't he scared of terrorist attacks?
"I'm fearful of God," he said.
One of the striking features of Chabad houses is their lack of barriers -- security and otherwise -- in a time of threat and fear.
There will be a lot of debate over whether Chabad should now increase security at its houses around the world, whether the State of Israel should play a part in providing security, whether travelers will feel vulnerable if Chabad rabbis continue to spend more on education and kosher meals than on guards and buzzers.
I'll tell you my gut reaction: No. No to more security. No to locks and guards. No to the fear that would keep any of us away from a meal, a service, a helping hand. The key to winning this fight is to take the battle to the enemy, not to close ourselves off in ever-smaller rooms.
That's why this Shabbat you'll find me at a place I haven't been for years -- my local Chabad. I hope you do the same. I hope rabbis of all stripes march down with their congregants to do the same.
Screw the terrorists. This Shabbat, we're all Chabadniks.