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Rabbi's Blog: Thoughts From, and Conversations With, Rabbi Levi Shemtov

Rabbi's Blog: Thoughts From, and Conversations With, Rabbi Levi Shemtov

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Responding to Tragedy

On Sunday morning, after Shacharis, I got a phone call from my neighbor, David B. Devastated, he shared me with the horrific news that his niece, Danielle Bessler from Rhode Island and her friend James Golik from Toronto were tragically killed in a car accident while on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Stunned, I asked him if he would like Chabad to become involved and provide assistance - David said yes. I called the Chabad rabbi of Cancun, Rabbi Mendel Druk. After telling him about the tragic accident in Puerto Vallarta involving Danielle and James, Rabbi Druk informed me that the nearest Chabad house to Puerto Vallarta was five hours away, and gave me the number of the Chabad Shaliach from Chabad Lubavitch of Guadalajara, Rabbi Avraham Srugo. 

I was on the phone for over an hour trying to reach Rabbi Srugo. No luck.

Finally Rabbi Srugo called me back. He felt terrible but he did not know what he could do to help. He had a huge amount of things to take care of over the next few days, and he was a five-hour drive away. All the hotels in the area were fully booked. There would be nowhere for him to stay.

But when he heard the plea from Danielle's family, there was nothing else to do but to help. "Yidden are waiting for me. I am going to go."

Rabbi Srugo drove five hours and made his way to the Eternity Funeral Home in Bucerias. There he recited tehillim, psalms, by the side of the bodies.

In the hours following, Rabbi Srugo spent every second in touch with Danielle's and James' families and the State Department in an effort to make sure that the bodies could be flown back to their respective families in Rhode Island and Toronto.

There were many bureaucratic obstacles that stood in their way, and there were only a few flights that could fly the bodies back to their families. The rabbi's concern was that because of the upcoming New Year's, the delay would be even greater. Nonetheless Rabbi Srugo tirelessly persisted. 

Finally, yesterday evening I received a text message from Rabbi Srugo that the bodies had been shipped. 

I called Danielle's father and left a message for him, expressing my pain and sorrow over his daughter's death, and to tell him that Rabbi Srugo had recited tehillim by the side of his daughter, and that her body was being flown back home.

I then called James' mother to let her know the same about her son.

Both families were devastated, their lives torn apart in one second.

At 12:30 am, I received a call from Providence. It was Danielle's father. It took a few minutes before he was able to formulate a sound. Choking with tears, he told me that "there is no one else in the world with the same mesirut nefesh, the same self-sacrifice, as Chabad. I will never, ever forget this kindness, this commitment, that has been shown to me." 

He asked me how he could repay Rabbi Srugo.

I told him that this is what the Rebbe taught us: when it comes to helping another Jew, NOTHING stops you from running to be by his or her side. This mandate - to reach out to every single person in need, no matter how difficult - is the driving force that keeps each Jew connected with the other.

May we only share good news.


 

Rejuvenation at the Ohel

 

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Rabbi Levi Shemtov, accompanied by a group of community members, spent last Shabbat, October 24-25, at the Rebbe's Resting Place. We asked a few members of the group to share their experiences here.

DANNY KESTENBAUM

Permit me to take the liberty of putting pen to paper (or index finger to screen) and sharing my thoughts with you all. I needed a couple of days to decompress in order to put into some sort of perspective before writing …

But the experience we eight shared together this past Shabbos, what I imagine we would each agree, from the individual perspective that is uniquely our own, something unlike any of us might ever have done before.

Very comfortably unified as a group, seamless, ego-free, without familiar comforts of home available to divert attention from what we sought to do: in the presence of the Rebbe, share Shabbos meals together, daven, learn, enjoy camaraderie - enveloped in the broader community of Chassidim who are utterly devoted ...

Not once in 24 hours did I notice any of these 20-something year old yeshiva boys indulge in anything except utter dedication to their learning, either with a Sefer directly or via the embrace of the community of chassidim.

Rabbi Shemtov, the ease you bring to bear makes your unadulterated message so warmly acceptable and thus so perfect: Love of fellow Jew, cleave to a higher message, strive for the spiritually achieving Jew that is innately each of us. In your warm way you make it the most obvious take away - not a burden, but a pleasure!

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to live Chassidus for a full 24 hours!

I would not suggest we do this again if I did not feel like among a band of brothers together. We are blessed to have a community as we do in Riverdale. 
 

Thank you again Rabbi Shemtov for the selfless commitment to ensure that the Rebbe's shul exists in our hometown of Riverdale. We have tremendously gained from its - from your - presence ...
 

Wishing us all a fall season imbued with ongoing spirit.

BEN LIPSCHITZ

I had the most amazing Shabbat at the Ohel. It was both uplifting and inspiring to share a Shabbat with people from all corners of the world who all have a shared vision of spirituality and love of Torah.

DAN FRIEDLANDER

The third meal of Shabbat, Seudah Shlishit, was electrifying as we all sat together and listened to inspirational stories and life lessons delivered by the Chabad Rabbi of Thailand.

I will focus on two parts to his speech that resonated with me most. As a Chabad Rabbi in Thailand, he would come across many different kinds of people, from all different walks of life and levels of religiosity. The message was always the same: when you start an exercise regime, the important thing is to take small steps and gradually build momentum. The same with Judaism. The Rebbe always placed great emphasis on the importance of putting on tefillin as a way of igniting a spark within a Jew. 

Other words of wisdom related to parenting. Always be aware of how you behave, and what you say, in front of your children. You may think there will be no consequences now to your children, but in their future, as they become adults, they will have absorbed many of your habits, behaviors, and ways of talking - and that consciousness will keep you aware of the deep impact of your behavior. 

As the rabbi spoke, more yeshiva students joined us at the table to listen to him. The dynamic at the table changed as we all sat together, students and community members alike, absorbing the words of holiness.

The rabbi had made the difficult trip from Thailand to New York because he felt a deep need to be at the Rebbe's Resting Place. He was even considering being there for Simchat Torah, but his community in Thailand needed him, and that is where he needed to be. But after the chagim were over, the Rebbetzin told him to go. For the two days we were there, we were removed from the mundanities of everyday life, and were absorbed in prayer and Torah study - an experience that was awe-inspiring. 

DAVID NAHMIAS
I enjoyed a wonderful experience. What could be better than being surrounded by such spirituality, away from home, at the Rebbe's Resting Place? The atmosphere was tremendous. It is a memory I will cherish. 

GUY REUVEN
I was pleasantly surprised by this past weekend that I spent at the Ohel. I didn't know what to expect but it definitely surpassed anything that I could have imagined. Spending time with Rabbi Shemtov and other members of the Riverdale Chabad family was very enjoyable and meaningful. If my wife didn't make me promise to come home right after Havdalah we would probably still be there right now sitting at a Farbrengen and making l'chaims. Looking forward to the next time.  

At the Feet of the Rebbe: Commemorating Twenty Years

Twenty years has passed since the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, left this world. They say that time is a great healer, but the void left in our hearts, and the hearts of countless others, since the Rebbe passed away, has not yet been filled. We still experience the same yearning to be close to him. In fact, our deep longing to be reunited with the Rebbe has only intensified over time.

Throughout the course of our childhood, and into our adult lives, we must have spent thousands of hours at the feet of the Rebbe, receiving blessings and dollars, attending his Farbrengens... year after year after year. It is incredibly tough, as time passes, to live life without the Rebbe's physical presence guiding us along our path in life.

The Rebbe is no longer physically with us - that is true - but his legacy of love for the Jewish people, his profound sensitivity and caring for others, live on today. Over 4,000 emissaries - and counting - act as the Rebbe's lamplighters, keeping the flame of Judaism alive in all corners of the world. When the Rebbe passed away, there were 1000 emissaries. Today that number has quadrupled. The Rebbe's message of unconditional love continues to act as a driving force for so many.

As we approach the 20th anniversary since the Rebbe's passing, we witness something totally unprecedented and incredible. The mainstream media is publishing article after article about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in particular in response to Joseph Telushkin's groundbreaking work, "Rebbe," which has just reached The New York Times bestseller list. The whole world wants to hear, read, and learn about the Rebbe. The book does not just provide an account of the Lubavitch Movement, or a biography of the Rebbe - but rather, within its pages, contain life lessons that have the power to transform each person who reads the book to strive to be the best person they can be. 

Twenty years has passed - and the pain of the Rebbe's passing has not diminished. However, the Rebbe's message lives on and continues to inspire us all - through his legacy, teachings and unconditional love.

Rabbi Levi and Sorah Shemtov

Lag B'Omer: Unity Coupled With Diversity

 Last Sunday, over 500 people attended our community Lag B'Omer celebrations at Seton Park. The crowds were made up of young and old, from all different walks of life, religious levels, and backgrounds. There was ONE common denominator, however, among everyone there that day. Each person was there in a display of Jewish pride, proving that the strength of our people lies in diversity coupled with unity._70A4743.jpg Chabad-Lubavitch, the largest Jewish outreach organization in the world, hosted thousands of similar Lag B'Omer celebrations in cities across the globe. 

What does Lag B'Omer truly represent?   

Lag B'Omer marks the passing nearly two thousand years ago of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He is best known as the author of the Zohar, the fundamental text of the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. On the day of his passing, Rabbi Shimon instructed his disciples to mark the date as "the day of my joy." 

How could the day of Rabbi Shimon's passing possibly be joyous?

On the day of a person‘s passing, his or her entire lifework, good deeds and teachings ascend to higher spiritual realms. It is a time when one’s soul reconnects to higher levels of G dliness, the source of life, The Lubavitcher Rebbe of of righteous memory, explains that this is the reason Rabbi Shimon asked that this day be remembered as a joyous day; to mark the elevation of his soul to higher spiritual levels.  

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was an example of someone who, despite his own difficult circumstances, put other people's needs in front of his own and exemplified the concept of ahavat yisrael, loving one's fellow Jew.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was forced to hide in a cave for 13 years due to Roman persecution. One of the first things that Rabbi Shimon did after leaving the cave was to help a community. There was a road in the city that ran through an unmarked cemetery. Consequently, the Kohanim (priests) were unable to use that road and had to travel a long distance around it. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai came and marked the places under which were graves, enabling the Kohanim to use the road.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai made it his life mission to go out of his way to help other people. 

Lag B'Omer was particularly meaningful this year for the Riverdale community because we derived pleasure not only from the festivities of the day, but from a double celebration: the upsherin (hair-cutting of a Jewish boy) of three-year-old Aharon Brock and an impromptu bar mitzvah of an elderly gentleman as he donned tefillin (phylacteries) for the first time. 

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True pleasure in life can only be achieved when the happiness and well-being of our fellow Jew is just as important as our own. When we can share in others' good times, and lift up and support each other through trials - that is the true meaning of a community. Sorah and I are blessed to be a part of a community that prides itself both on its diversity and unity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Powerful Memories of Learning From the Rebbe

When I found out the topic for next Sunday's JLI course - the transformational teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory - it struck a deep and emotional chord with me.

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Rebbe, is respected as one of the wisest and most prolific religious leaders of recent history. His revolutionary vision and activism inspired a revival of Judaism in the post-Holocaust era.

The Rebbe was also my teacher. As he was and is to hundreds of thousands of others.

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My most powerful and vivid childhood and adult memories involve attending the Rebbe's farbrengens (spiritual gatherings) and learning from him directly. The Rebbe's teachings became the pivotal guiding force of my life, driving my every perception, thought, and decision.

So what is it about the Rebbe's philosophy on life that is so revolutionary?

The Rebbe, through his transformational teachings and profound insight, gave each and every one of his students a unique outlook on life. We learn that God is good, but how we do reconcile that knowledge with the fact that we often seem to be surrounded by negative people and situations? The Rebbe shared a perspective that allowed us to stand outside of our current situation and view the world and its occupants with a fresh perspective. One that allowed us to navigate the tumultuous and often harsh world that we live in, and still experience inner peace.

This philosophy of being able to see the good in everyone and everything is central to the approach of each and every Chabad emissary, as s/he encounters different personality types and situations in their respective communities.

Friend, I am inviting you to join me on an amazing journey of self-discovery, one that can lead YOU to deeper insights and greater understanding of your life, and your relationships with yourself, with others, and with God.

You will see life through a new set of lenses - a change in perspective through which a radically more meaningful world will emerge.

Join me for Paradigm Shift, a revolutionary new six-week JLI course, that I have the honor and privilege of teaching. It begins on Sunday, May 11-June 22 from 9:45-11:15 am (no class on May 18), and the first class is free of charge with no obligation to continue.

The Rebbe and Israel's Leaders

In just over a week, we will be celebrating the holiday of Purim. Chabad of Riverdale's Purim Dinner this year will be "Purim in the Holy Land," where, dressed up Israeli-style, we will dine on Israeli cuisine, sip freshly-squeezed orange juice, and write cards to IDF soldiers who are in Israel without family.

Israel has always been beloved to Chabad. The profound connection between Chabad and Israel started as early as 1776 with the Chassidic Aliyah to Tiberias and Tzfat, and continues until this day. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory leader, always took an avid interest in Israel's affairs. 

Yehuda Avner served as an advisor and speechwriter to Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, and as Israel’s Ambassador to Australia and the United Kingdom.

Below is an article written by Yehuda Avner about the enduring and powerful relationship between the Rebbe and Israel's leaders:

Yitzhak Rabin was a straight-as-a-die agnostic, and shy to a fault. So, when on a spring day in 1972 he was kept waiting at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for his appointment with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he became fidgety.

He was distinctly uncomfortable among the multitude of bearded men bustling to and fro around him, all identically clad in black suits and fedoras, and all seemingly indifferent to the peeling paint, cracked linoleum, and indefinable odor of the Tudor-style edifice that housed the headquarters of the world Lubavitch movement.

Yitzhak Rabin was then Israel's ambassador to Washington, and his president, Zalman Shazar, had asked him to convey his greetings personally to the Lubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – on the occasion of the Rebbe's 70th birthday. So there Rabin sat, a blue and gold velvet bar-mitzva yarmulke perched precariously on his head, like an alien in a foreign land.

When he was finally ushered into the inner sanctum, the Rebbe's face beamed. It was an angelic face, half curtained by a square gray beard, and topped by the trademark black fedora, with the effect of a bastion that protected the mind from iniquitous invasions.


Waiting to meet the Rebbe: Yitzhack Rabin (seated, center), the then ambassador to the United States, waits for his meeting with the Rebbe at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn. Seated on right is the Rebbe's secretary, Rabbi Hadokov. Standing (left to right): Rabbis Abraham Shemtov, Shlomo Cunin and Moshe Hecht, and the author, Yehuda Avner.

But what lured Rabin most were the eyes. They were wide apart, sheltered under heavy brows and arched over by fine eyebrows. Their hue was the azure of the deep sea, intense and compelling, exuding wisdom, awareness, kindness, and good fellowship. Yet, as I was later to learn, when the Rebbe's soul turned turbulent, they could dim into an ominous gray, like a leaden sky.

These were the eyes of one who could see mystery in the obvious, poetry in the mundane, and large issues in small things; eyes that enthralled believers until captivated in gladness, and joy, and sacrifice – all of which was wacky to the no-nonsense, secular diehard, Yitzhak Rabin.

He and the Rebbe spoke mainly of Washington affairs; but when the sage turned to things celestial, like Torah, eternity, and spiritual destiny, the ambassador's eyes glazed over. Dogmas of this sort were too inscrutable for this Palmach-bred, austere old soldier to whom reality was a physical phenomenon, not a metaphysical marvel.

Nonetheless, he was impressed. Exiting, he confided to me, "That man knows more about what's going on in Israel and the Middle East than most members of the Knesset."

President Shazar was pleased to hear of the encounter. As a youngster, Shazar had been nurtured in Lubavitch lore; and now, in the twilight of his life, he was elated to rediscover its enchantment, like some forgotten bead from a broken thread.

On his rare visits to New York he would abjure diplomatic protocol, choosing to call on the Rebbe in Brooklyn as a disciple, rather than solicit the Rebbe to call on him at the Waldorf as a head of state. This aroused the ire of members of the Israeli government and press, prompting an exasperated Shazar to exclaim one Purim eve en route to 770, while lolling in a limousine escorted by siren-shrieking NYPD outriders, "What do they want of me back home? I may be the president of Israel, but I'm also a simple hassid going to meet his rebbe. Who can object to that?"

SOME TIME later, on a balmy July day in 1977, Menachem Begin was similarly confronted. A bushy-haired reporter in a baggy suit asked him with Village Voice effrontery, "You are the newly elected prime minister of Israel, so why have you come to see Rabbi Schneerson? Surely, protocol requires he come to you."

This altercation took place on the steps of the Lubavitch headquarters, where the Rebbe was welcoming Mr. Begin amid a blaze of photo flashes. "Why, indeed?" the prime minister began with easy rapport. "A good question."

And then, with an air of deep reverence, "I have come here because I am en route to Washington to meet president Jimmy Carter for the first time. So it is most natural for me to want to seek the blessings of this great sage of the Jewish people. Rabbi Schneerson is one of the paramount Jewish personalities of our time. His status is unique among our people. So yes, certainly, his blessings will strengthen me as I embark on a mission of acute importance for our future."

"Would the rabbi care to comment on that?" asked the reporter.

He said, "Only to reiterate my fullest blessings. And to add, I accept the honor of the prime minister's visit to me not on my own account but in recognition of the Lubavitch movement's dedicated work in spreading the love of God and His Torah among our fellow Jews, wherever they be."

The two men had been friends for years, and they closeted themselves for a good hour, at the end of which Mr. Begin informed Rabbi Schneerson that I would return to New York from Washington to brief him on the White House talks.

THUS IT was that five days later I found myself ensconced alone with the Rebbe in his wood-paneled chamber, its simple furnishings antique with time-worn distinction. Dog-eared Talmud tomes and other heavy, well-thumbed volumes lined his bookshelves, redolent of centuries of scholarship and disputations conducted by generations of swaying, chanting, thumb-stabbing, skull-capped learners, inhabiting an academic world in which students don't study and teachers don't teach. Everybody learns.

We spoke in Hebrew – the Rebbe's classic, mine modern. And as he dissected my Washington report, his air of authority deepened. It came of something beyond knowledge. It was in his state of being, something he possessed in his soul, something given to him under the chestnut and maple trees of Brooklyn rather than under the poplars and pines of Jerusalem – to which, mysteriously, he had never journeyed.

The presentation, interrogation, and clarification had taken close to three hours. It was now after two in the morning, and I was exhausted. The Rebbe, full of vim and vigor, asked me to communicate the following message to Mr. Begin: "By maintaining your firm stand on Eretz Yisroel in the White House, you have given strength to the whole of the Jewish people. You have succeeded in safeguarding the integrity of Eretz Yisroel while avoiding a confrontation with the United States. That is true Jewish statesmanship: forthright, bold, without pretense, or apology. Be strong and of good courage."

He dictated this in a voice that was soft but touched with fire.

And now relaxing, he made a tent of his slender fingers, fixed me with his eyes, and said with a surprisingly sweet smile, "How come you visit us so often and appear to be so close to us, yet you never became a Lubavitcher? Why?"

I sat back stunned at the directness of the question. It was true. This probably was my third or fourth meeting with the Rebbe. Over the years I had become a sort of unofficial liaison between various Israeli prime ministers and the Lubavitch court.

Swallowing thickly, I muttered, "Maybe it is because I have met so many people who ascribe to the Rebbe powers which the Rebbe does not ascribe to himself."

Even as I spoke, I realized I had presumed too much. I could hear my voice trailing away.

The Rebbe's brows knitted, and his deep blue eyes grayed into sadness. Softly, he said, "Yesh k'nireh anoshim hazekukim l'kobayim -- There are evidently people who need crutches."

A long and pregnant pause followed. Perhaps his secret threads of perception and communication were tracking my thoughts, for what he said next answered my unspoken question.

Raising his palm in a gesture of reassurance, and with an encouraging smile, he said, "Let me tell you what I try to do. Imagine you're looking at a candle. What you are really seeing is a mere lump of wax with a thread down its middle. So when do the thread and wax become a candle? Or, in other words, when do they fulfill the purpose for which they were created? When you put a flame to the thread, then the candle becomes a candle."

As he was speaking, a rhythmic cadence crept into his voice in the manner of a talmudist poring over his text, so that what he said next came out as a chant: "The wax is the body, and the wick the soul. Ignite the soul with the fire of Torah and a person will then fulfill the purpose for which he or she was created. And that is what I try to do – to ignite the soul of our people with the fire of Torah."

A buzzer had been sounding periodically, indicating that others were awaiting their audience. So I rose and took my leave, pausing at the door to ask, "My candle – has the Rebbe lit it?"

"No," he said, clasping my hand. "I have given you the match. Only you can light your candle."

The Rebbe's Exceptional Soldiers

In just two weeks, we will be celebrating the holiday of Purim. Chabad of Riverdale's Purim Dinner this year will be "Purim in the Holy Land," where, dressed up Israeli-style, we will dine on Israeli cuisine, sip freshly-squeezed orange juice, and write cards to IDF soldiers who are in Israel without family.
rebbe-idf.jpg
Israel has always been beloved to Chabad. The profound connection between Chabad and Israel started as early as 1776 with the Chassidic Aliyah to Tiberias and Tzfat, and continues until this day. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory leader, always took an avid interest in Israel's affairs. He consistently expressed enormous recognition for the role of the Israel Defense Forces and stated that those who serve in the Israeli army perform a great Mitzva.

The following story highlights the Rebbe's special love, affinity, and admiration for Israel's defense soldiers:

Less than a year-and-a-half ago, Capt. Zev Shilon lay bleeding and wounded near the Israeli-Gaza border. Both of his hands were almost completely severed, and he says his thoughts turned to the world to come.

“My physical strength was gone, and it was only with G-d’s help that I was only able run back to base, dragging my right hand,” the former commander of an elite unit in the Givati Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces told a packed audience on Feb. 13 at the Binyanei Hauma International Convention Center in Jerusalem.

His talk was the high point of an evening celebrating the Chabad centers that serve hundreds of communities throughout Israel—from the Golan Heights and Metullah in the north to Eilat in the south.

During the weeks and months of his recovery at the end of 2012 and into 2013, Shilon connected with Rabbi Menachem Kutner of Chabad’s Terror Victims Project. “He gave me and my family strength during the most difficult times,” Shilon recalled emotionally. “He was with us all the way, helping us—and so many others—along the long road to recovery.”

Shilon eventually joined a Chabad-sponsored trip to New York, where he and others like him got the chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city that never sleeps. Through the warm welcome they received in many Chabad centers in the United States, Shilon says he was exposed to the Rebbe’s unique form of leadership, which “captured his heart.”

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“The Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] did not refer to us as ‘wounded soldiers,’ ” Shilon explained, “Rather, he insisted on referring to those who gave their very bodies for the safety of their fellow Jews as the ‘exceptional soldiers.’

“At the Rebbe’s Ohel [in Queens, N.Y.], I prayed that I regain use of my right hand. Just a few weeks later, on Chanukah, the Rebbe’s blessing came to fruition when Rabbi Kutner came into my hospital room to light the Chanukah candles with me, and I was able to do so with my right hand.” Shilon’s left lower arm and hand had been amputated, and he freely gestured with his prosthetic hand throughout his talk.

Looking ahead, Shilon expressed his personal goal of returning to his brigade and picking up where he left off, working to ensure that Israel and its citizens remain safe and secure.

Concurrently, with Purim just one month away, he spoke of Chabad’s plans to “flood the entire country with Purim gifts and joy, as only they know how.”


 

Beware of the Chabad Handshake!

BEWARE OF A CHABAD HANDSHAKE IT COULD BE GOOD FOR YOUR SPIRITUAL HEALTH!

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As recounted by Rebbitzen Chanie Lipskar of Bal Harbour, Florida, at the recent Shluchos Convention.

“Sitting at our Shabbos table, together with a group of guests, was a dear friend of my husband’s, a Holocaust survivor, scholar and businessman. We have a custom that each person either shares a dvar Torah, a Jewish experience or accepts upon himself to do a mitzvah.

My husband suggested to this gentleman that he take on the mitzvah of putting on tefillin every day, to which he responded, ‘Rabbi, I love you. But I cannot, and I’ll tell you why: The year was 1939 in Poland. The winds of war were already blowing and the situation for the Jewish community was dire.

In this state of chaos and uncertainty, just before my bar mitzvah, my father called me over and said in the most serious tone, “Meir’l, please commit to me that you will put on tefillin every day no matter what.” Then he stretched out his hand for me to shake it. As I was a cheder boy at the time this seemed to be an easy request, and I lifted my hand to commit myself.

My uncle, who was watching this saga unfold, took hold of my hand and said to my father, “Don’t make him swear to something he may be unable to fulfill.”

So there I was, looking at my father with his outstretched hand and mine halfway up to his but held back by my uncle. My father was murdered and I became a resourceful survivor against all odds. I never finished that handshake, Rabbi, and that is why I cannot accede to your request.’

“There was utter silence around our table. People were wiping away tears. Then my husband extended his hand and said, ‘Meir’l, let’s imagine that your father’s soul dressed itself in me for just a moment and let’s complete that handshake.’

“The room was electric as you felt all the history, pain and anguish of that period. After what seemed like an eternity, Reb Meir grasped my husband’s hand and sealed the handshake that had waited 70 years to be completed. His father’s request had finally been realized. There were tears, elation, singing and dancing. Reb Meir began to put on tefillin every day.”



Kernel From the Banquet

This year, as I sat at the banquet that concludes 4 days of non-stop learning, I tried to remember how many I’ve attended.  The learning this year was fabulous as always, inspiring every participant to greater involvement, closer connections to each other, Hashem and the Rebbe.  Promises were made to continue to support the work of our shluchim (emissaries) and to share whatever we learn as well. 

As with any Chabad program, everyone comes for the spirituality, but the beautiful setting and gourmet food were top-notch!  Women were treated to four days of delicious, gourmet, healthy food.  We had music, we had dancing, we had lots of hugging as old friends reunited and new friends exchanged emails to keep up with each other until the next kinus (international conference for Chabad Lubavitch women emissaries).

The highlight for me this year was the banquet. At the roll call, everyone was given a neon wand. First, they called all those emissaries who were sent out by the Freidiker Rebbe in the 40s.  A few stood and waved their wands proudly.  Next were those who were sent out by the Rebbe in the 50s.  They also stood and waved their wands.  Then the 60s, the 70s, the 80s all the way until those who were sent out before the Rebbe passed.  Next were all those who were sent out after the Rebbe passed.  And the moment had arrived.  My daughter stood, proudly waving her wand with her fellow shluchos (emissaries) and I had Chassidishe nachas like I never could have imagined. 

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But I always like to take away one kernel.  We each have our own unique purpose and it is imperative for each one of us to fulfill that purpose to achieve G-d’s plan.   

A Message From Our Parents of the Year

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It is such an honor being acknowledged as Parents of the Year at Chabad of Riverdale's upcoming 22nd Annual Dinner. We are looking forward to having our friends, family and community members join us in celebrating 22 years of Chabad's amazing dedication to community welfare and education.
 

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Our daughter, Daniella, is currently in the Nursery class at Chabad of Riverdale's Early Learning Center, and she absolutely loves the program. The teachers' love for their students is apparent with their greetings at the start of the day to the stories they share at the end of the day. Daniella is looking forward to continuing on at CELC in the 4's class next year. We could not be happier and feel so fortunate to have such a loving school literally on our doorstep!

 

 

A Train Crash, A Missing Spouse, A Day in the Life of Two Chabad Rabbis

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Sunday morning, 11:00, Rabbi Levi Shemtov of Riverdale, NY was at the funeral of Rabbi Dr. Jack Sable, founding rabbi of The Riverdale Jewish Center, in Riverdale, NY, when his smartphone vibrated urgently. 

It was Houston calling. 

 

Rabbi Mendel Blecher, of Chabad of The Woodlands needed his colleague’s help. A woman from the Houston area was injured in the Metro-North train crash in the Bronx, a mile and a half from Chabad of Riverdale. Her husband was frantically trying to get in touch with her. Could he help locate her?

Sunday was a particularly packed day on Shemtov’s calendar. The funeral, a bar mitzvah, and preparations for the grand menorah lighting event later that evening at the Bell Tower Monument in the Bronx would consume most of his day. 

Then he got this text about the woman in the train crash. And then a phone call from a community member whose mom had just died at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Would the rabbi please go there to do whatever rabbis do to ensure that the body is properly handled? 

Shemtov prayed silently for a Chanukah miracle that would allow him to be there for both. 

A flurry of text messages and phone calls between the two Chabad rabbis ensued as they each did their own research to find the hospital Sherrill was taken to. 

A Panicked Spouse

At home in Houston, Chase Patton was in distress. He got a call from his wife Sherrill at 6:29 central time Sunday morning. The Metro-North train she and her two friends were riding had crashed in the Bronx. Banged-up and bruised, she was alive. Then the phone line went dead. 

Chase, a postal worker, tried calling back but there was no answer. An hour later, she called again saying that she and her friends were being taken to separate hospitals. She hung up abruptly. 

Two hours later with no word from Sherrill and no way of reaching her, Chase began to stress. “That’s when news reports started to come in about the dying victims,” said Chase in a phone interview with lubavitch.com. “It was pure panic.”

Four people were killed in that accident. Traveling with friends to New York for a 30th year high-school reunion, Sherrill was among 60 injured passengers. 

“I knew that she always underestimates her injuries,” said Chase. “After losing a child [their eldest son passed away 12 years ago] and not knowing what’s going on with my spouse, I felt the fear of losing her.”

Chase called the police. He called two local television stations. He called his Chabad rabbi.  

Networking Rabbis

Chanukah Sunday would be a busy day for most Chabad rabbis. Rabbi Blecher got an early start preparing for the grand menorah lighting at Market Street in The Woodlands, a township 30 minutes north of Houston, when he got the call from Chase. 

Gravitating to the warmth he found with Rabbi Blecher, Chase recently began coming to Chabad. Now he was desperate to find his wife, and amid the panic “the thought of calling Rabbi Blecher popped into my head.”

The rabbis worked their phones. Shemtov narrowed it down to two hospitals: Montefiore or Columbia Presbyterian. Blecher called them both and texted Shemtov with his findings. 

Blecher: 622 w 168th St adult emergency room Section D

Shemtov: I will be there in 15 minutes

Rabbi Shemtov felt a nod from G-d. Both exigencies were at Columbia Presbyterian.

Stopping first at the hospital mortuary at Columbia Presbyterian, Shemtov made arrangements for shmira, the traditional vigil over the body, and for a Jewish burial. Then he made his way to the emergency room.

He had no idea what Sherrill looked like. With all the patients behind curtains, the best he could do was call out her name. “I walked around calling ‘Sherrill’ until someone answered my call.”

A bruised, but very much alive Sherrill Patton introduced herself to the rabbi. Her face lit up. "Oh my Chabad rabbi, Mendel Blecher must have sent you," she said.

She had no cell service, she told Rabbi Shemtov. 

Shemtov tried a hospital landline but that didn’t work either. Now his phone had no reception either. He suggested that Sherrill come out with him to the lobby, where perhaps he’ll get a signal so that her husband can hear her voice. The two walked together until the rabbi’s phone bars lit up.  

Rabbi Shemtov called Chase. 

“Your wife is fine. I am here with her.”

Overcome with relief, Chase choked up, speechless. 

Shemtov handed the phone to Sherrill.

It took a few minutes for Chase to regain his composure, before husband and wife could speak. 

Mission Accomplished

Before the day was over, Rabbi Shemtov would be greeting hundreds at the Bronx’s tallest menorah at the Bell Tower Monument lighting. It was five lights that night, an especially auspicious night for miracles.  

In Houston, Chase Patton was in his own celebratory mood. When he and his two children joined Rabbi Blecher and 300 others at the Market Street lighting in The Woodlands, local Channel 2 news pulled Chase aside for an interview. He spoke about his ordeal and his own Chanukah miracle.

“What the police couldn’t do for me, and what the media couldn’t do for me, Chabad did,” a very relieved, grateful man offered. 

 

My First Kinus Banquet Experience

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We arrived at the Kinus on a cold blustery afternoon. Quickly parking on a shabby street with members of a gang lurking about to “greet” us. Quickly heading toward the vast shipping terminal where the Kinus banquet was being held peering ahead, we saw a long line of vehicles going through serious security checks.

Nearer to the terminal, a few hundred Chabadniks were standing up to the strong winds. What appeared to be a long line was actually a cluster of Minchah minyanim [prayer quorums].

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Upon closer examination almost every Chabadnik had whipped out a smart phone, leaving me to be the only one davening from a Minchah booklet, a wonderful reminder of how comfortable Chabad is with integrating the latest technology with their holy tasks.

Entering the terminal where the banquet was being held, the transformation from the chol [mundane] outside to the kodesh [holy] inside was amazing. This rough shipping terminal was beautifully decked out for the huge banquet. There was a sea of tables surrounding a high tech circular rotating speaker’s dais. Several thousand Shluchim were milling around greeting each other with great joy.  There was a palpable energetic charge in the air.

The program began. It included a wonderful surprise, Rabbi Ovadia, the Russian Shliach who was shot by a hateful terrorist several months ago, standing tall leading Tehillim [psalms]! Several other speakers spoke eloquently about the amazing worldwide and achievements of the Shluchim [emissaries] and their personal journeys via Chabad.

After a sumptuous feast, several speeches followed by the spirited dancing of probably over 5000 joyous shluchim (we are all shluchim), we benched [said grace after meals], davened Maariv [evening prayers] and all too soon it was time to re-enter the cold streets of reality, after a meaningful recharge.

Cancer Gene: Chabad of Riverdale Seeks Jewish Answer to Jewish Problem

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The Susan G. Komen Foundation have promoted our upcoming class, "Ounce of Protection," which aims to raise community awareness about the heightened risk of breast and ovarian cancer among Jewish families. The class, which is the first in the six-week course, "Life in the Balance: Jewish Perspectives on Everyday Medical Dilemmas," will take place this Sunday, October 27.

The risk of carrying a BRCA gene mutation that causes breast and ovarian cancer is ten times greater among women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent than among the general population. With growing concern over what preventive measures Jewish women should take, Chabad of Riverdale, in conjunction with the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), is organizing a community awareness workshop on how Jewish law views this modern day medical dilemma.

 The class - which will be held at Chabad of Riverdale, 535 West 246th Street, on Sunday, October 27, between 9:45-11:15 am - will explore the biblical requirement to safeguard one's health, and whether it obligates Jews of Ashkenazi descent to test for BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutations. Even more importantly, it will discuss whether Jewish law recommends women to undergo radical mastectomies or oophorectomies in case they do test positive, in order to save their lives.

Entitled "An Ounce of Prevention: BRCA, Genetic Testing, and Preventive Measures," the class is being offered by JLI in 362 communities in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is the first class of a new six-week course, titled Life in the Balance, about the Jewish perspective on everyday medical dilemmas. The course is accredited for Continuing Medical and Legal Education, and can help medical professionals develop a greater sensitivity to the concerns and decisions facing some of their Jewish patients.

One in forty women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent carry a BRCA gene mutation compared to about one in four hundred in the general population. If a woman carries the mutation, there is a 50 to 80 percent risk she will develop breast cancer, starting as early as her twenties, and a 20 to 40 percent risk she will develop ovarian cancer as early as her thirties. Although the risk is much lower for ovarian cancer it is much deadlier, since blood tests and ultrasound exams rarely diagnose the cancer until it has already reached stage three or four, and is then difficult to treat.

"Statistics like these are leaving women in the Jewish community with some tough decisions to make," said Rabbi Yanky Raskin, course instructor. "Some are reluctant to get tested, worried about the medical and financial repercussions, and the prospect of facing radical surgeries that could affect their self-image or ability to have children. Having to face decisions of such complexity has led many women to avoid addressing the issue altogether. But with mortality rates so high, this is hardly a problem the Jewish community can afford to ignore."

The issue of testing for the BRCA mutations and undergoing radical surgery to prevent the onset of cancer drew national media attention following Angelina Jolie's recent announcement that she had undergone a prophylactic mastectomy upon having been tested positive for a BRCA-1 mutation and learning she had an 85 percent risk of developing breast cancer. 

While the media spotlight made many women more aware of the risks, it also sparked some confusion in the Jewish community and intensified a debate among geneticists and medical professionals whether all women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent should be tested, or only those with family histories of breast or ovarian cancer.

Until recently it was thought that only women with a family history of these cancers should be screened for BRCA mutations, but Dr. Wendy Rubinstein, director of the National Institute of Health's genetic testing registry, calculated that testing all women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent would save 2,800 lives a year and be extremely cost-effective despite the relatively high cost of testing.

 "I still believe in family history. It tells you an enormous amount," said Rubenstein, one of the geneticists whose opinions will be shared in the JLI class. "The professional guidelines are that [family history] is enough and I really don't want to contradict that and say we ought to go farther. What I do think is that we ought to think seriously about a screening program as a community like we did for Tay-Sachs...which was so effective reducing the birth of Tay-Sachs-affected babies. I want to see a dialogue begin between the Jewish community, the medical community, and the public health community."

Others, such as geneticists at the Program for Jewish Genetic Health of Yeshiva University/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, say that because most BRCA studies have so far been limited to women with a family history of cancer, no one can know for certain whether a positive test result is a conclusive predictor for those with no family history of cancer.

In the JLI class students will be presented with different voices from the medical community as well as the perspective of Jewish law, so they can be prepared to make an informed decision in consultation with their physician and geneticist. 

"Some 1,500 years ago when rabbinic scholars wrote the Talmud, they didn't have questions about screening for cancer genes like we have today," said Rabbi Raskin. "However, there are guiding principles found in the Talmud that can help us determine how to respond to these very perplexing and life-altering medical quandaries. One of the Talmud's most important lessons that must guide our response is that saving one life is like saving an entire world."

Like all JLI programs, Life in the Balance is designed to appeal to people at all levels of Jewish knowledge, including those without any prior experience or background in Jewish learning.

 

Don’t Be Kissed by a Fool or Fooled by a Kiss

Large numbers of Jews read King Solomon’s poem Aishes Chayil every Friday night while remaining clueless as to its underlying powerful mystical meanings.  These meanings have profound messages for our relationships with our spouses.

The poem is purposely esoteric.  One has to dig to find its instructions, many of which are the exact opposite of its surface, literal  words.

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The very reciting of the poem is a Jewish paradox.  There is a well-known expression, “ two Jews, three opinions”.  It is rare in the Jewish liturgy that we find a custom that all segments of Orthodox Jewry do the same way, chanting the same set of words at the same moment in time.  Even with as powerful a prayer as Kaddish, we don’t all use the same “script” or timing.

Yet, Aishes Chayil is said using the identical verses, at the identical time, by all Orthodox Jews, be they Litvak or Lubavitch,  Yekkeh or Yemenite. And most people, including Rabbis, don’t even know where and how this custom began.

Ok, perhaps that question is a puzzle of interest primarily to scholars. But in the same way, people are unaware of the magic in the verses, and their practical meanings for guided our marriages, as well as our understanding of the spiritual forces controlling the world.  

Aishes Chayil  is a potent 8-level metaphor about  the interplay of Female and Male universal currents.  Come join us for a swim.

 Enjoy Rabbi Susskind's lecture "The Mystical Metaphors in King Solomon's Eishet Chayil: Guidelines for Marriage from Psychology and Kabbalah" on Saturday Night, October 19, at 8:30 pm at Chabad. Call 718-549-1100 Ext. 10 to register.

Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

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The day has arrived. You have enjoyed a heavenly month in Europe: your experiences in France, Italy, and Spain were rich and vivid, and you enjoyed the most breathtaking sights along the way. But now, after all those months of planning meticulously for your vacation and crafting a detailed itinerary, it is already time to pack up your bags and head back home. Back to reality.

Your feet have landed on American soil, and your adventure is over. What now? How do you make the switch from being in vacation mode to "real life"?

The answer lies in memories. Your trip might be over, but the memories aren't. 

As you unpack your suitcase, you come across magnets you picked up in Venice and place them on your fridge. You upload the pictures from your camera, and save the one of you and your spouse standing in front of the Eiffel Tower on your desktop. Now, you are back in your routine. But every time you open the fridge to take out the milk, you smile as the magnet reminds you of magical Venice. As you turn on your computer to begin a day of work, the picture on your desktop transports you back to that rainy but unforgettable day in Paris. The memories live on.

The Jewish people have just returned from their own incredible trip: Tishrei. The seventh month in the Jewish calendar year, Tishrei is filled to the brim with four major Holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah. There is no month in the Jewish calendar as intense and emotional as Tishrei.

At Chabad of Riverdale, hundreds packed into our shul for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Spirits soared on Rosh Hashanah as we crowned G-d as King of the world. On Yom Kippur, we were invigorated by inspirational prayer on the holiest day of the year.

During Sukkot, our community was enveloped by beautiful and fragrant Mitzvot. Friends, new and old, from all different backgrounds gathered in our Sukkah, shared meals and engaged in the holy commandment of the Four Kinds.

On Simchat Torah, the joy was palpable as once again, we united, holding hands and dancing during the Hakafot. Our celebration reached a climax as we embraced the conclusion—and restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle. This Simchat Torah was especially meaningful for us here at Chabad as we used our brand new Sefer Torah, gifted to us by Rabbi Faitel Lewin (Click here to watch our memories of this joyous day).

Friendships were intensified, memories were made, and joy filled our hearts.

We heard from so many that their Simchat Torah experience at Chabad this year was their most spiritual and uplifting yet. It truly was amazing. 

But what now? Tishrei is over. Where do we go from here?

We do what our traveler friend did following his remarkable experience in Europe. 

As we "unpack" our memories, we write down and record a special verse from the High Holiday services that particularly resonated with us.

We download to our phone a song that lifted our spirits on Sukkot.

We place in the top drawer of our desk, where it can be easily accessed, a paper with two resolutions that we made before Rosh Hashanah.

Then, as we return to reality, to the barren month of Cheshvan and beyond, we hold on to the beauty of Tishrei by replaying that special Sukkot song, reading the verse that gave us so much hope and resolve during the High Holiday prayers, and opening our drawer to check in on how we are doing with our resolutions. These beautiful reminders are here to stay. Until next Tishrei. 

Sorah and I want to personally bless you with health, happiness, peace, parnasa, domestic happiness, and may all your blessings be fulfilled for the good.

 

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