I will always remember Rosh Chodesh, Kislev 5769 — Friday, November 28, 2008 — as we all tried to process the traumatic events that shook the whole world with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Closer to home and more personal, the emotions generated upon learning of the brutal murders of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, Chabad shluchim in Mumbai, left me inwardly broken and drained. At the same time, I had to be a source of emotional support for others, who were experiencing trauma and devastation, and respond to all those who called, e-mailed and personally came to offer their support and condolences.
At the urging of Rebbetzin Rivy Kletenik, my dear friend Rabbi Moshe Kletenik called me that morning to urge that an immediate community memorial be organized to express Seattle’s Jewish community solidarity and unity with all those who had been impacted by this horrible attack.
That Friday, with Shabbos beginning at approximately 4 p.m., little time was left to organize such an event. Yet as drained as I was, I threw myself into this task, with the assistance of the rabbis and staff at Chabad House, we organized the memorial, co-sponsored by the Va’ad HaRabanim of Seattle, and the Jewish Federation.
Shortly after 1 p.m. that afternoon, KING-TV requested an interview, which took place an hour later in my office. In the course of the interview, I was asked, “Rabbi, has your faith been shaken?”
My instinctive response was, “No, my faith has not been shaken.” And I proceeded to elaborate why it had not.
Reflecting back on that interview, I ask myself, “from where in my DNA did that instinctive response come, what was it about my upbringing, my studies, that brought me to that instinctive response?” Allow me to share with you an event that occurred when I was a teenager, which has left a lifelong impact on me.
My paternal grandfather, my Zaide Shmuel, the senior provost “Mashpia” of Chabad-Lubavitch, was a survivor of Stalin’s gulag in the former Soviet Union. When the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, left Russia in the fall of 1927 after being imprisoned and miraculously given his freedom by the Soviet government for his indefatigability and perseverance in maintaining and strengthening Jewish life in that country, my grandfather was appointed by the Rebbe to a senior position of leadership administering the far-flung activities of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement there in Russia.
For his activities, my grandfather was imprisoned in 1929 by the dreaded NKVD, the secret police, and held in a cell for 13 months. Afterward, he was exiled to Siberia for two-and-a-half years of hard labor. After serving his sentence, the previous Rebbe, who was residing in Warsaw, Poland at the time, initiated steps which eventually led to my grandparents and all children under 20 (including my father) being let out of Russia. They settled in the city of Rackishick, Lithuania, where he was a rabbi before the First World War.
In the summer of 1938, the previous Rebbe sent my grandfather on a mission to America, for six to nine months, to continue the process that had begun early in the ’30s: To organize the Chabad-Lubavitch movement on these shores. My grandmother and the children remained in Europe. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September of 1939, my grandfather was unable to return to Europe.
During the war, my grandmother died in the Vilna ghetto, and my two uncles were brutally murdered by the Germans. My grandfather lived in two rooms in the famous Central Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue and Yeshiva building in Brooklyn, N.Y. In one room he slept and in the other he gave his classes, until he took ill in 1957 and moved into my family apartment.
Fast forward to the summer of 1961: It was our custom, during the hot summers, to rent a “bungalow” in the Catskills in upstate New York, with 30 to 40 other families. There were many such other bungalow colonies scattered throughout that area.
It was a unique mix. Families from Chabad and other Chassidic communities, and even some “Litvishers” joined together in a harmonious blend for a beautiful summer.
Our fathers would only come and join us for the weekend while our grandparents would stay with us and enjoy the cooler weather of the mountains.
My Zaide would teach a class in Chassidic philosophy every afternoon. Once he asked a visitor to give the class.
I did not understand why my grandfather would request a Jew 30 years his junior to replace him as teacher. Even more amazing was that my Zaide, a leading Torah scholar, sat bent over, listening attentively, so as to not miss a word.
While walking my grandfather home, I asked him who this Jew was. The image of my grandfather, his eyes pointed upward, very serious in thought with his long flowing white beard, long black kapota and hat, stands before me as he responded in Yiddish: “He is a Jew who has gone through the concentration camp through Hitler (may his memory be erased). A Jew who has gone through the concentration camp one has to listen to.”
I always look back on that image and what my grandfather said. My Zaide, who lost his wife in the ghetto, who lost four children — two as youngsters, two during the war — my grandfather who spent 13 months in a cell with 30 people under horrible conditions, my grandfather who spent two-and-a-half years in Siberia in exile, my grandfather, with whom I slept in the same home for 10 years, and who awoke me with his cries of agony dreaming of those horrible times — he felt that his experiences of life could not compare to one who had lived through Hitler and who never complained and who lived his life in prayer and study and was an inspiration for thousand of students.
And so my friends, we don’t have answers as to why. But I know, I speak in the name of the thousand of young men and women, shluchim and shluchos (emissaries) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. We, the shluchim and shluchos will redouble our efforts to maintain and expand the massive worldwide educational and humanitarian activities initiated and inspired by our Rebbe.
In just 50 years, the Chabad movement has grown tremendously. When the Rebbe assumed his position of leadership, with the physical passing of his father-in-law, the movement functioned from a small synagogue in Brooklyn, not larger than 800–1,000 square feet. With the Rebbe’s guidance and vision, the movement grew to over 4,000 Chabad centers situated all over the world.
And we pledge to continue with the Rebbe’s holy work, until the day when our prophets tell us that there will be no war, no poverty, no envy, people will be aware of the Godly presence, and live in harmony with each other with the coming of our righteous Moshiach, speedily in our time.