Tomorrow is the 25th Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztl, who died in 1994 aged 92.
I never met the Rebbe, but I strongly feel his influence shaped my life. It is something that I think about often when I am asked why I became a Rabbi. Because the answer really is, indirectly because of the Rebbe. Therefore, on the 25th anniversary of his Yahrzeit I wish to tell the story.
It was during my time at Leeds, specifically my second year there. In my first year we had struggled to have a regular minyan. As we arrived for my second year, we knew that we would have seven students and Rabbi Dove, our wonderful Chaplain, to come in the mornings for Shacharit and we resigned ourselves that once again we would have to rely on occasional guests for a minyan.
However, we were happily surprised to find out that we had two more students every morning for Shacharit. These two students had spent the summer learning in a Chabad student centre in New York and they had come back inspired. One of them in particular, Paul Miller, who I had been at school with, came to me with many ideas that we could do to inspire the Jewish students around us at Leeds.
His enthusiasm was infectious. I began giving a drasha to the student community on Friday night. He would give the sermon on Shabbat morning. We created a Monday evening learning programme where he, Rabbi Dove and I would give a 30 minute shiur.
There I was at Leeds, having never really done anything like this before, thanks to my Chabad inspired friend I was giving shiurim, sermons etc and we could all see a change on Campus. We started Oneg Shabbat’s at different people’s houses, sometimes over a hundred students would come to sit, to sing, to hear divrei Torah and of course to drink plenty of L’chaims.
I remember sitting at one of these Oneg’s and realising that this was something I could potentially do as a career. Paul was having similar thoughts – he eventually went on to become Rabbi Chaim Miller who edited the phenomenal Gutnick chumash which is used all over the world.
How was it that a Bnei Akiva boy and a Chabad student could work seamlessly together? It was not that we agreed on everything but I have learnt over the years that Mizrachi and Chabad are very similar in many ways and I feel, and have always felt that the outreach method of Chabad as instructed by the Rebbe are so in line with the Bnei Akiva/ Mizrachi model.
What do I mean?
We all know Chabad outreach, we see it at airports, on holiday, at the Kotel – they are there to encourage you, to embrace you, to help you – they want you to do a mitzvah, put on tefillin, light Shabbat candles, give tzedakah – and that’s it! There is no sense of an agenda, they celebrate any achievement, there is not a feeling that they have failed if a person does not become religious.
Chabad created outreach, but over the years so much of it outside Chabad became all about targets and numbers, how many did you make frum? How many became Shomer Shabbat? How many went to Yeshiva?
Someone said something to me a few months back that made me think. They said that Mizrachi needs to become Chabad with a religious Zionist and modern Orthodox ethos. I can’t see Mizrachi Rabbis going to Bangkok and Tokyo but I did hear what he was saying. Rabbis and Rabbaniot that had a love for every Jew regardless of level of religiosity, that are teaching about the Geulah, the final redemption and are there with no agendas, just simply to teach Torah to anyone and everyone.
However, you may say, Mizrachi is not about outreach, it is about living a life infused with the ideology of Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy – but maybe it is also about showing people the beauty of a life infused with the ideology of Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy.
Bnei Akiva is probably the most successful outreach movement in the country – how many thousands of people have become more religious through their involvement with the movement. How many of those have gone on to become leaders for the Jewish community.
My madrichim on Bnei Akiva did not try and make me frum, they did not try and prove to me x and y, they simply showed through personal example and discussions and programmes that were informative, enlightening and relevant, the beauty and dynamism of Judaism and Israel. And gradually like thousands of others it made an impression.
A lot has changed in the world since 1994.
Anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly head, society has become ever more secularized and technology has taken over our lives.
But the lessons of the Rebbe are even more relevant today. Rabbi Sacks posits that the reason the Rebbe was drawn to outreach in the 1950’s was in response to the Shoah, the Nazis had searched out every single Jew with hate and in order to destroy our people, the Rebbe wanted to search out every single Jew with love and in order to rebuild our people. Anti-Semitism has returned but our mission is unchanging.
The fact that society is ever more materialistic and nihilistic should give us even more reason to get a positive modern Jewish message out to our community. It is so desperately needed.
I believe that the way we do that in the UK is exactly as the Rebbe suggested – create leaders, shlichim, and bring them to the UK to inspire the Jewish people.
So on behalf of our six Mizrachi shlichim here in the UK and our six rabbinic couples in training in Israel we wish you all