Friday, March 30, 2007

Myth #8: The Rebbe Cared for Jews Far and Wide

He came representing Jews in the Far East.

Or so he thought.

After hours of waiting in line to meet the Rebbe face to face, he finally stood in front of the one and only person whose blessing he sought.

After introducing himself, and announcing who he represented, the Rebbe smiled warmly and gently corrected him.

There are no Jews in the East, maybe. But far? Never.

The man felt humbled by the Rebbe's rejection of the word "far" before "East."

He received his treasured blessing, and walked away with a newfound clarity.

After that, the man would never again use "far" and "Jews" in the same sentence.


That the Rebbe corrected such a seemingly insignificant statement should mean worlds to us. The Rebbe was not being nit-picky or "cute" in his rejection of the man's wording. In his protest, the Rebbe relayed his sensitivity in the way he related to each and every Jew, and the mindset that recharged thousands of Jewish souls.

The Rebbe was fierce - down to the words he used - in insisting that no Jew was far. It was the attitude that sent out emissaries, that responded to letters, and that revolutionized the way world Jewry related to, well, world Jewry.

And then we say, "The Rebbe went out of his way for one Jew." We say, "The Rebbe cared for Jews far and wide."

But, really, it's only that way to us.

The Rebbe's greatness, and the unique spark in his vision, was that, to him, every Jew was naturally in the twinkle of his eye.

For this reason, the Rebbe didn't think twice to send Chassidim across the world.

For the Rebbe, there was no "out of his way."

The Rebbe's love for every Jew obliterated countries and oceans.


People will spread their hands and widen their eyes when relaying how the Rebbe "cared for Jews far and wide."

While on some level there is a place for us to be astounded, the real truth is that, in the Rebbe's mind and actions, every Jew was really right outside his door.

The Rebbe's true gift to the world was that he held every Jew in the palm of his hand.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Dear Basya: G-d is One

Our Key Largo classroom

A few months ago, a girl named Basya commented on my blog, reacting to my notions about Chabad being “the truth.” Her questions inquired into my reasoning for promoting the Chabad way of life, and the learning of Chassidus.

While I can only say I try to live a Chabad life, and I wish I learned more of the Chassidus I so passionately preach, Basya pointed out that I may have had some experiences that can serve to answer her questions, which she says no one has ever properly answered.

I have had brief interaction with her via e-mail, and have decided – especially by the demand of other Hilltop enthusiasts – to start responding to her on my blog. This way, a larger audience can benefit from our interaction.

Basya’s question was personal. Therefore, so is my response.

The following is the first step.


Dearest Basya,

To begin answering your question, I must take you back in time, and then to the present, to highlight what I want to propose as the foundation to this discussion.

Over two years ago, I was sitting in a non-Chabad classroom in Har Nof. The teacher’s elbows lay on both sides of a Hebrew text. He taught us enthusiastically as we took notes. It was nearing nightfall, and the trees could be heard moving through the window in the back of the classroom.

Suddenly, one of the students pointed our attention to the beautiful display of intense colors that the sky was showcasing. The sun was setting in Israel, and the Har Nof mountains made for no humble exhibit.

Naturally, we all got up and rushed to the window. Camera’s came out, and our wonderfully overwhelmed sounds filled the room.

In an effort to get girls back to their seats, our teacher was suddenly heard yelling out, "Girls, come on! We're learning Torah here!" He smacked the text with the back of his right hand to elucidate his point, but did not succeed in deterring a group of eighteen year old girls from marveling at a beautiful sky.

The teacher did not scream, nor was his reaction overboard in temper. However, it was what he said that is so troubling.

While our fascination with the sunset clearly interrupted classroom decorum, it was Torah itself that the teacher pointed out as being victimized by our inattention to the text.

How is it that a supposedly Torah-learned man has come to view Torah as something separate from the very world which it seeks to describe and illuminate? The fact that this Rabbi was hired to teach and inspire girls is worrisome, and that he represents a larger group of people is even worse. Although the incident seems subtle, and almost understandable, I have come to learn that it reflects an ideology owned by a lot of people who, in Torah’s name, maintain a rather warped view of the world.

The Rabbi’s words represented a huge portion of world Jewry that don't view the world as one entity in which G-d dwells in everything.

Flash forward some years to about a month and a half ago.

I am in Key Largo, learning Chassidus with women from all over the world. As you can imagine, the scenery in Florida is splendid.

During one particular class, about twenty students are gathered around Rabbi Manis Friedman, feeling his words like needle points in and out of the fabric of their lives. It’s evening, and we're sitting cozily in the lobby, with only a closed curtain behind our teacher separating us from swaying palm trees and the glistening ocean. We're talking about love. We're talking about G-d. We’re talking about our forefathers. Torah's wellsprings are spilling forth, and quenching the thirst of its drinkers.

Suddenly, Rabbi Friedman gets out of his seat.

In all the hours I've spent in Rabbi Friedman's classes, I have never seen him make any unnecessary gesture, movement, even eye contact.

He turns his back to the group, and, with a sweep of his hand, pulls the curtain all the way open to reveal a bright sunset, warm with orange and darkening in purple hues.

And with that, he takes his seat and resumes the class,

Something about Rabbi Friedman's action felt so right, and moved me to my core. While the sunset and deep lessons blended to form an almost euphoric experience, my mind went searching for the root of what I found so beautiful in Rabbi Friedman’s decision to open the blinds during class.


It was a passing moment that defined the eyes through which Chabad views the world.

The core differentiation between the two classes is what I always knew was different about being Chabad. No matter where I was personally holding, and how much I was actually learning, I always sensed that these were the eyes I wanted to have.

If something is going to be teaching me truth, it better be in line with the world around me – the world I walk in, the world I breathe in. If you’re going to illuminate Torah for me and inspire me to serve our creator, it better happen without leaving a trace of his craft out of my hold.

And, at the root of my fascination with Chassidus, is this very idea – that the whole world is G-d, and G-d is the whole world. G-d is invested in everything. It’s not one G-d and one world. Rather, it’s all G-d.

The Chabad Rabbeim were brave enough to reveal a vital aspect of Judaism’s most essential prayer - the Shema. They saw the word “Echad” and revealed what it truly means. “Echad” means a oneness that encompasses and includes all existence, unlike “Yachid” which implies a one that allows for the existence of a second, a third, and so on. When our Rabbeim unraveled the true definition of the Shema, they revealed a oneness that is about unity, and not numbers.

I have experienced this distinction to be at the heart of the difference between the Chabad and non-Chabad world. To not believe in G-d’s unity is to believe that things exist by themselves, on their own. It means believing that G-d is separate from existence. And when you believe that, you can be a very learned Jew and feel like a foreigner to the world, like the world is out to get you – like a sunset is the enemy.

Part of my decision to strongly pursue the study of Chassidus was to ensure that I would never be learning from a Rabbi who is threatened by the world outside his window.

I found people who learned Chassidus to be extremely humble, for they knew that the world we live in is real and huge and relevant. While I saw other teachers swell with ego, my Chassidus teachers were eager to hear our insights - they understood that the truth that they were teaching were sitting inside the hearts and minds of their students. While the study of sources and texts were vital, it was never seen as something separate from the world, our experiences, and the rhythm of the universe which G-d created.

Chassidus is the only thing that has actually showed me that G-d is one. Everyone else only talked about it. And talked and talked some more - like a preachy sermon in a church. As Jews, we know that we have to believe in one G-d. For me, no one ever challenged this belief to its depths until I really learned Chassidus.

And no, it is not the invention of the so called Lubavitch movement. It is the essence of Judaism. However, Chassidus is the study which confronts, explains and enlivens G-d’s oneness, so that it truly comes to life, changing the eyes through which we view the world, and each other.

So, you ask, Why Chassidus when you can be frum without it? Yes, of course you can be frum without Chassidus. Chassidus isn't about being religious. It's about understanding the makeup of the world and our creator with clarity and truth. It's about tuning your eyes to the G-dliness in the world, inherent in everything and everyone.

For me, this theme is the beginning point necessary before dissecting all the aspects of Chabad that inspire the tone you hear in my writing. I hope this serves as a strong foundation for the rest of our discussions which will, G-d willing, be enlightening for the both of us.

All my best,


Friday, March 02, 2007

My Name is Miriam

The people are coming and going, filled with anxiety and anticipation.

I am in a line of travelers - squeezed with a mass of people, waiting to move.

I am about to pass into the next phase and approach to my gate.

I hand the airport official my boarding pass and I.D.

This is when it all happened, starting with her casual response.

"Thank you, Miriam."

And there it was.

My name.

Her response was habit, given to hundreds of names the same morning.

It was meant to give me the go. But, instead, it stopped me.

Did she just call me "Miriam?"

Caught off guard, I actually checked my license.

And there it was.

My name.

I was deep in thought as I reclaimed my belongings and started my
march to gate C17. I have seen it on papers, but no one has ever just
called me "Miriam" like that. As if it was my name. I tried to make
sense of the feelings circling my heart upon being casually referred
to by a name given at birth, but practically lost for twenty years.
Approaching my gate, I realized that, while I was about to board a
plane and fly across the country, I was also having an inner voyage.
In a world of travelers, something within was coming home.


I arrived at my gate, having made the decision to start thinking more
seriously about making my Hebrew name a more vibrant part of my life.

When I got to my gate, I had to pick up something that my father, who
had taken a flight twenty minutes earlier, had left me by the counter.
He told me he would put my name on it. So I came to the counter to
pick it up.

"Hi, I believe my father just left something here for me. It should
say Mimi on it."

They handed me the envelope. To be totally sure I would be able to
retrieve it, my father had put both my names on it. Right beside the
"Mimi" was written "Miriam."

So, there it was.

My name.

But this time, it was lodged in between two parentheses.

Being the moments leading up to arriving at my gate, I had no casual
response. I looked at my father's handwriting on the envelope, and,
for the first time in a while, felt very sure about a personal

The name I was given at birth does not belong in parentheses.

The voice within started telling me that I better make this name mine
before it gets locked into only official and meaningless occasions. I
can't let my Hebrew name, and the name of one of our Prophetesses, be
scattered into casual oblivion all the rest of my life. I won't
tolerate that anymore.

So right then and there, I ripped "Miriam" from the tight squeeze of
the parentheses that have held it for way too long. In a daring and
monumental escape, I felt a little fear and a slight lack of
readiness. But my consciousness was buzzing - and I felt obligated to

Surrounded by movement, I was forced to look within myself and make
something more permanent. For twenty years, my real name was floating,
and now I felt it starting to land. In a place where no one truly
exists, an essential part of my identity was being revived.

For now, the decision to embrace my Hebrew name feels more like a
responsibility than a strong desire. I feel more like a "Mimi" than a
"Miriam" and I have not had a wild epiphany that has led to a
rejuvenated connection to my name. It is more the feeling of injustice
in not being connected that is encouraging me to make it more a part of my life. While the conviction in this decision is not of the nature to officially ask people to start calling me "Miriam," I think I will
be delighted to turn my head when hearing it called. For, while my realization has nothing to do with feeling so connected, it has everything to do with wanting to be.

With this newfound relationship to my name, I already find myself
feeling more whole. The festival of Purim is drawing oh so near, and,
this year, the person beneath the mask is more true to her identity.

She knows her name.

And her name is Miriam.