The following is a transcript of a presentation by Amichai Magen at the Inaugural Gala Reception of the new Rohr Chabad House at Stanford University Wednesday evening. Amichai Magen is a Yitzchak Rabin Fulbright Scholar, a JSD candidate and lecturer at Stanford Law School.
In retrospect it seems highly symbolic – even poetic – to me that I first met Rabbi Dov Greenberg when he was busy assembling a Sukkah. We had both just arrived at Stanford, from our vastly different worlds. It was September 2002. My wife Merav and I had just arrived from Israel, to begin my doctoral program at Stanford.
I was walking down Stanford Ave. when I saw this energetic, Orthodox kid physically constructing a Sukkah from a mess of bits and pieces, on a small lawn in front of 679 Stanford Ave. Being Israeli I couldn’t resist throwing a snide comment to a fellow Jew. Something like: “So, you’re building a Sukkah, eh?”
To my great surprise, the young Rabbi’s response was not to retort with the question: “Are you a Jew? Did you put on Tefillin already this morning?”
No. Instead, I met a modern, open, engaging man, who was far more interested in getting to know me, than trying to get me to follow religious commandments, and the light in whose eyes suggested not only great intelligence – but something far rarer in this world: goodness combined with genuine wisdom.
I must admit I was still a little suspicious. What does a Yitzhak Rabin Fulbright Scholar – who grew up in the secular, Zionist heartland of the Jezrael Valley, have to do with a proudly Orthodox, Chabad Rabbi?
I didn’t know, but I sensed that I had encountered something very special – which I did not yet fully understand – and I wanted to know more.
In fact, I was so excited after meeting Dov and Rachel for the first time, that I immediately phoned my mother to tell her that I had discovered something special.
Her response was the same as Christopher Columbus’s Jewish Mother when he told her he discovered America: “I don’t care what you discovered”. She said: “You should have called. Your father and I have been worried sick!”
Over the past five years, what had started as a chance, passing conversation for me – as with many of the students who are here this evening – evolved into one of the most important sources of inspiration, community, and moral and intellectual guidance in my life.
Paradoxically perhaps, I have discovered that Chabad at Stanford attracts the non-religious, less Jewishly and pro-Israel affiliated students. There is something that resonates deeply with every person who comes into contact with Chabad at Stanford.
How did this happen? What is the secret formula of this Jewish Center?
I don’t fully know the answer. And there is a chance that I will still not fully know the answer in many years to come.
Perhaps it is Rebitzen Rachel’s fabulous chicken soup – so lovingly served to thousands of Stanford students from every background, every Shabbat evening, throughout the academic year.
But fabulous as the soup – and the rest of the material food – undoubtedly is, I don’t think that is it.
It seems to me there is more to it than that. Something that the Holiday and the Shabbat Dinner atmosphere at Chabad is infused with – and which perhaps seeps into the soup as well – but which is less tangible, and far more profound.
I suspect that it has to do with three things that characterize Chabad at Stanford, and that can be summarized in three simple, but powerful words: Knowledge, Courage and Commitment.
At the most fundamental level, Chabad is a unique institution at Stanford in that it actively and passionately draws on 4,000 years of Jewish knowledge. It is a place of Torah-based, Talmud-based, knowledge-based Judaism.
This is the knowledge that enables Rabbi Dov to more than hold his own before some of the world’s finest academics at the classes he gives at the Law School, the Business School and the Medical School – on Jewish law and ethics.
But just as importantly, this knowledge-based Judaism is critical for our intellectual and moral development as students.
So when we discuss stem cell research, or values in business; when we talk about the meaning of Tzedaka; when we discuss relationships; when we stand up to defend Israel; or when we talk about any other contemporary issue – Chabad gives us the enormous privilege of access to a rich depository of generations of deep thinkers.
We discover that our forefathers – from RASHI and the RAMBAM, to the great Lubavich Rabbis – have engaged with the eternal questions that now confront our generation, and that they had profound and unique insights, that are more relevant for our lives in the 21st Century than ever before.
Chabad at Stanford is a vibrant intellectual, educational home for us, as much as anything else! By engaging with this knowledge we connect to our intellectual and philosophical patrimony, and are empowered to face the world as better, more empowered and knowledgeable people.
The second thing that makes Chabad at Stanford so unique for me is that it combines deep knowledge, with uncompromising, moral courage.
The courage to say that there is a wrong and a right, and that we have the moral responsibility to choose right and to do right, even if its not always the easiest choice to make.
The courage to stand up for the only genuinely free society in the Middle East – that great miracle of a tiny country – the State of Israel – and to love it proudly, passionately and from a position of knowledge.
The courage to create an environment where Jews from all backgrounds – Americans and Israelis, secular and observant – can come together on the basis of living Jewish values, pride and real joy in our tradition.
And the courage to show genuine respect and compassion for everyone with whom we interact – Jews and non-Jews alike – not because of some superficial politeness, or self-interest, but because each of us is created in the image of Hashem.
In leaving their homes and families, and venturing out to Stanford, Dov and Rachel Greenberg have made us a life time commitment – a commitment on which they deliver day after day.
This is no 9 to 5 job.
I have seen Dov and Rachel answer phone calls from students at all hours of the day….and night.
I have seen Dov and Rachel counsel students, guide them, and help them through personal and family trauma.
More generally, I have seen Dov and Rachel reassure us with their composure, their steady leadership and infectious optimism and hope that there is a future for the Jewish People; that that future is not a given; that it is in our hands to make or break; and that if we will it – if we act with knowledge, courage and commitment – we will make sure that the future of the Jewish People is a bright and vibrant one!
Chabad at Stanford teaches us these critical lessons in the best way possible – by living these values, day in and day out, and being leaders among us for the indefinite future.
As you can see, I’ve traveled some way since my first encounter with that young, unknown Rabbi five years ago. But Dov and Rachel have not only deeply impacted my life, and the lives of all of us who are gathered in this building today. In the short time they have been here, Dov and Rachel have already built a remarkable network of young alumni – all over the United States and Beyond.
Last week I was in Washington – I had lunch with a friend, a Stanford Law School alumn, who is now a brilliant young lawyer in government. Yes, we spoke about a whole range of contemporary issues, but the most meaningful moment of our discussion came when my friend said to me that his conversations with Rabbi Dov Greenberg inform his work to this very day.
Next month I will be at a wedding in Israel – an American guy and an Israeli-born girl whom Dov and Rachel have mentored – are getting married in Jerusalem. We are closer to each other, because of Chabad. Another friend of several people in this room is now serving in an elite commando unit in the Israeli Army. We have a connection, and I will hopefully get to see him in Israel – partly because of our shared time at Chabad.
There is a special network, with a special bond of friendship, building, gathering momentum, which in a few years will reach critical mass and manifest itself in a special, enduring loyalty to Chabad at Stanford. I urge each and every one of my fellow students here today to get connected and stay connected to this unique network.
Dov and Rachel, we first met nearly five years ago, when you began the task of building a Sukkah – a temporary dwelling. You ventured into the desert and made it bloom for us all. Today, we gather here to celebrate a new beginning: the transition from a temporary dwelling, to a permanent abode: the Rohr Chabad House at Stanford University.
With this physical transformation, we mark a remarkable, joyful transformation in Jewish life at Stanford. And we are only getting started! Through the tremendous generosity of Tad Taube, and George Rohr; as well as the outstanding support and enthusiasm of the Koret Foundation leadership – and I want to acknowledge Jeff Farber and Debra England for their outstanding support in particular – we are celebrating the beginning of a new phase in the ongoing rejuvenation and growth in Jewish life, pro-Israel life, on this nationally and internationally critical campus.
Let me end with an introduction: as we all know, behind every great man there is a great woman (some would say, and an even greater woman). I am referring of course to Rebitzen Rachel Greenberg, whose warmth and compassion is matched only by her intellect and gentle strength of character.
It is Rachel, more than anyone else, who makes the Chabad house into the Chabad home! It is her spirit of hospitality and welcome, above all else, that makes this our home away from home.