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Lamplighters: Episode 16 Transcript

SPEAKERS

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein, Meir Horowitz, Rochel Flikshtein, Rabbi Motti Flikshtein, Gary Waleik

Gary Waleik  00:00

One Shabbos many years ago, a troubled teen walked into a Chabad house in Pennsylvania.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  00:05

So that morning, I actually froze out my hair as much as I could. So I would look as gangster as possible. I wore the baggiest clothes that I could, I wore these Timberland boots, “you want me to go to synagogue, I’m gonna go, but I’m going to go dress like this”. This was my goal. My goal was that the rabbi would see me walk into synagogue looking like this, he would make a comment or even give me a look like, what are you doing? Like, don’t you realize this is a holy day, a holy time? A holy place? Why are you coming looking like that? And then I’ll be able to go back to my parents afterwards and say, “Why are you giving me such a hard time about coming to synagogue? Why do you want me to come the rabbi doesn’t even want me there”. And then I’ll never have to go back again. Mission accomplished.

Gary Waleik  01:01

But that young man had miscalculated how the rabbi would respond, and he couldn’t have imagined how it would help transform his life.  I’m Gary Waleik, and this is Lamplighters stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier.  Life as about emissary is often joyous, but it can be unpredictable, and even dangerous. Chabad has become a ubiquitous presence in every corner of the world. But behind every Chabad house are emissaries regular people striving to transcend their circumstances and the community that supports and relies on them. These are their stories. Rabbi Motti Flikshtein grew up just outside of Philadelphia, Matt, as he was known, was raised by loving Jewish parents, but

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  02:00

Jewish practices or non existent. My parents come from Russia, where it was completely outlawed basically, for them to practice their Judaism. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur didn’t exist in our homes. Going to a Hebrew school, a Sunday school, I didn’t have that, having a proper bar mitzvah was not an emphasis whatsoever In our home.

Gary Waleik  02:27

The public school district Matt was in had the highest juvenile crime rate in the area.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  02:32

I unfortunately got swept up in the wrong crowd. And from a very young age, I started to get into a lot of trouble. At 10 years old, I already started with smoking cigarettes, at 11 years old already started experimenting with drugs, started with pot, marijuana, and then moved on to stronger drugs.

Gary Waleik  02:56

Matt’s behavior worsened over the next few years. His parents struggled to deal with it.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  03:02

I was a complete rebel, you would tell me to do something I would do the exact opposite. I was that type of kid.

Gary Waleik  03:07

When Matt was still in fifth grade, his parents thought it might be time to take them out of public school.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  03:13

The problem was that they didn’t know of any private schools to send me to, but they had these family friends who also happened to be from Russia. They started to send their kids to the local Jewish Day School.

Gary Waleik  03:25

They suggested the Flikshtein’s do the same. Matt’s chafed at the idea his father did too.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  03:32

my father says you know what, fine, fine, they’ll go to the Jewish school, but under one condition. The second that I see that Matt is starting to become observant, religious in any way, shape, or form. We’re taking him out of the Jewish school. He said the last thing that I need is a rabbi in my house.

Gary Waleik  03:52

His parents enrolled him in a Jewish Day School in Yardley, an hour’s drive from their home. But according to matt, his father had nothing to be worried about.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  04:02

There’s no way I was becoming a rabbi. There’s no way I was becoming religious,

Gary Waleik  04:05

but he had become a rapper. Matt says he spent every cent he had on CDs of his favorite hip hop artists. He had a big collection of them. He sported baggy clothes and a gigantic afro, he started making up his own rhymes and writing and recording his own rap songs. But

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  04:24

I was using it totally for the negative I was listening to all the negative stuff, all the negative messages. And when I started to rap, I was recording songs that had very, very negative messages.

Gary Waleik  04:36

Would you care to tell me about those songs and those messages?

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  04:40

Definitely not. And in fact, I don’t even share what my rap name was from back in the day because I don’t want people to look it up and create any association between those messages and me, because it’s not something I’m proud of.

Gary Waleik  04:57

Matt immersed himself in rap music He struggled as a student at his new private school every bit as much as he had in public school.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  05:06

I was not interested at all again, I was the rebel, I was like completely written off by everybody. I would smoke different things. And I would get caught. I almost got expelled on several occasions for bullying other kids, which again, is horrible, horrible. the types of things that I was doing just to get a reaction out of people. That was a big, big troublemaker.

Gary Waleik  05:28

At the end of one school year, Matt opened up the yearbook and learned that he had won two awards.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  05:35

Award number one was class clown. Whoo. Yeah, that was good. Lots of Nachas for my parents on that one. And the second one was least, and I believe it was a unanimous decision, it was least likely to become a rabbi. Because there was no way that I was going to become a rabbi. There’s no way I was going to become observant.

Gary Waleik  06:02

As Matt was flaming out in day school, his parents met Rabbi Weinstein, a rabbi at their nearby Chabad shul, Lubavitch of Bucks County just north of Philadelphia. The Flikshtein’s weren’t religious, but the rabbi had made an impression on them. They wanted Matt to meet him too.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  06:20

And it was a Shabbos morning. They wanted me to come, and I did not want to come. Come on. It’s Saturday morning. Are you kidding me? This is my time to sleep is my time to hang out with friends. This is like no way.

Gary Waleik  06:34

But Matt’s parents pulled what he calls the wild card. They threatened to take the keys to his car, Matt reluctantly agreed to go. But he had a plan.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  06:45

So that morning, I actually ‘froed out my hair as much as I could. So I would look as gangster as possible. I wore the baggiest clothes that I could, I wore these Timberland boots, “you want me to go to synagogue, I’m gonna go. But I’m going to go dress like this”. This was my goal. My goal was that the rabbi would see me walk into synagogue looking like this. He would make a comment or even give me a look like, what are you doing? Like? Don’t you realize this is a holy day, a holy time? A holy place? Why are you coming looking like that? And then I’ll be able to go back to my parents afterwards and say, “Why are you giving me such a hard time about coming to synagogue? Why do you want me to come the rabbi doesn’t even want me there”. And then I’ll never have to go back again. Mission accomplished.

Gary Waleik  07:44

But matt didn’t know how Chabad works.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  07:47

And so I walked into the synagogue, made eye contact that the rabbi waiting for this negative reaction. But he actually made a run towards the back of the synagogue where I walked in,

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein  08:00

I gave him a full hug.

Gary Waleik  08:02

That’s Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein.

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein  08:05

I embraced Him fully. And I just gave my complete full hug and a big smile. He gave me a huge bear hug. And I remember thinking to myself, well, this wasn’t part of the script. You ruined everything.  And it was just an embrace, to say, there are no barriers between us. So whenever you may think I’m thinking, we’re all good.

Gary Waleik  08:36

Matt and his family began attending more often, and something dawned on him.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  08:41

He was seeing right through the costume. He was hugging me not because of what I looked like, not because of some kind of external shell, but because of something really special that I have inside of me, which I later came to find out is the Yiddishe Neshama, the Jewish soul, this spark of God that we have within

Gary Waleik  09:00

Flikshtein says that although the hug didn’t lead to immediate changes, it planted a seed within him. In the fall of 2003, Matt Flikshtein went off to college. Brandeis has traditionally had a strong Jewish community. But

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  09:19

when I got there, I was still not connecting to my Jewish roots in any way, shape, or form. I had no interest in connecting to the Jewish community there on campus

Gary Waleik  09:29

Flikshtein was an economics major, because he wanted a better way to run his new business venture.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  09:35

I decided to be one of the campus drug dealers, so I had lots of drugs. I had lots of money. I was high all the time. I was partying every night. I had lots of friends. I was very popular on campus, but I still felt a little bit empty inside. And that started to bother me a lot because it made no logical sense. Because in my mind I literally have everything. So if I have everything I should feel fulfilled, but for some weird reason, I felt very empty inside.

Gary Waleik  10:08

But it got worse than just feeling empty, much worse. One night, Matt and a group of his friends had taken some hallucinogenic mushrooms he had acquired,

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  10:19

and we noticed right away that they are laced. So our whole group started to have this really bad, bad trip. And I believe it lasted somewhere from eight to 10 hours. So it was horrible. One of my friends who also had that same batch, didn’t survive the night, he actually took his own life. And I thought to myself, if God forbid, that was me, then would I have been satisfied with the life that I lived until that point. And the answer that I gave myself was a very strong, no.

Gary Waleik  11:02

Matt struggled a lot. But he was still in touch with Rabbi Weinstein, who offered guidance,

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein  11:08

I wanted to do everything I could do, to just let him know that I’m here. I’m fully open to you. And you guide me in how I can support you.

Gary Waleik  11:17

But Matt, who was still steadfastly, not religious, wasn’t sure what he should do about his feeling of emptiness. He called his best friend, Jason Sugarman, who he had met in ninth grade at the Jewish Day School. Jason had grown up in Wilmington, Delaware, in a traditionally observant family. Now he was exploring his Jewish roots in a deeper way, at Or Sameach, a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Matt was able to convince his parents to let him visit Jason there during spring break.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  11:48

And I spoke to him about all these things that were going on this feeling of emptiness, this friend who passed away, and I went on and on and on, I got it off my chest. But then I’ll never forget, Jason looked me straight in the eyes. And he said, Dude, you just don’t get it. You know a lot about a lot of different things in your life, you know, about, you know, rap, and you know about making friends and making money and drugs. But he said, You don’t know anything about who you are as a Jew. And when he said those words, I have to tell you, it hit me like a ton of bricks, because he was absolutely right. What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to have a connection to Torah into mitzvahs? I didn’t know any of that. And then when he said those words, I had like a memory flash, back to the hug that Rabbi Weinstein gave me. What that hug taught me was that I have something special inside of me. And then I looked at Jason, I said, so what should I do about it? And he says, Well, if you’re going to ask me my opinion, then I’ll suggest that you take a couple of months off from college, and you come and you join me here in yeshiva, you spend some time learning about who you are as a Jew.

Gary Waleik  13:12

Matt didn’t like that idea, at first. because he didn’t really know anything about yeshiva,

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  13:19

Yeshiva to me meant a room full of old men with like long white beards sitting over big dusty books that when you turn the page, it’s like a cloud of dust pops out.

Gary Waleik  13:30

But when Jason took Matt on a tour of Or Sameach.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  13:33

I saw that my vision of yeshiva was totally off. Because he was in a yeshiva that was full of kids just like us, kids who didn’t have much of a Jewish background, if any. And they were just going to learn in this distraction free zone about who they are, as Jews

Gary Waleik  13:53

Matt attended Or Sameach the next fall, but then he met Rabbi Shmuley Weiss, the Chabad Shliach at the Kotel and began learning Chassidus, the deeper aspect of Torah that explores the Jewish soul, he transferred to Mayanot, the Chabad Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  14:11

And so then boom, the light bulb started to go off. And I learned that I can take these leather straps, right, teffilin and I can wrap them on my arm and in so doing, I’m infusing that leather with holiness. Not only that, but the cow that the leather came from is infused with holiness. But not only that, but the farm that the cow was raised on is infused with holiness. There’s this domino ripple effect of holiness that extends the entire cosmos. And that applies to every single mitzvah that we do. Every mitzvah that we do is with us for ever. So throughout that year, I’m learning I’m growing. I’m taking on different mitzvahs and I stopped doing drugs by the end of that year, baruch hashem

Gary Waleik  14:59

Flikshtein returned to the US. He says he couldn’t go back to Brandeis, his reputation had preceded him. So he transferred to Yeshiva University in New York, and earned his degree in economics. And he began to date a young woman named Rachel.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  15:15

And it became pretty clear pretty quickly, that we would likely end up getting married. And we were talking like young couples talk about what type of career path are we going to take? So Rachel looked at me and she said, Well, what are you truly passionate about? And I thought for a moment, and I said, Well, the only thing that I could think of right now is that I love learning Torah, and sharing it with others. And she said, so then you should become a rabbi. And I said, Come on, me?! You know where I was just a year ago! Rabbi? Nah, that’s not gonna happen. And she didn’t think it was very funny. She kept the straight face and she said, Well, if it’s something that you’re really passionate about, then you’ll find a way to make it happen.

Gary Waleik  16:08

So Matt, now Motti, And Rachel now Rochel, were married in 2007. They moved to Morristown, New Jersey, where Motti enrolled in the Smicha program at the Rabbinical College of America. He was ordained in 2010. The young couple decided that they would go out on Shlichus as emissaries of the rebbe.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  16:28

We are going to find the community we’re gonna rock the house. Let’s do this.

Gary Waleik  16:32

They got an offer to work in northern New Jersey, but before they accepted, they reached out to the Vogel’s with whom Rochel and her family had become close in Wilmington, Delaware.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  16:43

So after speaking to the Vogel’s they thought it was a fantastic idea.

Gary Waleik  16:47

The Flikshtein’s hit the ground running. Their Hebrew school started with eight kids. Now they serve over 40. Their summer camp now has over 50 kids.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  16:58

And we started a teen program, which is part of an international teen organization called Cteen, which is an absolutely incredible program.

Rochel Flikshtein  17:08

Cteen has become an incredible international network for Jewish teens, where teens can come to meet other Jewish teens that are just like them.

Gary Waleik  17:16

That’s Rebbetzin Rochel Flikshtein,

Rochel Flikshtein  17:18

but it’s also a place to really come and explore what does it mean to be a Jew? So we tried to bring out like real significance for them and what they’re doing and how they’re connecting to their Judaism.

Gary Waleik  17:26

The Flikshtein’s have helped many teens in the Wilmington area do that. When I asked them if a particular success story leaped to mind. They were unanimous

Meir Horowitz  17:36

when I first started Cteen I definitely enjoyed it a lot.

Gary Waleik  17:39

That’s Meir Horowitz known until a fairly recently by his friends and family in Wilmington, as Zach. When he was in 10th grade.

Meir Horowitz  17:48

My mother told me that hip hop Rachel from JCC camp years ago, is coming to the house to talk to me my brothers about a Jewish teen group that she’s starting in Wilmington, Delaware,

Gary Waleik  18:03

but who’s Hip Hop Rachel? That was what they called Rochel Flikshtein, when she was a counselor at the local JCC camp, where she taught hip hop dance for several summers.

Rochel Flikshtein  18:16

They thought it’d be a cool thing to give to the kids at the camp.

Gary Waleik  18:19

Young Zach had Rachel as a counselor starting when he was just seven years old.

Meir Horowitz  18:24

And I remember hiphop Rachel, I just remember her walking around, and her hip hop clothes and teaching us Hip Hop dances. And little did I know that hip hop Rachel would end up having an extremely pivotal impact on my life

Gary Waleik  18:37

at that first meeting at the Horowitz’s home in 2013. Rochel persuaded Zach to be the social director of the new Cteen chapter, which was funny because

Meir Horowitz  18:48

I had no idea what the C in Cteen stood for. I had never heard about Chabad, and I don’t think she even mentioned the word Chabad, just Cteen. So I figured, okay, sure that sounds great.

Gary Waleik  18:58

It was also funny because of Zach’s predisposition against religion of any kind. He had once stood up in history class,

Meir Horowitz  19:06

I raised my hand and very like strongly said to my teacher, it’s quite clear that religion is the cause of all the world’s problems.

Gary Waleik  19:16

But none of that stopped Zach from scheduling and taking part in a full calendar of Cteen social events, including Shabbos meals, paintball outings and trips to Philadelphia to see magic shows

Rochel Flikshtein  19:29

everyone came because Zach was there, he was the life of the party, you know, and he would make things fun, but my husband would come to put Teffilin on with the boys and he would like run to the bathroom and stay there until until everyone was finished and the Teffilin away and then he would sneak back in.

Meir Horowitz  19:44

I would really give Motti a hard time when he would try to wrap teffilin on me. I was genuinely very annoyed by that, because I wanted nothing to do with the actual religious part of it.

Gary Waleik  19:54

But the Flikshtein’s loved Zach unconditionally. They’d often stay up until the wee hours of the morning, answering his many questions about Judaism, and what he considered to be irreconcilable differences between religion and academic views of science and philosophy.

Rochel Flikshtein  20:11

He wasn’t doing the mitzvahs, he wasn’t keeping Shabbos, but he was already philosophically developing his mind to be in such a place where he was searching for the meaning and the purpose behind everything.

Meir Horowitz  20:23

But as the years went on, and Cteen for these few years, I definitely was feeling more of a fire. My neshama was definitely firing up and getting hotter. And I think slowly preparing itself to ultimately jump in.

Gary Waleik  20:39

Between his junior and senior years. Zach went on the Cteen heritage quest, a trip to Poland and the former concentration camps there, followed by a two week trip to Israel.

Meir Horowitz  20:51

And that trip just brought me to a whole new level, it was a real game changer for me.

Gary Waleik  20:55

Zach began to study Torah and take on more and more mitzvahs. He even began wearing a yarmulke to the Quaker school he attended. He says that the Flikshtein’s never once pushed him to do anything.

Rochel Flikshtein  21:08

We really wanted him to be making this decision and driving the car because we knew if there was any pressure, then that’s enough for somebody to push back and go the other direction. And it was really just from his own, you know, embracing it.

Gary Waleik  21:19

Zach finished high school and committed to George Washington University, where he said he wanted to study politics. But he took a gap year in 2017, and studied for a year at Mayanot and then decided to skip College. He now studies full time in Kollel, and goes by his Hebrew name, Meir, and he was married barely three months ago. Now he and his wife Chana want to be Chabad emissaries,

Meir Horowitz  21:20

I absolutely want to become a Shliach. I know I love working with teens. I love inspiring I love just trying to light up people’s souls like my soul was lit.

Gary Waleik  21:57

Meir credits the Flikshtein’s unconditional love, patience and lack of agenda for helping him each step of the way. But he sees something else behind those qualities.

Meir Horowitz  22:08

Now I look back and see well, it was the Rebbe. The Rebbe was just shining from their faces.

Rochel Flikshtein  22:13

I think that the Rebbe really gave over the ability to really transform our lives and to constantly be in a state of growth. And I try to emulate that myself. And I think that’s really the way to be able to teach, is you yourself, live it and grow. And then hopefully that becomes a contagious energy that people can pick up on and taste and want more of as well.

Gary Waleik  22:35

Now remember that this all began with a hug from Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein. He says the Rebbe’s unconditional love for every Jew led him to embrace Matt Flikshtein. But he adds giving out Hugs is not usually in his nature.

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein  22:51

But I did. And I’m very happy I did.

Gary Waleik  22:55

These days the Flikshtein’s are raising seven children. They run several programs at Cabad Lubavitch of Delaware, including J kids Hebrew school, Gan Israel camp, women’s programs, holiday events, and of course Cteen. You could say that helping young people is their forte. But Flikshtein also takes a special pride that his parents have also made huge strides in their Jewish observance.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  23:21

They keep strict kosher, they keep Shabbos my father wears a yarmulke and Tzitzis everywhere he goes, and I’m proud to call myself their son

Gary Waleik  23:31

Flikshtein is also proud to call his best friend Jason, his brother in law, because his wife Rochel, formerly known as hip hop Rachel is actually Jason’s sister.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  23:42

I honestly today could not imagine being happier than I am now. To say that I’m living the dream is an understatement. It’s a dream that I could have never even dreamt of. Right, my father saying the last thing that I need is a rabbi in my house, and my class voting unanimously least likely to become a rabbi. It’s a dream that I could have never dreamt of. My friends who know me from back then, still can’t believe that it’s me. There’s no way you’re Matt Flikshtein. Where do you put him? Where do you where do you lock him up? Because there’s no way that you are him.

Gary Waleik  24:20

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein is 36 years old, double Chai,  which is fitting perhaps for someone who has made such a second life for himself. He doesn’t want to bring back the old matt anytime soon. Although there is one part of his old life that has made a resurgence, rapping.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  24:39

in his heart of hearts a child always wants to come home and his father wants to bring his children into his arms. You simply open up your ears and here he’s trying to call for you to come home. Please come home just come home to Tati

Gary Waleik  24:54

for three years after he became observant Motti Flikshtein stopped rapping, but at one meeting, Weinstein asked him,

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  25:02

What are you doing with your rap? And I said, What are you talking about rap? Come on, I’m an observant Jew now, a Chossid. Rap?? Come on. And he says, No, he says, everything that we have is a gift from God to share our light and positivity and godliness and goodness with the world. And for you, that’s rap.

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein  25:25

He has an ability to reach people in a way that I will never have. Not only because of his natural gifts and personality, but also because of his storyline, where he began and how he evolved and his understanding of worlds that I don’t understand and therefore can never fully connect with on the level he can.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  25:48

I’ll never forget his line that he said, what you can accomplish through one of your rap songs. I can’t accomplish through 1000 sermons,

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein  25:57

and he’s doing it and he’s doing it very, very well.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  26:01

Now, when I use rap, obviously, I’ve totally re channeled it, and I use it for positive messages. Good times in life when we think if God were good, he wouldn’t put us through this.

Gary Waleik  26:17

In 2010, Rabbi Motti Flikshtein, aka more to life, released a 10 Song Collection of rap songs called coming home. This one’s called, “it’s all good”.

26:30

It’s all good. It’s all good. Often we try to see why bad things happen logically, we’re trying to die and if God exists, what kind of God is He? It’s hard to see properly, that this is how it’s got to be. But you got to pick and try to see that God is playing hide and seek you want

Gary Waleik  26:42

 i end our conversation by asking Rabbi flikshtein to tell me about the inspiration for the lyrics.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein  26:47

I would never want my kids to experience what I experienced. And I would never tell anybody to do the things that I did. But in retrospect, the fact that I went through all of that gives me a vantage point to be able to connect particularly with the youth, I’m able to relate to what they go through with stress is with trouble with peer pressure, with the pressures of college and SAT’s and all of that. It’s all good. It’s all good. Everything is for a reason. It’s all God’s so it’s all good. Love life cause it’s good. Listen up people. Good. Don’t ever forget that. It’s all good.

Gary Waleik  27:34

I’m Gary Waleik.  Thanks for listening to Lamplighters stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier.  We welcome your questions and comments about what you’ve just heard on Lamplighters. please email us at podcast@lubavitch.com. And if you know of a great story involving Chabad emissaries or the people they inspire, please let us know about them. That’s podcast@lubavitch.com.  To subscribe digitally to Lubavitch international magazine or to receive it at your doorstep, please visit lubavitch.com/subscribe  This is a Lubavitch International podcast

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