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Shluchim Conference: A Time for Taking Stock


A Chasidic quip attributed to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi says, “Your neighbor’s material wellbeing is the stuff of your spiritual wellbeing.”

This idea, delivered with the familiar punch of Chabad aphoristic teachings, was directed at devout disciples of the founding father of Chabad Chasidism. Men of practiced self-denial, they lived spartan lives in pursuit of holiness. But in establishing some of the foundational values of Chabad, their teacher, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, eschewed any aspirations to the ethereal that might preclude involvement in the corporeal as it pertains to others.

In recent months, Chabad-Lubavitch found itself answering cries for help that concerned the body, not the soul. Chabad Shluchim and young rabbinical students jumped into the trenches, pulling people to safety. In a year visited by severe natural disasters, they threw lifelines to thousands who held on desperately against hurricanes and earthquakes and the subsequent hunger, fear and homelessness. And long after the cameras left the scene, the Shluchim remain, helping victims and survivors pick up the pieces and rebuild.

The interesting thing though, is not that the Shluchim did what they did—of course they would. Much more curious is how the Shluchim came to do this in the first place. Teachers and leaders, the Shluchim are after all, spiritual guides to their communities. Their mission is to build up the Jewish, moral and spiritual quality of life wherever they are. So they open shuls and mikvehs and Jewish day schools. They introduce Shabbat and kashrut and tefillin. They make Jewish marriages and coax Jewish life out of the ground of their adoptive communities.

But in doing this they are also at the center of a larger, more intriguing phenomenon: Their placement which began more than fifty years ago and his since grown steadily, means that today, no one is ever that far removed from the warmth of a Jewish home or the supportive shoulder of a kindred spirit. It’s a changed landscape that Jewish people have come to depend on wherever their travels take them.

Never, though, was this more appreciated than during the recent tsunami and hurricanes. When thousands of displaced people from New Orleans evacuated to states coast to coast, the lights went on in hundreds of Chabad Houses nationwide, and the Chabad-Lubavitch network kicked in with dazzling efficiency.

To sociologists, the Chabad-Lubavitch enterprise is always grist for the mill. But to anyone pondering Chabad’s role in recent events against its origins as a small group of émigrés in the U.S. equipped with little more than a broken English and a fierce devotion to the cause of yiddishkeit, the Rebbe’s legacy mystifies and inspires and humbles.

Maybe, when the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, sent the first Shluchim to Africa or Australia, he intended for this spin-off. Perhaps he hoped to offset the fear and terror such as we’ve seen in the last year, with compassion and kindness that Chabad Shluchim brought to the scene of every disaster. So he dispersed Chasidim to far flung places, even to Thailand and India, ensuring that they would be well positioned to help wherever the need arises. In fact, in all instances—in Phuket, in New Orleans and in Florida, the Shluchim knew the terrain better than others and were able to locate those in danger and lead them to safety. On numerous occasions, Chabad Shluchim became the point-men in a complex relief program involving various government agencies.

Many people expect nothing less of Chabad-Lubavitch. Others wonder how this kind of activity fits a movement whose charter it is to make an “abode for the Divine” in this world. But the dichotomy is superficial, even false, to Chabad’s manifest objective, which harks back to Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s dictum, underscored in recent events: the raw material out of which we nurture our own spiritual growth, comes finally, from our willingness to engage with and respond to the needs of the other.

–Baila Olidort


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