How you become an essential worker

These days, all the talk is about when or how to open up the economy and who is allowed out and who must stay in quarantine. Regardless of where you live, the one thing that has always been the case is that essential workers are allowed out.

Who is essential? The range is huge. From doctors and nurses on one side, to liquor shops and computer stores on the other. The essential workers put their lives on the line so that the rest of us can remain safe at home. But can you become an essential worker if you are not already?

Let us look at this in an allegorical way

There is a wonderful story told of Reb Elimelech of Lisensk, who was visited by a colleague who wanted to know why his spiritual achievements were not on the same level as those of Reb Elimelech.

Reb Elimelech asked him: “Do you say a blessing before you eat an apple?”

“But of course,” replied his friend.

“Aha, therein lies the difference between you and me. When you want to eat an apple, you a blessing, but when I want to make a blessing, I find an apple to eat.”

Now this may seem like semantics but this story encapsulates a powerful idea. The rabbi was telling his friend: when you want to partake in the material world, you understand the importance of saying a blessing to acknowledge that everything, including the apple, comes from G-d. For me, when I want to connect with the Divine, I recognize that as a human I need a material agent to act as my assistant, as such I seek an apple when I want to make a blessing.

With this as a background, I want to tell you how to become an essential worker.

In Hebrew, the word for essence is etzem. In Chassidic parlance, etzem is a reference to your core. Your absolute essential self. The journey of every person is to find their etzem and connect with it. To be true to who they really are. To seek and discover who you really are. To live intentionally not reactively.

I’ll give you an example: I grew up as a child of Chabad emissaries and much of what I worked towards and how I lived my life was set in motion for me, almost because that is all I knew. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, this can create an existential question. Am I doing my work and activities because I am a rabbi, or am I a rabbi because I serve my community?

There is a huge difference depending on how I answer the answer this question. It is highlighted now during quarantine.

If I am a rabbi because of what I do, then when my ability to serve is curtailed by outside circumstances, then my identity is in question. However, if I am serving my community because I am a Chabad rabbi, then my identity isn’t impacted by quarantine or pandemic because who I am hasn’t changed.

Furthermore, it really doesn’t matter what I do, only that whatever I do is consistent with my mission as a Chabad rabbi. Be it picking up trash at the Chabad House or teaching Torah classes live or on Zoom or having minyan on Shabbat, or doing a private prayer service with my family.

If I (or you) am living reactively, and I don’t stop long enough to consider these deep and essential (etzem) ideas. The solution is to go into lock-down, quarantine or whatever you call it and get in touch with your etzem/essence. Once you’ve journeyed to your etzem/essence and come out the other side, now you are an “essential” worker.

If you are an essential worker, you are allowed out. If you are still unsure of who you are, well then, you need to stay inside a little longer until you become an etzem/essence(tial) worker.

Like Reb Elimelech hinted in the story above, it is all about what your focus is, and then your priorities are put in place. Or to frame it using the most extreme language: Are you living because you are not yet dead, or are you alive because you’re living intentionally.

Essential workers are people living intentionally. Let’s all become essential workers.

Blog 55/52

Photo – https://www.southernminn.com/

The Scent Of An Empty Shul

It was the last day of Pesach, and I was in Shul, alone, just me and the many empty chairs, as mandated by the Health department and Rabbinic authorities, that all must practice social distancing and not assemble, to help slow/end this horrible pandemic.

Keeping my promise to act as proxy Yizkor-sayer for my community, with Torah in hand, I gingerly walked up to the ark to carefully remove a scroll and prepare to read the lists of names sent in for memorial on this final day of Pesach.

I moved curtains over, and began to slide the doors of the Holy Ark open to be able to take a Torah in hand. The musty smell of the Torah hit me like a blast in the face. It was a wonderful smell, not at all unpleasant. It was the smell of parchment, and the beautiful covers sitting in an airtight environment encapsulating the over 3,300 years of our Jewish history in front of me. 

As I carefully took the Torah into my hands, I rested it on my chest as I pressed my nose into the soft velvet cover, to take in the wonderful smell of our everything deep into my lungs. Tears formed at the corners of my eyes as I realized that I was holding our precious Torah for the first time in nearly 6 weeks. In my life, I don’t remember going that long not touching, seeing or reading from our holy scrolls.

I realized, as simplistic as it might sound, I missed the Torah. I missed the Torah, and missed our community. I guess I just took for granted the centrality and sense of community that the Torah created. I missed our minyan people and Shul environment more than I realized. 

My thoughts moved over to the colorful and eclectic bunch that made up the totality of our little minyan that could.

There is *Robert. Robert who walks over five miles each way, to and from Shul who certainly comes to take from the community element of Shul, the camaraderie that is in Shul, but who contributes much more than he receives. With his melodic tenor/baritone voice, you hear him before you see him. When he enters the room, the musical part of everyone present is awakened. We all suddenly start davening harder, more meaningfully and with more soul.

Of course there is Mathew. Mathew schleps a long distance and knows most of the prayers but has a palpable depth and connection to the services, almost as if he sees the kabbalistic underlying meanings in everything being read. Being in his presence is like being in the presence of a Rebbe. It makes you want to dig deeper into your soul and find greater meaning to the already time enriched words.

I can’t hold back from mentioning Simcha, our holy Kohen. Reliable as a chronograph, pragmatic as a scientist, friendly as your best neighbor but perhaps his greatest value, like the Kohanim of the ancient times, imbued with the inborn attribute of Chesed/kindness that is deeply attractive, inspiring and encouraging to be our best all at once. He is a magnet of love, and I miss him terribly.

I’m thinking of Mitch, who in his cowboy boots and his strong intentional strides, comes to Shul, not because he was begged to come but because he wants to be there. He represents the essence of a spiritual growth mindset person. We only met a few years ago, and we became fast friends as his pragmatic approach to Judaism has taught me that business, math and science can be tools for greater Jewish adherence and growth. I recall him hearing the line from a Chassdic discourse said at my sons beginning-to-put-on-Tefillin party, where it says that since we are obligated to study Torah all day, but are unable, Gd makes us a deal. Put on Tefillin and I will consider it as if we’ve studied Torah all day. Mitch purchased a pair of Tefillin that instant and started laying them daily. As he put it, “this is the greatest ROI (return on investment) I have seen in a long time.”

There are so many others that are worthy of mention but time does not allow me to go through our entire Minyan that could, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention missing my friend Eric. Eric might be best described as your best friend. The sweetest most easygoing and unassuming person you can meet. Completely comfortable in his own skin, you cannot help but immediately at ease in his company. You just want to share your mind and heart with him. Your wins and losses are celebrated and empathized by him as if he were your brother. Notwithstanding his own medical challenges, you never hear a complaint leave his mouth he is positively embodied. He is the Jewish Mr. Rogers of our Shul and I can’t wait to be reunited with him.

As I finished the Yizkor prayers and put the Torah back into the ark, I took one final deep breath to inhale the fragrance and allow the aroma to enter my lungs and my soul so I can hold onto these deep memories until we can once again reunite in person with the personalities that make up the totality of our little Shul that could.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent

I Tested Positive for Covid-19

POSTED TO FACEBOOK APRIL 13, 2020

Disclaimer: this was written last week, but I refrained from posting I until I was at least 72 hours symptom free and 100% not contagious anymore according to my doctors and cleared to go out with mask on. Thank Gd we are past that point.

Update on my health and a short (not) Passover thought.

Ok, the cat is out of the bag. My test confirming what I already knew came back Saturday night. I am Covid 19 Positive. My intentions originally were to keep this info to myself and family and follow the quarantining instructions and get through it quietly. I am reminded of the old Jewish adage, that if you want to keep something a secret, you cannot tell anyone.

Alas, now that I am getting questions and blessings from so many, on something I didn’t even want known, I’d rather control the message, so here goes.

First of all, while I am one of the 1.5 million confirmed cases (as of this writing), there are millions (possibly 10 times (or more) than that amount that are infected and have mild to no symptoms, so I am not quite that special.

I guess my uniqueness is that I actually got a test before they were widely available.

I want to preface the rest of this note, that I am grateful to Hashem that my symptoms are mild and this story is not even one worth sharing other than the fact that I’ve been approached by so many. Additionally I know many who have passed, close relationships and relatives and others who are fighting for their lives, and they are the real story and should have speedy recovery and the others should be comforted for their losses. Including my cousin in Germany Benyomin ben Faigel and my Sister’s father-in-law Chaim Levi ben Chana Priva.

OK, to answer your questions.

How did I get it?

How did I get a test?

How do I feel?

How long does it last?

When will life go back to what it used to be? (no idea, but it will be a better world when it does, I guarantee that!)

How did I get infected? In all likelihood I was exposed by my children, one who came back from Brooklyn and the other who came from New Haven after having had direct exposure in their school/communities and being sent home. We did try to quarantine them at home, though you can imagine how difficult that is and it did not last long. One child noted how he did not have a sense of smell, a pretty clear early indicator.

I must note that from when they came home we have been practicing social distancing, well before local schools closed and it became a state mandate. Our trips out of the house were very very limited, only to get basics, but with obvious consciousness about not spreading this thing. We treated ourselves as if we were exposed.

My first symptoms were a very low grade fever and super achy muscles that woke me up at night Thursday March 19th. I attributed it to working out too hard on one of those T-20 home workout videos and didn’t think much of it. Friday night, my body felt like 1000 pounds and I couldn’t get out of bed. By Monday I felt fine already. I did have a slight dry cough that I still have, and that has been the one thing I cannot shake. I lost my sense of smell a few days later, but yesterday, I walked into the house and smelled cake baking (at least 10% smell) and I knew right then, that all will be well again on the planet. Eventually.

I got a call for bris, that should’ve been Monday 4/6/20 but I was wracked by guilt that I might expose this young family. I spoke with my PCP Dr’s last week, and was told 72 hours symptom free and I am free to practice mila/circumcision with PPE. The question was, am I symptom free? Other than my slight cough (nearly gone), everything else was fine. I decided I was obligated to tell them the circumstance and help them with a back up plan, and b) to get a test before performing this mitzvah. To my surprise when calling my PCP, they said that they have a drive through at the office, where they can swab me for flu and if negative they can swab me for Covid 19. I did it and the flu was negative, and Covid-19 was positive and I got my call Saturday night.

I immediately notified the family that I could not perform the Bris and am now being even more careful to keep out of site. Having said the above, I am essentially a week symptom free (waiting for the slight cough to finish), though viral “shedding” can continue so being quarantined for Pesach is not such a bad idea for me. My kids, not so happy about this.

I did develop incredible back pain, and one of the docs thought it might be related to pneumonia and ordered lung x-rays and fortunately those turned out clear, so we continue to monitor and keep it safe. If you want to say a prayer, my name is נחמי-ה בן רחל לאה.

So to those who didn’t know, now you do. To those who did, now you know the rest of the story.

For myself, I am grateful to Hashem that what could have been so much worse turned out to be fairly mild.

***

I wouldn’t be a rabbi if I didn’t grab the bully pulpit and share a lesson in what is going on.

I think “formally” having the diagnosis vs. thinking and wondering, allows you the knowledge and the pain of feeling like a leper an outcast of sorts.

If I go for a early morning jog with a bandanna around my face, people will be (rightfully?) upset that I have left my home? Being quarantined, in Jewish history was attributed to the leper who gossiped or spoke evil talk about another. His punishment was to sit outside the camp in the ultimate time out and think about his actions that caused division and separation among husband and wife, or friends (whom he slandered) and now he was separated from the community. He sat there until the Cohen, filled with total love, deemed him healed of the malady and he could return to the camp.

I won’t compare being quarantined by virus in the sense of the sins committed, though Gd knows I can do a much better job of not talking gossip and the like. However I do like the comparison to the quarantine part of it.

The leper needed to step away and do some thinking. The quarantined is being given an opportunity to step away and do some thinking. What am doing? How am I spending my time? What are my values? What is important to me? Perhaps I can take this downtime and step off the hamster wheel of life an reflect what is life about?

Do I like what I see? Where can I make some improvements? Now that has value.

As Divine providence has it, we will be going into Pesach this Wednesday night and will be entering a 72 hour off-line break from technology. We will be “quarantined” from technology a really good idea if I’ve heard one. We will be focusing and ridding ourselves of our chometz, our leaven our ego, anger, and other traits that are just not kosher (for Pesach or ever). Removing the virus of division and deception (to ourselves and others) from our midst.

When we do that, we certainly return after Pesach in a much healthier way, with a fresh new approach to the world and our spiritual identity and relationships. While painful (in many ways) it is worth it if we come out the other side cleaner, healthier and better.

So, as we hunker down, I invite you to hunker with me (figuratively) and learn the lessons without the diagnosis.

May we all be blessed with health and happiness and may all those that need a speedy recovery be blessed by heaven with a full recovery and may we merit the coming of the Moshiach when we will no longer experience illness or war of any type.

A kosher un Freilichen Pesach!

Blog 52/52

HUNKERING DOWN – PANDEMIC DAY ONE – THREE

Photo Credit CDC

Not sure where this is going to go, but it feels like history is being made so I want to document this… if I can keep up.

After a short trip to Maryland (via an airplane -oy) on Thursday, to celebrate with my brother and Chabad’s 10th anniversary, I returned Friday morning to my kids still having school despite schools closing left right and center. Cases of Covid-19 increasing across the nation and in Mass specifically, the anxiety level is higher than I ever remember.

My wife has thankfully stocked up on perishables and I’ve gotten some basics over the past weeks from Costco so we are pretty stocked up on supplies.

The debate to close Shul for Shabbos was deep on my mind, particularly after a number of non-regulars reached out to see if we were having services. Kiddish after services I had already cancelled. Then I found out that the rabbinic council of orthodox rabbis in the Boston area had cancelled. (It seems that there is a larger amount of cases in that area perhaps due to the fact that many in that community are connected to some who attended the bio-gen event in Boston, where someone was infected and inexplicably infected a disproportionate amount of others.)

After speaking to a Rabbinic Authority and local medical expert, it became clear that while I didn’t want to, I needed to remove myself from the equation and close up. So we did.

We found out that our daughters school in Brooklyn was now closed but her dorm remains open until Monday. We need to get her home on Sunday. Two kids still away from home, in New Haven and in Grenada Hills, CA… meanwhile they are still at school… we will see.

Cancelled our Shabbos guest and hunkered down with our neighboring Chabad Rabbi and family from Chelsea.

From the moment the Shabbat candles were lit and put our phones and devices down the anxiety abated and we were able to relax.

It was a lovely Friday night dinner. Everyone was in bed at a reasonable time, and woke up late as there wasn’t the usual rush to be ready before Shul.

After sleeping more hours than in a long time, awakened and had a chance to do a whole bunch of studying while the kids played and ate. And ate, and ate again.

Shabbat morning. We went to Shul ourselves and prayed. My wife and 4 kids who are at home. Prayed a lovely service. Made kiddish and had leftover Hamentashen and came home for the Shabbat meal.

Grabbed a Shabbat nap and then we all took turns.

Dads went for a walk while moms watched the kids. Came back and switched. Moms out walking while dad’s watched the kids. Got in some more studying while the kids played in the backyard.

As Shabbos drew to a close and we did Havdalah, I really did not want to got to my phone. It could not possibly bring me good news. I was right.

The pit in the stomach is back, but I am confident that we will get through this together yet separately.

Tomorrow is another day, lets see what excitement that brings.

There is a planned bris for twins in Burlington…. let see what happens?

Day #2

When Shabbat ended we went into full panic mode. Our daughter in NY had no ride home and our son in New Haven either. Within a few hours, we had these details in place but now it was after midnight.

I got late confirmation that my bris of the twins was still on for 10:30am in Burlington the next morning. Everyone is freaking out about the Virus, so this would be my first bris with face masks and a minimal amount of guests.

Late to bed and early to rise. Got a lot of my daily studies done early and was able to leave to the bris in peace. The brisim took a few hours, till both brisim were done and babies were safe. Grabbed a much needed Starbucks on the way home.

Both, older children who had been in environments where presumptive coronavirus cases had been confirmed were coming home, so there were a few things I wanted to take care of before they got home.

Came back and did a great four mile run (10 1/2 minutes mile) got my juice flowing.

Son dropped off, and a while later my wife picked up my daughter from her dropoff point in Brookline, but she was legitimately coughing. We decided to call our doctor who suggested we have her swabbed. That journey took us 3 hours while they said she is fine and her lungs are clear and she does not warrant a swab. (I think there needs to be more tests so that they are not nit picky about testing her, and giving the rest of us more relief from worry.)

The upside of my day was that I was able to avoid much of the news that is foreboding and filled with impending disaster.

Tonight, 6 of 7 kids are at home. Tomorrow we will all be home.

Highlight of my day, the “family meeting” at dinner that we will not be on devices all day. For the next month, we will need to have special time for learning, praying, playing, getting outside, chores cleaning for Passover and more. 

Will that work? No one knows. 

Day two was filled with many distractions that were a blessing in and of themselves.

Hello, day three. What drama or relief can you bring?

DAY THREE – 3

OK, closing out day three. The market crashed nearly 3000 points today. Afraid to even look at the damage. I repeat the mantra.. over the long haul it all bounces back and even higher. Said that three times and I am not looking back.

Woke up late. That was nice. Simply nothing urgent pulling me out of bed. Once I got up, the older-younger (not the littlest but not the older ones) kids were already up. Decided to play hooky a bit. I figured this would be a good time to go stock up on meat in Boston, and get a large Starbucks on the way and hit the bank. So with the wife’s blessings, I did.

Came back a couple hours later and we did a family davening at Chabad. We all went in the car around the block and prayed. Together. Something we’ve never done until Corona. It was unusual but also special. We did a little charity and Torah study after our family service. 

Family dropped off, I went back to the office to do a bit of work. More playing hooky.

Came back a bit later and had lunch. Did my half hour watch of the kids. That is another thing my wife instituted to keep the peace. Each person 14 and older has a half hour window where they watch the kids.

Exercise, a key component to staying healthy sane and calm, but now it was only 36 degrees and I couldn’t ditch yet again. So, I bundled the younger two in coats, gloves and a blanket in the jogger carriage and went for a 4 mile run. They were kvetchy and I anticipated it so I brought chocolate and of course it did wonders. 

Came home, sit ups and pushups and time to work on dinner. Grilled some food, and we sat down as family. Minus mendy, who will be arriving tonight. Everyone shared their best moments of the day. I have to to admit, that I was a flake today and let my wife carry the heaviest lifting. But overall it was a great day. Videos were kept to a minimum.

The BIG deal of the day is that tomorrow most of the kids have some form of online school. We will see if we have enough broadband to make it happen. 

The scary news. More cases of people getting sick are starting to show up. My sisters father in law is hospitalized (Rabbi Goldstein from the story tapes) though it seems that he is stabilized but only after being intubated. Depending which report you follow.

I really stayed away from FB and internet news much of the day. I find that to be very helpful.

Stayed very present and mindful and that helped as well.

Tonight, all 9 of us under one roof. Praying!

Let’s see what day 4 brings.

Imposter Syndrome

Do you ever feel in the deepest recesses of your heart that you are an imposter? That the image that you are portraying to the world is not who you really are? That you have managed to successfully fool the world about who you are or your talents? That at any time someone is going to come and expose you for fraud you really are?

A study in the UK found that 85 percent of people suffer from Imposter Syndrome. Studies further show that imposters’ exist in every arena of life. Doctors, lawyers, professionals of all stripes. Rabbi’s included :-). 

One can simply dismiss this is as low self-esteem (and they might not be wrong) but there is a deep lesson in personal development to be taken by exploring this a bit further.

There is nothing wrong with having a little imposter syndrome as it keeps us humble and keeps us sharp. However when it starts to impede on our life and stop us from being truly happy then it has gone too far. The further danger is that many (most?) people, rather than look at their imposter syndrome as a motivation for personal growth, they look at it a sign of weakness and they combat it as much as possible. Their fear of being exposed is so great that they will do anything, including lashing out at anyone and everyone who dares to expose them. In fact, they will lash out at anyone who they fear will expose them when often this person is not even thinking about them, and is merely a figment of their imagination….

***

This, I posit, is the essence of the Story of Purim.

It started with Hamen and his extreme overreaction to Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to him. While bothersome and offensive, this should not have generated such an intense hatred for not only Mordechai, but the entire Jewish people, men women and children. This genocide that he planned was a distraction from his efforts to consolidate power for himself. Yet he pursued this vigorously as his imposter syndrome was deeply triggered by Mordechai. 

Mordechai’s not bowing was more than a generic respect for the prohibition of bowing to Idols. To Hamen it signaled that people (mordechai) could see through the mask of his insecurity. It meant that while he represented evil and power, others, a holy sage in Persia wasn’t impressed with him. In fact he was so unmoved by him that he didn’t even look up from his (holy) book that he was studying to bow to him. This triggered Hamen so deeply that he needed to eradicate Mordechai and all that he represented.

For the Jewish people too, there was an element of Imposter Syndrome at play as well. If they had the strength of conviction and security to know who they really are – proud Jews – and not try so desperately to fit in, the Hamen’s of the world would have no power over them. This is why their attendance at Achashverosh’s feast was so troublesome. Not because the food wasn’t kosher, because it was, their attendance highlighted their Imposter Syndrome insofar as they should not have needed validation from their Persian neighbors to confirm their identity and self worth.

They should have been confident with who they were as Jews to say, have fun at your party, but I have different values. This is, in fact, the story of our people throughout all of history. Every time we as Jews try to fit in, it not only doesn’t endear us to our host countries, it actually bothers them. The world respects Jews when Jews respect Jews. When we are confident and secure in our Jewish identity. 

Alas, the story ends well. Mordechai is able to generate the Jewish enough Jewish pride, with the help of the school children – as is always the case, if you can get the kids on board the adults follow – and with fasting, prayer and of course the interceding of Esther the queen, the true imposters are exposed for the frauds that they are, and the insecurity of the Jews is removed and we eat Hamentashen, drink and are merry to celebrate this occasion.

My thanks to Rabbi YY. Jacobson for his insights upon which this essay is based.

Blog 50/52 Photo Google

The Spiritual Maverick

The Rebbe, whose 70th anniversary of assuming the mantle of leadership of the Chabad movement is today, was and is by all estimations an out of the box thinker. He revolutionized and revitalized Judaism in a post Holocaust America, and around the world. He was a maverick unafraid to buck the trends and do things his own way, and as time has shown, he was incredible at what he did. Transforming the landscape of Judaism on levels unprecedented. What is fascinating is that while quiet and unassuming prior to leading the movement, the Rebbe had dreams and visions that we couldn’t even have fathomed.

My grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Schusterman, who was a printer for most of his life here in America, shared the following story.

Shortly after the passing of the previous Rebbe, in fact just after the shiva, during the space of time when it was unclear who’d assume the mantle of leadership to the Chabad Chassidim he, my grandfather, encountered the RaMaSh (Rabbi Menachem Schneerson) who would later formally take on the role of Rebbe.

The Rebbe told my grandfather, that prior to his passing, the previous Rebbe, Rabbi YY Schneerson, his father in law, mentioned to him that “we need to make a new Siddur.” When the Rebbe (RaMaSh) asked his father in law what he meant by this, his father in law did not answer.

My grandfather pressed and asked the RaMaSh – The Rebbe – what he thought the intention of that request was? The RaMaSh answered, “he intended to hint that now begins a new Seder.”

[Explanation: Siddur – prayer book – is almost the same word as Seder – which means order- meaning, the Rebbe was telling my grandfather, that his father in law, the previous Rebbe was indicating that it is time for new world “order” in how the Lubavitch movement was to run.]

It is clear that the Rebbe knew back in 1950, some 70 years ago that the Lubavitch movement, with him at its helm was meant to transform that the world. Indeed it did and continues to do so.

So, what will you do today to transform the world just a bit?

Pictured – The Previous Rebbe, Rabbi YY Schneerson with his son in law, the RaMaSh later to become the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Also pictured is my grandfather and my grandmother, from roughly that period of time

49/52 Photo Gershon Schusterman and Unknown cousin

Motomags Closes For Shabbos

Pictured is Mike’s proud sign announcing his closing his store for Shabbos.

As a Chabad yeshiva student, your Friday “job” is to go out there, do your route, put on Tefillin with people, distribute Shabbos Candles and fan the flames of Judaism in the people that you meet. (Read more about this in my recent piece http://rabbischusterman.com/excuse-me-sir-are-you-jewish/ .)

The effect of your outreach efforts are rarely seen or recognized. This is ok, because it is not about the feel good of a positive result but the mission of fanning the embers of latent soul Judaism in those you are in contact with. You are always having an impact. Sometimes it is strictly hidden and soulful in nature, other times it you can see the tangible results.

Having said the above, we often don’t know that while to us, this is a short interaction where someone did me a favor possibly, or indulged our Chabadnik “mishegas” there is an entire other side of the equation. The person who we interacted with.

Did they like putting on Tefillin? Did it have meaning for them? Did they forget about our interaction the moment the door closed behind us? Did they think about it further? Were they moved? Moved enough to do anything?

Often we will never know the answer.

Recently I got the answer to a two decades old Mivtzoyim interaction.

Some 23 years ago I did a two year stint in South Africa, where I was studying and also acting as an “older brother” or student Shliach to the local community. I was partnered up with a native, Yossi Pels, who fast became a dear friend, to do our Mivtzoyim route in downtown Johannesburg.

Not the safest neighborhood at the time, but the work had to be done. There was a sweet fellow and his wife who had a tire, alignment and hubcaps store there who we will call Mike.

We visited Mike weekly. Our charm was irresistible and within a period of time he’d put on the Tefillin with us weekly. We grew fond of one another, even purchasing a Siddur for him as a gift but alas, my time in the country was coming to an end. With promises to keep up with one another, and in a world before facebook, the relationship petered out for me. Yossi stayed in touch with Mike, but he too eventually married and moved to the United States so while more in touch with Mike than me, he was only able to be in contact to a point.

Now, South African Jews are a funny bunch. Regardless of their level of observance they are very traditional. It is not uncommon to attend Shul regularly even while leading a very secular non-yet-observant lifestyle. That’s just what they do there. Our friend Mike, attended (and still does) the Sydenham Highlands North Shul, where Rabbi Yossi Goldman, a Chabadnik is the rabb.

To be totally candid, I basically forgot about Mike, that is, until very recently.

You see, I was at the wedding of my niece in Allentown, PA, and one of the groom’s uncles is the very same, Rabbi Yossi Goldman of Mike’s Shul. His nephew and my niece were married.

I know Rabbi Goldman, though my senior, and we schmoozed about the good old days in South Africa. He then mentioned Mike and a special letter he received from him. (This letter, while nearly 20 years old, only came to my attention now.)

I obtained a copy of that letter, and to my great joy, a twenty plus year gap of information came full circle, and I was let in, to what Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.”

It reads as follows (I’ve cut out various parts of the letter).

Dear Rabbi,

I have a story which I, as a member of your congregation, would like to relate to you… I was brought up in a less observant branch of Judaism… I later tried another Temple which felt closer to that of the orthodox service, but I didn’t care much for that Shul either so I eventually took the step of attending services at Sydenham Highlands North.
It took a bit of time but I managed to get the hang of it and even enjoy it…

The aforementioned paragraphs are just to give you a sort of overview of where I come from in the world of Judaism and the story I want to relate to you now begins…

About two years ago, on a Friday (that was over 22 years ago Editors note), some “strange fellows” walked into my business which is situated in the middle of Johannesburg and asked if anyone was Jewish. I answered in the affirmative.
They asked me if I had put on Tefillin that day and I answered that I had not.
At this stage I must tell you, Rabbi, that I had never ever put on Tefillin in my life and that the only time I had seen it was when was in the army when I, together with all the other non-Jewish soldiers watched,, which I considered to be a very strange performance.

To get back to the story, I was embarrassed at the question, not because of the question itself, but because of the fact that I had never put on Tefillin before and would therefore make a fool out of myself by asking any further questions.

The gentlemen then asked me if I would like to put on Tefillin there and then and for reasons that I have already mentioned, I refused and they then left.

But they persisted, and visited me again the next Friday, asked me the same question, whereupon I confided with them of my history. I led them upstairs where they “fitted” the Tefillin on my arm and asked me to read the relevant portion.

I will never forget the feeling that I experienced the first time that the Tefillin was put onto my arm, in fact, that feeling came upon me for the first three times that I put on Tefillin. It was almost as if I was suddenly wrapped up in a special kind of cacoon. I have never ever felt such a special feeling in my life before this. I was also surprised to find out that I actually knew the portion that was related to the Tefillin.

At the time of all of this, my business was going through a rather bad patch. The bank had pulled the carpet and I was in rather deep trouble, not knowing which way to turn or where to get help.

Although I never told the “Shluchim” how bad things were for me at the time, except for the fact that “business was not so good.”

After a few Friday’s of the “Shluchim” visits, I decided to order my very own tefillin from them of which they duly obliged. I have been putting on Tefillin every day that it is allowed and believe that it changed my life completely.

I became calm and seemed to have a more clear head in business. Although my business was running very heavily on overdraft, I felt sure of myself and even managed to scrape a few Rand to invest in the stock market.

A few weeks ago, everything came to fruition! I woke up one morning, and after opening my business for the day, I suddenly called my stock broker and instructed him to sell the complete share portfolio that Ihad built up over the past few years. The broker went crazy and asked me what type of strategy I was pursuing, and that it was not the right thing to do…

But, I had other ideas and told him, much to his dismay, to sell out. I need not tell you what then happened to the stock market.
I then phoned my bank manager, made an appointment to see him, and took my business out of an overdraft that exceeded R$500,000!!

Rabbi, this is not a letter which is intended to boast of the fact that I did so well, and managed to sell at the right time on the stock market. It is a letter in which I wish to inform everyone who wishes to listen, that I firmly believe that it was the the “Shluchim’s” visits, which introduced me to Tefillin, that helped me to get totally out of dept to my bank. (In fact, my bank manager thinks I am a genius and cites me as an example to other clients.)

Oh, and by the way, business is still a little shaky, but I know that I, together with my Tefillin, will work my way to better turnover which, believe it or not, is already starting to happen.

I extend to you and your family my very best regards and a Happy, Healthy New Year!

I’ve since been reconnected with Mike via WhatsApp and via my old South African buddy, Yossi Pels who has maintained connection with Mike and visits when he is visiting South Africa.

I have further found out that Mike now puts on Tefillin daily, and has done so for the past 20 plus years or so. Furthermore, Mike is now the “Shluchim” he fondly recalls in his letter, as he has become the lamplighter himself. As folks pull into his shop to get the new tires, or an alignment, he reminds them that they need a “spiritual alignment” as well. He then offers them the opportunity and gift to put on Tefillin.

BUT THERE IS MORE!!! (As they say in those late night commercials encouraging you to buy double the amount of a product you don’t need!) About 6 months ago, Mike took yet a further step in his ongoing journey of Yiddishkeit! He closed his store for Shabbos, even though that is the busiest day of his work week. His faith is so staunch that he feels confident that Hashem will provide for him in other ways or on other days whatever he’d lose by closing on the holy Shabbos day!

This story, one of millions certainly, is still unfolding, but it is certainly the fulfillment of a vision that the Rebbe had when he launched the Tefillin movement in 1967. To expose another to the raw, naked truth of Judaism, is guaranteed to light, or fuel an existential fire which can only lead to better results not only spiritually, but physically as well, as conveyed in the story above.

Give it a try. Wherever you are on the planet, there is a Chabadnik waiting to wrap the Tefillin on you.

Pictured is a siddur and inscription Yossi and I presented to Mike many years ago.

Pictured is Mike’s proud sign announcing his closing his store for Shabbos.

Blog 48/52 Photo Credit Yossi Pels

Reflections on 20 Years of Marriage

Today is our 20th anniversary. Reflections.

(yes, there have been many celebrations within our family in the last few days and there are more coming up, for which we are so incredibly grateful to Hashem for, but I’m not gonna let another blessed celebration go by without a little focus and attention. And on that note, pardon any typos as that has not been much sleep lately LOL 🙂.)

מָצָא אִשָּׁה מָצָא טוֹב וַיָּפֶק רָצוֹן מֵיְהוָה.

Proverbs 18:22

Loose translation: One who finds a woman finds good and he will produce (good) will from G-d.

But how do you know if you found a good woman? On a certain level it is a Soul connection… that you can feel immediately.

Another good test is to see if it stands the test of time. 20 years is a pretty darn good start. Though I am gunning for another 80 at least….

Loving this roller coaster ride with you…

Here are 20 musings on 20 years…

1. Happiness is a journey, not always a destination. Let’s keep on journeying together.
2. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger is actually a true statement.
3. Personal independent growth, helps a marriage grow stronger.
4. As long as there is respect, you can get through anything.
5. Kids are to a marriage what harmony is to music. Sometimes the music is off key, sometimes the harmony is 🙂.
6. Vacationing together is glue for a marriage.
7. Vacationing not together, with friends, is too.
8. This may be old fashioned but she still hasn’t taken out the garbage in 20 years.
9. “Things” are great, “experiences” can be greater. Both is the best.
10. Pushing each other to be our best selves is working.
11. If you are not growing, you are receding.
12. Laughter, laughter and more laughter, balm for the soul.
13. When you love the person you are with, a pimple looks like a dimple.
14. A happy loving marriage is the best gift you can give your children.
15. Pretty much everything in life is unreliable, your marriage shouldn’t be.
16. Feeling heard is as important as being right.
17. “I am not feeling heard“, is better than why aren’t you listening to me?
18. If you cannot quite muster up the words “I am sorry,“ “Fair enough“ is a pretty decent second best…
19. In the beginning we talked about people. Later about thing, now we are talking about ideas. This is best.
20. i’m leaving this one blank opening space for others to share theirs….

Blog 47/52 Photo Credits (my Shvigger)

A Real Kodak Moment

When my father got remarried my amazing stepmother, my Ema, he often shares – much to Raizel’s chagrin – that in the beginning he would pull out one child at a time from a closet, spaced out by a week, so she wouldn’t be shocked at having married a man with 11 children.

While one can debate the depth of the humor, the point is certain worth exploration. In China they limit the amount of births allowed due to concern of over population and the ability to sustain the masses.

Many wonder about the ability to properly tend to the needs of so many children. In fairness, there are certainly times when the burden of the “squeaky wheel child” may take some of a parents energy for the rest of the brood.

Having said this, I like to tell people, with a fair measure of sincerity, that love is like a flame of a candle, sharing it with others doesn’t take away from the original candle. You can light hundreds of other candles without diminishing the original candle at all.

This is not true quantitatively, as there are a finite number of hours in a day, however, qualitatively, the depth of the love is limitless. Just when you think you have reached your max, your find new reservoirs of love for another child.

This is why, when I attended the wedding of my niece this past week, I was most moved by a short moment after the Chuppa, and before the reception, that while sweet to most of the onlookers, was particularly meaningful to me a Chabadnik in the burbs trying to just keep up with chaos of life and a family with seven children.

The memo went out, “everyone, family picture NOW in the hallway outside the ballroom, get there now!” Of course I dutifully showed up, but was caught off guard at the size and scope and diversity of the massive group of people jockeying for position in the picture. Little kids in front, adults sitting, teenagers in the back. Oh, and short, fat, balding adults (me), stand with the teenagers.

My in-laws, who are relatively young, sitting pridefully like a king and queen, sitting in the center and can say with incredible pride, look at what we have made. If they did nothing else in their lifetime, this would be worthy of a top shelf spot in paradise.

A young man from Brooklyn, and young lady from Kfar Chabad, a small village in Israel, managed to create a veritable army of successful people with potential that is endless in under a generation.

Not even three decades later, hundreds of children and grandchildren following in their footsteps, is a naches that is brag worthy and a real feather in their cap.
What makes this notable is that it is just a short time after the holocaust where much of both of their families were decimated by the Nazi’s, may their names be blotted out forever.

What makes even more notable is that this is happening in the snowflake generation where the me me me movement is at its strongest (in history?) and yet, there is a love, a bond and unity that replaces the I with the we at least most of the time.

Making life is easy, giving life is harder. Giving a life of values, meaning and purpose is harder yet. Yet this is what they did. This is what it means to have a large family. This is why we do it. This is what makes it worth it all!

Sure, we are no different than others in our squabbles and other idiosyncrasies. We have our differences both with one another and in our individual relationships with Gd. We journey uniquely, but we journey purposefully. In that we are all the same.

A large family is a lot . A lot of work, time, exhaustion, expense and the list goes on, and on, and on. But if I ever doubted its worth, that snapshot (or Kodak moment for those who remember) the other night put the value of it all into crystal clear focus.

Mazal Tov Shver and Shvigger. Look at what you did? You can be really proud.

Lechayim! Onto the next Simcha!

Blog 46/52 Photo Credit Mushka Morozow

Excuse me sir, are you Jewish

“Excuse me sir, are you Jewish?”

“No thank you, I already ate lunch.”

***

***

“Excuse me ma’am, are you Jewish?”

“Excuse me ma’am, are you Jewish?”“No, sorry, I am gender neutral.”

***
“Excuse me sir, would you like to put on Tefillin?”

“What is that?”

“Phylacteries”

“Oh” (confused look crossing individuals face)… “um, what are Phylacteries?”

***

It began on the streets of downtown LA, in the fashion district, with the vast majority of people on our “route” being Persian clothing designers. With their accented English they were happy to see us, we were the Yeshiva boys.

Later it continued on the streets of France, Champs Elysees in Paris to be more specific. My partner Berel L, who was a French Yeshiva student did the talking and I did the wrapping. This was my second extended exposure to this concept.

It continued still in New York, though there things had progressed, we were no longer just doing the basics, the whole program had graduated. Here things were seriously organized. The streets of Manhattan, an organized grid, not like the sloppy city planning of my current location of Boston, oh no, New York had a “system.”

Each Street and each Avenue had their set of “bochurim” who were in charge of their couple blocks (or even buildings as the place was so densely Jewishly populated) that was under their care.

Now, we even had colorful paper handouts to give along with out Tefillin laying and Shabbat Candle packets for the women. The concept I am describing was and is one of the signature achievements the Rebbe of Righteous memory, it was called by the loose description- Mivzoyim.

Literally, the word Mivtzoyim refers to the 10 Mitzvah Campaigns that the Rebbe introduced at various times, such as the Tefillin Campaign, a prominent one, started by the 6 day war. The Rebbe posited that his adherents go “out” into the world to do this mitzvah with every Jewish man as the spiritual benefit would not only benefit the person putting on the Tefillin, keeping them safe, but would bring that good energy into the world making the world safer. Other Mitzvah’s like Mezuzah, Shabbat Candles, and having a house full of Jewish books were among the popular Mitzvah Campaigns. For all 10 click here https://www.chabad.org/…/jewi…/10-Point-Mitzvah-Campaign.htm

The colloquial term, Mivtzoyim had a whole other meaning! It wasn’t just a reference to the the many campaigns of the Rebbe but it was a thing you did, and specifically on Fridays.

There were 9 other Mivtzoyim but on our Friday “routes” we focused on three primarily.

Putting on Tefilin with the men, giving a Shabbat Candle Packet to the women, and encourage both men and women to put a coin (at least) in the tzedaka box. Later we would give them some prepared pamphlet for our “customers” to read, usually a short word of Torah wisdom, a story, other little Jewish factoid that made for interesting reading material.

Later in 1988, that pretty little pamphlet got the name LeChaYim. An acronym word, that spelled (in Hebrew) “For the Memory of Chaya Mushka (Schneerson) the Rebbe’s late wife.

A third and less discussed component was the impact it had on the Bochur. The Yeshiva students who went out to do the mivtzoyim. The “me” in this case. While an extrovert at least on the surface (pun intended) I was a pretty shy young man. Oh, sure, within my own circle of friends I was loud and opinionated, but ask me to go over to random stranger and ask for any basic information, and I would have rathered not.

Ask me to go over to a complete random stranger on the street and ask them a) if they are Jewish. If I got a positive reply, ask them if b) they’d like to put on the Tefillin?!! That really was out of my comfort zone. And if and when they did answer to the affirmative to both, their question in return would be “where do you want to put them on? Right here in the street?” To which I’d reply, “Yes! Right here on the street,’ ‘in the subway station,’ ‘on the train’” or wherever we were at that particular moment. (Nervous chuckle from both of us)

It was super awkward to say the least but it really did thicken the social skin. Now, don’t think twice asking that question. Or many other uncomfortable questions for that matter. That school of hard knocks, or strange or downright obnoxious responses actually did me a great service in my personal and social development for life.

Those thousands of micro-experiences helped fashion many a young shy, awkward child into a confident adults who have the courage to ask tough questions, stand up for their convictions, better handle obnoxious people and comments, and in general have thicker skin to handle the many (far larger) disappointments of life.

I don’t think that this was the primary goal of the Mivtzoyim campaign, but I do think this is and was one of the many many excellent unintended consequences of many of the Rebbe’s world changing ideas and innovations.

***

I was recently contacted by the editor of the Lechaim Magazine asking seeking permission to reprint an article they found on my website. In her email she boasted that the magazine now has a weekly printing of nearly 35,000 copies just in the NY Metro Area, Toronto and Montreal. This didn’t include the printings that go on in LA, Paris, Manchester, London, Sydney and many other places across the world where they are doing Mivtzoyim.

Of course I said yes, and was humbled to have this journey of personal fulfillment come full circle. Where now, I was no longer just going on Mivtzoyim, now everyone going on Mivtzoyim would take a piece of me with them, at least for this one week.

Excusez-moi monsieur, voulez-vous mettre le Tefillin? Excuse me sir, would you like to put on the Tefillin?

Photo Credit Yanky Ascher

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