Dear Shaya,

Today (Thursday morning) we davened together in the Rebbe’s room where you got your first aliya to the Torah. That room is the Rebbe’s office, a place I never went to during the Rebbe’s zy”a’s lifetime, and your Zeidyies only went inside a handful of times in their lives.

You mentioned to mommy that this was a special moment for you. This was your moment with the Rebbe.

You know Shaya, you are a special guy. We have seven special and amazing children and you are special and amazing in your own way.

I want to share about my Bar Mitzvah letter that is going to be read in just a few moments… and what I can only imagine it was for me – and what I hope your moment with the Rebbe today, will be for you and let this be your moment of connection.

Sadly, I don’t really remember much about the arrival and reading of my bar mitzva letter. There was a lot going on for me at that time in my life and my memories of that time are fuzzy. Yet, when I was talking with mommy yesterday about her bas mitzvah letter that she received and how much it meant for her and how Zeidy so carefully read it for her, I can share what I imagine it could’ve and should’ve looked like.


Yesterday, I went to my special place where I store my handful of possession from the Rebbe. There are a few dollars, a few likutim/pamphlets, a minted coin and a Tanya. My bris letter is there and my bar mitzvah letter and not too much else.

I can only imagine how the great unboxing or letter opening happened…

I close my eyes and imagine what it was like …

It is the lead up to my bar mitzva and the Rebbe’s office was informed of my upcoming bar mitzva by my father. Some time later a letter arrives in the mail to 4572 Linden Ave. Long Beach California, 90807. I imagine my father quickly runs to the Mikveh so he is in a pure spiritual state before opening this holy communication.

I can imagine him gathering the family together, preparing them for this special moment when the Rebbe’s letter will be read. It doesn’t matter that 1000’s of other bar mitzvah boys have received this letter before me. The verbiage matching word for word, but this is MY moment. My minute where the Rebbe took a few seconds to think about me, and wish the best for my spiritual and material wellbeing.

I can imagine the envelope slowly being opened as anticipation builds. The letter is carefully opened with the consideration of someone who excitedly prepares to add a new priceless stamp to an invaluable collection.

The brittle paper is removed from the envelope as loving hands open it and read clearly in both Hebrew and then English so that I can understand its contents.

That was the price and reward for living out on Shlichus. You savored every bit of connection to the Rebbe whose mission you were on. You didn’t get to have daily or weekly communication, but the few communications you had were most cherished and relished.

My dear Shaya, you too are a shliach – willing or not as the kids are sometime careful to point out to me – you, like me, were given the gift of living far away from friends and family to help us in our work to spread Yiddishkeit to people who don’t even know that they are missing anything.

The hard part is that it can be lonely at times, and sometimes there is no kosher restaurants, family or family around. So, courtesy of Covid, we tried to give you both. You get to have a celebration here in NY with your friends from camp, cousins and uncles and aunts and our extended family, and next Shabbos we will have a big kiddush in shul for our local Chabad community.

Most importantly, cherish that special moment from this morning and appreciate it, hold onto it, let it buoy you during tough times and be your crown in my better times.

Love Mommy & Tatty

12 Steps and the Omer – Is the time of the Omer good or bad?

During this season every year – in between Passover and Shavuot – I find it a bit confusing. Is it a good time or a bad time? Is it a happy time or a sad time? On one hand we don’t do weddings and other restrictions. On the other hand, it is time of great internal cleansing as we count the Omer each night, to prepare for the giving of the Torah at Sinai. By contrast it is a time just after leaving Egypt, easily the lowest the Jewish people ever found themselves spiritually, and now we are on a 49 day journey to our complete spiritual awakening at Sinai. This journey, it would seem, would certainly be a positive one?

So which one is it?

Hillel the Elder said, as it related to loving your fellow person, “that which is hateful to you, don’t do to another. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary.”

In a similar style of simplifying the otherwise lengthy and complex, in 1937, Dr. Bob (Smith), founder of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), said the 12 steps of AA could be summarized in these three, two word sentences.

Trust God. Clean house. Help others. The rest is commentary.

Here is the full length version:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

You could see why his “summarization” is very helpful.

Not to simplify a lengthy – lifetime – journey from addiction to sustained sobriety, but there is a deep wisdom in this summary. The first three steps focus on our helplessness, our recognizing that we were powerless over a power stronger than ourselves (our drug of choice) and we had to humbly admit our inability to manage our lives. We had to turn to a Higher Power to help us, drag us out of our desperate state. That is “Trust God.”

The next eight steps are the inner work that we need to do. Making an honest and fearless moral inventory about who we are, what we are, what is not right and what needs fixing and starting the process of facing these painful truths and finally doing something about it. This is “Cleaning house.”

Finally, the outcome of all this is that when we work the program, we will have a “spiritual awakening” and we are to share this with others. This is “Helping Others.”

Incredibly, this is the exact journey the Jews had leaving Egypt to Sinai and we find ourselves in right now during the counting of the Omer.

Egypt, is that state of being where we were so helpless, we were so powerless over our lives that if it were not for the “Grace of God” we would have indeed become unredeemable. We didn’t free ourselves, God took us out and saved us. It was not on the merit of something we did, it is simply because He chose to do so. This is the humility and brokenness represented by matzah and specifically the broken matza and the holiday of Passover. One might say that Passover is steps 1-3 of the 12 steps. “Trust God.”

The next 49 days we work on our character defects and cleansing them. This is exactly the work of the counting of the Omer. (Each day corresponds to one the seven emotional attributes and their inter-correlation with another one of the 7. So kindness within kindness, Kindness within severity etc..) This is essentially a fearless moral inventory of every facet of our character, working and praying to God to remove them, making amends and turning a new leaf. This is essentially steps 4-11 of the 12 steps. “Clean House”

Finally, if we’ve done our work, we are assured that we will have our spiritual awakening. A Divine revelation that is far beyond the effort we put in, a gift from God if you will, and that is the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten commandments and the Torah. Our job is to receive it and work on it and share it with ourselves and others. This is step 12. “Help Others”

So, is counting the Omer a good period of time or bad? Is it happy or sad? The answer is that it is neither and both at the same time. It is a time we cease being what we were – helpless and out of control – and work on becoming brand new, what we will ultimately become, a true and humble servant of God. That is both extremely sobering (pun intended) and very inspiring.

It is not a time of frivolity nor is it a time of sadness. It is a special time of deep introspection and growth as we become reborn as brand new people as we work to become the new version of ourselves.

That is something worth celebrating, and we do it as we have the promised “spiritual awakening” on Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.

(Based on a series of lectures given by Rabbi Shais Taub)

Being Vulnerable Is Being Strong

At a 12 Step Recovery meeting I attended a while back one of the people shared the following quote that resonated with me. “Being vulnerable is being strong.” Often in life we are afraid to simply ask for help or guidance thinking that it makes us weak or incompetent.

I recently finished an incredible book entitled, The Only Life I Could Save, by Katherine Ketcham on addiction and recovery.

She shared the most powerful story:

During family week at the wilderness recovery center her son was attending in Montana, they did numerous group activities to build connections, and help each one understand the another. One of the activities was blindfold everyone, and walk them to a rope maze, which they were to exit using only their hands and following the ropes.

Occasionally, the staff would step in and ensure that participants didn’t bump into each other or offer guidance. At some point as Katherine was working the maze and getting more and more frustrated and determined, she heared in the distance how another participant announced that they are out of the maze.

This only heightened her need to figure out the maze and she worked harder and faster to try to find out the way out. As she keept working harder, she heared more and more participants announcing that they were out. Feeling her anger and annoyance reaching a peak, she finally turned to one of the counselors and asks for help.

As soon as she asked for help, he came over to her and lifted off her blindfold and she suddenly saw that the maze actually doesn’t have a way out. The way to get through the maze successfully is when your resistance is broken down enough that you are humbled to the point where you finally ask for help.

Instantly it all became clear. The purpose of the exercise was to help the families understand their addict and the need to ask for help. Sometimes that is the only way out of the maze.

We are entering a new book of the Torah, the book of Bamidbar, which translates as “in the desert.” It is thus titled since the entire book is the story of our ancestors’ journey in the desert prior to entering the Holy land.

The reason they wandered the desert for 40 years was the sin of the spies, who didn’t have faith in God’s ability to bring them into the land. They were subsequently forced to wander for 40 years and all those above a certain age would not actually make it into the land.

Why did G-d want them to wander? What is the value in that? Let those who will be allowed to enter, enter now, and those who cannot hang out in one location or some other solution?

The answer may have been given by the Baal Shem Tov in relation to Rosh Hashanah. ”G-d hides” he said, ”so that we should seek Him.” G-d wants us to spend time finding Him and to do so he has to make Himself appear as if He is absent. The purpose of the exercise is to teach us to seek. Phrased differently, He wants us to need him, to reach out for him to ask him for help. To do so he has to appear absent and then we feel lost, wandering and broken.

One might suggest that G-d had them wander because needed us all to have needs or desires that were unmet so that we realize that at some point we all feel broken or helpless. There is no shame in that. That is how He masterfully designed this world. The problem is when we try to put up an endless facade of how smart or strong we are and don’t have the courage to be vulnerable and ask for help.

Sometimes all God wants from us is to say three simple words: “Please help me.” Sometimes the only way out of the actual desert or our personal desert is by realizing that being vulnerable IS being strong and asking for some guidance.

Katherine learned this with regards to her son and his disease. The addict learns this the hard way when they have become crushed and they have nothing left but to ask for help.

Our job is to learn from the experiences of others and not wait for total self-annihilation before asking for help.

Remember, when you ask for help, you are being strong.


Not long ago, Raizel and I returned from a 72 hour reprieve at an undisclosed location.. The life of a large family with many responsibilities and 7 beautiful children doesn’t allow for too many “exotic” getaways. I have no resentment about that, that is the life I signed up for and the life of purpose and meaning that I happily live.

That said, humans are machines and like anything else they need maintenance and care if they are to endure and last. If you don’t fill up your car with gas, it will stop running eventually.

If you don’t do an oil change, the engine will eventually conk out.. If you don’t change your timing belt (no, didn’t learn that in Yeshiva) your engine will seize and it will be time to buy a new car.

Humans are no different. My Yeshiva mentors often paraphrased the Rebbe saying that “vacations are not vacations from yiddishkeit, but to yiddishkeit.” As I age (😃) I understand this to mean the same thing. You both cannot run from your yiddishkeit responsibilities while away on vacation, you must daven and learn and in fact without some of the usual disturbances, you can potentially learn more, deeper or new things in Torah that you might otherwise not study. Simultaneously, I understand it to mean that you need to give your body and soul a reprieve from the usual grind if you are to be able to take the car to 300,000 miles.

This little getaway (facilitated in part by some good friends who “hooked-us-up”, you know who you are, and THANK YOU) threatened to be undone nearly from the get-go. Our carefully laid plans, (spreadsheet and all) who will drop off, who will pick up, different children, different times, different days etc.. etc.. food, baby sitters, bedtime rituals etc.. unravelled almost immediately.

One child got a cough that kept them home from school. (Around the clock sitter now needed.) Another was dealing with an out-of-school crisis that suddenly needed our parental involvement. Another had an issue at their school that required our immediate attention (or else). There was a not-so-small business matter that required our attention or threatened to be lost.

The enmeshed codependent me wondered if we had only turned off our phones and let nature do its thing, would things have resolved themselves without creating a secondary crisis? I don’t have a good answer to that, I only know what the correct answer was for me.

It became a mantra that I repeated multiple times over our short getaway, this is from Hashem and this is exactly what Hashem wants for me/us at this time. I can sweat it, resent it, wallow in self-pity or submit to it and enjoy myself in-between the constant interruptions. It was a conscious decision not to let circumstances not in my control derail very carefully laid plans.

I feel that this is, in a lot of ways, truly the story of life. If we are in fact believers, and I think we are, then letting go and letting Gd has to be at the center of our universe. It’s not only a survival technique, or a way to salvage a vacation that threatens not to be, it is truly THE key to happiness.

I ask not to be tested, but I know this truth to be absolute.

This truth saved my vacation, but more importantly, challenged me to put into practice what I know fundamentally to be true.

It really helped be a vacation TO yiddishkeit, not FROM it.


A couple weeks ago we hosted a community Shabbat dinner in the tent at our Chabad in Peabody. While there was great enthusiasm, the crowd was fairly thin as many are still worried about Covid. Of the sign-ups was a former Hebrew School mom, Alana Plotkin Catalfamo who we hadn’t seen for quite some time decided to join us.

She was a welcomed addition to the meal and because she sat up close to us we were able to schmooze more than we might otherwise have been able to. She asked where our family had been or what we were doing for the summer? We shared that we were going to spend a bit of time up in the Catskills, in the borscht belt. Where specifically? Which city she wanted to know?

Surprised at her curiosity for the details, she shared that she was originally from Monticello, NY. Well that is exciting, since the place in the Catskills where we were to be was in Monticello. After asking if she still has family out there, she said, yes, my dad has a liquor store right there in Monticello. After exchanging identifying landmarks we promised to visit.

Well, today that visit happened.

As soon as we walked through the door he said, “you must be the Schustermans. My daughter said you’d be by.” After some short introductions, I said to him that I want to do a “trifecta” on our first meeting.

Tefillin, Mezuzah and Shofar. He inquired about the Shofar, saying it wasn’t quite Rosh Hashanah yet. I explained that it is a custom to blow the shofar during the entire month of Elul leading up to the High Holidays. Regarding the tefillin, he demurred at first. He was excited about the mezuzah for his store, announcing that he already had two at home.

We put up the mezuzah, and then my chabad charm kicked in, promising that I could get the tefillin on and off in just 60 seconds. (He didn’t know that I meant Jewish time, closer to 3-4 minutes Shhhh.) As I was putting on Tefillin, my wife asked him when the last time he put them on was.

He answered that he had never done it in his life. He was bar mitzvah’d but no one ever offered to put on the Tefillin. In that case, I explained it was sort-of-bar-mitzvah since kabbalistially, a head that has worn tefillin even once is in an altogether different category as one who has never laid the tefillin in their life.

He said the blessing like a pro, and we saw hints of his Hebrew School days in his recalling of the Shema prayer.

We closed out with a shofar blast, kissed the mezuzah and promised to be back for another visit to take advantage of his fine array of kosher wines right there in the store.

So, if you find yourself near 9 Forestburg Rd. in Monticello, stop by Route 42 South Liquor Store. Kiss the new Mezuzah on the way in, and say hello to our new friend and Alana’s dad.

Oh, and his name is Shloimeh!


I think Tevya said it best? “Do you love me?”

Do I love you?

For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes

Cooked your meals, cleaned your house

Given you children, milked the cow

After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

Do I love him?

For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him

Fought him, starved with him


Then you love me?


I suppose I do


And I suppose I love you too

Tu B’av which begins tonight is the Jewish Holiday of Love or The Jewish Valentine’s Day (not really accurate.)

For more on the holiday check

The short version is that back in the day the single guys and gals would meet in the fields and find their basherts. Looking at the essence of the prospective suitor, not the lineage, wealth or exterior beauty.

Today the prayer of repentance is skipped due to this specialness of the date and singles parties are held across the globe.

For those of us who’ve already been blessed to to find our bashert, perhaps the holiday for us is to ask ourselves what tevya asked all those years ago.

Do you love me? Do I love you? No, not the Hollywood shallow version of that question but the deepest iteration of the question?

We’ve fought, cleaned up, milked the cow, starved and had kids together, is this love? If going through the journey of life with its incredible vicissitudes (that was a real word in my bar Mitzva speech 😂 – I think that is when my writing career began) of life is not love ❤️? Then what is?

We must ask ourselves again and again? Do I love you? Do you love me?

If the answer is Tevya’s “I suppose?”

Then you are doing darn well!