Yaakov’s Torah

Yaakov’s Torah

Wow, it is so warm & toasty in here; I have been waiting for this warmth so long it makes me sad. Yes, sad. You see; I am special. I am nothing ordinary, far from it. People turn to me for solace, comfort, guidance and direction. I am a veritable director for meaningful life.

Take Yaakov for example. I have been watching that fellow since he was a little kid. Ok, not completely true, some of what I know about him, I heard firsthand from some of my “colleagues.” You see, I have traveled a bit. Though my routes begin in other places, before I met Yaakov, rarely has anyone paid the kind of attention that I feel I deserve, if not for me personally, at least “whom” or should I say “what” I represent.

Please don’t judge me just yet, let me have a chance to say my story before you sentence me. Oy, where do I begin my story? In Rhode Island I suppose. Once upon a time the neighborhood I lived in, was born in, raised for my formidable years in, was a thriving bustling community, full of observant Jews who cared for all elements of Jewish Life.

They came to Shul, which is where I lived, and where I got to know people was just down the block from the kosher butcher, one of a few. Over time sadly, the “neighborhood changed” and soon there were less and less Jews, much less practicing ones, to the point that our Shul was left with no choice but to merge with another. “Lech Li’cho, m’artzecho, umimoladeticho, u’mebais, avicho… “Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your fathers house. The move will be good for you the Torah promises Abraham, and so too was I promised, and so I did it. I wanted to continue to hang out with my “colleagues” anyway.

Our new Shul was great. Simply magnificent; It is there that I met Yaakov for one, but it was more than that. There I was introduced to one of the most magnificent edifices I had ever seen as a Shul. I mean this place was absolutely grand. The Shul was so beautiful I had only imagined such places exist. There was the huge main sanctuary, where they prayed on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and the small Shul behind the Rabbi’s place and the holy ark for weekdays. The Hebrew school facilities were in the back, and upstairs. The women’s balcony was splendid in its own rite. They even installed a full proper clean and kosher Mikvah (ritual bathhouse) in the rear of the building with it’s own private and special entrance. I should mention the full kosher commercial kitchen… I could go on but I guess you just need to have been there to fully appreciate it.

I think what impressed me even more though, was the community. There was just such an interesting array of people. There were the old and rigid, the young and fresh, those that wanted every child silent, because that is the “way it ought to be,” those who were more flexible. And then there was Yaakov.

e loved the Shul so, he loved his father, he loved to watch the comings and going in hustle and bustle of the place. You see the Shul was his other home, that, was his fun. Watching the old man pray and then grab a schnapps after morning services, perhaps a few too many after a Shabbat Kiddush, this little kid, just soaked it all in. He cared for me, and for the place.

As time passed, and some of the older folks, passed on or were no longer able to perform some of the basic duties, this young man, Yaakov, assumed the responsibility upon himself to take care of my “colleagues” and I, and also to look after some Shul maintenance, security and basic accounting. Even, as he grew up, moved, married and had kids of his own, continued to take an active interest in our home and me.

I watched as Yaakov’s dear father grew old, from a young man taking L’chaim shots after minyan to an adult who sadly became an angry alcoholic. I saw his mood swings, yet even in his temper tantrums there was the essence of a man in love. He was never physically violent, G-d forbid, perhaps out of respect for me, but his addiction caused his family pain. I saw the tears that would form at the corners of Yaakov’s eyes and times they even overflowed in my presence. Yet the indomitable spirit could not be erased. This was a tragedy waiting to be overcome. Fortunately, Yaakov’s dad had the strength to finally accept his addiction and seek treatment, however, there were many years lost years of forsaken joy.

I watched and I cried with him during his challenges and I laughed with him during his successes. I was there when he married and tended to his ailing sick father, and got reports of his failing marriage and his fathers immanent meeting with death. I watched with frustration yet awareness that while Yaakov struggled this was part of the master plan and I knew in my heart that Yaakov would prevail.

I know everything, and I know that even my time will one day come when I am “retired” from the service. Indeed that time came awfully close recently. Again, thanks to Yaakov I got a new lease on life.

Our new Shul of very many years now, was also growing old, the neighborhood again was going to pieces. Attendance at minyan was down to three days a year, the High Holidays, and even that was with people traveling great distances to make that mini-minyan happen. A pipe burst back in the former Hebrew School area too expensive to fix properly, a patch up job would have to do, the Shul’s roof sprung a leak, much too expensive to fix,. Rain storm after rainstorm finally took it’s toll: shingles had fallen off the roof and the Shul was filled with wet carpets and it smelled musty filled with mold and asbestos.

Meanwhile some months back, perhaps a year or more, Yaakov had connected with a fledgling new organization called Chabad in his now native city of Peabody. He knew as they met for Shabbat at the home of the Rabbi and at Hotels and other meeting venues for holidays and family programs that they were in need of a Torah scroll. Being a member of the board of his beloved other shul he was now in a position to do something about this.

Clearly, as had laid his father to rest in the last year, and ultimately it was good & provided closure for all involved, similarly, it would soon be time to help the now ailing Shul come to a it’s final rest by closing its doors after one last High Holiday service and then a healthy merger to bolster another shul in the vicinity.

But what would be of me? Again displaced, without a home? How could this be right and fair? That is when Yaakov let me in on his plan; He let me know about this young and growing new Shul in his neighborhood that was, by his description, similar to where I had first begun many moons ago. A shtiebel of sorts; except this one had a twist, they focused on outreach and other good activities, however, they did do prayer services and were actually kid friendly and other virtues that were new to me and would be novel to me. I would be moving there, by myself this time, without my “colleagues” to do my part and assist them. I was a little nervous at first, but after being transported respectfully as would be due for me, my stature and all, I actually began to find it warm and inviting.

After so many years of being in a Shul where I was being less and less used and visited, I was relegated to the “other Shul” some twenty years back, I had trouble remembering that last time someone had actually looked at me, much less spoken to me, save little Yaakov of course. This new home however was feeling nice. I was missing my “colleagues” who remained behind. However It was very special to be seen & heard on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and almost every Shabbat. It was like old times… I felt reborn. I felt like I now had a more meaningful purpose. It didn’t hurt that I now saw Yaakov more regularly than I had in a long while, while living in my previous home. He still looks at me lovingly as he did when was still that little kid in my old shul. And I will add, little Yaakov doesn’t either hurt as much when he thinks back to his youth, his family and his shul, though they were intertwined, there seems to be something that I keep pure for him. I would like to think that I play a little part of that.

You see I am Sefer Torah, and Yaakov is my friend.

This true story happened aprox. 12 years ago and this was written up then.

My Esrog Moment

Today’s already long day came to a crashing end. Literally. During the Covid-19 pandemic every day is a long day when the kids are at home. Trying to squeeze some productivity in the busy holiday season with everyone at home will test the best of us and our patience.

I was getting ready to leave for my weekly Torah Class (on zoom these days) when I heard the bang. Unsure what it was, I heard one of my children – who shall remain nameless – mutter to herself, “uh oh!”

Not a good sign.

Then I heard another child say to this unnamed child, “oh man, you broke it! Tatty is gonna kill you.”

Definitely not a good sign.

Then I heard my wife say to me gently, “you are not going to be happy.”

It was now sealed in my mind, something bad happened.

And then I saw it. My child had knocked over my guitar and broke it. Literally broke the entire head off, it was now being dragged by the still-connected strings.

Now, I am not a super sentimental person, but this was my first guitar I ever owned, gifted to me by a friend and a gifted guitarist and the person who inspired me to learn to play and this was my little escape when I needed music of my soul to be louder than the noise of the world. Not a very expensive piece but valuable enough that the replacement would hurt a bit.

As my daughter – the culprit- came into the room, with her shoulders hunched, my blood pressure was peaking and the lava was starting to erupt out of my internal volcano. I was about to let loose a string of words not fitting for a rabbi at a tone not fitting for anyone.

And then I realized, this is my Esrog Moment.

They tell a story (I’ve heard many variations of this story, this is just one version) of a Chassid that struggled with extreme poverty back in the shtetl. He had few positions, much less possessions of value. There was however one piece of religious Judaica (Tefillin or a Candle stick) that had been bequeathed to him from an ancestor who was a Rebbe and whose Chassidim would pay top dollar for that item.

The wife of this Chossid badgered him endlessly to sell the heirloom and make a small fortune to alleviate their poverty somewhat. He would not hear of it. It’s value far exceeded some temporary financial relief. This was a religious item that had deep spiritual value and he couldn’t fathom exchanging it for mere money.

One day, this wife of this chassid came into her husband’s study and saw a most beautiful Esrog sitting on the shelf. They could not afford even the least expensive Esrog much less such a big and beautiful Esrog; Where had her husband gotten the money?

She noticed that the religious heirloom was nowhere to be found. She did a basic deduction and determined that her holy husband wouldn’t depart with his family relic for some cash, but he would do so to observe a mitzvah in the holiest manner possible. She could not contain her rage and she took the Esrog off the shelf and bit into it, ripping the pitum (stem that sticks out of one of the sides of the citron) off rendering passul (unfit for use).

Her husband the holy chassid came home and immediately saw the damage. He saw his wife and her tears and put two and two together. Rather than lose his temper, he simply turned his head to the heavens and said, “Ribbono Shel Oilam, Master of the universe, if it is Your will that I should not have an esrog to recite the blessing upon for this Sukkos holiday, then I accept it with love!”

An incredible lesson in patience and perspective. That was the story the fell into my head as I started to lose control over my broken guitar.

I told my daughter to come over to me. She walked over afraid and unsure of what reaction I was going to have. I simply took her head in my hands and gave her head a kiss.

She said, “I thought you were going to be angry with me?”

“Did you break it out of anger or on purpose?” I asked,


“In that case, mistakes happen, try to be more careful next time” I concluded.

We all have our Esrog moments. I have many Esrog moments. I don’t always rise to the occasion. This time I am thankful that I did. I am certain that she will long remember that kiss instead of whatever fury I might have unleashed on her.

This holiday, as Covid keeps us in close quarters we will all have many more Esrog moments.

Will we step up to the challenge and have the right reaction?

To Heal A Broken World

In a world where things seem to be coming apart at its seams, problems abound and inspiration is in short supply. Race relations are back on the front burner, Coronavirus fears continue. Do we open or not? So many of these issues seem to cut along party lines, extending the divide already in place. We must find guidance and strength, though often it comes from the strangest of places.

Today I met a friend for coffee ―socially distanced― who I hadn’t seen in a while. The inspiration for the meeting was that this friend had put out an announcement of his recent engagement. The problem was that his bride-to-be was not Jewish.

I was not sure how to respond to the email notification. To wish him Mazal Tov would be to sanction the choice he made. To ignore it ― aside from being a statement in and of itself – would be a form of silent rebuke. The command to love our fellow as ourselves and even more than ourselves (as the Rebbe would often say) trumps all, so I simply replied, “I love you and miss you, let’s get together for coffee some time.”

To my pleasant surprise, he jumped at the opportunity and we scheduled to meet up today in a Starbuck parking lot. In anticipation of the meeting, I spent many (mind) hours thinking about what I wanted to say to him. Nothing wise was coming to mind, but I figured we’d get together and we’d just see what happens.

So there we were, in the parking lot of the Starbucks, (he was kind enough to sit on the lengthy drive through line to grab my cup of joe) and it hit me. As my friend handed my coffee to me, his exposed arm revealed his many tattoos. Therein lies my answer.

I thought to myself, tattoos have always been a huge NO for Jews. It is rumored that in the days of old, a person with a tattoo couldn’t be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery. That is in fact not true , but the taboo around it was huge. My grandparents would have wept at the sight of his grandchild’s tattoo.

Why did it not bother me so? Not because I am so woke and new agey. Not because I am better than my grandfather. Rather, as a student of Chassidus and follower of the Lubavitcher I have been conditioned in Ahavas Yisroel (love for your fellow). This means, that  A) I am not in the business of judging people, but far more importantly, B) he is not his tattoo. He is who he is, the tattoo is a choice/decision that he made. It is his new skin color, but it is not his essence. He is a pure and holy soul and he happens to be a great guy with a great sense of humor.

Who is he? What is his soul? I can’t tell you exactly but I can tell you what it is not. It is not his life choices, be they tattoos and intermarriage or daily shul attendance and a kosher home.

There is a famous story told of the Alter Rebbe who raised his orphaned grandson, Menachem Mendel who later became the 3rd Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek.

The young child was on his Zeidy’s lap, and stroked his grandfather’s beard muttering “Zeidy Zeidy.” The Alter Rebbe answered, “That is not Zeidy, that is Zeidy’s beard. Where is Zeidy?” The child put his hand on his grandfather’s heart and again said “Zeidy.” Again the Rebbe answered, “that is not Zeidy, that is Zeidy’s heart. Where is Zeidy?”

This continued for a bit with the child pointing to various parts of his Zeidy and finally he jumped off his grandfather’s lap and went behind the door. The Rebbe continued to study and at some point, the child yelled “ZEIDY ZEIDY!” The Alter Rebbe jumped up to see what the matte was and as he got close to the child, the child said, “that’s Zeidy.”

The Alter Rebbe smiled and appreciated the wisdom of what the child had communicated. He conveyed that he’d gotten the message. Zeidy was not a body part, but he was the sum total of what triggered him and got him to jump up.

I share this story as a way of making a distinction between what we do and who we are. They are not one and the same.

My friend is not his tattoo. He is not even his far more significant decision to marry out of the faith. Those are factors that show where his mind is at, but they are not who he is. He is his soul. His essence. That is pure and always remains so. Just as I don’t find it difficult to not judge his skin deep tattoo, so I must find it equally not difficult to just his decision marrying someone not Jewish. Both are not his essence. His essence is his soul.

My obligation to love my fellow as myself is to love their essence, not their skin deep (pun intended) decisions.

Today with race discussions, political divisions, a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams, where people are judging one another based on skin color or political persuasion, is a world that focuses not on the essence on the soul. In such a world there is space, sadly, for such judgmentalism and even hate.

We need to connect with people, not their skin or even their choices. We need to connect to their souls. If the world would do more soul-connecting, we’d find the space to love and not judge.

Based on Chapter 32 Tanya

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


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


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?


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