Before 2002, the neighboring towns of Briarcliff Manor and Ossining in Westchester County had no Chabad presence. However, that changed when Rabbi Dovid Labkowski and his wife, Miriam, came to Briarcliff Manor. Services and events were held at the rabbi’s home or other local venues. Rabbi Labkowski and his family, which now includes eight children and a granddaughter, built strong connections with the Westchester Jewish communities, and they soon had their own center. Chabad of Briarcliff Manor & Ossining, which now has a mikvah and new lounge, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
For two decades, Rabbi Labkowski and his family have been bringing Yiddishkeit to the community with services, Hebrew school, a Jewish women’s circle, Torah learning, special events and more. And now, with the war in Israel, the rabbi is focused on a series of mitzvah campaigns to help the IDF with both physical protection and with an “Iron Dome” of spiritual protection.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke many times that just like a little bit of light expels lots of darkness, so too today, where there is so much darkness that was brought into the world on October 7, we must try to bring much more light into the world,” said Rabbi Labkowski. “Every mitzvah is light. Every good deed is another candle.”
Chabad compiled a list of items that IDF soldiers had requested, such as hydration bladders; outdoor camping blankets; extra-large waterproof thermal blankets for hiking, camping and outdoor survival; poncho liners; folding rugs; sleeping bags; Gonex foldable travel duffel bags; men’s Romision thermal underwear and military emergency tourniquets for combat. On October 19, items collected by Chabad members were delivered to the Chabad House and Rabbi Labkowski arranged for the items to be delivered to our brothers and sisters on the front lines in Israel.
Then, on November 5, the rabbi marked the shloshim of the October 7 massacre in Israel by holding a one hour “Power Hour.” The Briarcliff Manor and Ossining Jewish communities came together to honor the memory of those murdered by Hamas on the first day of the war by seizing mitzvah opportunities to bring much-needed light to the world. Five pairs of tefillin were purchased by members of Chabad-Briarcliff-Ossining for the safety and protection of IDF soldiers, letters were written, and Shabbat candle kits were made available. Participants could also purchase a letter in a Torah scroll, purchase a mezuzah, create Jewish pride packages for college students, wrap tefillin, purchase a Jewish book, pack gear for IDF soldiers, say a prayer and donate to Israel.
The current mitzvah project is one that unites individuals and communities around the world. Rabbi Labkowski’s community is participating in the mitzvah campaigns for Israel on Merkos Suite 302’s “OneMitzvah” platform, which allows people to create a community, set a goal and empower members to help achieve that goal by sharing it with their networks. The aim is to amass mitzvahs.
“Any mitzvah is good,” said Rabbi Labkowskl. “Some mitzvahs have a special connection to our current situation. Women and girls lighting Shabbat candles every Friday before sunset is connected with illuminating the world. Men putting on tefillin accomplishes bringing the name of Hashem down here and negativity is shunned by this. … It’s a spiritual force that is created by every mitzvah.”
That spiritual power was described by Croton-on-Hudson resident Dr. Tamara Kalir, M.D. “The mitzvah campaigns of Chabad Briarcliff-Ossining were valuable not only for the beneficiaries but for the individuals performing the mitzvahs,” she said. “The Campaign for Israel benefited the Israel Defense Force by providing much-needed items for soldiers, and served to boost their morale. As a participating donor, I gave with all my heart and was not expecting anything in return. So I was really surprised at what followed. After placing my orders I found myself experiencing a strong sense of community, a newer and deeper sense of Jewish pride, a strengthened bond with our brothers and sisters in Israel, and gratification from supporting my fellow Jews. My prayers seemed more heartfelt.
“For the Friday night following Rabbi Dovid’s Sunday Power Hour, I encouraged as many non-practicing Jewish women as I knew to light the candles. In addition to the great sense of satisfaction I derived from performing a mitzvah with a known community of women, many of whom do not perform this mitzvah on a regular basis, I felt a greater sense of connection and purpose than I have ever experienced before. And my prayers at that time and subsequently, have felt more alive and meaningful.
“It has been said that the deed is the thing,” Kalir continued. “We can think a lot and we can talk a lot, but what really counts is taking action. Some have also said that we are Hashem’s ‘hands’ in this world. These statements ring so true for me. … I feel so much closer to Hashem now.”
Samuel Plitt, a resident of Briarcliff Manor, also participated in Rabbi Dovid’s mitzvah campaigns. “I’m 17 and I know what a terrible thing happened in Israel and wanted to help in any way I could. I know kids barely older than me are fighting for Israel on the battlefield, and what I’m doing and trying to do is nothing compared to that. I asked a few friends to help with the packing for Israel, and hope to do some fundraising in my school for something that can help Israelis.”
Rabbi Dovid and Miriam are also holding a seven-week course for high school students called “Israel and Me,” which begins on Sunday, December 3 at 7 p.m. and was developed in partnership with YU and CTeen U. The course allows teens in grades 10-12 to earn college credit. The goal is to give teens a safe space to talk and to arm them with the knowledge and confidence to stand up for themselves and Israel amid increasing antisemitism.
And what are Rabbi Labkowski’s future plans for mitzvah projects and educating our Jewish youth? “As of now, it’s just to increase more and more,” he said.
Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. She has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.