One day, my phone rang.
“Is this Chabad?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“My name is ___ from Monsey. A friend of mine is in Hackensack and her car won’t start.”
I have to admit: this was a first for me.
Hackensack is home to the Hackensack University Medical Center and the Bergen County Jail. In addition to that, a couple of heavily trafficked highways pass through our town. So we receive all kinds of phone calls with requests for help. From “My husband was involved in an accident and he’s at HUMC. He would greatly appreciate a visit,” to “My cousin was arrested and they won’t let him bring in his tefillin,” or simply “We’re driving through Hackensack and looking for a sukkah…”—we’ve seen them all.
But no one has ever called us because their car was stuck.
“So your friend is stuck in Hackensack with a car problem?” I repeated, trying to wrap my head around the call.
“Yes,” said the woman on the other side of the call. “As soon as my friend told me about it, I wanted to help her so I figured I should call Chabad.”
“Look,” I said with a chuckle, “I’m not a car mechanic, and with my two left hands I’m likely to ruin the car even further. How about this: Check with your friend if she has AAA or roadside assistance on her insurance; I assume they should be able to help her. If not, please call me back and I’ll try to help.”
A few minutes later the phone rang again. Yes, her friend had AAA and everything was good.
At first I found the phone call quite amusing. Why would someone with car troubles even call us? But the more I thought about it, the more I started to appreciate it. This good woman from Monsey was trying to help her friend, and the first thought that came to her mind was “let me call Chabad.”
She didn’t know who I was; she simply called Chabad. And it dawned on me that this is exactly what the Rebbe envisioned back then. And I am so thankful to be part of that vision.
It all started 70 years ago.
On a cold evening in Brooklyn, a hundred or so chasidim packed into a small shul. That evening, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, formally accepted the role of leadership of the Chabad movement, a year after his predecessor, the sixth Rebbe, had passed away.
I wonder how many of the chasidim at that farbrengen realized just how consequential that night was going to be.
For them, a rebbe was someone who would guide them, inspire them, and lead the movement, which was still reeling from the devastating losses of the Holocaust.
The Rebbe’s vision, however, was far greater.
Seventy years later, looking at the thousands of shluchim and shluchot (Chabad emissaries) serving at Chabad Houses around the world, I think it’s fair to say that almost every single Jew has come into contact with a Chabad House one way or another.
When people ask me for the secret of Chabad’s success, I don’t hesitate to answer: It’s all the Rebbe’s vision.
Yet, when they ask me what the Rebbe’s vision is, I often struggle to explain.
It’s easy to frame the Rebbe’s vision as building Chabad centers around the globe. It’s easy to frame the success as “He took a small movement and turned it into a large and successful one, with thousands of branches around the world.”
But that is only a small part of the story.
In fact, just looking at the Rebbe’s correspondence (available in print in the series “Igrot Kodesh,” or online at Chabad.org/letters), you will see how the Rebbe spent much of his time engaging with people or groups that had very little to do with Chabad’s success, or with Chabad altogether. Whether it was about building a mikvah (ritual immersion pool) in New Zealand, constructing an eruv (boundary marker) in a moshav (small town) in Israel, or encouraging a rabbi in Mexico not to leave his community, the Rebbe devoted huge amounts of time and resources to help causes that seemingly did nothing to help his movement.
In fact, the Rebbe even secretly sent financial support to a group that was publicly and vocally critical of Chabad and the Rebbe! When he heard of their struggle, he supported them through a third party (knowing that they wouldn’t accept his direct support).
Which is why I struggle when asked to describe the Rebbe’s vision.
Maybe the problem is that I’m calling it a vision in the first place. Vision is all about the visionary. But maybe the appropriate term is not vision, but alignment.
Essentially, the Rebbe was aligned with God’s will.
When you are aligned with God’s will, you don’t think about your own self-interest, or even about the benefit to your community or organization. You care for what God cares about, you love what God loves.
And for God, every Jew is precious, every mitzvah dear.
This also explains the Rebbe’s passion to impact change on a global scale, not only among Jews, but among non-Jews as well. As we recite in the Aleinu prayer, we look forward to the day that yakiru v’yeid’u kol yoshvei teivel—all the inhabitants of the earth will recognize God’s sovereignty.
If this is what God wants, this is what the Rebbe cared about deeply.
At one farbrengen, the Rebbe discussed the concept of Shechinta b’galuta, that God dwells with us in exile. When you listen to the recording of that farbrengen, you can hear the deep pain in the Rebbe’s voice. God’s pain was the Rebbe’s pain, too.
And this is what the Rebbe asked his chasidim—and everyone else he came into contact with—to do.
To be more aligned with God’s will and less focused on our own self interest.
When he sent chasidim to establish Chabad Houses around the world, he told them to help every Jew, spiritually and physically, with whatever they need.
Think about it:
Typically, when you establish a community or a shul, it’s natural to prioritize your time and resources to ensure the growth of the community and shul.
But the Rebbe made it clear that a Chabad House must run differently. If a Jew needs our help, even if he or she will never step foot inside or be involved with our Chabad House, we need to help.
If we have the opportunity to do a mitzvah with a fellow Jew, even if we might never see them again, we should grab the opportunity.
Because to God, every Jew is precious and every mitzvah is dear.
I still have a long way to go to achieve a perfect alignment with God’s will. And I might never reach it. But these “Is this Chabad?” phone calls do remind me to keep trying.
As we commemorate the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit, may we all be inspired to follow his example.
It’s wonderful to see how much care and how much chesed (acts of kindness) we do within our communities. But that’s not enough.
Just like the Rebbe, we need to care deeply for every single Jew. Even those whose yarmulke, or head covering, looks nothing like ours. Or, in fact, even if they do not wear a yarmulke or head covering at all.
Let’s keep our eyes wide open for people who are not part of our community and take the initiative to reach out to them. They might need our help; they might appreciate it if we encourage them to get closer to God and to do more mitzvot.
Not only is it the right thing to do, it can be a source for blessings in our lives.
Because nothing makes a parent happier than others showing care for His children.
*Originally published in The Jewish press.
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the rabbi at Chabad of Hackensack. He welcomes your comments at [email protected]