Yud-Shvat marks the anniversary of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assuming leadership as the 7th Lubavitch Rebbe in 1951
Yud-Shvat marks the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950) the 6th Lubavitch Rebbe
Yud-Shvat marks the Yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Rivkah Schneerson (1833-1914) Wife of 4th Lubavitch Rebbe
Until the early 1900s when Jews started to come in droves to the new world, especially the USA, they lived in small communities, or shtetls, from such “far of places such as Poland, Spain, Lithuania, Hungry and Germany. In the shtetl everyone knew each other, everyone was Jewish, and when there was a non-Jewish community nearby they rarely mixed, except to transact a little commerce here and there. People knew you and your circumstances. You were a Jew; he was a Christian and so on.
But when people started to come to the America and other western countries, things changed. There were no shtetls and the new life took very different forms and demands. The entire community that one had to live within and interact with was wider, not just at the weekly market, but at on a daily basis. Your next door neighbour in the small New York tenement apartment that you and your family of five rented was likely not Chaimy Finkelshein, the towns slaughterer and butcher, but Augustyn Sakorski, the recent immigrant from Poland who competed with you as the neighbourhood tailor. Or, perhaps, Patty O’Rieley , a woman of Irish descent whose husband had recently past away from tuberculoses or pneumonia and who you now saw begging on the street corner in order to feed her family of five.
This was a new world in which lives, already dislocated through harsh repression, pogroms and economic depression, had to readapt to a completely new environment of urban blight, discrimination, poverty and integrating with people from many ethnic backgrounds.
Over time this adaptation took the form of a changed sense of Jewish Identity as the pressure to blend with Mr. Sakorski and Ms. O’ Rieley became a strategy for survival. Off came the beard for men and woman stopped covering their head with tichels and sheitels. They needed, or so they thought, to look more common on the street, so that they would not stand out and distract from making a business deal or selling to the gentiles.
Jews increasingly assumed two identities: one in the home and the Shul, and another for the outside world. This was very different from the Russian shtetl they grew-up in only a few years before. In the old country, in the shtetl, Jews looked and acted as Jews and lived characteristically as Jews. When you went to work, you had a beard, when you came home and took of your hat you still had a Kippah on, and when you told a bad joke to a friend, and he groaned “Oy Vey”, it was preceded and followed by Yiddish, the language of the Jews and not English, a foreign tongue for a foreign land. Here you had to work at being Jewish. And some rose to this challenge, but many did not.
For others, Jewish identity was something that they started to hide. They thought that this was probably best for the survival of their family in a new world. It was perceived as the key to survival in a new land with strange cultural blends and a multitude of people of all nations in tightly packed urban neighbourhoods. While many Jews now only brought out there Judaism in front of family and friends while home or in the Shul, many traditions, or mitzahs, that were just part of daily life in the old country became forgotten or even worse, told were useless customs that had no meaning in modernity.
Some identifiable groups of Jews that came to the America and elsewhere, escaping persecution and bigotry, tried to recreate shtetl-like communities in order to keep their Jewish indentity vibrant and strong. But then a novel approach was born. 1951 witnessed a whole new age in Yiddishkeit. A great leader began his reign as a power force to lead the Jewish world. Not a leader that had diluted his Judaism in order to fit into modern society and also not a leader that isolated himself and his followers from the rest of society in order to maintain their identity. He was a leader that knew the modern world was not taking Jews anywhere with their traditions and beliefs. Indeed, Judaism, as a community, was being threatened, as so many Jews were hostile to replicating their traditional lives in small Jewish communities where they only dealt with Mr. Cohen and Ms. Greenberg.
But just what was the best medicine for a sick and ailing American Judaism? Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, had the mighty elixir. Not a quick fix, but a slow process to instil the joy of halalchic Yiddishkeit amongst the less observant Jews of America and elsewhere in the world.
As the world around us changes our hearts and souls remaind Jewish, but our garments, were not Jewish. For countless Jews, the Rebbe’s mitzvah in-the-street program was the first step on the road to identification and intensified love with Yiddishkeit. The Rebbe and his Lubavitcher army literally took it to the streets and offered a chance for Jews to be Jews, not just in their homes or in the Shul, but in the middle of the street, Park Avenue in NY city or in a office building on Pender and Homer in Vancouver. “Did you put on tefillin today?” “Can I offer you Shabbat candles?” “Can I interest you in some classes on Judaism?” For many Jews, Jewish pride and Jewish precepts came out of the closet forever. This was a revolution of sorts, an ever-burgeoning renaissance of belief and resurgence of interest in the traditions of Judaism. For countless individuals and families, that mitzvah in-the-street, and the warmth and love of the soldiers or campaigners inviting participation, was the first step on the road to an intensified identification with Yiddishkeit, with Jewish education and Jewish observance. The Rebbe showed Jews that they could remain Jewish, look, act and feel Jewish all the while living and participating in the wider community. Unlike many Jewish leaders that preached isolationism as a way to remain Jewish in the face of a changing world, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe took a different route. He preached that everything is this world should and could be elevated to the stature of the Holy. No good would be served by Jews leading dual, separated lives, one consisting of secular acts in daily living and another holy in terms of Jewish ritual. He so elequently preached that these two must be combined to make everything in one’s life have a G-dly purpose. Live in your community, wherever that is, but make it a G-dly place to live.
That said, in recent years I have observed and realized that the Rebbe was correct in his assessment of modern day Yiddishkeit in America and elsewhere in the world. While the Chabad organization under the leadership of Menachem Mendel Schneerson has made great strides in helping people see the joy and pride in identifying themselves a Jewish wherever they are, some Jewish communities do in fact insulate themselves and rarely venture out into the secular world. These communities are often cocooned in a little city area – a modern-day shtetl – and really don’t face the contemporary world, certainly that part of it where one faces many challenges to traditional Judaism. At the same time many other Jewish people still live following a very secular lifestyle that conceals, almost hides, their Judaism. This group’s participation in Yiddishkeit only takes place in the comfort of their home or at Synagogue at best. For many participants in this group, their Yiddishkeit doesn’t appear, or confront them, on a daily basis.
What guides us to the correct way of life? Should you wrap yourself in a cocoon, isolating yourself from the many challenges of living a Judaic lifestyle? Maybe you should live a double life, one of secularism in the modern world and Judaism at home. Is there another option in order to say faithful to the principals, ideals and ways of a Torah true Judaism? And does Torah instruct us in this regard?
I believe, actually I know, through his speeches and published discourses and commentaries, that the Rebbe, in part, took his inspiration from the Torah to guide us in the correct way to live in a challenging time or hostile land. For example, In the Torah portion of Vayeitzei, Yakov leaves the comfort of Be’er Sheva and journeys into the hostile world of Chorran. The great sages, teachers and Rebbes tell us that Yakov guarded the Torah and commandments and kept Yiddishkeit flowing in the hostile land of Choran. Every day he was faced with forces that wanted him to change and adapt to ways that were less than ideal for a Torah observant man, but Yakov Avinu was able to keep his Judaism open and honest in the face of great pressures from his new community and extended family.
The Torah tells us, through our great commentators, that we must go out into the “hostile” secular world with our Judaic-face-on (game-face-on). We must not cocoon ourselves into a comfort zone or isolate ourselves in a shtetl. We must face the world in order to make the ung-dly g-dly. Elevate everything in the world towards G-d. As an example, some communities shy away from computers and internet because of the ungodly and negative aspects that are found on the internet. Other communities use the internet in order to spread the joy of Yiddishkeit and promote a Torah observant lifestyle. These people know the dangers that lurk on the internet and take great precautions to avoid them. They also see that the internet offers great possibilities as a way to reach Jews and in its ability to carry G-d’s messages instantly to many people.In a sense it elevates the internet as a medium to help fulfill our G-dly purpose in life.
There are many examples in the Torah that teach us that we need to go out into the world around us, remain Jewish and elevate everything around us to the G-dly. How many times do we enter into the wider, secular world and our Judaism stays hidden? Is this how we should be as a nation, as a people, as Jews?
As Jews, when we go into the secular, we must not only take the teaching of Torah, Talmud, Tanya and other great Jewish texts and use them in our own lives to protect ourselves, and help us stay true to our Torah-based principles, but we must help construct the world by making the things around us have a G-dly purpose. We must be proud enough of our heritage and traditions that we are able to wear them openly on our sleeves. And this is the new tradition that was set by the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.