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The Real Heroes of Sandy Hook Elementary School






The horrific murder of 20 beautiful children and 7 innocent adults rocked our nation—and the entire world—this week. Our hearts are heavy, our eyes filled with tears. We cry for the Newtown community, and pray for the comfort and healing of all the families. 

This massacre, perhaps more than any other, has hit home. We’ve all been students. We all know teachers. Many of us are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. We know the purity of children and absolute ferocity of parental love. 

This was no accident. This was brutal, targeted evil. In a school. A school! The place many of our children spend the majority of their waking hours. A safe place. A refuge. 

As a father, my heart clenches wildly when I think about the families of the children in Newtown. Words cannot even begin to describe their pain and their longing. 

As the parent of a school-aged child, my respect and admiration goes out to all the teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Lauren Rousseau. Anne Marie Murphy. Dawn Hochsprung. Rachel Davino. Mary Sherlach. Victoria Soto. Each one is a hero in her own right. Each died trying to protect their young students.  

The teachers who survived are no less heroic. The way they stayed calm and tried to distract the students in the face of terror is incredible. They hid them, reassured them, colored with them, read to them, told them they loved them—all while knowing the gunman could burst in at any moment.  

They were all normal people, going about their daily lives. They woke up, ate breakfast (or not), and went to work like they did the day before and planned to do the following day. They were not first responders or trained crises professionals. They were people like you and me. But when the crisis hit, they shone. In the moment that it counted most they responded with courage, confidence and clarity. blind-stab-sandy-hook-elementary-school.jpg

When we think of heroes, we typically think of people like Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Queen Esther—the famous ones. Extraordinary people who changed the course of world history.

But do we ever consider ourselves potential heroes? What about all the “ordinary” people we deal with on a daily basis? 

Perhaps it’s time to change that perception. It doesn’t take a Moses to be a hero. The Mishna teaches us that a person who saves a single life is considered to have saved an entire world. The teachers of Sandy Hook did just that. They each saved an entire world. 

Chassidic thought explains that each of us—at our very essence—is a hero. Unfortunately, sometimes that essence is covered by a “spirit of folly,” a layer of dirt, and we do not act like heroes. But when we allow that inner purity to shine, we can accomplish the incredible.

We need to do that more often. We need to peel off the layers of grime and express our inner hero with acts of goodness and kindness on a daily basis. Don’t wait for a moment of crisis (please G-d there should never be another one) – do it now! 

And the truth is, those teachers were heroes before we had ever heard of them. Every day they loved and cared for those children intensely. They taught them, played with them, listened to them and helped them. They didn’t need to die to be heroes – they tapped into their inner goodness each and every day. 

We, too, can do that. When we put other’s needs ahead of our own—that is an act of heroism. When we pick up the phone and call a friend in need with offers of help and support – or even just a listening ear—that is heroic. When we let go of a grudge and embrace forgiveness, we are revealing our inner goodness.  When we help ease someone’s loneliness, put a child’s needs before our own or go out of our way to help a complete stranger—we’re doing small acts of G-dliness. The Lubavitcher Rebbe felt strongly that public schools should begin each morning with a moment of silence – a moment of G-dliness. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that idea.

We can’t whitewash the tragedy that unfolded last week, nor do we want to. We need to cry with and support with the families of the Newtown victims. The brutal massacre will always be remembered for the 27 angels whose lives were prematurely ended—of that there is no doubt. But maybe, just maybe, we can stem the tide of evil by taking inspiration from those heroic teachers and making a conscious effort to make heroic choices in our day-to-day lives. 

May the victims’ families and friends—and all the children of Sandy Hook Elementary, and the residents of Newtown—find comfort and consolation. You are in our thoughts, our hearts and our prayers. 

My thanks to Avi Shlomo for the idea and inspiration of this article 

Finding a Chabad Rabbi Among 1.4 Billion People

china.jpgMy friend Trevor* recently travelled to China for a month. He took a full four weeks off from work so he could really enjoy the beauty and history China has to offer.

Before he left I suggested he spend Shabbat at the Jewish center there, and asked him to send my warmest regards to the Chabad rabbi, Shimon Freundlich.

Now, Trevor is far from religious. He frequents our Chabad center because he’s a dear friend of mine (and because we have great Kiddush food!), but he actually considers himself an atheist. Naturally, tracking down a Chabad rabbi in China wasn’t exactly on his agenda. After all, this was a vacation – an opportunity to escape day-to-day life. In his own words, “Rabbi, there are approximately 1.4 billion people living in China. What are the odds of me meeting the Chabad rabbi while I’m there?”

Well, when Trevor showed up at shul upon his return, we asked him to share some of his experiences with us.

“Before I left,” he began, “Rabbi Vigler asked me to visit the Chabad rabbi in China. I refused and I thought that was that. I had a great month away, and it was time to head back to the US. I went to the airport and who do I see? A rabbi who looks pretty much like my rabbi. I was sure he must be Chabad. So I asked him, ‘Excuse me, are you Chabad?’ And he was! It was Rabbi Freundlich. Imagine my surprise when not only did I meet him, but we were on the same flight sitting right next to one another for the 14 hour journey back home. And guess what we ended up discussing for most of those 14 hours? Religion, of course. Unbelievable!” 

Unbelievable is right.

We’re more than half-way through Chanukah, we’ve eaten loads of potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, and now it’s time for some reflection.

Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks – the small, ill-equipped army which triumphed over the organized battalions bearing sophisticated weaponry. But the miracle of Chanukah was far more than a physical battle.

Times were rough for the Jews – the Greeks didn’t want to kill the Jews, but they wanted to kill the Torah. They forbade the fundamental mitzvot and tried to make the Greek way of life look as tantalizing as possible. And they weren’t unsuccessful. Many, many Jews did assimilate and embrace Greek culture. So the Maccabees weren’t just fighting an external influence, they were battling the “insiders” – the Jews who had already Hellenized – as well.

When the battle was over and won, there was no immediate “recovery” but it was a turning point. Despite all the Greek propaganda, the Jews had prevailed, demonstrating the strength of the communal Jewish soul. With the war behind them, the Jews were well on their way to reclaiming the Torah and mitzvoth and their rich heritage. The miracle served as a reminder from G-d: I’m here! You can try to escape Me and My Torah, but We will prevail.

So, you can go to China – or Kenya, or Chile, for that matter – hoping to take a vacation from G-d, but He will find you. It might be in the form of a Chabad rabbi, or a Jew who needs help, or an ancient Jewish artifact. But make no mistake about it – there is no “escaping!” 

Samsung Galaxy S III Freezes… in Front of 250 People!

issy.jpgMonths of preparation culminated in Chabad Israel Center’s six year anniversary gala dinner this week. Each detail was planned meticulously from the food to the décor to the speakers, and it all paid off. The event was a huge success. We had a fabulous turnout – 250 people, plenty of wine and delicious food. We auctioned off exciting prizes and lots of people went home having won something. One friend even told me he was hit by a taxi on his way to the dinner but he didn’t let it stop him from attending!

When everybody was seated, I called on a friend to come up to the podium and read a prayer for our brothers and sisters in Israel. I took out my Samsung Galaxy S III which I had planned to give him to read the tehillim from. I use it for my own tehillim most days, and it always works just fine. But of course, with everybody waiting, my phone (which is normally pretty reliable) decided this would be the perfect time to freeze. I needed chapter 121 and as I scrolled down, the phone got stuck on 119. I tried again, all the while feeling everyone in the audience waiting expectantly, and it froze again. I was starting to feel very uncomfortable. All eyes were on me, everyone was waiting for us to continue the program, we’re all relying on this fancy smartphone and nothing’s doing! I tried a third time, still unsuccessfully, and that’s when I realized: It’s at times like these that we need divine inspiration.

G-d was sending me a little message – you can plan, and plan, and plan, but don’t forget about Me. G-d is ultimately the One who runs everything, and we need to pray to Him for success, regardless of how well prepared we think we are. If we don’t have G-d on our side, it simply won’t work. blogi.jpg

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in this week’s Torah portion. He is taken to Egypt and sold to Potifar, one of Pharaoh’s government ministers. I read the story to my children this week and Rosie started crying and crying, which made me reconsider the story. She’s right – it is intensely sad. Joseph is orphaned at 9 when his beloved mother dies. At 17 he’s sold into slavery and at 18 he’s wrongfully accused of having an improper relationship with his owner’s wife and  thrown into prison for 12 years. 

How did he do it? How was he able to endure the pain and hardship?

Joseph never lost sight of the bigger picture. He knew that G-d was intimately involved in all the minute details of his life. Any time he was feeling down, he reminded himself that literally everything that happens is part of G-d’s plan. He felt G-d with him, even in the darkest and most trying times.

This is how we need to live our lives as well – with a constant awareness of G-d’s presence. Joseph’s imprisonment? Part of G-d’s plan. My smartphone getting stuck with 250 people watching and waiting? Much less serious but also part of G-d’s plan. The success of the rest of the evening? Equally His plan. It’s all Him. Sure, we need to do our part, but ultimately it’s up to G-d. We need to remember that, acknowledge it, and thank Him. 

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