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Farewell, My Friend Charles

I’ve officiated many funerals and given numerous eulogies in my time as rabbi, but it’s different when it’s a good friend. And looking around the packed room this week at Charles’s funeral, it struck me that everyone there considered Charles a close friend; he had that unique ability to reach out and connect with each person intimately. 

An infant comes into this world with its fists clenched, signifying its intent to conquer the world, explains the Talmud. When we pass, however, our hands are open, showing that we can take none of the power, riches, or fame into the next world. Only the good deeds we performed during our lifetime accompany us, and Charles had no shortage of those.

He joined our shul as a founding member 15 years ago, and as long as he was in the city he never missed a Shabbat. In fact, he beat me to shul every week, and before we began services he would stand before the ark and have his own private moment of deep connection with G-d.

Every week he brought a bottle or two of scotch for the kiddush. He never arrived empty-handed. Even after he had been diagnosed with the disease that ultimately took his life, he kept coming to shul, scotch in hand, making sure we finished at exactly 11:30am. When we finished on time or ran a few minutes early, we were rewarded with his beaming smile. When we didn’t, he would point to his watch and give me “the look.” Since he was such a devoted member, I did my best to stick to the timeline!

Charles was the one who looked out for others and made sure everyone felt comfortable. One Friday night the conversation was going on in Hebrew, but Charles turned around and noticed that there was a congregant present who does not speak or understand Hebrew, and he immediately switched to English. I later heard from that person just how good it made him feel. This was Charles - always conscious of others, making sure no one felt excluded or uncomfortable.

And he cared deeply for our shul. Before the High Holidays, year after year, he would let me know he’d had all the talleisim cleaned and hired a professional cleaner to come in and take care of our carpets. Anyone else would hand me a check and say, “Here, rabbi, you get it done,” but Charles wasn’t like that. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work himself.

Years ago, I walked into shul on Shabbat mevarchim and told Charles I was a few minutes late because I had recited the entire book of Tehillim per Chabad custom, which takes over two hours. “Oh,” he exclaimed. “I read the entire Tehillim every Shabbat morning!”

Charles was rushed to the hospital on Simchat Torah this year, and just two nights prior, on Hoshana Raba, he asked me what he needs to recite. I explained that it’s traditional to say the entire book of Devarim as well as the whole Tehillim. I was shocked the next day when he casually informed me that it had taken him six hours, but he’d said all of it!

Charles was someone who loved life. He loved people. He loved their company. He loved living. He loved his family. He was deeply devoted to his wife Gili and their children Jade, Brittany, and Courtney, may they find comfort in due time.

My dear friend Charles, as you move on to the next world, may the kindness and warm feelings you generated here in this world, accompany you, and may all the mitzvot you did stand you in good stead. We will miss you deeply, but we take comfort in knowing that the heavenly court is welcoming you with open arms.

Moving Day

Last week we hired a moving company to pack us up and move our Chabad center to its new location. As thrilling as the prospect of a new and larger space was, I found the experience bittersweet.

I knew we had to move. We had long outgrown our previous space, and would now have nearly double the capacity. For years we had been turning away families we will now be able to accommodate. I’d been working in an office that didn’t even have space for a second chair for meetings. So this move was long overdue, and we’d been able to design the new space to our specifications. We are moving onwards and upwards; this was the sweetness.

But there was also a tinge of sadness as we said goodbye to the space that had housed us for 12 wonderful years. It was painful to watch the movers packing up 12 years of memories. We met so many people here, accomplished so much. So many meetings, so many celebrations, so many mitzvot, so many Jewish families. The space served us well for many years.

So it was with mixed emotions that I watched the movers pack it all up.

It’s easy to become comfortable and attached to the familiar, even when better things await.

After 210 years of slavery in Egypt, it was time for the Jews to leave. Moses repeatedly asks Pharaoh to let them go. He doesn’t ask for freedom; he asks for three days in the desert. Common belief is that he thought Pharaoh couldn’t handle the thought of true freedom, but the real reason Moses asked for three days was for the Jews. He knew it would be difficult for them to leave Egypt. They had been slaves, exhausted and brutalized, but still there was comfort in the familiarity, and Moses knew that. Even though he told them they would only be leaving for three days, 80% of the Jews refused to go along!

This is the story of our lives. It’s normal. We get comfortable where we are. But we cannot stay in our comfort zones. We need to push ourselves ahead, as difficult as it may be. Think about your life and where you can push through. If you’re comfortable davening once a day, try adding a second tefillah. If you’re comfortable with the amount of tzeddakah you’re currently giving, push yourself to give a bit more. If you only wear your kippah in certain environments, push yourself to wear it in places that may feel less comfortable. If you usually only keep kosher in the home, try keeping it outside too.

Every day is moving day when it comes to our spiritual lives.

This is also what Moshiach is all about. The thought of leaving our current lives and reaching for Redemption may feel uncomfortable, but we need to embrace the move and prepare for it imminently.

Coffee Check

Two weeks ago my friend Yankel*, who’s had a rough year, gave me a call. Yankel is a lawyer and for some reason 2019 was a hard year for him financially. He asked to meet with me on December 31st, and imagine my surprise when he presented me with a check for $1800! I was stunned. I knew that was a huge amount of money for him. I’ve known him for long enough to know how generous he is, but I also knew it had been a challenging year for him monetarily, so how or why was he donating $1800?! 

He explained that he had been listening when I talked about tzedakah in my High Holiday sermon. I mentioned that everyone is obligated to give something, regardless of their financial situation. Young, old, rich, poor… no one is exempt. And it led him to wonder how he could give. 

I was definitely pleased and touched that at least one person listened to my sermon and was even moved to do something practical!  

So how did he pull it off?

Yankel loves his coffee. Any coffee lover knows how important that caffeine is for your day! I mean, I love my morning coffee, too. But Yankel does not drink just any coffee: he relishes the fresh coffee he buys from his favorite coffee shop in Brooklyn for $5.50 every day.

So he made a calculation. Let me sacrifice my coffee in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah. 

And he did.

Instead of the delicious store-bought coffee, he has been drinking instant coffee in his office. It doesn’t taste the same, but the joy he received when he was able to give that charity tasted better than any $5.50 coffee ever could. 

Moreover, when he told his wife Rochel* what he was doing, she joined him in his effort and together they saved $11 per day, leading them to present me with the $1800 check on December 31st!

I was absolutely speechless. Not only did he listen to my sermon and take it to heart, he sacrificed every single day to fulfill this important mitzvah. It’s incredible. 

In Kabalistic terminology, this is known as “iskafya.” Iskafya is the term we use when a person sacrifices for a mitzvah. It’s the term we use when someone stretches beyond the norm, beyond the regular, to do a mitzvah. Exactly what my friend Yankel did.

Chassidism teaches that when a person has iskafya, it draws G-d’s Divine presence down into this world. It is the most powerful expression a person can do.

So my message to Yankel is, thank you! In the merit of his tremendous sacrifice, I wish him and his wife good health, success, nachas from their family, and financial freedom in 2020 and beyond. 

*Names changed to protect privacy.

We’re Being Evicted?! But Why?

 Almost two years ago, on February 14, 2018, I received a notice that we had 30 days to vacate our Chabad center. We had been occupying our Chabad center for 10 years, where we had established a thriving Chabad center and preschool. The eviction notice caught me entirely by surprise and I consulted with lawyers as to our options.

It soon became apparent that this was the work of a disgruntled neighbor who disliked children and had used every opportunity to undermine us from day one. As the saying goes, “Every good rabbi must have an enemy combatant,” and we certainly had ours.

There is nothing in this world that is not Divinely ordained. Everything comes from G-d, even an eviction notice from a disgruntled neighbor.

And so I asked myself, what does G-d want?

Now, although we had established a thriving preschool, we had also run out of space. Every year we had to turn away many families whom we simply could not accommodate. And every year we’d been telling ourselves we need to move, but with Manhattan prices and the dearth of available spaces, finding a place was next to impossible. In fact, I wasn’t even sure which was harder—finding the money or finding an appropriate space! Neither seemed doable.

But when this eviction notice and subsequent lawsuit came, we had to take a closer look and ask ourselves what G-d really wants. And it was clear that the time had come to search aggressively.

So I called our trusted broker, and told her we need to find something ASAP. And guess what? We started re-examining spaces that we would have dismissed previously. We eventually found a place that had issues, but could work. Had we not been facing a pending lawsuit, we would have never negotiated so aggressively, and we most certainly would not have signed the deal.

It took us 10 months to locate a space and negotiate the lease, and another 14 months to do the construction and receive the permits. Thank G-d we were blessed with incredible friends—architects, lawyers, expeditors, and contractors. And through it all we’ve been in court, negotiating.

But not for one second did we think that this was anything but the work of G-d. Even when we were forced to make tough decisions and compromises, we knew it was all from G-d. His messengers come in mysterious ways!

Was the lawsuit a bother? Absolutely! Was it a pain in the neck? For sure. Was it a headache? An aggravation? Most definitely. But there is also no way we would have pushed ourselves so hard to work through this exhausting process to find a new space had we not been forced.

And the result? Well, it’s been two years and we have finally received our final permits. It’s brand new, state of the art, and built exactly the way we wanted. Best of all, it’s double the size we had until now, which means we can accommodate so many families we previously had to turn away.

We look forward to sharing many occasions and blessings in our new facility, at 1766 2nd Ave.

It Doesn't Matter What The Goyim Say, It Matters What the Jews Do!

I love jew.jpgIt has become blatantly obvious that we are witnessing a full-fledged epidemic of Anti-Semitic attacks. In the last week alone, there has been at least one incident each day. For the first time in modern US history, Jews are afraid to shop at kosher stores, afraid to go to shul, afraid to send their kids to Jewish schools. Simply walking around dressed Jewishly is making people uneasy, cautious, and frightened.

David Ben Gurion said, “It doesn’t matter what the non-Jews say, it matters what the Jews do.”

So, what will we do? How will we respond?

 Yes, we need to demand apologies, sign petitions, and organize protests. We need to insist on a sustained, get-tough, zero-tolerance policy by local and state officials. We need a policy that takes each incident equally seriously. Anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, and should not be tolerated, no matter who the perpetrator is.

But what else can we do to combat this toxic undercurrent seeping through society?

First, we need to understand and recognize the root cause of the hatred.

We know they don’t hate us because we’re successful; Jews have been persecuted back in the shtetls when they had nothing at all. They don’t hate us for being poor, because wealthy Jews have never been exempt.

They don’t hate us because we established the State of Israel; Hitler killed 6 million of us before that ever happened. There is nothing we can point to and say, “That’s why! That’s why they hate us. If we fix or change that, there’ll be no more anti-Semitism.”

Anti-Semitism is irrational. It’s a hatred that has always existed, and will continue as long as we remain in exile. There is no reason. It simply is.

So what should we do in the face of the current crisis? How can we combat the hatred staring us down?

 As counterintuitive as it might seem, by being prouder Jews!

They hate us? They hate Judaism? Well, let’s examine our own love for it. Do we feel it with a fiery passion? How can we reignite that, instill it in our children, awaken it in our friends, and show it off proudly?

By increasing our Jewish engagement.

Commit to putting on tefillin daily, and when you say Shema, remind yourself of your eternal and everlasting link to your ancestors, all the way back to Abraham. Picture the unbroken chain connecting you; it’s powerful!

Commit to lighting Shabbat candles every single week, and when you do, picture the light dispelling evil and hatred from the world. A small amount of light dispels great darkness. You may not see the significance of your two candles, but they are powerful!

Log on to Chabad.org and study Torah. Educate yourself and your children, reignite that passion and love for G-d and His Torah.

We have to be a light unto the nations. We have to inspire each other to be strong in our Jewish observance and proud of our identity. We cannot cower and hide away in fear. We must stand strong, proud, and united; it is the only way to fight the current upsurge in anti-Semitism.

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