I actually don’t remember where I was when JFK was assassinated.
I was eight years old and even then I knew a journalist is what I wanted to be. And so while I have no recollection of where I was or when I heard the news, I do vividly remember that the news became my life once I was aware of what happened.
I remember running to the Walgreen’s at Howard and Western to buy up every newspaper I could. I still, by the way, have all those papers. I remember sitting glued to the TV, watching all the coverage. But while I remember everything about what happened back 56 years ago, I can’t really say it affected my life much. I thought then how great it is to be a journalist and I feel the same these very many years later.
I share all this because I do very much remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of holy and blessed memory, passed away. This week we mark the 25th anniversary of the death of the Rebbe, which occurred on the Hebrew date of 3 Tammuz
The English date was June 12, 1994, which was also the day of the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival. It was the first time I had attended the festival and the reason was that I had a booth there. The reason for the booth was to introduce the Chicago Jewish community to the fact that I and a few others were about to launch a new weekly Jewish newspaper in Chicago – the Chicago Jewish News, the very paper you are now reading.
The paper began publishing in October of 1994, which means that this October we will celebrate 25 years of being the only weekly Jewish newspaper in Chicago, celebrate putting out a paper each and every week for 25 years, celebrate putting out the only Jewish newspaper in Chicago that practices independent journalism, provides quality journalism, lives by the highest ideals of both journalism and Judaism, gives voice to and respects all Jews. Yes, I’m excited about 25 years.
But what I remember most about that sunny June day in 1994 are not feelings about a new weekly Jewish newspaper, but how shocked and devastated I was when I heard the Rebbe had died.
I felt like I was in daze all day, kind of wandered around the festival grounds, trying to focus on why I was there and trying very hard not to break down in tears, feel the pain of what I knew was a seismic loss for the Jewish world.
I believe the Rebbe was not only by far the greatest rabbi of the 20th century, but the greatest Jewish leader of the 20th century, indeed the greatest Jew of the 20th century.
I believe that because he was someone who truly loved all Jews, cared for all Jews, accepted all Jews, did not judge any Jews, reached out to all Jews wherever they were, whoever they were.
And he put his love into action. He sent emissaries to Jewish communities all over the world, saw it to that Chabad Houses were established in literally every Jewish community on the face of the earth. If there was a Jew somewhere, Lubavitch was there.
As someone who has been to quite a few places in the world and as someone who knows people who have been all over the world, I know the comfort we all feel when we are going someplace, knowing there will be a Chabad House there, a Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin there, that if we need kosher food or a place to celebrate a holiday or have a Shabbat meal or need someone to be there if we end up in the hospital or just need to be in touch with a fellow caring Jew for whatever reason, we can call the Chabad House, talk to the Chabad rabbi.
The Rebbe’s outreach to Jews is one of the most stunning achievements in the history of Judaism. We take it for granted, but it took a visionary rabbi to come up with the idea and a dedicated beyond belief rabbi to make it a reality.
There is so much I admire about the Rebbe. I admire how he was not afraid of technology, of modern means of communication but harnessed them to spread the word and love of Judaism. Too many super Orthodox Jews spend their time obsessing over internet filters and kosher phones, fearing tools that the Rebbe uniquely understood were not to be shunned but embraced and put to creative use to reach the most Jews in the best way.
But what I guess I admired most about the Rebbe is that while Judaism has become more and more disunited, while too many Jews spend their time focusing on what separates us, while most super Jews isolate themselves from Jews not like them, focus on judging other Jews, pushing away Jews not like them, the Rebbe has his hands stretched out to all. He did not point fingers, he opened his arms, because to him all Jewish souls were precious, all Jews were to be reached out to, were to be introduced to the beauty of Judaism.
In a time when Judaism is pulling itself apart, the Rebbe uniquely sought to bring us together, to recognize we share a precious heritage, to understand that what he have in common is far more important than our differences, to know that we are stronger when we feel each other part of the same people, love all our Jewish brothers and sisters.
While too many Jews who see themselves as the protectors of the Torah actually desecrate it on a regular basis by their contempt for other Jews, by their pettiness and vindictiveness, the Rebbe was all about love and positive and sharing and spreading what is so wonderful about being Jewish.
I was fortunate to have a few encounters with the Rebbe. Thanks to my lifelong and precious friend Rabbi Danny Moscowitz, of blessed memory, I attended a fahrbrengen, a Chasidic gathering, for the Rebbe’s 80th birthday. Danny made sure we had seats right in front of the Rebbe and I sat there mesmerized by the brilliance of what he had to say, by the humanity and depth of what he had to say. He spoke, as he always did, for hours and hours, without any notes and yet quoting from a variety of Jewish sources, covering all kinds of world events and historical events and scientific discoveries. His knowledge of Jewish learning was unmatched. He not only knew far more about traditional Jewish sources than any of the top rabbis of the yeshiva world, but he, unlike them, was also steeped in the teachings of Chassidus, the wonderful path of Judaism that emphasizes prayer and joyful living. His understanding of human nature was beyond amazing. And his knowledge of the world was breathtaking.
During breaks in his talking, the Rebbe lifted his Kiddush cup and gave a symbolic l’chaim to people around the room. When he looked me in the eye and did so to me, I felt a joy in my soul.
I know I don’t usually write like this, indeed am as cynical as they come. I, in general, don’t particularly care for rabbis, can tell you stories both of my personal encounters with several rabbis who did much to turn me off to Judaism, and have observed the nauseating words and actions of too many of our supposedly leading rabbis.
But the Rebbe truly was unlike any other rabbi, was indeed the very epitome of what a rabbi should be. He was a teacher yes, a leader yes, a scholar yes, but most of all he was a pastor, who cared so much for his flock. He considered every single Jew on earth a member of his flock.
I have so much more to say but space is growing short. Let me just say that as a Jewish journalist and observer of the Jewish world for more than 40 years, I admired the Rebbe for all the reasons I’ve stated, but I am grateful to the Rebbe for having changed my life.
I went to very religious schools as a kid. I went to a far right wing day school and it educated me to want to run away from Judaism. I still vividly remember one day in seventh grade when I asked some question, being the budding journalist I was, and the rabbi evidently felt the question was inappropriate. And so he went to the blackboard and wrote on it, ‘if you liked Hitler, you will love Joe’ for all my classmates to see. Yes, that has left a scar.
And then there was the time when one of the very leading super rabbis in Chicago did not feel an ad we ran in the paper was appropriately Jewish. And so he called me up to tell me I could not do tshuva for the sin I had committed. That so problematic did he find that ad that G-d would not forgive me, that I could not repent. That is not the Judaism I believe in, but that is the Judaism that too many today propound.
Not the Rebbe. The Rebbe was about accepting all Jews, letting all Jews know that G-d was ready to forgive them, was very eager to embrace them, that He loved them no matter what, and considered them his sons and daughters. The Rebbe showed us that Judaism is about joy and happiness and celebrating and enjoying and praying and getting close to G-d. That is the Judaism I believe in.
Anyway, so one year I was flying to Israel out of New York Saturday night, which meant I had to spend Shabbat in New York. Again, my dear friend Rabbi Danny Moscowitz arranged for me to stay with the Rebbe’s chief aide. At the end of Shabbat, as I was about to head to the airport, the aide handed me an envelope that he said the Rebbe personally asked him to give to me. It contained a 100 shekel note, and the aide said the Rebbe told him to say to me when he handed it to me ‘meah brachos,’ meaning 100 blessings.
Now on one level that was nice, sounding like the Rebbe was giving me a hundred blessings. No small thing, for which I was very grateful, but I also knew there was a much deeper level, another message the Rebbe was conveying to me. Even though he had never met me.
Judaism teaches that one is to pray three times a day and in doing so to fulfill the mitzvah of saying 100 blessings a day. Because of my horrible day school experiences and even more horrible yeshiva experiences, I had long before ceased saying my daily prayers, was not saying 100 blessings a day.
In his profound, loving way that saw right into my soul, I could feel the Rebbe was telling me he loved me, cared about me as a Jew, that it was time for me to let go of the negative view of Judaism drilled into me and adopt his positive view of Judaism. That it was time to be my most authentic self, to start praying three times again every day, to once again every day say meah brachos, 100 blessings.
From that very day to this very day, I have not failed to say meah brachos each day. Thanks to the Rebbe, whose memory on this 25th anniversary of his passing, I mourn so deeply and whose life I treasure so greatly.