I'm in New York this week, where I'm spending the weekend meeting people from 107 countries and from each of the 50 states. No, I'm not at the UN, and the people I'm meeting are not diplomats. They are Chabad Rabbis serving Jewish comminutes in all those places and more. In fact, the conference this weekend will bring together approximately 4000 of the 6000+ Chabad Rabbis from all over the world.
On Sunday morning we will take the"class photo" where the NY Fire Department will be on hand to provide cranes to take a single photo with a wide enough lens to capture so many people.
When I recently looked at pictures of the history of the conference, I was amazed how the first year there were all but 65 participants, the next year maybe 80, by 1992 about 500, and over the past decades we have reached more than 6000.
What amazes the world is not just the staggering growth of Chabad, but that it is happening at a time when most religious organizations, including many Jewish ones, seem to be on the decline and struggling to keep their doors open, yet Chabad keeps expanding.
Thisphenomena is something that Pew has done research on, coming with results that show Chabad to be the largest Jewish educational organization in the world, and the fastest growing Jewish religious movement, with the majority of American Jews who engage with Judaism participating with Chabad. A recent article described the phenomenal growth Chabad experienced this year, with a new Chabad opening on average every 3 days!
So what is the secret?
Contrary to what some may think, we are not marketing experts, we are not fundraising experts, we are not public speaking or media experts. We have Yeshiva education and look like we came out of fiddler on the roof!
But the Rebbe knew that Jewish people want Judaism, and when you offer Judaism, Jews feel more Jewish and more in touch with themselves.
As the Rebbe said when he participated in the earlier conferences, that our mandate is to reach out to every Jew with love, to strengthen Judaism, and help mend the world with ethics and morality for all people, to prepare the word for an era of peace and harmony for all humanity with the coming of Moshiach.
That is how we measure our success. Not by how many members we have; every Jews is a member. Not by how much money we raise; every penny counts. Not by who comes; everyone is always welcome. But by how many mitzvahs and Jewish actionswe can achieve each year.
Every observance of shabbat is a success, every mezuzah, tefillin, shabbat candle, is a success, every child who learns the Alef Bet is a success. Every invigorated community is a success, every ripple effect of Chabad’s presence in a city, is a success.
We try to stay focused on what our mission is, and try to do that as best as we can.
Never in history, has there been such a movement, and my family and I are proud and honored to be playing our role for the Jewish community in South Dakota.
The Shabbat experience and community lunch this week, is dedicated in loving memory of Professor Peter Schotten z"l.
How appropriate than, that this week in the Torah we read the story of Abraham, who upon hearing that G-d planned to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, said the immortal words "Far be it from You to do a thing such as this. . . will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?"
Like our great and holy ancestor Abraham, I feel that Peter lived the true depth of these words entirely. Each time I had the privilege of studying Torah with Peter, or even a regular conversation, he would stir the direction and pack the conversation with insight and explanation, questions and better questions — always seeking a deeper understanding of the text.
How could it be that Hashem, the true judge, would not perform justice!?
From the depths of his neshamah, Peter held G-d to a high standard, as we all should. And demanded to understand and see the justice and goodness in G-ds every decision.
Which brings us to the next step. What shall one do when we don’t understand G-d's just ways? What is the Torah way when we don’t see things the way we want to see them?
Some questions are better than any answers that could be given, and sometimes we need to remember that no matter what the world says or does, you and I must carry on a meaningful and productive life, promote justice and kindness in our surroundings, and indeed, help create a world where there should be no room for any kind of man’s inhumanity to man.
As the Rebbe once wrote, that despite the great questions we have, our resolve must be that "I can not slacken in my determination to carry out my purpose in life, which is to serve G‑d, wholeheartedly and with joy, and make this world a fitting abode—not only for humans, but also for the Shechina, the Divine Presence itself."
Peter was a loving husband and father, and an accomplished scholar and teacher, who positively influenced and helped shape many students during his career. For many decades, Peter also played important roles in Jewish community life in Sioux Falls, and inspired others as well.
We wish Bernice and Cheryl Heike a happy and healthy life, chayim aruchim v'tovim. May the soul of Peter ben Menachem rest peacefully in Gan Eden, together with all the holy souls of our ancestors, all the way to Abraham, who first asked the great question.
One of the things I learned during the past few years that I've lived in Sioux Falls and met people across South Dakota, is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. No matter how much time goes by, the first impression always remains, for the good and for the better.
This made me think of the first impression G-d made on Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. When we look at the first instruction G-d gave him, we could have imagined it being something bearing great moral, spiritual or theological significance, perhaps something as consequential as the Ten Commandments.
Instead we find a simple instruction, "Lech Lecha" - "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." What's more, is that even this seems to be lacking basic information like where to go and what this new place would be like.
Of everything, why would this be the first commandment, to the first Jew?
The Rebbe teaches that in these words in fact lies a foundational theme for Abraham, and by extension for every Jew. Our uniqueness is that even though we live in this physical world and seem constrained by the laws of nature and the norms of society, and even though we each have natural feelings and tendencies, we are each able to rise up and connect with G-d, who is infinite and unrestrained.
We got this strength and ability in that first instruction of "Lech Lecha - Go." With these simple words, G-d told Abraham, and through him all the Jews, that our mission is to rise above our natural limitations, connect with G-d who is infinite and unrestrained, and accomplish the impossible. In fact he was called Abraham Haivri because “the whole world was on one side and he was on the other.”
Practically, this means that although we are influenced by those around us, although we may face physical, emotional or psychological challenges, we have within us the strength and ability to persevere and rise above those distractions that impede us from living a harmonious life and fulfilling our purpose. We each inherited this special ability from our ancestor Abraham, and the instruction he received from G-d to "Go."
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.