I was deeply touched last week when so many friends who read my message replied by email and text offering to help me with the kids while Mussie was out of town. Well, I'm glad to share that she got back home safely on Monday night, after spending an invigorating weekend at the Chabad women's leadership conference in NY.
Thinking about the tremendous accomplishment of those thousands of women who had gathered last week, and the positive influence they each have leading their families and serving their communities, made me look back at Jewish and Chasidic history to gain an understanding of how this all came about.
This attitude was started by the Rebbe at the very beginning of his leadership, and reminded me of a story my grandmother Susha Alperowitz tells of a personal experience she had with the Rebbe in 1962.
During the late 1950s and early 60s, she served as president of the Neshi Chabad and editor of its magazine. The periodical contained Torah insights, talks from the Rebbe, recent community news and other matters relevant to its readership.
Once when my grandmother had a private meeting with the Rebbe, the discussion turned to the magazine, and the Rebbe suggested that the next issue include a rendition of his recent talk on the Song of Miriam at the Exodus and how it differed from the men's singing.
It was a scholarly talk the Rebbe had given some weeks earlier, during which he explained the difference of these songs, citing Talmudic, Midrashic and Kabbalistic teachings, and the relevant message it had for women as role models for their families spirituality today.
When my grandmother heard the Rebbe's suggestion she immediately thought to herself that there was no way she could possibly prepare such an article herself. Its depth and breadth, citations and complexities, would be beyond her ability to fully comprehend, let alone write up for print. She doubted her ability and credentials to adequately accomplish this task. However, she had an idea. Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, a prominent Chabad scholar and author of a commentary on the Tanya, had just delivered a lecture on the Rebbe's talk, so she figured it would make perfect sense for her to ask him.
"I will ask Rabbi Weinberg to prepare it" my grandmother said to the Rebbe.
My grandmother recalls how the Rebbe replied to her, with words that she can never forget and that have guided her ever since "Why do you need Rabbi Weinberg to do it when you can do it on your own?"
This was 1963.
It's no wonder then that in 2023, the Kinus Hashluchos (Chabad Women's Leadership Conference) is the largest network of female leaders in the world. A group of 6000+ women from different languages, backgrounds, personalities and even ethnicities, including the world's largest cohort of Gen Z Jewish leaders, all "in it together" gathering once a year to share inspiration and strength.
You know the saying "behind every Chabad community leader is... her husband."
Well, I'm home alone this weekend with the kids as Mussie spends time in New York at the annual Chabad women's leadership conference. She is catching up with friends and family from around the world, including from the other 49 states and 107 different countries.
Earlier this morning, Mussie and thousands of her colleagues gathered for their annual "class photo." Just before that another "class photo" was taken, with over 1500 girls who dedicatedly serve world Jewry alongside their parents today, and are the future of Jewish leadership tomorrow.
These group photos of Chabad women and girls are symbolic of what amazes the world most about Chabad. Alongside Chabad’s staggering growth, its tremendous focus on women leadership is a trend setter. This phenomenon is unparalleled in Jewish organizations and unprecedented in history, and dates back to the early days of the Rebbe's leadership in 1951.
Chabad manages to seamlessly balance the modern ideals of women leadership and influence with age-old traditions, meaningfully and positively. As Rivka Slonim said, Chabad philosophy has offered her the ability to look beyond the individual issues to the totality of Judaism.
Every aspect of the the organizational, educational, spiritual and social work of the Chabad Jewish Center of South Dakota, is only possible due to Mussie’s co-directorship.
This is true for the 6000+ Chabad institutions around the world. Be it a school, a shul, a mikveh, a soup kitchen, a preschool or library, and many many more, they are all jointly directed by the Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin in complete partnership.
Juggling the duties and responsibilities of Jewish womanhood as guided by our rich heritage and sacred traditions, of being a mother and a leader in the community, is an extremely rewarding task, and one that provides us all with a deeper sense of meaning and spirituality.
In South Dakota, we owe our thanks to Mussie.
One of the two main miracles celebrated on Chanukah, is the discovery of the jug of oil that burned for eight days instead of just one (the other being the victory of the few over the many).
Like every aspect of Torah and our sacred tradition, this is not just a historic tale from the Temple era, but something that should inspire us even today, more than 2100 years after these events.
So I want to share something meaningful I learned that you may enjoy as well.
It starts with the Greeks. Their fight against the Jews wasn’t primarily one of military conquest. Nor was it only the attempt to stop the Jews from practicing their traditions. In fact, the Greeks were even fine if we studied Torah. But they wanted us to treat it as any human wisdom. Not G-d’s wisdom. They could even accept Jews lighting the Menorah. After all, every culture has its own unique practices. What they would not accept however, was our insistence that these were G-d given and sacred acts, and that the Menorah needed to be kindled with a special "holy" oil.
So the Greeks “defiled” the oil supplies in the Temple, and when the Jews returned to Jerusalem they couldn’t find any pure oil left. Finally after an exhaustive search, we uncovered one jug of oil that remained untouched, holy and pure. This was used to begin rekindling the Menorah.
In our personal lives too, we each have that one jug of oil that remains constantly pure. Despite the ups and downs of life, the spiritual, emotional and material challenges we face, and no matter how distant and despondent we may feel at times - we will always have that jug of oil, the essence of our soul, which remains holy, connected and sacred.
It's always there. Sometimes we just need to find it and ignite it. As soon as we do, we can rekindle our menorah, and begin shining brightly again.
Two of the most heartwarming letters I got for Chanukah really drove home this message for me, so I'll share some of them here: "...I also wanted to thank you for the Menorah. We lit it tonight. I haven't practiced in more than 30 years..." and "...this Hanukkah is very special, it’s the first one that my husband has ever observed. I can never get through the blessings without tears for speaking Hebrew moves me in a way that I can’t explain. Thank you Rabbi Alperowitz for helping us observe Hanukkah this year. You have blessed us in a way I can’t express."
One of my highlights from the Chabad leadership conference that I recently attended in NY, was gathering with some 6500 colleagues and friends, and hearing the announcement that Chabad was opening a new country; Zambia.
Many have never heard of Zambia, and most can’t place it on the map. But Zambia is now the 109th country with a Chabad. There is a tiny Jewish population there, and it has been over 75 years since a rabbi has lived there.
The young couple who chose to dedicate their life to the Jewish community there, are Rivky and Mendy Hertzel. Rivky was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and Mendy is from Rosh Pinah, Israel. Together, they made a decision to leave their families, friends and comfort zone, to move to a place where they could be in service of the Jewish community. A place where they feel they could do their part to strengthen our people with love, and ensure Jewish continuity, vibrancey and warmth.
They are a gifted young couple that could have chosen comfortable careers in this country where they currently live. Instead they chose the path of service to others. To live life a little higher.
Many are amazed by this. But Rivky and Mendy don't feel amazing at all. They feel they are living a life of meaning and purpose.
It’s not every day that you meet a couple like this. Where, may I ask, does their attitude come from?
As they were preparing to leave, an elderly Sephardic man from Brooklyn named Yerachmiel Glazer contacted them. He had a story to share with them. He told them that he was born and raised in Zambia, and lived there through his young adult life.
But there was more. As a teenager, he went to study in Israel, and while there met Chabad and decided to travel to New York to meet theRebbe. When he visited the Rebbe in 1969, the Rebbe encouraged him to go back to Zambia and share with the local Jews the newly acquired Torah knowledge he had learned in Israel. Although he was not a rabbi, and still only had minimal education, the Rebbe urged him to send letters to the people living there, with relevant information for the Shabbat and holidays, and travel back to bring them a shofar, megillah, tefillin and shabbat candles, and show them how to use them.
Glazer was so moved that this young couple would now be settling there permanently, that he gifted them all the correspondence he had from the Rebbe.
Who else would be looking out for the Jews of Zambia in the1960s and 70s if not the Rebbe, and who else would be moving to live there now in 2022, if not the Rebbe's students. Mendy and Rivky are young. They never met the Rebbe, but they did learn his teachings and were inspired by his revolutionary vision of Ahavat Yisrael. They watched the videos of him passionately talking about the need for a unified Jewish people, and a unified humankind, and they want to do their part in making it happen sooner.
This week I was able to give a warm Sioux Falls welcome to NBA G League player Ryan Turell. Ryan is here to play in the Sioux Falls Skyforce vs. Motor City Cruise game. He is not only a skilled player with great moves, but also the first kippah-yarmulke wearing player.
In the recent Torah portions we have been reading about our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the founders of the Jewish people. Each of them had pivotal moments at which point they demonstrated who they were and what they were about. About Abraham, for example, we are told he was called "Avraham Ha-Ivri," also because "the whole world stood on one side, and he stood on the other other."
Being a Jew, sometimes we are called upon to take a stand, even when it may not be so popular. To stand up for who we are, for what we believe, and for what is right for others.
In his own way, and in his career, this is what Ryan Turell is doing. Very publicly and very proudly displaying his Judaism. When someone is that well-known, it may be easier or simpler to remove the kippah while playing. His fans would love him and he would be able to advance in his career easily. Does he really need to make such a fuss of the fact he is Jewish?
But if there is anything that history has shown us, it is that the best way of ensuring that our children and theirs continue to be Jewish, is if we are knowledgeable and proud of who we are.
As Ryan will be enjoying challah, wine and Shabbos dinner this evening, before playing tomorrow with his yarmulke, I'll be thinking what I could learn from him so that I too can be a prouder Jew.
This might also just be our best answer to the Kanye’s of the world. Put on that Kippah!
As we prepare to celebrate our seventh Chanukah in South Dakota, I’m thinking about the significance of “seven.” In Judaism, the number seven symbolizes a complete cycle; there are seven days in a week, and the Biblical Sabbatical year is observed every seventh year. Immediately after the seventh comes the eighth, which must always spur us to increased activity and vibrancy.
This just gives us all more to be thankful for as we celebrate Chanukah this year, and look to an even brighter future of increased Jewish knowledge and pride in our beautiful state.
When we look at the story of Chanukah, we realize that the main thrust of Chanukah was not about the physical persecution of the Jews, but of the banning of our faith observances.
The Greeks were puzzled by the Jews insistence that the Torah was given by G-d, and that therefore its instructions are holy and eternal. If you want to live with cultural traditions that your ancestors brought along from a desert, the Greeks reasoned, wonderful, but please don’t attribute all this holiness, spirituality and G-dliness to it.
Had the Jews simply agreed to forgo the Shabbat, Brit, Kosher, Family Purity, and modify some of the temple observances to include aspects foreign to the tradition, the Greeks would have left us alone, and everyone would have lived happily ever after.
But that would not have been Judaism.
So thankfully, the Macabbees stood up and proudly said no. Although they were initially a small minority, as even many Jews succumbed to the Hellenistic ways, this small group prevailed.
They showed that to be victorious, you don’t need many, you don’t need might. You need to be right, and eventually you will prevail and others will join you. It was a victory of right over wrong, of light over the dark. And thanks to those brave people, we have Judaism today as we did back then, and we have Chanukah to celebrate.
Just like the Maccabees of old, the best way we can ensure our children and grandchildren will be Jewish, the way our ancestors were, is for us to be educated about who we are. When we know who we are, we are also more likely to be proud of who we are.
This year, the Menorah lights will shine extra brightly across South Dakota, with increased Jewish pride and celebration, as we have provided a menorah and candles to every Jewish home in need of one around the state. This of course is in addition to the many, many homes who light the candles each night, and the beautiful public displays of menorahs in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City.
Numerous people have told me how meaningful it is for them when they see the large public menorahs on display. For Jewish people it is a symbol of our faith and tradition, for the broader community it is a universal symbol of American freedom, and an expression of the beautiful diversity and how welcome we are in our beloved city and state.
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."
This Tuesday we resumed our weekly Torah class after taking a break for several weeks during the High Holidays, Sukkot and Simchat Torah season. Most of this week's Torah portion speaks about Noah and the great flood. But nothing in the Torah is just a story from thousands of years ago, it is all an important and very practical lesson for our lives today.
Like Noah, we too can face a flood. Each one of us can be flooded by the daily hassles of life, be it emotional, mental, and especially the mundanities of earning a living. Any or all of these things can completely drown us, upending our ability to live a life of harmony and fulfillment.
To protect ourselves from these waters, like Noah, we too must "enter the ark," that is a space of holiness and spirituality. “Entering the ark” essentially means choosing a time in the day, a day in the week, or even a year in your life, where we surround ourselves exclusively in an environment of Torah and mitzvahs. Only then we can be certain that the hassles of life will leave us unscathed.
This idea of "entering the ark" also comes with communal responsibility, and our obligation to care for the physical and spiritual needs of others. It would be inappropriate for any of us to think "I am taken care of, I am living a good quality life in my comfort zone and what happens outside is not my issue." Here too we must look at the verse, in which G-d tells Noah that in addition to himself, he must bring others into the ark with him as well; his wife and sons, their wives, as well as animal life. We are responsible not only for ourselves but also for the material and spiritual well-being of those around us.
And just like Noah was commanded to enter the ark, G-d also commanded Noah to exit the ark. You might wonder that it's obvious that he eventually needed to leave the ark, for what reason did Noah need to be told to do so?
This is because at times we can get too comfortable in our own little ark of holiness. Sometimes we may forget that our ultimate purpose is to engage with the world completely, and transform it for the better. To do that we must leave the ark, but to leave, we must first enter.
Only by entering and giving ourselves a strong foundation of Torah and mitzvahs can we ultimately succeed in living a life of purpose and meaning, with peace, love and true harmony.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.