One day, my phone rang.
“Is this Chabad?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“My name is Lisa from New York. A friend of mine is driving through Nashville and her car won’t start.”
I have to admit, this was a first for me.
Nashville is a hot spot for tourists and is also a city with many business travelers, and people visiting many of the local medical centers. In addition to that, a couple of heavily trafficked highways pass through Nashville. So we receive all kinds of phone calls with requests for help. From, “My family is at VUMC for treatment, they would greatly appreciate a visit,” to, “My friend is in Nashville for a business meeting and left his Tefilin behind,” or, “my cousin is in a rehab center in the Nashville area and is looking for a kosher meal,” or simply “We’re driving through Nashville and looking for a Sukkah…”—we’ve seen them all.
But no one has ever called us because their car was stuck.
“So your friend is stuck in Nashville with a car problem?” I repeated, trying to wrap my head around the call.
“Yes,” said the woman on the other side of the call. “As soon as my friend told me about it, I wanted to help her so I figured I should call Chabad.”
“Look,” I said with a chuckle, “I’m not a car mechanic, and with my two left hands I’m likely to ruin the car even further. How about this: Check with your friend if she has AAA or roadside assistance on her insurance, I assume they should be able to help her. If not, please call me back and I’ll try to help.”
A few minutes later the phone rang again. Yes, her friend had AAA and everything was good.
At first, I found the phone call quite amusing. Why would someone with car troubles even call us? But the more I thought about it, the more I started to appreciate it. This good woman from New York was trying to help her friend, and the first thought that came to her mind was “let me call Chabad.”
She didn’t know who I was; she simply called Chabad. And it dawned on me that this is exactly what the Rebbe, envisioned back then. And I am so thankful to be part of that vision.
It all started 70 years ago.
On a cold evening in Brooklyn, a hundred or so chassidim packed into a small shul. That evening, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, formally accepted the role of leadership of the Chabad movement, a year after his predecessor, the Sixth Rebbe, had passed away. I wonder how many of the chassidim at that gathering realized just how consequential that night was going to be. For them, a Rebbe was someone who would guide them, inspire them, and lead the movement, which was still reeling from the devastating losses of the Holocaust. The Rebbe’s vision, however, was far greater.
Seventy years later, looking at the thousands of shluchim and shluchot (Chabad emissaries) serving at Chabad Houses around the world, I think it’s fair to say that almost every single Jew has come into contact with a Chabad House, one way or another.
When people ask me for the secret of Chabad’s success, I don’t hesitate to answer: It’s all the Rebbe’s vision. Yet, when they ask me what the Rebbe’s vision is, I often struggle to explain. It’s easy to frame the Rebbe’s vision as building Chabad centers around the globe. It’s easy to frame the success as, “He took a small movement and turned it into a large and successful one, with thousands of branches around the world.” But that is only a small part of the story.
In fact, just looking at the Rebbe’s correspondence (available online at Chabad.org/letters), one will see how the Rebbe spent much of his time engaging with people or groups that had very little to do with Chabad’s success, or with Chabad altogether. Whether it was about building a mikvah (ritual immersion pool) in New Zealand, constructing an eruv (Shabbat boundary marker) in a moshav (small town) in Israel, or encouraging a rabbi in Mexico not to leave his community, the Rebbe devoted huge amounts of time and resources to help causes that seemingly did nothing to help his movement. In fact, the Rebbe even secretly sent financial support to a group that was publicly and vocally critical of Chabad and the Rebbe. When he heard of their struggle, he supported them through a third party knowing that they wouldn’t accept his direct support.
Which is why I struggle when asked to describe the Rebbe’s vision. Maybe the issue is that I’m calling it a vision in the first place. Vision is all about the visionary. But the appropriate term is not vision, but alignment. Essentially, the Rebbe was aligned with G-d’s will. When you are aligned with G-d’s will, you don’t think about your own self-interest, or even about the benefit to your community or organization. You care for what G-d cares about, you love what G-d loves. And for G-d, every Jew is precious, every mitzvah dear.
This also explains the Rebbe’s passion to impact change on a global scale, not only among Jews, but among non-Jews as well. As we recite in the daily prayer, we look forward to the day, “…When all the inhabitants of the earth will recognize G-d’s sovereignty.” If this is what G-d wants, this is what the Rebbe cared about deeply. And this is what the Rebbe asked his Chassidim—and everyone else he came into contact with—to do. To be more aligned with G-d’s will and less focused on our own self-interest. When he sent chassidim to establish Chabad Houses around the world, he told them to help every Jew, and every person they come in contact with, spiritually and physically, with whatever they need.
Think about it. Typically, when you establish a community or a congregation, it’s natural to prioritize your time and resources to ensure the growth of the community and your congregation. But the Rebbe made it clear that a Chabad House must run differently. If someone needs our help, even if he or she will never step foot inside or be involved with our Chabad House, we need to help. If we have the opportunity to do a mitzvah with a fellow Jew, inspire our fellow human being, even if we might never see them again, we should grab the opportunity. Why? Because to G-d, each one of us is precious, and every mitzvah is dear.
I still have a long way to go to achieve a perfect alignment with G-d’s will. And I might never reach it. But these, “Is this Chabad?” phone calls do remind me to keep trying.
As we commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, on the 3rd of Tammuz, 5781, (June 13, 2021) may we all be inspired to follow his example.
It’s wonderful to see how much care and how much chesed (acts of kindness) we do within our communities. Yet the Rebbe always asked for more, not to rest on our laurels, as there is always more to do.
Let’s reach out to our fellow brothers and sisters. encourage them to make this world a Home for G-d, a place where He will feel welcomed by us all, by doing one more Mitzvah each day. Each act of goodness and kindness will make this world a better and a brighter place.
To learn more about the Rebbe go to therebbe.org