From a speech Jay Litvin gave to a Milwaukee audience in 1985
I first met Rabbi Shmotkin a little over five years ago on the last day of Chanukah. At the time, I had no idea that it was Chanukah, let alone the last day. I had knocked on the door of Lubavitch House after seeing him and Rabbi Samuels on a Sunday morning television talk show.
This was not the first I had heard of Lubavitch. A friend and I had been studying some Kabbalistic mysticism in the late hours of the night for several weeks. We were interested in mysticism; that it was Jewish was interesting, but mainly beside the point. My friend had heard about Rabbi Samuels from someone who had been taking a class with him in Jewish mysticism. Exercising his typical spiritual courage, my friend went straight off to see what it was all about. I, on the other hand, refused. I wanted nothing to do with rabbis. I wanted nothing to do with temples. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with Judaism. I had known it as a child and I simply didn't want to know any more about it.
Even after my friend brought back his reports about this bearded rabbi dressed in black who always wore a hat and gave classes in a little green room in a big mansion, I still didn't want to meet him.
At the time, I had been married for 12 years and had two children, ages 9 and 11. I worked as a professional and had explored various psychotherapies, spiritual approaches, political groups and alternative lifestyles. I had, in fact, come to Kabbalah through a tarot workshop where I had learned that most symbolism on tarot cards are Kabbalistic in origin. I began to study books on Kabbalah, but I wanted nothing to do with religion. I had been a seeker for many years by the time I had knocked on the door of Lubavitch House.
So what happened? What was so special about seeing two rabbis on a TV show that made me finally go knock on the door? Well to tell you the truth, I never understood it myself. Not until the other night. I was talking with one of the Lubavitcher yeshiva students here helping at the Chabad House. Tzifion is his name; he's Israeli. He was telling me that he wants to stay in Milwaukee and continue working with Chabad here. I asked him: Why? Why did he see his work here in Milwaukee as being so special when he could be in New York or even in Israel? He told me the following lesson which he had learned from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson.
There were in Israel, during the time when the Temple stood, certain cities that served as “cities of refuge.” They were places where the Levites lived, and they were built by G‑d's command in the Torah. They were called “cities of refuge” because they were places where a person who had accidentally killed another person could go and live in safety from retribution. Tzifion explained how the Torah also instructed that signposts be posted on all the crossroads pointing the way to these cities of refuge. Of course, today there are no such cities and there are certainly no such signposts.
The Rebbe explains this story on a different level, making it relevant to our lives today. Chassidic teaching describes how the victim of this "accidental killing" is our Jewish soul. The killing is considered accidental because in our ignorance we don't know the damage we are doing to our soul by certain actions. The city of refuge is Torah, the place we can return to in safety, a place where we can learn, a place to grow, a place we belong. Tzifion told how today the Lubavitcher Chassid who walks down the street, who looks and acts like a Jew, who is recognized immediately as a Jew who believes in and lives by the Torah, is that signpost. And like a signpost, he doesn't need to say anything. He just stands there. He is simply a signpost that with his very being says to a fellow Jew — friend, safety and sanity.
Tzifion described going to the Grand Avenue Mall and being approached by people he had never seen. People telling him about their lives that made no sense. About their children whom they could no longer speak to or understand. About their jobs which were meaningless and boring. He said they stopped him just because he was a signpost and something in their Jewish soul recognized him, trusted him, and reached out to him.
It was then that I understood why that television show had been the turning point. Why simply seeing and hearing Rabbi Shmotkin and Rabbi Samuels on TV had propelled me the next day to knock on the door of Lubavitch House. And I must tell you that my life was not in shambles. I was neither lost nor unhappy. I was not lying in the gutter with a needle in my arm. I was just a seeker who forgot to look in my own backyard. I just didn't know there was anything real there.
So I knocked on the door and, lo and behold, not one but two rabbis came to greet me. The same two I had seen on TV the day before. Right away I knew there was something different. Always before I couldn't even get an appointment to see a rabbi, let alone have two come to the door. Smiling no less. I introduced myself, explaining that I'd seen them on television the day before. They turned to each other and smiled in a way that immediately told me that I'd just brought them a great deal of pleasure.
Now this may seem like a small thing to you, that two rabbis would come to the door to greet me. But for me, it was the first indication that I'd stumbled upon a different kind of Judaism that I'd known before. Let me tell you two stories that will help you understand:
When I was in high school, I had a close friend whose adolescence was quite intense. Like most teenagers she hated hypocrisy. She was on her lasts leg of tolerance with the temple we both attended. Then something bad happened in her life, and she tried to get a hold of the rabbi and was unsuccessful. The secretary said the rabbi was out and would call her back. He didn't. She called again wanting to see him. But she had no appointment. Then one night in desperation she went to the temple needing someone to talk to. But the doors were locked. It was after 5:00. On her way home she passed a Catholic church. The lights were on. The door was open. She went inside, and sure enough there was a young priest ready and willing to talk to her. He was a very nice, sincere man who took an interest in her. And that's all she ever wanted in the first place, someone who would take an interest in her. It took a lot of effort on her parents’ part to talk her out of converting.
Perhaps she expected too much to begin with. Rabbis are busy. They have families and business hours, too. Maybe my friend was just experiencing adolescent impulsiveness. But I've always had a special appreciation for the door that is never locked at Lubavitch House and the rabbis who are always there to talk to you.
One other story:
When I discovered that the tarot was based on Kabbalah, I began researching Jewish mysticism, and as I studied I felt a resurgence of Jewish feeling. I felt a pull to reconnect. I fought the urge, thinking it was silly. I remembered childhood temple experiences. And also by this time I had formed some fairly sophisticated intellectual biases against any form of organized religion. Biases which, by the way, I still hold. But the urge continued and I thought, "What the heck," and stopped and went into a large synagogue that I had seen.
Now, you must understand that I am by nature a very emotional person. And when I went inside this temple, I was flooded with a certain feeling that seemed to come from very deep inside. It really surprised me. In fact, I had to fight to hold back tears. The kind of tears that come from seeing an old friend from whom you've been separated for a long time. Not tears of sadness but tears of belonging.
I went inside what they call the chapel. I stood there just kind of tripping out on all kinds of memories and sensations and thoughts. A crack had been opened in my anti-religious armor. So there I am, standing having my own version of significant religious experience, when I'm suddenly discovered by the maintenance man. "Hey," he calls out, "what are you doing here?”
"Standing in the shul," I say. I was surprised that so obvious an activity needed an explanation.
"Well," he says, "you can't just come in here, do you have permission?" "No," I say in my most sarcastic voice, "I didn't know you need permission to pray in a temple. I'm Jewish."
You see, if you've been through the 60's and 70's political scenes, you know how to handle these kinds of situations pretty well. I mean, he's clearly being everything I've always hated. He's no different from anybody else just because I'm a Jew and we're inside a temple. So, I just went into my outcast role and everything became very familiar, very comfortable and normally disgusting. But still I was surprised. I didn't think a Jew should have to be an outcast in a synagogue. An obviously naive assumption.
"So who gives out the permission around here to pray," I asked. "You'll have to go the office," he says. So we go to the office where I meet a slightly overweight middle-age secretary, who cares even less about my quickly dwindling religious experience than the maintenance man. And she tells me how they just can't have people going into the chapel praying any time they feel like it because it would cause too much disorder. "Is the rabbi here?" I asked, still clinging to some hope that maybe he could relate to my religious experience. An experience that, by this time, is shrinking into distant memory. Right on cue she answers, "Do you have an appointment?" So I finally left, committed to keeping my religious experiences confined to my weekly meditation classes.
I've told you these stories because I think they emphasize what I consider to be two of the most important qualities of Lubavitch. First, they exist. They are there and their doors are always opened to any Jew. And second, they are available. They are sincere, accepting and genuine. They are signposts of the real thing. They are like magnets to the Jewish soul.
Now to return to my story: So I'm standing at the door of Lubavitch House faced with these two rabbis, both of whom are smiling. Rabbi Shmotkin introduces himself, speaking in an accent so thick that I wasn't quite sure what he had said. My initial discomfort was being eased by the warmth of their behavior. Rabbi Samuels then spoke, took me by the arm, and led me to his little green room. I knew that in some unspoken way the decision had been made that I was to be cared for by him. As Rabbi Shmotkin looked on approvingly, I began my journey with Lubavitch.
I had never seen tefillin. I didn't even know they existed. I'd not even heard of them. So when Rabbi Samuels began wrapping these boxes and straps around my arm and head even before I was through the doorway, I was a bit taken aback. He began talking quickly, eliminating any opportunity I had to say, "Hey, don't do this!" And the more he talked, explaining about tefillin, what it is, why we put it on, having me repeat the Shema, the more that feeling I had felt in the Conservative shul began to return. The tears were there again. The fullness in my chest. Again a feeling of belonging. But this time, there was someone there who knew what was happening to me. Who knew about my Jewish soul and welcomed it. Who could speak to my neshamah and let it emerge. I began to feel as though I'd been Jewish for lifetimes and had been putting on tefillin for thousands of years. Rabbi Samuels had opened a door to knowledge and ritual and tradition and wisdom that not only included all that I'd studied and known before, but indeed surpassed it. He made me feel that I had arrived home after a long and fruitful journey. He never belittled my experience, he embraced it. Like he does with everything else, he included all of my past and present into a giant circle of Jewishness.
I surprised myself, quickly telling him sensitive, intimate things about myself. Rabbi Samuels helped me look at my life through the Jew in me. He told me the truth, and it often wasn't what I wanted to hear. He did it very kindly, and, in true Chabad fashion, with much explanation and education. He made Judaism real to my life on many different levels, not just abstract rhetoric or blind rules. He spoke the truth, straight, not watered down, and I respected him for that. And because of that I knew that he was for real, and that what he would teach me would be for real. I trusted him.
Truth is a rare quality to be found in the world today. And this, I think, is the most important quality that Chabad offers: truth. This, I'm sure, is why Chabad is so successful. Because they tell people the truth, and the truth has its own power. It brings its own response. Especially truth that comes from the Torah.
Lubavitchers not only teach about the truth, but they also live what they teach. It's very obvious. Theirs is not a life of rhetoric. They're for real. When they talk about loving a fellow Jew, they mean it. They get involved with people's lives, and not just between 9 and 5.
I studied with Rabbi Samuels three and four times a week for over a year. I ate at his home every Shabbat for over a year and a half, both Friday night and Shabbat day. Rabbi Samuels provided me with my first pair of tefillin and loaned me my first tallis. I learned to daven here at Lubavitch House. I attended my first Shabbaton here, learning the deep secrets of Chassidism until the late hours of the night. Then dancing around the kitchen table with Rabbi Samuels, feeling that being Jewish was the most special, most important thing in the world. Feeling a special connection to G‑d. Actually feeling comfortable in that connection, rather than distant and apart. We may address G‑d as "King," but at Lubavitch House one feels him to be much more of a friend and a close companion.
I was called for my first aliyah at Lubavitch House, and I remember approaching the reading table with fear and trepidation. I knew no Hebrew. I had no idea what was expected of me. I was sure I would make a fool of myself. But then when I got to where everyone was standing, people were smiling and joking. One man I knew put his arm around me. It was an unspoken, "Hey, come join the fun. This is where it's all happening. Relax and enjoy the ride." At the same time, the Torah was treated with the utmost of respect and reverence. But not with the slightest bit of distance. "Why should it be", they said, "it belongs to us." And at Lubavitch House, again, this is not rhetoric, it's reality. You know and feel that the Torah belongs to you. And, that it belongs to you every bit as much as it belongs to Rabbi Shmotkin or Rabbi Samuels or the Rebbe himself.
Shabbaton at Lubavitch House is a remarkable experience, a privilege for anyone of any age who has the opportunity to attend. And the price is right, too. Never was money an obstacle to my learning or celebration or participation at Lubavitch House. Six months later, I finally did pay for my first pair of tefillin, and now I'm paying off my second. But I've never gone without tefillin. Or a tallit. Or books. Or a sukkah. Or matzoh, mishloach manot on Purim, shofar on Rosh Hashanah, lulav and etrog, or even a kosher lunch when I needed it.
When I first began putting on tefillin, I did not do it daily. I was still trying it out. If I happened to talk to Rabbi Samuels on the phone, he would ask me if I'd put tefillin on that day. And if I hadn't, he'd drive over to my workplace with a pair of tefillin. At the time, I was working on 124th Street and Bluemound, a 30 minute drive from Lubavitch House. Each way.
On my first Sukkot as an observant Jew, I had been working out of town and was arriving back in Milwaukee the day before the holiday. I told Rabbi Samuels that while it would be nice to have a sukkah, I wouldn't have time to build one. I told him I'd get along fine without it anyway. It just wasn't that important to me. When I arrived home, a sukkah was standing in my backyard. Rabbi Samuels and Rabbi Wolvovsky had built it the day before. In the rain. My family learned to love Sukkot that year. It's still our favorite holiday.
The next year, Rabbi Samuels helped me build my sukkah at 1:00 A.M. On a second story porch. When I complained that the woman next door was a crotchety old lady who would call the police, he asked, "Is she Jewish?" She was. "Then she won't mind," he said. The next morning I saw the woman as I was getting ready to go to shul, carrying my lulav and etrog, given to me, of course, by Lubavitch. I braced for her attack as she approached. But, instead of anger, there were tears in her eyes. She asked if she could kiss the lulav and etrog. "I haven't seen one of these in years," she said. "Last night when I heard all the noise I looked out of the window and saw you building your sukkah..." I interrupted her, apologizing profusely, but she said, "No, no, you don't understand, it was the first good night's sleep I'd had in a long time. I felt so secure knowing you were next door." After that she was never unpleasant again. Still a bit loony, perhaps, but never unpleasant.
There are some very important points I want these stories to make:
First, you must know that mine is not a unique story. My wife is only one of many women encouraged and escorted to Bais Chana in Minneapolis. Mine is only one of many kitchens that have been personally koshered by Lubavitch House. I am only one of many people taken to see the Rebbe, taught the beauty of Jewish festivals, and counseled on all kinds of personal concerns. I've screamed and fought with Rabbi Samuels and Rabbi Shmotkin. Accused them of narrow-mindedness, racism, chauvinism, and blind faith. I've sworn to never wear a kippah or a beard or tzitzit. And they listened, as I'm sure they do to hundreds of people every year needing someone with whom to battle out their spiritual crises. And who listens? Lubavitch listens. And listens. And listens. And listens. Through their faith, they teach us faith.
And this is my second point: Lubavitch offers an education as intense and effective and as thorough as one could want. And it's the best kind of education there is: education by doing. Lubavitch teaches two very simple things: G‑d's love of the Jewish people. And a Jew's love of a fellow Jew. And while Rabbi Samuels’ and Rabbi Shmotkin's classes are as inspiring and educational as you could hope for, most of the teaching is by example. By doing. As Chassidism teaches: Deed is the thing.
I learned about Shabbat at the Shabbat table. I learned about Passover at the Lubavitch House Seders. I learned about faith and patience. I learned about acceptance. My son learned about kindness and generosity delivering shmurah matzoh to people who thought nobody cared. He couldn't believe the joy he brought to people simply by bringing them matzoh. That was his education about Passover that year. I saw the depths of the Jewish soul in the faces of people at Mount Sinai Hospital where Rabbi Samuels and I had gone to blow shofar. A six-mile walk we happily undertook.
That Rosh Hashanah, I heard the shofar blown for each of the 37 years of my life that I had missed.