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  • When the Rebbe Said to Wear a Mask

    The recent controversy over fighting corona with masks reminds Raanan Isseroff of another time when wearing a mask was a big debate… Memories from the Persian Gulf War at Tomchei Tmimim in Kfar Chabad • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Raanan Isseroff , Beis Moshiach

    When I was a bochur, In Chanuka of 1990, the Gulf War was about to begin. I had been learning in Israel, in Kfar Chabad the whole previous year and I had flown to Crown Heights for Tishrei. Since I wasn’t a rich person, and a bit of a “lone soldier” in the army of Hashem, what I would do is go to work for a month or so, earn enough money for a round trip ticket open for one year and fly to Eretz Yisroel, with a guaranteed return trip for next Elul in my pocket. I knew that there wouldn’t be any opportunity to make money while I was learning, so this was the best plan I could think of. I had done it the previous year and now after working as a wallpaper installer, I had enough money to return after Tishrei.

    The time dragged on, and the alarming news of an impending war kept looming larger and larger on the horizon. Finally, I bought the ticket and arrived in Israel for Parshas Bo. The US troops were in position and each side was waving its armor at the other side.

    This was in the early 90s, there were no phones in the yeshiva, except for one in the office and three pay phones, of which only two actually worked. Rabbi Wolf, the yeshiva’s administrator, told me that my mother had called frantic and asked me to please call home. One student had already left. His parents had called begging him to come home. The Rebbe, however, was very adamant in insisting that Eretz Yisrael is the safest place in the world and that no one should leave.

    Since the lines for the payphones were very long, I waited until about 2AM to make my call. At 2 in the morning, I get the long-distance operator on the phone and she asks me: “What’s your name?”

    I answered her, “Shalom”. “Nu, Shalom” she says, “are you a meshugeneh? It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Go back to sleep!!” Just my luck – I get an operator with a sense of humor…

    The phone rings and my mother answers. “They’re sending 100,000 body bags to Tel Aviv!” she screams into the phone. “We’re sending you a ticket home!” I wasn’t prepared for this. As my parents argued, I told them that the Rebbe had told us that “Eretz Yisrael is the safest place in the world”, and if so, I wasn’t coming home.

    They weren’t convinced, but they did make me promise to get a gas mask, which I regretfully agreed to. The next day, feeling like a wimp, I snuck out the back of the yeshiva during lunch and quietly made my way through the fields until I reached the road that led out of the Kfar.

    As I walked up the road to the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, I noticed other boys also walking quietly in the same direction. We all quietly mounted the bus to Lod and we all ended up in the same place: the distribution center for gas masks.

    There, I showed my passport and they gave me a gas mask, a scary looking thing which had a manufacturing tag that showed it was made in Germany. I found out that the body-bags were also made in Germany. “Germany is doing a good business on this war,” I wryly reflected. “They invent the missiles and poison gas. Then they sell the missiles to Iraq and the body bags and masks to Israel.”

    Meanwhile, I sneaked the gas mask into yeshiva and a revolution ensued. Everyone wanted a mask! Rabbi Gafni called a meeting of all the students. “When I was a soldier before 1967, I was trained to use a gas mask. How did they train us? They had us stand in a closed room and tear gas was thrown in. We had to count to 60 and then put on the mask. I had a full beard, and the thing sealed perfectly. There is no need to shave off your beard. Many of you are not aware, but the Rebbe sent a non-public letter to Chassidim in Israel that while it’s true that nothing will happen and that Eretz Yisrael is the safest place in the world, Chassidim should, however, do whatever the Israeli Government says to do to ensure public safety. It should not seem like Chabad is doing something different from what everyone else is doing.”

    With that, Rabbi Gafni collected everyone’s passports and sent one person to get everyone a mask.

    In the coming days and weeks, the government came up with more public safety rules. Everyone walking around in public, must carry his mask with him. Further, every home and school and business must have a “cheder atum” (a sealed room). This “sealed room” must be above ground (for poison gas travels down); the higher, the better. The old bomb shelters wouldn’t work for this war. That was good, because most were not fit for use or were being used as a room in the house.

    An inspector came to the yeshiva and threatened to close the whole yeshiva if they didn’t make a sealed room. We Americans didn’t need a second or first warning. Out I went and bought wide tape to seal the windows and doors of our room.

    A large classroom was turned into a “cheder atum.” When the missiles would fall, all the boys would bring their mattresses and radios for a night of excitement as the missiles would fall, sometimes not far away and the ground would shake. The boys would tune into BBC to get trusted outside news and so, the night would pass. One morning, nobody showed up for seder. Rav Katz went downstairs to find all the bochurim sleeping!  A bochur, Katz from London came out in his pajamas and explained to Rav Katz that the previous night missiles had fallen. Rav Katz listened as if he didn’t know until it was obvious that he did know…

    ***

    The first night of the missile attacks, I was asleep. It was a Thursday night and instead of going to the farbrengen, I was asleep. I was rudely awoken by one of my roommates, Moishy from London, who burst in crying “We’re going to die! We’re going to die!” I woke up and felt and heard the ground shaking and distant booms of bombs falling. “It’s just the bochurim upstairs playing and throwing things around!” I insisted. “No, it’s not!” Moishy insisted and opened the radio. “Israel is under Missile attack!” came the news in English out of our radio. My hand went for the tape. I had been searching for it all week.

    Suddenly I found it. In a few minutes our room was sealed. Over the coming weeks, I would improve the sealing of our door so that we could open and close it, yet not a drop of air got in. I knew it was that way, because it was soundproof. Sound is carried by air and if there’s no air, there’s no or very little sound. My other roommate looked at us and said “The Rebbe said this is the safest place in the world! That’s enough for me.” And he went back to sleep!

    I found my mask, opened the seals and screwed in the filter. At first, I wore it for fun. But I never used it again except for pictures.

    I went searching for the BBC. Israel wasn’t advertising anything so as not to give a success or failure report to enemy spies listening in Iraq. I tuned into BBC News where they had a lineup of British generals who were obviously in-the-know about what was going on.

    “A very big miracle occurred,’’ they said. “The powerful winds have blown the missiles into the desert.”

    I couldn’t believe it.

    Eventually, we began going up on the roof as the first sirens would sound. From where we were, we had front row seats for the most amazing show. We would see the SCUD missile coming in from Iraq. They are huge ICBMs that Hitler sent to London during World War II. Each one falling could kill hundreds if not thousands of people. 39 of these missiles were fired on Eretz Yisrael and nobody was hurt!

    Since the SCUDs were coming from so far away, the missile was forced to fly very high. So high in fact, that it was like a jet in the sky. It appeared to be moving very slow, although it was actually moving very fast.

    Slowly, slowly, it made its way across the sky. As it reached the outskirts of Tel Aviv, it was met by Patriot missiles, a kind of Katyusha with a laser guidance system. We could see the Patriots sailing up to meet the incoming behemoth and hitting it broadside. Two missiles went up and one hit the front just behind the head, knocking it off, but not changing the forward trajectory. Headless, the missile continued forward to fall on some part of Tel Aviv. The Patriots hit caused the missiles’ head and other debris to fall, plus you now had the two Patriots falling someplace.

    ***

    What’s the point?

    Today, we find ourselves in a very similar situation here in Eretz Yisrael. Except that people seem to have forgotten what the Rebbe told us not so long ago in 1991. Then, it was a certainty that nothing would happen, for who can forget the Rebbe’s clarion call “Eretz Yisrael is the safest place in the world”? Who could forget his promise that nothing would happen? And how many people also surely recall the Rebbe telling us to wear masks and do anything else that the public safety officers were telling us to do?

    Today, the situation is even more like the Gulf war, for the danger of the virus is real. Then the danger wasn’t real. People we know are sick or have died and the deaths seem to be continuing, G-d forbid.

    Again, we are being asked by the Public Safety officers to put on masks and wear them in public and especially around people. What’s different?  If anything, what the Rebbe said then, is even more relevant today. So, a person shouldn’t feel badly about wearing a mask, for the Rebbe already told us to put them on.

    *

    The magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to: bmoshiach.org

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