Israel National News
As cities and countries rush to erect statues that honor frontline and essential workers, as we fittingly laud the IDF for its invaluable, professional and caring aid at Surfside, it is time for we Jews, as a people, to recognize our own other frontline workers–Chabad. While I am as Lithuanian and non-Hassidic as they get (my family is from Radin and Vilna), the double crisis of a pandemic and a wave of antisemitism has highlighted the essential work of Chabad do on behalf of our people.
When all else failed, Chabad volunteers were there at the forefront. How do I know? Let me begin
As the pandemic hit American shores, no city was hit as hard as New York. We now know that in those days, there were about 1000 (!) people dying every day. The lethal blow the pandemic dealt New York was right before Passover. I don’t know if this ever happened in the history of New York, but this city was hit with a shortage of Matza and other Passover foods. Chabad worked around the clock to make sure people had Matzah and food.
As the situation worsened, I asked my friend from the Upper East Side, Rabbi Uriel Viegler, if he is leaving the city for now, as more than half a million people left the city in those weeks. He laughed. “A Chabad Shaliach never abandons his post,” he said.
This reminded me of the dark days of the Soviet Union and the Iron curtain. Whatever rabbis and observant people were able to get out, got out. Yet even in the darkest days of Soviet oppression, Chabad maintained a presence, fighting to keep whatever little flame of Judaism was left there alive.
When an elderly community member left for Florida on his own and did not know how or where to get Kosher food in Florida, the way to address it was obvious, I contacted the Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin. They were more than happy to help. This was but one example of many other Jews and myself who knew from experience we can always count on Chabad for help.
Even as we saw many communities rightfully close their doors for safety reasons during this pandemic, Chabad found creative ways to keep Judaism open. Food package deliveries, cars driving around neighborhoods playing Jewish music, and even laying the foundations and infrastructure for a new Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates by Rabbi Levi Duchman, these and more are ways in which Chabad fearlessly kept working to keep Jews and Judaism vitalized through this difficult pandemic.
As the scourge of antisemitism raised its head in unprecedented ways, Chabad Rabbis and Rebbetzins did not lower their head for one moment. While many Jews feared to wear a Kippa or wear a star of David in public, Chabad inspired Jews to fearlessly take pride in who they are. This did not come without a price. Just recently, Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was stabbed right outside a Chabad day camp in Boston.
The response? Calling to do more good deeds and further take pride in our Judaism.
As the shocking historical occurrence of Jews in American wondering if it is safe to display their Judaism took place, Chabad emissaries were making Havdala in Times Square, giving out Shabbat candles in supermarkets, standing proud and supporting our children on college campuses, and offering Jews to put on Tefillin wherever they may be.
I am not a member of Chabad or affiliated with them in any way, but it is time for the broader Jewish community to recognize Chabad for being the essential frontline workers that they are. Sure, there are many other Jewish organizations, rabbis, and institutions doing worthy and sacred work, but Chabad are those on the frontline of Jewish life.
The greatest compliment and confirmation I get when doing something good for strangers or when hosting them in our home is when guests say: “Oh, you guys must be from Chabad!” which we are not. On the one hand, I am honored to be thought of as a member of this most selfless and dedicated group serving our people. On the other hand, it tells me that too many of us have abdicated selfless work on behalf of our people to Chabad. We can all work harder to be like them, but the undebatable fact is that Chabad are the ones we all know are on the frontlines at all times.
What can we do to show our recognition of Chabad as heroic and valued frontline workers of our people? Like cities, counties, and communities recognizing our moral debt to frontline workers, there is no one way to do it. Yet what is most important is that we do it. We can no longer pretend Chabad is just another organization on the spectrum of many organizations we have. We must show them the respect they deserve and treat them accordingly.
Joseph Campbell once wrote: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Let us treat these heroes among us as such.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City and is the president of EITAN – The American-Israeli Jewish Network