Despite the devastation wrought by superstorm Sandy, close to 4,500 Hasidic rabbis, community leaders and activists hope to pack a warehouse-turned-ballroom at Brooklyn Cruise Terminal on Sunday, Nov. 11, for the grand banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries.
Seated in the crowd will be me and my colleagues in Southern Arizona: Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad of Tucson, Rabbi Yossi Winner of Chabad at the University of Arizona, Rabbi Rami Bigelman of Chabad on River Road and Rabbi Ephraim Zimmerman of the new Chabad of Oro Valley.
One question lay leaders often ask upon seeing these large numbers, the growing scope of centers worldwide and the following Chabad attracts from Jews and non-Jews alike is, “What is the secret to Chabad’s success?”
Reform Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie once observed: “No other Jewish movement — Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform — has been able to produce a corps of similarly devoted young men and women who are prepared to serve the Jewish people with such personal sacrifice.” So what is our secret?
Apart from the novelty of Hasidic philosophy and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s innovative approach to outreach, there is also a practical explanation that lies at the core of the very portions we are currently reading in the Book of Bereshit: We are told how our patriarch Abraham discovered the one G-d on his own. He introduced monotheism to the world and became the trailblazer of morality to civilization, thus making him the first to engage in outreach in Jewish history.
The one particular trait that Abraham is lauded for is his unique hospitality. Even when physically frail, he was in search of guests. Selflessly disregarding his own comforts, it was important to Abraham to reach out to others and he did so mostly by inviting them to partake of his warm and welcoming table. It was at one such meal that the three angels, disguised as mortal men, informed him that he would bear a child and secure continuity into future generations.
Therein lies the key to success in Jewish outreach and the continuity of the Jewish people: the Jewish table. Whether it is in a tent in the desert or a Chabad House on campus, the social hall of a synagogue or the ballroom in a hotel, and especially in every private home, the Shabbat table is the most authentic and wholesome Jewish experience.
It is there that the love for tradition is instilled into our children, where faith is celebrated — sometimes against the odds — where the delicious smells and tastes dissolve stereotypes and prejudices, where songs and melodies unite the most unaffiliated with the most learned, where relationships are made and friendships renewed.
I recently spoke to an alumna of ours after hearing that she magnanimously donated a kidney to her father. She has come a long way from her Wildcat days here in Tucson and has since reconnected to her faith, married a nice Jewish boy and is now raising a beautiful family.
She will have experienced some of my fiery sermons and the Torah classes I delivered. She will have attended our packed High Holiday services and some of the many other programs we organized. She may have been at our menorah lighting in El Presidio Park. But one thing stood out most in her mind, as encapsulated in her innocent question: “Does your wife Chanie still make her challah and the eggplant dip?” She remembered the Shabbat table.
This coming Friday night prepare some food and invite family, friends or even a stranger to join with you as Abraham did all those years ago. Light a candle to illuminate your home with its rich spiritual splendor as Sarah did in her matriarchal home. The Shabbat journey begins with one simple step — and it is precisely that spirit that has been, certainly in part, the very real success of Chabad over the years.
Begin that journey yourself and see the wonderful places it will take you. Alternatively, you are always welcome to join with me at our family’s Shabbat table … and enjoy challah and eggplant dip.
Rabbi Yossie Shemtov is the regional director of Chabad of Tucson. Learn more at ChabadTucson.com.