My aspiration to become a rabbi and lead a Jewish community dates back to my childhood years in New York, having been raised in the Grand Central Station.
I am not referring to the landmark train station in midtown Manhattan. “Grand Central” is what we called my parents’ home in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for being a meeting place for family and visitors from around the world.
Four of my uncles and aunts — from Detroit, London, Philadelphia, and Paris— were the pioneers of shlichus, the Chabad outreach network now numbering over 4,000 couples worldwide. They would come to our home accompanied by members of their communities to visit the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory.
And I was in awe.
In awe of their steadfast faith, their commitment to their people, their love for fellow Jews, their determination to overcome challenges and their ability to defy the odds and build sprawling Jewish institutions that created families and communities and help change the landscape of Jewish continuity forever.
Then I went to yeshiva, started learning and being involved in outreach. The dream and the mission statement wasn’t to drive up to a fancy synagogue with a sleek car. It was always, as the Rebbe taught, about the individual. The individual Jewish man or woman, of any age, doing an individual mitzvah.
Stirring services, fiery sermons and in-depth learning are all part of our tradition, yet it is the heimish (homey) feeling of a typical warm and loving Jewish home that brings us together and can inspire. The rabbis in my family that I observed in my youth portrayed that. Rabbis need to be part of your mishpacha (family) and not only be invited to your lifecycle events, sad or joyous.
Here is one example of how it is done: There was a university professor who would regularly come to our home in Tucson every Friday afternoon. We’d shmooze with her while offering her a taste of the various Shabbat dishes that were in the making. After a while, she stopped visiting. We asked her what happened and she said, “I decided to make Shabbat on my own…”
As for our family’s Grand Central Station in Brooklyn: The place is still bustling. Even decades later, with both of my parents having passed on, people still come in from around the globe. Many of them are grandchildren inspiring the great-grandchildren to dedicate their lives in the service of the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Yossie Shemtov is the spiritual leader of Chabad Tucson/Congregation Young Israel.