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15 Years at Brandeis; A Chabad Odyssey

Tuesday, 23 August, 2016 - 12:36 pm

Fifteen years ago the 20th day in the month of Av (this Wednesday 8/24), turned out to be the hottest day of the summer. In the sweltering heat we cleared out the last items from our two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, packed them into our car and began a four hour ride to Waltham, Massachusetts. Mendel was four months old, Chanie twenty two, and I was twenty five.

Later that Thursday afternoon we arrived at our rented apartment located a mile and half from the Brandeis campus. As we pulled up, the movers carried our boxes up the winding steps to the second floor of a three story home where Chabad of Brandeis was going to begin.

That first Shabbat we sat on boxes, with food purchased in the nearby supermarket laid before us on other boxes, for Shabbat dinner and lunch. We were greeted by no one, welcomed by nobody, yet spent that Shabbat in high spirits, celebrating the fulfillment of one dream and the commencement of another.

Ten years earlier at the age of fifteen, I made a career change. As the eldest child of immigrant parents who worked long and hard so that we can just make it by, making money was an ambition. So with my natural gift of chutzpah I planned on being a rich lawyer. That changed when I realized that what gives value to one’s life is the impact one has on others. In addition, I was becoming aware that Judaism, an ancient and priceless treasure, was at risk of being lost to countless people, so I determined to dedicate my life to its preservation.

This decision was deeply influenced by the intimate knowledge that my parents and my grandparents sacrificed everything to maintain their Judaism in the Soviet Union of the fifties and sixties. They clandestinely, and at great risk to themselves and their families, fully observed Shabbat, Kashrut, and all other Jewish rituals. In complete secrecy they gathered with other Chabad families to celebrate holidays and other special occasions like weddings, brit-milahs and bar-mitzvot. Behind closed curtains they donned Tefillin and were tutored in Jewish texts.

A second and greater influence was the Lubavitcher Rebbe. His philosophy impressed on a young mind, meaning in life over a life of materialism. His example inspired an ambitious heart to have the courage to give instead of consume, and his guidance showed the riches found in each person’s heart and the beauty in its discovery.

Thus began a decade of intense studying. From 7am until 11pm, days were filled with talmudic intensity, halachic (Jewish law) exploration, and mystical discoveries. The art of prayer was practiced and conversations on the mysteries of life and authentic self introspection with teachers and friends were carried into the early hours of the morning.

When school was not in session, on holidays, during the summer, or even on Friday afternoons, time was spent engaging with Jews whom I had never encountered and whose lifestyles were different than mine. Whether on Fifth Avenue, at a Jewish festival in Germany, on the streets of Bangkok or in an apartment in Melbourne, I was getting well geared for a life of Shlichus (the Chabad term for outreach).

As Chanie and I prepared the following week to welcome the first students into our home and celebrate the first Shabbat dinner of Chabad at Brandeis, I was well prepared, qualified, and confident in my ability to begin this journey. I was also certain in the cause being pursued. Underlying it though was an anxiety and fear that would linger for years.

Despite having the “goods” to sell, would anyone be interested in “buying” them? More accurately, would I succeed in making “my product” attractive in a marketplace full of more alluring choices.

This uncertainty was compounded with a stark awareness that even if people, students in this case, responded to the character of Judaism I was presenting them with, the resources to operate would need to come from another group of people, with whom I was not fully engaging with. Not to mention that these simultaneous enterprises, teaching and fundraising, occurs in two spaces distant from each other and I was present only at one. Teaching at Brandeis and fundraising across the United States, Europe, South America and Israel.

Upon our arrival on campus there was a wide sentiment of “Who needs you here?” Brandeis has its Jewish needs sufficiently served and there is no need for additional ones provided by Chabad. This attitude was justified. Indeed there was sufficient Jewish life at Brandeis prior to our arrival, making the challenge of proving our value even greater. As the years went on, despite many students participating in our activities and deep relationships being formed, we still struggled as an organization to solidify our position. (Today the questioning of the need for Chabad at Brandeis has almost disappeared, though it still persists on the extreme fringes).   

As our third year in Waltham was drawing to a close so was the grant that covered 70% of our budget. It was to be replaced by funds we’d raised alone. Needless to say that as a fledgling organization establishing its presence in one place, Brandeis, we did not have the ability to do the same in another place, outside of Waltham, where our potential donors were located.

At this time, parents of students who appreciated and valued the service we were providing their children began sending us donations, mostly modest ones. As the years progressed these donations increased to the point that it covered 45% of our budget, but only to wane as their child left Brandeis. Every September, an anxiety of who would replace this support crept up.

Looking back today, on our 15th anniversary, our anxieties regarding our position at Brandeis and our inconsistent support were a result of a major blunder. Before I expose our folly, allow me a moment to share some of the imprints the past decade and half has left on me.

Growing up I lived in a shtetl, and even when traveling the world I resided in a shtetl outpost. The times I ventured out to engage Jews from the outside was always a temporary excursion, with a strong awareness that my home is my shtetl, my people, and my lifestyle.

That drastically changed when Chanie and I took up residence in close proximity to the Brandeis campus. Now our village would be inhabited exclusively by people who were not from my shtetl and whose lifestyles were very different than mine. Hundreds and thousands of them, would visit my home, eat at my table, play with my children and become my friends. Meaningful relationships would also form with their parents as well as others, who became our donors.

Leaving our shtetl and taking up residence in our new village has been the most enriching experience of my life and has helped mold me into the person I am today. Most of the encounters were joyous while some were not. All however were valuable, and I am grateful for them.

There are the myriad of students who’ve courageously embraced a deeper Jewish life and who along the way challenged us with questions that we would have not encountered in our shtetl, requiring us to deepen our Judaism and enriching it as a result.

There are the alumni who despite leaving Waltham a decade ago to wonderful careers, our intimate and authentic relationships has only strengthened over time. Or those who have taken their rich experiences at the Chabad House, and emulate its ideas and experiences in their unique world by becoming Conservative Rabbis, establishing BASE Hillels, or a Chabad House.

There are also the students and staff who slander us, claiming that the Chabad House is a place that students visit to be served alcohol. This defamation is then readily received by administration who passes it on to the Board of Trustees of the University, eventually reaching Chabad on Campus International’s vice-president who contacts me, distressed to hear of such activities at our Chabad House. Despite the pain that this caused us, the lie was quickly exposed and an apology was received from some of the relevant persons.

Over the years I’ve discovered that money serves as a window to a person’s soul. After all, we react differently to someone inquiring about the color of our living room walls versus our annual earnings. As someone who asks people for money, not necessarily even offering them a direct service in return, I’ve been witness to many souls, and what I’ve seen is beautiful. The sensitivity, care and generosity of spirit that accompanies the donations through the years, inspires us more than the dollar amount it accompanies.

Not to say that there haven’t been unpleasant and hurtful experiences as well. Like the generous donor who was upset about something we did, and after sensing it on my own, reaching out to him and traveling to his home to discuss it, he berated me and dressed me down like I’ve never imagined possible. Or the alumnus who despite the intimate relationship we had during and especially after his time at Brandeis, including traveling to his wedding despite the complications associated with it, won’t reply to my phone messages or texts purportedly because I’m asking him for donations.  

In the summer of 2001, a few weeks before we moved to Waltham, I visited Brandeis to introduce myself to the then University Chaplain and Hillel Director. After the initial personal introduction, I was asked what my objective was, considering that there were many Jewish needs already being served. I replied, “We are here to serve the students who unfortunately are not being served.”

Therein lied our mistake that only continued to perpetuate itself with time.

The question, “What service are you providing?” presupposes that we arrived in Waltham to provide a service. My reply submitted to that assumption because to a great degree I thought that to succeed we needed to be a useful service. This way students would receive what we were offering and donors would support it.

Indeed, we went on to create a great service that was frequented by hundreds of students each year. Boasting the best attended Shabbat dinners, educational programs, and holiday events, students were proud to be associated with Chabad, and as a former University President lamented to us, “Chabad has the cool factor.” Our support grew, as donors appreciated the service we provided and the enthusiasm with which students were responding to it.

The problem is that Chabad is not here to provide a service. That is Hillel’s mission, to provide for the diverse needs of the Jewish students. Chabad’s mission is to impact students’ lives. Of course a service is being provided, the objective though, is to impact the lives of those participating in what we offer.  

That Chabad is about having an impact is most evident with the students who moved on from Waltham. Countless alumni continue to stay in touch and reach out to us for counsel. We rent an apartment in New York City during our summers to have Shabbat dinners and one-on-one get togethers with them, and travel to their weddings across the globe because the impact does not end at graduation. As a service, it would end.

This awareness began with a “chance” encounter with the contemporary sage Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinzaltz) in a Jerusalem synagogue two years ago. Unbeknown to me I sat in his seat which was located in the back of the synagogue. When he arrived he unassumingly asked me to scoot over.  

When the Shabbat morning service concluded I introduced myself as the Chabad Shliach at Brandeis, where a decade earlier he received an honorary degree. After quipping some jokes about Brandeis, he looked me squarely in the eyes and asked, “Are you impacting (he used the word changing) people's’ lives?” Without awaiting my reply he continued, “If not, leave.”

I was startled by his candor, though he was correct. He was telling me that serving Shabbat dinners is not your mission. You did not spend ten years in Yeshiva, nor did the Lubavitcher Rebbe dedicate his life for you and your wife to serve chicken soup and make people feel warm and fuzzy. Your mission is to impact people's lives.

Ironically, credit also needs to be given to the Brandeis administration, now going on the fourth one since our arrival, that continuously refuses to recognize the Chabad House despite my numerous attempts through the years. In retrospect, they saved us from cementing ourselves as a service to the students, allowing us to re-pivot and remain true to our mission.

Our fundraising has also been significantly impacted by this redirection. Our mission is to impact people's lives, considered amongst life’s greatest accomplishments, and those who provide the funds to do so own a part of that impact. In a sense they are shareholders in the impact we have on people's’ lives.  

This gave birth to a new online platform, the first of its kind, that shares the data of our activities, together with the profiles of students, alumni and parents impacted by Chabad. Our funders are not donors, they are shareholders, and on this platform they each share why they invest in Chabad.

In the short time since we launched Chabad Shares, alumni as well as parents of alumni who no longer benefit from the services of Chabad and have previously ceased to donate, have become shareholders. Those who have donated in the past year and then became shareholders,  significantly increased their support, confirming that our mission to impact is more valuable than to serve.

On that hot summer afternoon in 2001, it was Chanie and I alone taking the first step to a life dedicated to impacting people's lives. Since then, four siblings have joined their brother in the pursuit of urging the good to become better. And along the way students, alumni, parents and friends, ranging in the thousands, have joined us on the journey to transform lives and perfect the world.

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