Please see editor's note below*
Several months ago, I was packing my car up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn with enough kosher food to supply the Jewish Student Center at the University of Kentucky for a year. As I was strapping down boxes, I was loudly encouraging my children to strap in for the long trip back to Kentucky.
Someone walking by approached me and asked, “Excuse me, are you the clubhouse rabbi?” When I confirmed that I was, he smiled. “I’d recognize your voice anywhere. Thank you.”
A year ago, I had never heard of Clubhouse, a voice-only social media app with tens of millions of users. In early 2020, with the pandemic raging and my students seeking online ways to connect, a fellow rabbi reached out and urged me to join the still-new medium. He suggested that my unique voice could be beneficial.
Clubhouse is like a virtual hallway. As you scroll down your phone, there are dozens of rooms you can find, some talking about sports, some just joking around, and some for exploring love opportunities. And some, right there in the open, are proudly calling for the death of Jews.
When I initially joined the app, I noticed a strong desire for authentic Jewish programming. Driven by the unique love of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the foremost Jewish leader of the modern era, for every single Jew, I decided to dive in and was amazed by what I found.
In my first week, there was an “Ask the Rabbi anything” room that went on for over seven hours straight, with thousands of participants from all backgrounds having a chance for open and honest dialogue. But as I became more known on the app, and dubbed the clubhouse rabbi, I found myself more and more often being asked by Jewish community members to join rooms with dark and dangerous overt messages.
Some were anti-Israel rooms, with myths of blood libels, Nabkas and genocide. Having long been a student of Israel’s history, I was easily able to defeat most arguments easily, pointing out historical fictions and irrational positions. At times, I was so successful that my home address was announced with hopes that someone would silence me.
Alongside them were Black Hebrew Israelite rooms, which would be funny if they weren’t so dangerous where preachers and cult members would misquote lines from both Jewish and non-Jewish scriptures, making the ludicrous claim that all of world history was fixed to supplant Jewish history.
Perhaps most vicious of all were the Nation of Islam rooms, going for hours and sometimes hosted by celebrities like LaKeith Stanfield (who later apologized), where Jews were blamed for every world problem from slavery to controlling the weather, and where the radical arguments were accompanied by vicious threats.
THROUGHOUT ALL this, our Jewish community persevered, with daily classes on Chumash (Bible), Tanya, and Maimonides, and tens of classes throughout the week on everything from prayer to Jewish history, and from Jewish philosophy to Talmud. Topics like Jewish Mythbusters dispelling false notions, and Farbrengens (Chabad gathering) lifted our spirits. Ever popular was our difficult Jewish questions room, where thousands of people for the opportunity to seek the wisdom of a panel of rabbis.
Over the last year, I spent over a thousand hours on the app. I guided Jews through the loss of a loved one, and help people wrapped tefillin for the first time. I set up hundreds of people with a Seder, an opportunity to hear shofar, or Sukkot plans, and together we prepared for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, we mourned together on Tisha Be’av and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism and huddled together as rockets fell on our brothers and sisters in Israel and hate surrounded us on all sides both digitally and on the streets of America.
This year has had disturbing moments, like when a Nation of Islam member suggested murdering Jews, or when Ryan Dalton, a leading Black Hebrew Israelite cult member made videos sending out my name and location.
But there were also moments of laughter, like the article last March about one of our rooms where a woman was amazed she could learn anything from the Talmud, or when a room of 1000 first hears a conspiracy unraveled and dubunked.
And there were moments of joy, like meeting students from the app in Chicago or at the No Fear Rally in Washington, or getting all together in Central Park or for Shabbat in Brooklyn.
The app also offered regular people the chance to meet celebrities they would never normally encounter. I got to speak about tefillin with legendary Jewish comedians like Jeff Garlin and Elon Gold. Days after I shepherded the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism through in Kentucky, I was congratulated by William Daroff, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
But most special to me were the individual messages, from a young Jew anxious to learn Torah, someone who felt isolated and found community, or someone who finally understood that a trope they heard their entire life was a lie.
Over the last week, in the aftermath of Whoopi Goldberg being suspended off The View following her Holocaust Revisionism, and she doubled down later that night with a Farkahan-backed hate speech, Clubhouse erupted in a non-stop week of Holocaust denial, and antisemitic rhetoric.
Some of the most vile and violent words and threats I’ve ever heard in my life made it abundantly clear why it was so important that the Jewish Community reject the hateful ideas expressed by Goldberg, and how crucial it is we have leaders and voices who can counter those narratives.
As I reflect on my first anniversary on Clubhouse, I remember the value of a single voice, and commit to continuing to raise mine.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be there on Clubhouse again, with my students, studying Chumash, Maimonides and more.
The voice is the voice of Jacob, and it rings out.
The writer is a Chabad rabbi from Lexington, Kentucky, and an active participant in the world of Jewish advocacy, both online and in politics.
*An editing mistake inserted the name of Reece Noi into the original version of this article when it was published. Reece Noi has nothing to do with this article and his name was accidently inserted. We apologize for the mistake.