In the Diaspora: More than martyrs

Chabad sets an example of persistence and stability.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Just as the shiva period for Jewish victims in Mumbai was nearing its end, the Chabad movement held a Shabbat dinner there for about 40 guests. The event was barely covered in the media, as journalistic attention understandably went toward unraveling the terrorist plot. And it wouldn't be surprising if Chabad itself wanted to keep a studiously low profile. Yet for worldwide Jewry the Shabbat meal may have been one of the most significant events in the aftermath of the attacks. It sent a message that not even the invasion of a Chabad house, not even the murder of its rabbi and rebbetzin and their guests, will drive out the Lubavitch Hassidim and end their mission of welcoming wandering Jews, whether in the spiritual or geographical definition of the term. As an exilic people for much of our history, we have grown all too practiced and adept at knowing how and when to run - from the Romans, from the Kishinev pogrom, from the riots in Arab lands after the creation of Israel. And too often when we haven't run, we have stayed to perish. We have the millions of martyrs to prove it. The lesson of the return of Jewish sovereignty to Israel was that, for Jews who made aliya, the running was over. Inevitably, though, Israel could not mean the same thing to Jews who chose to remain in the Diaspora. Any look at the flux in the global Jewish population since World War II demonstrates just how transient we have been in the wake of the Holocaust. Vast numbers of Jews have left Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, North Africa, Central Asia, and even parts of Western Europe and South America, and only a portion of them have settled in Israel. Within the United States, Jews have emptied out of their cherished urban neighborhoods, partly for reasons of upward mobility and partly from fear of crime, even as the Irish and Italian residents notably tried to stick it out. It is too much to expect that the Chabad movement will reverse the demographic tides. But Chabad, by sending its best and brightest shlichim to any flyspeck of Jewish presence on the planet, has set an example of persistence and stability. The anti-Semitic rioting in 1991 at the Lubavitchers' de facto capital of Crown Heights in Brooklyn did absolutely nothing to cause Jewish flight. SURELY ONE of the goals of the Mumbai terrorists was to render the city Judenrein, to scare away Jews by making them fear for their lives. Yet even as Rabbi Gavriel and Rebbetzin Rivka Holtzberg were being buried, Chabad leaders were making it plain that the movement intends to continue operating in Mumbai, and even to name the repaired Chabad house there for the Holtzbergs. "We will answer the terrorists," Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky declared in his eulogy, pointedly switching from Yiddish to English. "We will not fight them with AK 47s. We will not fight them with grenades. We will not fight them with tanks. We will fight them with torches." The torches refer to the flame of Torah, but even that connotation doesn't quite capture the importance of the Chabad response. It would be possible to study Torah and hunker down at a remove from the world and hope nobody bothers you, as a segment of the haredi community already does. Chabad functions as visibly as possibly, and in a dynamic interaction with secular and less-observant Jewry. A revived Chabad house in Mumbai will presumably have more security, but it won't be hidden under a rock. For us Jews who are not Israelis, the example could not be more vital or fortifying. Even after bloodshed, we won't tiptoe through the world, effacing our Jewish identity, like those guilt-ridden American travelers during the Vietnam War years who'd sew a maple leaf patch on their backpacks and try to pass as Canadians. For a Chabadnik, there is neither the ability nor the intent to disappear, to blend in, to cower. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Daniel Patrick Moynihan ruefully observed, "I guess there's no point in being Irish if you don't know that the world will break your heart one day." In that spirit, I guess there's no point in being Jewish if you don't know that the world will test your will, your identity, even your faith with murderous, irrational hatred. Chabad has already started showing the rest of us how to be more than martyrs. The answer to death is life.