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These People Must Love Us A Lot

By Steve Hyatt


Here is a simple question, which may have a complex answer. When was the last time you gave away something you truly treasured or gave up a piece of your own happiness to strengthen and enhance someone else’s life?

Chances are the answers are not often, and if you did make such a sacrifice, it was probably to benefit a very close family member. The idea of giving up an important part of one’s life for a total stranger is beyond the comprehension of most people. Yes, thankfully many give charity, and yes many volunteer to help others in need. What I am really talking about are selfless acts and deeds that are beyond compare and in some cases understanding. During my first visit to the Chabad Lubavitch community of CrownHeightsin Brooklyn, New YorkI was both inspired and humbled by my experience.

Of course I had heard of CrownHeightssince first discovering Chabad in 1983. Throughout the years myriad Chabad Rabbis had shared their personal stories about their lives and events in this unique Jewish community. Based on their vivid stories I envisioned the hustle and bustle of life in this tiny enclave and always promised myself that someday I would see what the “fuss” was all about. I just never imagined it would take me 26 years to get there.

In February of 2009 I was delighted to learn that my good friend Rabbi Meir Perelstein was engaged. He and his Kallah, Chanie Tarlow,planned to be married in CrownHeightsthe following month and invited me to share their glorious moment with them. As much as I wanted to be there the economic challenges surrounding me caused me to hesitate. After all, the economy was in shambles, the company I worked for was struggling and quite frankly, I was afraid of my personal economic future. Filled with trepidation I asked my Rabbi, Mendel Cunin, what I should do. His response was swift and without hesitation, “Steve the best thing to do when you don’t think you should or can afford to do something is to do it. You should eliminate the excuses and simply push ahead.”

Armed with his sage advice and the emotional support of my wife I accepted the invitation and made the appropriate arrangements. Shortly thereafter Rabbi Cunin informed me that he’d taken his own advice and had decided to join me. So together we set off on a grand adventure. We literally designed an itinerary that brought us to CrownHeightsfor a total of 36 hours. However, the true surprise was the final realization that these 36 hours were destined to be the most enlightening and inspiring of my Jewish life.

Upon our arrival in New Yorkwe embarked on a non stop journey of exploration. Our first stop brought us to "The Ohel" where the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, was laid to rest. I am not sure what I expected but I was overcome with a feeling of peace, love and contentment during our entire time there. The Rabbi and I wrote out prayers for guidance and blessings and placed them at the Rebbe’s Ohel. We then proceeded to CrownHeightsand spent a wonderful evening sharing a delicious meal, which included three styles of Kugel, with the Rabbis’ sister and her husband. After a restful night’s sleep I rendezvoused with the Rabbi at the main Chabad Shul, known to most folks simply as “770. Upon entering this historic facility I immediately felt like I had been hit with a jolt of spiritual electricity. Surrounded by hundreds of men davening, studying and discussing the issues of the day I felt liked I was plugged into the spiritual essence that permeates every cell of the building. During the course of the day we were allowed to enter the Rebbe’s office and his library, we saw the Chabad online school which now makes it possible for the children of the Schluchim from around the world to learn from home until they are old enough to attend a Yeshiva or Seminary, we even found our way to the world famous Schmurah Matzo factory where Passover matzos are prepared from start to finish in a scant 18 minutes. It was an intimate tour of this precious community that will remain emblazoned in my mind’s eye forever.

Toward the end of the day it was time for the wedding. At 4:30sharp the Rabbi and I met at Oholei TorahBallroom where the celebration was to take place . I watched in wonder as Meir recited from memory his Maamer, a Chassidic discourse written by the Rebbe that explains the different levels of the connection of man and wife, as well as the direct connection between G‑d and Israel, and how both concepts unite as the Chossin and Kallah are wed.

At the conclusion of his recitation an unassuming man of many years slowly arose from his seat and started to play a soulful, captivating melody on his violin. As the violinist played on, Meir’s father and father-in-law tenderly grabbed his arms and started a procession that led to the women’s side of the room. As we slowly made our way to the Kallah the gentlemen in attendance set the mood as they quietly hummed an ancient Chassidic tune. When we finally arrived in front of the Kallah, Meir gently placed a veil on her head. This simple, moving, tender moment brought tears to my eyes as I witnessed this ancient testimony to love, modesty and family purity. As a group we made our way back to 770 and the actual wedding took place under the Chuppah in front of the Shul. I was mesmerized as the bride walked around her future husband seven times. I was captivated as close family members and friends read the Sheva Brachas or seven blessings and I cheered as the groom finally stepped on the glass marking the beginning of their lives together.

As the groom and his Kallah entered 770 to break their wedding day fast, the rest of us walked back to the wedding hall to await their return. In this traditional setting the room is separated by a mechitza, or short wall. The men celebrate on one side of the mechitzaand the women on the other. After a delicious dinner the entertainer revved up his keyboard and the wedding hall exploded into a sea of joyful dancing. Even I, a 54 year old Connecticut-born Yankee, couldn’t resist the urge to jump into the frenetic activity on the dance floor. Before I knew what I was doing I was surrounded by an energetic mass of young and older men who exuded joy and love as they joined hands and celebrated with the Chosson.

When the evening finally came to a close I was both energized and exhausted. As I walked back to my hotel I could literally feel the tears of joy freezing on my cheeks in the frigid air. I had never felt so alive, so Jewish, and so happy in my entire life! This was what they meant by L’Chaim, to life!

Several hours later our 36 hours in CrownHeightscame to an end and the Rabbi and I made our way back to the airport and eventually took off for the West coast. As I sat in my seat staring out the window I couldn’t help but wonder, how these Rabbis and their families could possibly leave Crown Heights, how they could give up that little bit of heaven on earth, that center of vibrant, pulsating Jewish life, to live in distant lands like Siberia, Thailand and Reno. Communities where there is little if any kosher food, Jewish schools, or close friends or family. Somewhere over Iowait occurred to me that these Shluchim, these emissaries of the Rebbe must love their fellow Jews much more than we could ever possibly imagine. They willingly give up the comfort and joy of their Jewish communities to travel to tiny places on the globe to support, nurture and reach out to their fellow Jews, and they do so with little promise of financial reward or recognition. They do it because the Rebbe loved us, and they do it because they love us.

Before our visit to crown Heights I looked at Jewish life like a tourist reading a travel brochure; I’d seen Hawaiiand it seemed real nice; but I’d never actually been there and smelled the ocean air, ate a pineapple or walked in the sand. After spending a mere 36 hours in CrownHeightsI now possessed a clarity of vision I never knew existed. I’d seen, tasted, felt and participated in the activities of a thriving, energized, living, breathing Jewish community. It made me truly appreciate the personal sacrifices the Cunins have made for my community, motivating me to do even more to ensure our community also known as “The Biggest Little City in the World” appreciates and supports them and their efforts like never before.