How Chabad Breeds Fearlessness
“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities… because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” – Winston Churchill
Jewish communal activists often pontificate about what is behind Chabad’s success, and some success it is. On Sunday night, more than 5000 participants gathered at possibly the only New York gala venue large enough to host them, the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, for the annual convention of Chabad emissaries. I have attended the landmark functions of countless Jewish organizations, and the only one I have witnessed that surpasses Chabad in sheer volume is the gathering at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C. But here is the difference, the crowd at AIPAC is comprised of the organization’s members, but the attendees at Chabad’s gala are the group’s leaders.
Of the many qualities that are prevalent among Chabad rabbis, there is one in particular that demands highlighting. Not least because, as Churchill says, it is the quality by which all others are secured – namely, courage.
What does it take for a young Chabad couple to leave their family, friends, and hometown to set up shop in a far off, sometimes hostile city, with no business plan and no established source of income? And as the proud father of a young son, I can say this with certainty: to commit to having as many children as possible before landing your first job, as many Chabad couples do, can only be the product of a very special brand of gallantry.
The keynote speaker at the convention, Senator Joseph Lieberman, said as much, when he complimented the room of rabbis for their “fearlessness.”
“You go forward fearlessly, with confidence, because you know you have a mission to perform,” he told them.
But that isn’t even the half of it.
Attending this year’s convention was Rabbi Ovadia Isakov, 40, from the Dagestan region of Russia. Isakov was shot and severely wounded, by Islamist Chechen terrorists just three months ago, and even before he recovered, from his hospital bed in Israel, he vowed to return to the region to serve the local community.
Sweden’s city of Malmo has experienced a steep increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in recent years, but Chabad Rabbi Shneur Kesselman is staying put. “We feel a responsibility to be here for the Jews who continue to live here,” he said in a recent interview.
Last year, commemorating the 2008 horrific attacks on Mumbai that left a Chabad emissary and his wife dead, Warren Kozak wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “In another community, the violent deaths of such a young and promising couple might have sent shivers through the leadership, prompting them to pull other emissaries from the field. But Chabad’s leadership did the opposite, immediately sending another couple to take their place.”
But how is fearlessness taught? How does the virtue of courage come to be?
First, there is the removal of psychological barriers. One might say that courage is the absence of fear, the fear of rejection, the fear of failure, the fear of not fitting in.
In Chabad, they start early. Dressing apart from all others, in black hats, white shirts and swinging tzitzit, engendering a concrete sense of self-identity. When one stands out in appearance day in and day out, the fear of being different fades.
Then there are the mivtzoim, mitzvah campaigns, for which Chabad has developed a global reputation that is even making forays into mainstream American culture. Is there anyone who hasn’t been accosted by a Chabad student and asked is they were Jewish, and if they would like to don tefillin, light the menorah, or shake the lulav?
Consider for a moment what this does to a young person. To be a part of a culture that encourages kids sometimes as young as 10 or 12 years old to engage complete strangers on the street, and pitch Judaic rituals to them. This is a recipe for fearlessness.
A well-known saying in Chabad folklore attributed to the fourth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash, captures this attitude well. “The world says, ‘If you can’t crawl under, try to climb over,’ but I say, ‘At the outset, one should climb over.'”
Additionally, there can be no question that courage is also a product of faith, illustrated by the following account, as told by Chabad.org.
When Soviet agents attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the previous Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, to give up his religious activities, one of them pointed a gun at him, saying: “This little toy has made many a man change his mind.” The Rebbe calmly replied: “That little toy can intimidate only the kind of man who has many gods-passions, and but one world-this world. Because I have only one G-d and two worlds, I am not impressed by your little toy.”
Many turn to Chabad to learn about Jewish practice, but here is something else that the black frocked rabbis have taught us; Jewish courage and pride is the quality which guarantees the Jewish future.