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Indeed, America is NOT different!

Thursday, 5 March, 2020 - 11:20 pm

My maternal grandmother, was born in the USA into a Chabad family. One of the highlights of her youth was the day her father took her out of school in the late winter of 1940. They headed to a pier in NYC where the USS Drottingholm docked after a 12 day journey from Europe. It was exactly this day, the 9th of Adar, 80 years ago. As they stood watching, they beheld a man being taken off the ship in a wheelchair. That man was their Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe. Though he was only 59 years old at the time, he had prematurely aged due to the unspeakable hardship and torture he endured years earlier under the Stalinist regime. Furthermore, he and his family survived the recent Nazi bombing of Warsaw and escaped war-torn Europe to the safe shores of the USA.

Thousands came to the pier to greet the Previous Rebbe, including state and municipal governmental delegations. The Rebbe was very gracious to all those who came to greet him; and very grateful to the government representatives through whose efforts he was saved. However, a certain uneasiness began to set in with him. Well-meaning members of the American Chabad leadership were advising the Rebbe to go low-key. Open a shul and a Beis Midrash, they advised, but go easy on the activism. After all, America is different. People have a different mindset. Priorities are not the same here. What was good in the old country, doesn’t necessarily fly in America.

At a farbrengen a few days later, the Rebbe cried and shared, that good friends are telling him to take it easy because America is different. But the Rebbe would have none of that. He was the man who stood toe to toe with the Soviets and stared them down. He single handedly maintained an underground network of tens of thousands of schools, shuls, mikvahs and Jewish communal institutions in the Soviet Union. He had been arrested and threatened with harsh labor in Siberia and even death. But he overcame it all. He was the man who founded and oversaw a network of Yeshivas in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia until the German invasion that almost cost him his life. Was he to be intimidated by the apathy of American Jewry? He declared loudly and definitively, “America is NOT different.”

From the confines of a wheelchair, despite severe health challenges, he launched the Chabad movement in the USA, with the same sense of devotion and urgency that drove him 20 years earlier in the USSR. Just before his passing 10 years later, he remarked, that the ice of America is starting to melt. When his son-in-law, our Rebbe, assumed his position, he continued and expanded those activities and the movement into the world-wide force that it is today. 80 years later we can say with certainty, “Indeed, America is NOT different.”

Have a good Shabbos and a very joyous Purim!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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