A whisper, a wink, or a smile can capture a Rebbetzin in a bottle.
I had readied myself for this day for over a year, but nothing really readies you for the passing of a dear friend. It was the same month, only a year ago, but missing a week or two. I begged Hashem to please let my friend live; I wasn’t ready to let Him take her! The heavens wanted to claim her, but still on earth we cherished her spirit and lively personality.
A day without her felt like the moon took over the heavens, and the sun forever slept. Each day, I read her name with books of Psalms, tears just pouring from my eyes when my kids slept, and I held my breath waiting for our weekly class to arrive. Monday was our highlight, trying to trick my mind into that all was well, but in fact, my friend and congregant was very sick. Her greatest joke that we shared together is that she will live another fifty years and will outlive us all by a mile. When we reminded each other of this joke, we would laugh and dare not think too deeply about our “favorite joke.”
The day arrived, and no more jokes were to be had, even when she made her family read her poem, making us all promise not to be sad, but rather we all failed miserably because the words to describe in our hearts her day of mourning and passing were left empty. It was like my mind grew blank, and I felt bereft of feeling; words were gone, and all that was left was an empty canvas that was usually so filled, crowded, and busting at the seams. I said my goodbyes and had to remind myself that it would somehow be OK without our lantern and light.
My older sons, who thought they were the tagalong, were my comfort to the Rabbi and me; I knew that we needed escorts on this tragic day. I felt an inner peace when I looked at them in their serious but friendly expressions and chassidic garb. It proudly showed the emissaries of the Rebbe were here, and one could reflect and hope that the Frierdiker Rebbe, his predecessor, was escorting her to her final resting place.
A circle it became, reflecting and reminiscing, when we as a couple first came here on shlichus. It almost seemed that there was a family that was a lantern to their community before us, even if it just felt that way. The Frierdiker Rebbe had this beautiful correspondence from old letters that took years for her family to translate from Yiddish to English. Her grandfather, a great Champion of the Torah, always gave charity to the Frierdiker Rebbe and his Chassidim, understanding the difficulty it was to support and help one’s community.
It always boggles the mind; one really incredible thing is the place we went on shlichus. As an outpost that used to be bursting at the seams, with age and years past it seems more narrow but still full. A place that fell into our laps became ours, where we cradle the community close to our hearts.
In this neck of the woods, almost fifty years ago, it was so populated with Jewish people, kosher, mikvah, shuls, and schools that the Frierdiker Rebbe almost made it his headquarters, but in a last-minute choice, New York claimed the chassidim to be theirs and its place.
My friend, a teacher to the community herself in so many ways, was buried in the exact city where Seven-Seventy, Chabad headquarters, almost stood. It felt eerily as strange that my husband and I were chosen to come to this city and place as an outpost to roll up our sleeves and spread light and Torah to a community losing out because they’ve become almost a remnant of what was. Families greeted us, a town that begged for years for an emissary and treated us like they had won the lottery. Some of the towns’ persistent well-wishers understood the importance of the emissaries coming and their imprint, guidance, and setting down the grassroots.
The hard reality is that there is no Jewish anything for two hours in any direction. When my friend came to the “First Chabad house,” she immediately adopted me as her daughter. She would always tell me to send love to “My boys,” coining that phrase with her Rebbetzin’s kids, while wearing her heart on her sleeve as a freshly placed ornament gold button.
My eldest son was turning Bar mitzvah when she hugged him even with all of his refusals because he was coming of age, but it didn’t stop her from kissing his cheek, what she felt were her adopted grandkids. Always these gifts in this frozen tundra felt welcoming and freeing, knowing there was a family surrounding you with many different congregants that embraced your family as their own.
However, during our weekly Monday shiur, we spent time catching up. One doesn’t realize that when emissaries live in what can be considered an outpost: it’s hard to travel if one even leaves for a day, and the impact on the community is rough. They are in so much need of their adopted family, like in many small towns, it is felt and taken hard. The snow can get that high, and the summer can even be brutal to walk a block. A debate in one’s head fires which one is most preferred, the frozen winter tundra or the humid boiling summers.
It feels so incredible when a congregant can adopt you as her own, act motherly with the perception of when to come close, and when to take a step back and let you develop your own style, rules, and understanding millions of miles from Newyork: a Lubavitcher’s real home.
It makes an emissary feel that she’s not alone; the balancing act of how high one can pile things up on her shoulders is weighed, measured, and placed just right with her congregants’ support. When a congregant takes bigger steps, a deeper commitment to help emissaries hold the reins in turn brings and builds the relationship.
Those who are looking from the outside might say, “The Chabad, they are separate from us.” I realize how wrong this approach truly is and hope to change this viewpoint and replace it with “Chabad can definitely be one’s family.”
As it is in our community, often, one steps over from being just a community member to being embraced as a friend and extended family. The Chabad Rabbis and Rebbitzins have these really close friendships, where they become family to their community.
Each emissary knows if they’re not in New York for Sukkos, they haven’t seen Sukkos, but she, my friend, chose to make Sukkos our special holiday family time. She and her family would bring the energy, enthusiasm, and lebidikeit of the New York flavor with them when they visited.
It was always “What do you need me to do?” and “I’m coming to help you in a second.” She would always treat my husband, the Rabbi, like he was her kid too. There was this heimishe sort of joke she would make or a question on Torah she would ask, just to include him to give her approval and make the Rabbi feel that his answers were spot on.
Sitting at the funeral, trying to imagine this day where she surrounded me with her presence, her voice and laughter ringing in my ears, but I knew the reality that I would no longer hear her voice anymore.
I remember right after her husband passed away. He meant so much to our community, too; it was tough that he passed, but the first thing she chose to do was have a kiddush, and she came for that Shabbos. It was two days after the funeral, and she was still in Shiva, with a smile on her face and a joke on her lips. She would share something sweet, laughing like she always did with a positive pride and a ray of light that would illuminate the room. I thought it was a trick of the eye, but then I saw her secret almost missed, a real pain and tears in her eyes, and I understood her truth. Realizing this, she then whispered to me, “It’s for the grandkids; it’s for the family,” meaning our family, her family, and the extended community family shouldn’t feel so sad because she was going to cheer you up.
I think about my friend and me and how we bumped into each other: she, my congregant, and I, her Rebbetzin. In the relationship and the phone calls that I would have with her, she would share with me very personal things about her life, and I, in return, would share with her very personal things about my life. She always knew what I was thinking and knew, as a mother, what was happening behind the scenes.
She did not grow up in Chabad but was observant: Unfortunately, almost eighty years ago, most girls learning Torah in her hometown were not embraced back then. She grew up where her teacher said, “You’re a dumpy girl.” Even though most don’t understand what the word “dumpy” means, to her, the impact was rough; to her, it meant that she didn’t deserve to learn Torah.
Hearing these terrible words, I reached across the table and held her hand. I told her that she would know how to read the kaddish and read Hebrew so she could open any prayer book and feel like it was on her terms, her connection to G-d, and her voice being heard. If she ever had a question, I would try to find her an answer, and whether it was my husband or me, someone would get back to her, so her questions were answered.
Ever since by divine providence we met, it almost eerily was reminiscent of so long ago: the Frierdiker Rebbe’s embrace of a friend and his family, to never be forgotten. My friend taught many the power of love, positivity, and the energy to embrace others. She relished bringing others a smile, a laugh, and a giggle; this is always how she was. It reminds me each day how much more I, as a person, can learn from that. For so many years, she was very sick, and one would not even know it.
When she went to the Jewish home, I couldn’t imagine my weeks going by without hearing her positive attitude, energy, and embrace; I couldn’t imagine a week without her voice.
At the home, a lady never came out of her room, and only when my friend would take her by the hand and say, “Are we going for dinner?” would she then take my friend’s hand and go to dinner. At this point, she could no longer walk, but most didn’t process this because she made everything seem fun, even a wheelchair, almost like she was having a blast. This was the attitude that one could learn from my special friend.
If one looks at their Rebbetzin or Rabbi at arm’s length and wonders, “Even if they help us with everything, are they truly family?” If they look at this story, they will realize she was an adopted mother to me, a Chabad Rebbetzin, so to the question of love and connection, the answer is yes!