The Queen of Cleveland embraced me, and she empowered me with a new insight into the term rebbetzin.
The hovering lantern within me, as usual, stood close to each little candle but recently felt withered. Not by choice, not by heart, nor by comfort, locked in a bitter war of silence, I was trying to distract myself from being reminded of it, this cold and brutal new reality between me and my congregant.
My thoughts traveled elsewhere, looking for a positive force and light to seep in and make my heart feel better. My beacon came, and I was reminded, almost 17 years ago, that I met the Queen of Cleveland- as the Lubavitcher Rebbe bequeathed this name to her.
She was a real queen, a woman of valor, love, and compassion for all her congregants; each person was uplifted and special. However, I never truly understood her mannerism and the way of how she spoke about her community. She referred to them simply as “my people,” claiming each Jewish person in her town to be hers.
I would sit dumbfounded and would wonder in bewilderment, “How can a person be yours? How can a whole community be yours?”
I reminisced and reluctantly winced at my thoughts back then, so young and naive that, to me, it simply sounded silly. It was truly impossible to understand this grandmotherly saint, who dedicated her time to spend hours discussing with me her view of mankind.
The idea of mothering each person felt foreign to me then; my view was always that helping was key, but mothering? Now, as I get older and fall in love with each person and their story, it is hard for me to put an arm’s length between myself and “my people,” as I adopted the phrase as it feels more natural for me now.
It was the simple messages of the back-and-forth that brought the corners of my face into a long embrace of an endless smile. I was at peace, so I chided myself for being the worrier. How could it be that just a few words could bring inner peace to a Chabad rebbetzin?
Yet, it was to my own astonishment, just the day before that I felt she severed the relationship forever; forever is a long time! I, being an optimist, knew that for her to change her mind after she said “no” wasn’t likely coming.
Just a day ago, at least four months had passed, and I sat there so confused. The circle felt broken. It felt interrupted as if there was something spoiled somehow.
“What happened?” I wondered. “Where are my messages? Are they not working? Was she not receiving them? What was going on? Did her phone not work?”
Almost whispering to myself, I answered my own questions with the simple phrase, “I do not know.”
Finally, there was an answer. She replied with care to the fact that I would be reading her messages: “We found another community in which my kids are going to.”
The line felt fuzzy. What did she mean? What was she trying to convey? “I’m so thrilled for them,” I thought, for it’s another Jewish community. It’s the best.
Although this was my first thought, I was happy and felt at peace that this was incorporated into her life, for I worked and fought for her kids to go to this very place of hers and be a part of the Jewish environment, community, and home there.
My emotions quarreled with each other, I always knew from this beautiful phrase that I’ve learned, “One does not exclude another.” Living by it made me not so at peace with just letting her go.
However, as happy as I was for her, I was hurt too! It is to me that Chassidim never say goodbye. This is what I lived by! My congregants, like family, learning and growing, felt close, and this phrase that I lived by felt right.
One could argue, “You’re just her rebbetzin.”
My emphatic response: “Is this really what we are to people? In small-town Chabad houses or even big-town Chabad houses, are we just the rebbetzin?”
I pondered this point, but with my struggle within, I answered it: “It’s wrong. The approach is wrong. When a couple comes out to their communities, they don’t look at the job as a job; rather it’s a lifetime of dedication to one’s people.
This idea, Chabad and the word vacation, doesn’t and can’t coexist together. The idea of vacationing to Chabad is like a foreign word; it’s unnatural! I thought that after all of these years of spending time with our families together, the family was a family that I’d known for almost fifteen years, and then, after all this time of caring, loving, investing the effort, time, mental energy to be told, “Time’s up. It’s over! Clap, stomp, another couple, or Jewish place I will find.”
The whole idea of putting one’s feet in the water but never really getting wet, perhaps she fears what that would mean to have a real relationship with her Chabad rebbetzin.
It was like some magic show that went wrong. I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know how to resolve what felt to me, her rebbetzin, that this was a misconstrued reality rather than the new reality.
What is there to resolve when a congregant you have known for many years abandons you? Your friendship, your connection, and your bond with each other? I began to understand slowly. It wasn’t that I did anything wrong to her, G-d forbid, but I am no longer convenient for her to be in the picture of her world and her life. I was taking up space, or was I?
Knowing the truth, I helped her kids to get comfortable in a bigger Jewish community as each of them stepped into his own person. It nagged at me incessantly, allowing a congregant to leave… just didn’t seem right.
It made me realize what I took for granted: there are so many congregants- my people- our extended Chabad family, that understand the concept that Chassidim never say goodbye. They are always in touch and sharing what’s going on in their lives. They are in touch, even if the kids are getting big or they have moved. Whether they or their kids have become more involved or not, they always keep me in the loop.
These, then, are the relationships that I’ve become spoiled with and treated to in the past fifteen years.
I realized that all congregants come in different shapes and sizes regardless of background; my close relationship with her mother didn’t mean that she, her daughter, would truly let me in. However, the solid connection that one thought that they had, even if a congregant is close and shares everything with you, perhaps they are not yet ready to walk over the bridge that Chabad had created for each and every person.
It was to the Lubavitcher Rebbe that every single person mattered. Every person, young or old, religious or non, each one had a place and a place in Chabad. Therefore when the Rebbe decided to send emissaries, which grew to now over 5000 Chabad houses worldwide, it created an impact and made a difference. Chabad is still here: we cry with our congregants, our communities, and all our people worldwide.
To me, if one knew a congregant, and she has been in one’s life for fifteen years, you have been messaging her saying, “How can I help you?” or “What is going on?” and she was in your Chabad house for all those years, and discussing marriage, life, and hardships with you.
Issues that they had, and suddenly it then becomes not so simple, and they still have their walls up, the misconceptions of the heart of Chabad. Some congregants still have that old misconception of the definition of a rabbi and a rebbetzin. A congregant could feel that she must keep them at a distance, arms-length; the mundane life of a congregant and a rabbi can’t intermingle, only if there is a dire need.
It’s in this way that I know how many thousands of Chabad rebbetzins feel the way that I feel. When the phone rings and it’s a congregant, my heart jumps to help, not just on autopilot.
When something happens, I worry for them and cry with them. I tell myself if one doesn’t reciprocate, it is not so easy, not so simple, and it’s more difficult climbing the ladder or crossing the bridge than it seems.
The only way that one can express it is by “Chassidim never say goodbye.” A family unit of the Chabad family came to embrace the community. One big family, the Chabad family, is one that really cares and never says goodbye to a congregant. A congregant can go off somewhere and might not be in touch with you for years, and like a parent, you will still feel in your heart the love that one has for their child.
For me, the rebbetzin, nothing has changed, but for the child, for them, sometimes it’s like they put on a different pair of tinted sunglasses, and the whole perspective, the whole environment of closeness, takes a step backward and the box becomes closed.
It happened suddenly, our connection reignited a spark, and then fireworks for that day went off. There was a back-and-forth, a need for her to help, a yearning to make right the lack of friendship she had shown. She was needed! My friend was very sick, and she knew her too. She wanted to help, and she did. We both helped my friend. That day of fireworks was a great day, even if the day after and the next many months after that there could be silence, she will always be my congregant and person.
However, I understand that Chassidim never say goodbye. She was still there and will still show up to things but in a less involved way. She still cared and was still a special person to me and always will be. It is like with the Queen of Cleveland A”H, each person was her person, and now, after almost 17 years, I finally have internalized this message and wear its banner as a shawl surrounding me and uplifting me.