I Am Leaving Manhattan Soon. Permanently!

Yes, you read that correctly. I am leaving the Big Apple, the city that I so dearly love.

But don’t worry, so are you.

Manhattan has real problems right now. Rampant homelessness has taken over large swaths of residential areas, businesses cannot sustain themselves without the working crowd, and there remains residual damage from the protests and looting. So many people have left and continue to leave the city, some temporarily and some permanently, and the media can’t stop talking about it.

A friend asked me if I’d be leaving too. A legitimate question. So here’s my response.

I love Manhattan.

When my wife and I married in 2003, we were ready to move anywhere in the world to live and work as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, igniting the (sometimes latent) spark of Judaism within every Jew, wherever he or she may live. We considered places like London, Ukraine, Florida, and Johannesburg, but ultimately ended up on the Upper East Side under the leadership of Rabbi Benzion Krasnianski, and I’ve had no regrets.

Coming from South Africa, New York was unlike anything I knew, but when I first visited in 1995, I fell in love immediately. Five years later, I moved here for good. I’ve lived here through the 9/11 terror attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, and I’m here for COVID-19, COVID-20, and what is increasingly looking like COVID-21!

Why do I love Manhattan?

Not for the same reasons most people love it here. I’ve never been to a Broadway show or comedy club. I haven’t been to Madison Square Gardens or MOMA. I haven’t even visited the Freedom Tower or Statue of Liberty. But still, I love NYC.

You see, my mission is to be a lamplighter — to ignite the spark of Judaism is my fellow Jews. To spread goodness and kindness. To teach Torah and mitzvot. My role doesn’t depend on New York’s nightlife. As long as there remains a single Jewish family in Manhattan, I will be here guiding them.

Just as a soldier doesn’t abandon his or her post, my colleagues and I will not abandon ours. We are here to serve others. I love waking up each morning with that knowledge.

Now, connecting with the Jews in this city involves tapping into the adrenaline and fast-paced energy of the city, which I love. And that has become a lot more difficult during this corona era.

How do you attract Jews to shul without a kiddush? Without Sunday morning bagels and lox? Without a warm hug from the rabbi? This is how people feel connected, feel community. It’s what propels so many of us to get up and out and into shul. These obstacles feel most daunting, especially as we turn our focus to the upcoming High Holidays. Our shuls are supposed to be warm, vibrant, nurturing places, not cold, masked and faceless. But we are working hard to combat these challenges and find safe ways to keep people feeling close and connected.

So … why don’t I join the thousands of people moving to Florida and Arizona, working remotely?

Well, Zoom is great, and we are fortunate to have the capability to connect online, but so many things cannot be replaced. Yes, I can give a class over Zoom, but I cannot host a minyan. The shofar cannot be blown on Zoom. High Holiday services cannot happen on Zoom. I cannot marry couples over Zoom. Kaddish cannot be said over Zoom. All of these things are part of my duties as an emissary, so, no, I cannot move away and work remotely without abandoning my community, which I will never do.

And yet, I will leave. Soon even. But so will you, and so will my entire community. We will leave together. The forces of darkness have been so powerful this year. We’ve all struggled in unimaginable ways. But that means Moshiach is about to come. The darkest part of the night is the short stretch just before the sun breaks over the horizon. That’s now. We’re living in dark times, but that breakthrough — the final Redemption when we will ascend to Israel with Moshiach, reunited with our loved ones who have left this world, and rebuild the Holy Temple — is in sight!

So start packing your bags.  But until then, see you on Fifth Avenue!

About the Author
Zimbabwean-born Rabbi Uriel Vigler has been directing the Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side of Manhattan together with his wife Shevy since 2005. In addition, he founded Belev Echad which helps wounded IDF soldiers. He has a weekly blog on current events. He is the proud father of eight children (including triplets) and leads a very young, vibrant and dynamic community.
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