SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH THE LENS OF SHLICHUS
November 11, 2014
Yisroel Lapidot in #948, Profile

The man who shocked many people who never dreamed that the photographer for HaAretz and Yisroel HaYom would become a Chabad Chassid surprised us too with his incredible story. * Kobi Kalmanowitz, photographer for magazines who dreams about being on the team of photographers at the Beis HaMikdash is convinced, “At first they will need photographers. Think about what its like to reach billions of people.”

The scene is set at an invitation-only event in the center of Tel Aviv. The guests, who arrived at the goodbye party of one of the editors of the supplements to HaAretz, rubbed their eyes in disbelief. What was this tall bearded guy with the Chassidic appearance doing standing next to the esteemed journalist?

The man who managed to disconcert many people who never dreamed that the photographer for HaAretz and Yisroel HaYom is a Lubavitcher Chassid from Hertzliya is Kobi Kalmanowitz. How ironic it is that he became a baal tshuva thanks to three gentiles, and after visiting Uman for Rosh HaShana he became a Chabad Chassid and mekushar to the Rebbe.

Thats Kobi, a fascinating mosaic, deep, and mainly surprising.

In the same way a digital file is created in a camera, that is how it is with the neshama. The rays of light which pierce the darkness of awareness create a spiritual file. When you enhance it, the picture grows continually sharper and clearer. It is important to take into account that even sharpening has its limits, and if you cross those boundaries, it just ruins it.” Thats Kobi.

Its a kind of farbrengen,” he sort of throws in at the beginning of the conversation, and with that, he sums up his worldview. To him, everything is akind of farbrengen,” including his magazine work.

What gets me out of the house is not photography but going to do the Rebbes shlichus; thats the real mission.” That is said by someone who is a photographer in his blood and soul. It seems now though that more than being a photographer, he is also a Chassid.

He has been in the field of photography for thirty-five years already. Over the years, he has worked for all the big ad agencies in the country and for all the newspapers and magazines: Yisroel HaYom, Yediot Acharonot, HaAretz, Maariv, Globus, etc.

At the peak of his career, twenty-two years ago, Kobi made a significant change in his life and became a baal tshuva. Those who knew him did not know what to make of this change and took it very hard.

They panicked. Oy, what do we do with Kobi?”

Throughout that time, he himself did not know what he was supposed to do.

Aside from my having a strong desire to become a baal tshuva, I had no idea how to proceed. I remember going into a Judaica store and wanting to buy my first religious book, a siddur. I later discovered that I had bought a Yemenite siddur only because I liked the binding. I didnt know there are nuschaos and what the differences are between them.”

Kobi moved to Hertzliya and every Shabbos he made the rounds of the shuls in the city as he looked for something somehow connected to the spirit of Chassidus and of the Baal Shem Tov.

Every Shabbos I would go to a different shul, from the Edot HaMizrach to Mizrachi. After doing this for a while, I walked into the Chabad shul of shliach RYisroel Halperin, which was the closest to the style I was looking for. Over time, I discovered the depth in Chabad Chassidus and became enamored of the Rebbe.

I got to know the shliach Motti Gal ah, who was an incredibly multifaceted person, intriguing, talented, original, and exceptional. He had an especially wide ranging intelligence and an original, colorful vision, which was deep and surprising, enormous Torah knowledge, and a rare openness.

He was able to give others personal breathing space; he was a man of my heart who knew how to see and read and understand reality in a sharp clear way, and always from a Chassidic perspective. I was so glad he agreed to be my mashpia.”

TEN YEARS OF PEEKING IN

There is a famous line which says a picture is worth a thousand words, but to Kobi Kalmanowitz this is not merely a saying. The idea and thought that he invests in order to immortalize a moment is instructive. No less than that is the unique talent to provide us, through words, with a glimpse into the personal movie which will document the transformation in his life through a process which took years.

For nearly ten years, Kobipeeked inat Judaism and even attended shiurim occasionally in Bnei Brak. At that time, he lived in a small apartment in northern Tel Aviv not far from the Yarkon, on the tenth and a half floor which also served as his studio. “That place was my entire world.”

Kobi would spend hours talking with a neighbor in the building who served in the army in the military band. “We had both come from military bands, he as a singer and me as a pianist (in addition to my main work as a photographer), and we had many things in common. One day, he suggested that I go along with him to a shiur.” Kobi agreed and slowly something began to move. “Without realizing it, your head starts thinking in a different direction.”

ON A PLANE WITH MEN DRESSED IN BLACK

During the time that I became a bit acquainted with Judaism, I was in constant touch with a non-Jew named Juan Thomas. He was a classmate from photography school in London who is still a good friend until today. We worked together on a furniture catalog in Barcelona. In retrospect, he was part of my tshuva process.”

Divine Providence directed three gentiles toward Kobi on his way back to Judaism. The three are professionals who work in the field of photography.

It all began when Juan called out of the blue. “He told me that in two days he would be going to the International Photography Festival in Arles, France. Arles is an old, charming city that has become host to photographers from all over the world. As an Israeli photographer I did not know about the town nor about the festival; I decided spontaneously to join him.

The trip was stimulating both emotionally as well as professionally. The minute I got there I felt that I had broken through the bubble and had entered the engine room of a submarine. My eyes were suddenly opened and I began to really grasp the impact of the world of photography.

Central to the festival is the event in the amphitheater. Every evening, one of the senior photographers presents his work. This is where the second gentile comes into the picture, Dave Gamble. We knew each other from years before as classmates in photography school in London and he had made it big. He went up the podium and represented England. After his appearance, I went over to him to say hello. He invited us for cocktails along with all the Whos Who, the next morning in one of the most beautiful spots in the town.

I showed up for cocktails and then my friend Juan said to me, ‘See that guy over there? Short and with lots of shiny hair? His name is Christian Caujolle and he is the owner and promoter of Agence VU which is one of the largest and most serious agencies in the world for documentary photography.’

Christian is one of the most highly regarded and busiest people. I decided to approach him. I introduced myself and said I would like to meet with him. He took out his notebook and made an appointment with me for the next day. In our meeting, he asked me to show him my work but at that point I had not worked in the field of documentaries. We arranged for me to do a sample documentary so he could form his impression of my work.

I returned to Eretz Yisroel preoccupied with thoughts of what sort of documentary work I should do. I wanted to come up with something interesting. Under the influence of my fledgling involvement with Judaism, I saw an advertisement about the Rosh HaShana trip to Uman and thought, this is my project. That is what I did. Just like that, having met three gentiles, I found myself at three in the morning in the terminal documenting groups of Breslover Chassidim running around Ben Gurion airport.

The entire plane, except for me and three other people dressed ascivilians,’ were dressed in black. Everything around me had a profound influence on me and I began documenting it. It was hard and irrational to do a project like this in such a short time. By the way, I brought just one camera with me. I had less than 48 hours to document everything. Although I was not yet religious, I decided to respect others. I took photos until the last minute and shortly before Yom Tov began, I put away my camera.

On the morning of Erev Rosh HaShana, I heard that you could take a helicopter trip to the graves of tzaddikim throughout the Ukraine. I didnt want to miss this experience. I asked around but nobody knew where to direct me.

I went down with a motley group of Chassidim from the area of the grave to the junction at the bottom of the hill, looking for the way to the helicopters. Out of nowhere, an old Lada car stopped and I asked the driver in Hebrew and with hand motions where the helicopters are. He took us in his car and brought us to a hidden grove where he got out to talk to someone. After a minute or two, he returned to the car and crossed all of Uman to the other side.

We arrived at a military base where the driver spoke with soldiers and they sent us back to the grove. At this point, I decided to get out and see what was going on. As I got out of the car, I heard helicopters above me. What a sight, five military helicopters landed in the grove. The man who drove us did not ask for any money. Nothing. I realized something had happened. Suddenly, from somewhere, a bus zoomed into a clearing in the grove from which descended a crowd of religious people who began dancing in the middle of the field. Picture if you will the fantastical idea of getting flying limousine service flown by the IAF as part of a black market deal under the table. I dont know how it is today but thats the way it was then.

We each paid $50 and packed in maybe fifty people. They crowded the helicopters with double the proper occupancy and it was really dangerous. After an hour and a half I was at the Baal Shem Tov in Mezhibuzh for the first time in my life.

After that we flew and landed a short time later at RLevi Yitzchok of Berditchev. You have to understand that although I went to them, I knew nothing. As an irreligious person, I had no idea what was going on.

After a short while we returned to an improvised helipad in an agricultural area not far from the gravesite and our helicopter disappeared. We panicked. A group of Ukrainian peasants stood there threateningly and our helicopter was gone. We were stuck in the field in the middle of nowhere with the new year about to begin. Then, after a stressful and too-long wait the helicopter returned from refueling.

That visit was very inspiring and I decided to move forward.”

770: A SERIES OF EVENTS

The first time Kobi went to the Rebbe was in Tishrei, seventeen years ago. It was an unforgettable experience for him:

Its all thanks to my dear oldest son, Yotam, who was given the option by my parents of choosing a bar mitzva gift and he decided he wants to go to the Rebbe.

Its really not something of this world. Suddenly, you are swimming in something else entirely. Its unbelievable. You are bowled over by peoples willingness to host, by peoples investment in hospitality. What energy they put into it. You come from an entirely different world and are unfamiliar with things like this.”

Kobi described the emotional experience he went through, especially Simchas Torah in 770:

What pushing, you are simply squashed. You see people crying and happy, dancing and mainly crowded, crowded, without leaving a millimeter of free space, a sensory onslaught which swallows you up. Sights that require you to re-calibrate your entire inner world, and also to watch out not to slip on one of the Chassidishe fish swimming on the floor.

The most moving moment that happened to me was returning the Rebbes Torah from the bima in the center of 770 to the Aron. I found myself walking with the Rebbes Torah in my hand, surrounded by hundreds of people. I did not know how I would make it from the bima to the Aron Kodesh. I held it tightly so it wouldnt be grabbed out of my arms and as I tried to make my way to the Aron Kodesh. I worked my way through a path thronged with faces. I found myself within a surreal movie, as in slow motion masses of hands reach out toward the Rebbes Torah, millions of fingers, millions of beards, millions of eyes. Treading on you, crushing your ribs, you can hardly breathe, move forward slowly, at the speed of forever and taking in more and more sights, on and on… Yes, 770 in real time and on full volume.”

IN AN ARAB’S HOUSE ON EREV YOM KIPPUR

Kobi sighed. “Back to workMy worldview is that I go to work not in order to take pictures, but for shlichus. Why? Because!

I try to keep the Chassidic goal ofA Chassid creates an environmentin the forefront of my awareness most of the time. There are times that I go to take pictures in a certain place or for a certain person, and Hashem in His kindness and mercy hits thelike and sharebutton and enables me to get a glimpse ofcovert informationand partially reveals to me why I was sent to that place at that time. Obviously, Divine Providence. I know there is a reason, but it usually remains a mystery. I know that I had to be a station on someones way and that this someone does not have to be just the person that I came to photograph. It is obvious to me that something in this encounter needs to have an effect on both him and me and that both of us are shluchim of the Rebbe.

That is what I experience: life on shlichus. And the more you are aware of this, the more you live with it.

A few years ago, on the day before Yom Kippur I got a job to photograph an Arab producer for the weekend supplement of Maariv. I arranged an appointment. It was a hot, humid Tel Aviv day, and here I was dragging a ton of equipment on three hand trucks up to the third floor of an old Tel Avivian apartment with no elevator. I arrived at his apartment, half liquefied, collapsing and out of breath. I thought: G-d, I dont understand why you are sending me today to photograph a goy, right before Yom Kippur; whats the connection?

As I picked up my equipment, a girl passed me on the stairs on her way up. She said hello and I nodded. I entered the producers apartment and to my surprise, there was that same girl.

It happens in encounters of this kind that you get to talk to and know the person you are photographing. The man began telling me about his family and I told him about my family. I began telling him about Yom Kippur which was imminent, about myself and my wife and children, about doing tshuva, and in general, about the privilege of being a Jew. At a certain point, I realized that the girl who for all intents and purposes was playing the role of wife of the Arab producer, who heard me on the side saying the bracha of asher yotzar in the dinette, that same girl was standing in the doorway and listening to our conversation. She heard every word.

I thought, voila Kobi, thats why you came here! This is one of those times that Hashem gave me the privilege of understanding, to some extent, His hidden G-dly reasons for sending me where He sent me. He let me know why I was called to photograph this Arab producer that Erev Yom Kippur. This was my shlichus.

Yes, ‘Hashem open my lips and my mouth will relate Your praises’ – my mouth spoke and this precious Jewish soul listened. It seems she needed someone to come and tell her this, at this time, in this way. I would like to think that after this conversation, she may have realized that this relationship is not right. For after all, she is Jewish!”

HIS DREAM: TO PHOTOGRAPH THE BEIS HAMIKDASH

Fifteen years ago, I was at the start of my tshuva process. I went to Yerushalayim to photograph RMenachem Porush ah for an article in HaAretz. I arrived at the religious hotel, the Merkaz, and found him sitting in a corner of the lobby. RYitzchok Dovid Grossman was sitting with him. I went over and introduced myself. ‘I came to photograph you for HaAretz,’ I said. I remember RGrossman getting excited and pulling the tzitzis strings that stuck out from under my shirt and saying, ‘If this is the photographer from HaAretz, Moshiach is coming!’”

***

The Rebbe says we are the final generation of galus and the first generation of Geula, so I hope that the Rebbe will allow me to be on the photography team which will document the Geula and the third Beis HaMikdash.

We can assume that at least at first they will need photographers. Think about the enormity of the task of conveying information about the Geula revolution and what is going on at the Beis HaMikdash throughout each day. That means, being in touch with billions of people on a daily basis.

I am sure that the quality and possibilities for photography will be far better than what we have now, that it will be the most geshmak (enjoyable) and the most gedichte (concentrated). I am really looking forward to it. Halevai that we be granted the merit to do and to work under the Rebbes leadership until the anticipated moment and even afterward.”

To conclude: yashar koach to you at Beis Moshiach for your efforts in producing a weekly magazine. Its an enormous shlichus; you have no idea to what extent.”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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