SPARKING A CHASSIDIC REVOLUTION AMONG RELIGIOUS SEFARDIM
January 31, 2019
Menachem Mendel Arad in #1152, 24 Teives, Interview

Rabbi Refael Dogers farbrengens attract hundreds of people. RDoger was not born into Chabad, and only became acquainted with the Rebbe recently, but he lives with the Rebbe and talks about him with tremendous chayus. His enthusiasm draws others in his wake. * We spoke with him about hiskashrus, the Rebbe, Chassidus, and the long journey he made to reach them.

Rabbi Refael Doger with his community (Photos by Yinon Shovl)

24  Teves in Elad. I rubbed my eyes, finding it hard to believe what I was seeing. About seventy people were sitting around tables set for a 24 Teves farbrengen, for the yom hilula of the Alter Rebbe. The varied crowd mostly consisted of young Sefardic scholars and balabatim. At the head of the table sat Rabbi Refael Doger, rav of the community, who spoke to them about the ways of Chassidus, the Rebbe, hiskashrus, the Baal HaTanya and the preparations needed for Yud Shevat.

If you would meet him on the street, you would find it hard to believe that the one leading the farbrengen, R’ Doger, who looks like a Litvish-Sefardic rav, is a Lubavitcher Chassid who is mekushar to the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach. He knows not only Shas and poskim, halacha and kabbala, but also sichos and maamarim of the Rebbe, Tanya and Chassidus, and Chassidic stories and history.

Above all else, he tries to bring the great light of the Rebbe to as many Jews as possible. He believes that the Rebbe’s desire for Chassidus to belong to all is more applicable than ever. He’s not afraid to dream, nor to take action, to get the wellsprings to reach everywhere and to every Jew.

“I FELT A SUDDEN LONGING FOR THE REBBE”

R’ Doger, readers will still be feeling the effects of Yud Shevat. What does Yud Shevat mean to you?

For me, Yud Shevat served to heighten the love and longing for the Rebbe and the awareness that the Rebbe lives. Yud Shevat to me represents living with what the Rebbe lives.

Please explain.

Yud Shevat was the first time I went to the Rebbe; this year, it will be the third time.

Over the years, I learned Chassidus, and then I also taught Chassidus. It was a long and slow, though steady, process. Learning the Rebbe’s teachings and hiskashrus to the Rebbe came in stages. The more Chassidus I learned, and the more I put into practice the “ways of Chassidus” (or as the Rebbe put it in response to “someone who asks with what is hiskashrus reached”), followed the Rebbe’s horaos and attended farbrengens and talked about him, the more my hiskashrus and love for the Rebbe grew.

Over many years, traveling to the Rebbe wasn’t even a consideration. Where I grew up, the idea of traveling out of Eretz Yisroel was out of the question.

I remember that when I attended the 11 Nissan farbrengen at Heichal Orna, participants were advised to write a pidyon nefesh to the Rebbe. When I looked at the wording of the pa”n, which was very Chabad oriented, demanding, and hiskashrus oriented, it was very hard for me to sign. But in the end, I signed. It changed a lot for me in terms of my awareness of what hiskashrus to the Rebbe means.

Three years ago, before Yud Shevat, I suddenly felt a longing for the Rebbe; I felt I must go to him. I called my wife and said, “I want to go to the Rebbe, but I won’t go without your consent.”

In the meantime, I began taking care of the technicalities of getting a passport and visa. This created a positive buzz in the community. That first time I went, we were a group of six people from my community. This year, the group had fourteen people.

We agreed that this interview would be about Yud Shevat and not about you. However, in order to understand how you are able to be mekarev Jews who are already close to Torah to learn Chassidus and have hiskashrus to the Rebbe, I need to have a little background information. How does a Sefardic rav with a large community come to learn Chassidus, to connect to the Rebbe and connect other people to the Rebbe?

In my youth, I learned in a regular Sefardic yeshiva; for yeshiva g’dola I went to a Litvishe yeshiva. I learned in a Sefardic kollel after I married while starting to learn p’nimius ha’Torah.

Tanya?

No, not yet. My father is the kind of person who learns from everyone, who finds the proper approach in everything. He is mostly involved in learning p’nimius ha’Torah (kabbala), and to him, there is no dispute between approaches. In the explanations he gives, he explains how the point of everything, every approach, is sourced in p’nimius ha’Torah.

At home, I saw my father learning from Otzar HaChayim of the Admor Rabbi Yitzchok Isaac of Komarna. I started learning a little Chassidus too, and by learning the teachings of the Admor of Komarna, I developed a connection with the Baal Shem Tov and the teachings of Chassidus. Learning Chabad Chassidus was still a ways off.

You need to understand that someone who grew up with the warnings of the Rashash and the Ben Ish Chai is afraid to learn anything regarding which there is even the slightest doubt that they are not derived from the teachings of the Ari HaKadosh. This apparently is also the reason why many are afraid to learn Chabad Chassidus.

My father’s learning already broke through my fear of learning Chassidus. Then a significant turning point in my life was when I met the tzaddik, Rabbi Yoram Abergel zt”l. Rav Abergel had a daily Tanya shiur. He lived with Tanya. Thanks to him, I began learning Tanya too. I’ll admit that at first, I was very nervous about whether I’d understand it. So, I did what R’ Yoram did and used the Lessons in Tanya which the Rebbe edited.

What connection did you have with the Rebbe at the time?

None. Slowly, I started learning Derech Mitzvosecha too, but it was still learning Chassidus with no connection to the Rebbe.

A GROWING CONNECTION WITH THE REBBE

I’ve seen and heard that hiskashrus to the Rebbe is an inseparable part of your lectures on Chassidus. How did that come about?

I am sure you know that the Alter Rebbe would say with his special tune, “Taste and see that G-d is good.” For a long period of time, I tried to learn the Rebbe’s teachings, but it didn’t go. What got me to understand that it is necessary to put in much effort in order to have enjoyment from studying the Rebbe’s teachings was a book I read, published by Heichal Menachem, with a compilation of speeches from the Tolna Rebbe. For several years, the Tolna Rebbe attended 3 Tammuz farbrengens and spoke. Those speeches were compiled in a book called Rucho Bikirbeinu.

When I read what the Tolna Rebbe said about the Rebbe and the Rebbe’s teachings, it sparked in me a love for the Rebbe. When you love someone, you want to know what he says; it’s important to you to learn his teachings. Of course, the “taste and see that’s it’s good” was fulfilled and I merited experiencing “those who taste it merit life.” Of course, when you “live,” it’s contagious.

I speak about the Rebbe in all my shiurim and include stories about him, letters, and select portions from farbrengens, etc.

This was a long process, with each stage being a story onto itself. I’ll just tell you that Rabbi Menachem Dubroskin, mashpia in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Migdal HaEmek, came to our shul for many years to give shiurim and farbreng. He had a special influence on me personally and on the entire community, on its Chassidic development as well as hiskashrus to the Rebbe.

Can you give an example of his influence?

A few weeks ago, there was a farbrengen in which R’ Dubroskin spoke animatedly about mivtza tefillin. He demanded of one of the people from the community to commit to going on mivtzaim on Fridays. The person on the firing line, R’ Erez Asis, looked at me as though he didn’t know what to say. On the spur of the moment, we both made the commitment. Boruch Hashem, we go on mivtzaim.

Meanwhile, a Tanya shiur for women began in my house and another shiur in the shul near us.

From R’ Dubroskin I learned that you are never allowed to stand in place. A Chassid must keep moving. This is the reason why in recent years, every year, we have a central farbrengen in honor of 19 Kislev, for everyone in the city. Every year, we go from strength to strength.

The first 19 Kislev farbrengen was in my house. R’ Yitzchok Rom, the engine of the community, came up with the idea. For a few years, the farbrengen was in the shul. This year, we went l’chat’chilla aribber and rented the sports stadium. Boruch Hashem, a big crowd came, all kinds of Jews. Whoever did not see this simcha, one of Jews whose hearts are connected to Chassidus, never saw simcha in his life.

“When I read what the Tolna Rebbe said about the Rebbe and the Rebbe’s teachings, it sparked in me a love for the Rebbe. When you love someone, you want to know what he says; it’s important to you to learn his teachings. Of course, the ‘taste and see that’s it’s good’ was fulfilled and I merited experiencing ‘those who taste it merit life.’ Of course, when you ‘live,’ it’s contagious.”

You mentioned the importance of telling stories about the Rebbe. In your experience, which stories speak to the hearts of Sefardic Jews – miracle stories?

Maybe, but to me, it’s important to tell stories that illustrate the Rebbe’s love for every Jew. As water reflects a face, so too does a heart of man reflect a heart. It gives them love for the Rebbe and the desire for hiskashrus.

The Sefardic-Torah sector is divided into those who learn and those who work. In order to try and copy the model in other Chabad Houses and Chabad shuls, tell us what motivates Sefardic-Torah Jews to connect to learning Chassidus.

I can tell you what works here. We have numerous shiurim; there’s a lot of learning going on. Several times a day there are shiurim in Tanya and Chassidus. On Monday and Wednesday we learn maamarim of the Alter Rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe or the Rebbe. Every Thursday night, we learn the weekly D’var Malchus from the years 5751-5752.

I believe that the quantity affects the quality in terms of the sheer amount of learning Chassidus. Naturally, one also needs to take the learning seriously. The Rebbe once explained the difference between “chochma ba’goyim – taamin” and “Torah ba’goyim – al taamin.” Chochma is like a university lecturer who comes to speak about law. That doesn’t obligate him to keep the law, though. Torah, on the other hand, is from the root meaning to teach; the study is a guide. Learning Chassidus means to influence ourselves to be a Chassid, and a Chassid is someone who sacrifices himself for others.

The more Chassidus you learn, the more you are influenced, and in the end the more of an influence you have on others.

When one becomes involved with Chabad, should the dress and customs change to that of Chabad? What do you and your people do?

As a leader of a community, it’s a big dilemma because I need to set policy and not just choose my own path. On the one hand, the more a person understands what a Rebbe is (or understands that he doesn’t understand it) and what hiskashrus of a Chassid to the Rebbe is, and what the infinite love of the Rebbe toward a Chassid is, one has the drive to be as much like the Rebbe in every detail, including external ones.

When a Chassid is concerned not with what he wants, but what the Rebbe wants, and when I think about what the Rebbe would say to me, it is clear to me that the Rebbe does not want us to change nusach. I put it like this: Chassidus comes to add, not to change.

See was it says in the Hayom Yom of 24 Teves: “My revered grandfather, the Rebbe [Maharash], once asked [his father,] the Tzemach Tzedek: ‘What did our zeide want to achieve with the ways of Chassidus and [through the study of] Chassidus?’

“The Tzemach Tzedek answered: ‘[The goal of] the ways of Chassidus is that all Chassidim should be like one family, [united] in love according to the Torah. Chassidus is vitality, bringing energy and light into everything, even into those things that are undesirable. We should recognize our own evil as it is, so that we can correct it.’”

The Rebbe wants every Jew to be a Chabad Chassid, more in substance and less in definitions and externals. What’s important is not the Lubavitcher dress or Chabad nusach; the Rebbe wants everyone to learn Chassidus and behave in the ways of Chassidus. There are hundreds of letters that talk about this, in which the Rebbe writes to Sefardic Jews that he is less desirous that they change the nusach and more desirous that they should not change the practices of their ancestors to learn p’nimius ha’Torah.

Based on the Rebbe’s letters, I decided that I was going to strengthen the learning of Chassidus and hiskashrus to the Rebbe but would not change nusach or push for a change in customs.

POWERFUL IMPACT ON THE CITY OF ELAD

Getting Sefardic Jews to learn p’nimius ha’Torah in general, and Chassidus in particular, isn’t easy. R’ Doger says that most Sefardic yeshivos are heavily influenced by the Litvishe approach.

It is necessary to repeatedly emphasize the message of “do not abandon the teachings of your mother,” he says:

It is necessary to remind Sefardic Jews that their ancestors grew up on the writings of the Ari and on the study of Zohar; that they must not abandon the teachings of their fathers. With this attitude they should learn Chassidus.

How does one confront this sweeping trend (toward adopting the Litvishe approach)?

First, it must be done with the understanding that Chassidus comes to increase fear of Heaven and not to detract or change. Second, we must get people to taste the light hidden within Sifrei Chassidus and the teachings of the Rebbeim; then they see that it’s good.

Third, just as there is such a thing as a Sefardi-Litvak, so too we are Chassidim-Sefardim. We learn Chassidus, practice the ways of Chassidus, and preserve our Sefardic customs.

I didn’t invent anything; the Rebbe himself says in Basi L’Gani that we are the seventh generation from the first. Our advantage is that we perpetuate the way of Avrohom Avinu, the first, and the Alter Rebbe, the first. Similarly, I also see myself as a continuation of the greats that came before me; R’ Yoram is the one who paved the way. People sometimes come to me and express their wonder at this connection between Chassidus and Sefardim, and I say: Who is as great to us like Rav Yoram, who paved the way so that Chassidus and Sefardic practices go hand in hand!

R’ Yoram Abergel “opened the channel.” He was Sefardic in every respect and a Chassid, and what a Chassid! He made an upheaval in the frum world, no less. He brought the chayus for the study of Tanya, the learning of Chassidus, the involvement in the history of Chassidus of the Rebbeim and the great Chassidim into the Sefardic world. He brought Chassidus down to the people. He implanted in young scholars who later became leaders of communities, as well as lay people, the understanding that it is impossible to live without Chassidus.

For us, it is much easier. In the city of Elad there are dozens of dear young men who are learning full time, as well as numerous balabatim who, despite not coming to our beis midrash and shiurim, learn Chassidus. This is something R’ Abergel accomplished.

We meet these people when we arrange a major program like for 19 Kislev and they come out of the woodwork. Then we see the tremendous scope of the influence to learn Chassidus that R’ Abergel accomplished.

(Then paraphrasing what the Rebbetzin once said to a shliach from France, R’ Doger says:) R’ Yoram sowed and we are reaping.

What about the next generation, the children?

We are planning to open a yeshiva, a Sefardic yeshiva, with Sefardic t’fillos and customs. Along with the study of Gemara and halacha, they will learn Tanya and topics in Chassidus, of course all with the spirit of hiskashrus to the Rebbe.

This is a real need since the entire approach today, the outlook, the mentality, and the way in avodas Hashem of graduates from yeshiva, even the Sefardic ones, is the Litvishe approach which has swept up most of the rabbanim and communities. P’nimius HaTorah is not learned and it’s a shame.

When you examine the letters of the Rebbe Rayatz about the Chag Ha’Geula and about saying T’hillim on Shabbos Mevarchim, for example, you see that not only the study of Chassidus pertains to all; the ways of Chassidus and its practices also need to pertain to all.

As for my own children, it’s a dilemma. For now, the children are learning in the schools that they learned in until now. For our youngest, we were undecided about whether to put him into Chabad.

I will tell you what happened. On our previous trip to the Rebbe, we returned with lots of love for the Rebbe. We lived with that. The main idea that we lived with on our last trip to the Rebbe was that the Rebbe lives. We took this with us and returned with it.

I remember that on the flight there, I farbrenged with friends on this point, that truth is eternal. So when you are going to the Rebbe, the feeling is “my sitting in the house of Hashem all the days of my life.” The feeling is that you want to remain with the Rebbe forever, because you don’t go to the Rebbe to receive and then leave. You go to the Rebbe in order to bond, to connect. And when you’re connected, you don’t want to disconnect.

One night, R’ Pinchas Gubitz, the gabbai of the Chabad shul Beis Menachem in Elad, came into the apartment where we were staying in Crown Heights. I was already in pajamas and I heard R’ Pinny exclaim, “Oy, what a shame, you could have said the bedtime Shma near the Rebbe’s room.” I hadn’t heard about this and asked what he meant. He told me about the concept of grasping the klamke (doorknob) of the Rebbe while reading the bedtime Shma near Gan Eden HaTachton.

I hesitated and then got dressed again and walked over to 770. And that’s what I did each night of the rest of the trip. The last night before we returned home, I had this bad feeling. Most of the farbrengens were in Yiddish or English and we, mainly me, felt that we were returning home having missed the point.

Throughout this time, I had a secret heart’s desire request that the Rebbe reveal himself to me, mainly regarding the personal question about my son, but also about other questions that I had. I remember that I wanted to ask the Rebbe to reveal himself to me and resolve my doubts but I didn’t even know how to ask. This was a desire of the heart.

The last night, as we read the Shma, we heard niggunim coming from the small zal. I went in and to my surprise, there was a farbrengen going on in Ivrit. Rabbi Chaim Shlomo Diskin was farbrenging. He’s the shliach and rav in Kiryat Ata. The story he told was just the story I needed to hear from the Rebbe.

R’ Diskin told about someone who came to him after he was the victim of a fraud to try and help him with parnasa. At the exact same time, someone else came who wanted help arranging a minyan following the passing of his father. The shidduch between them was mutually beneficial. The first one bought, at reduced cost, professional tools that the father had left and the other one got rid of things for which he had no use.

Before things worked out in this way, R’ Diskin told him, “In order for a business to succeed, you need the Rebbe in the business. Make a good hachlata and we’ll write to the Rebbe.”

The man resolved to start putting on tefillin and be careful with maaser. He opened to a warm letter which said, “You should always convey good news all the days.”

Since then, every Rosh Chodesh, he goes to R’ Diskin, calculates what he earned the previous month and leaves maaser for the Chabad House. He writes the amount that he gave for maaser in a report that is sent to the Rebbe.

For some reason, on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5754, for the first time since he made this agreement, the man did not show up. Three days passed and then came that fateful Sunday, 3 Tammuz. R’ Diskin said that personally, when he heard what happened, he fell apart. He did not leave the house and did not receive anyone. He was in a very bad state.

A day or two later, the man came. Mrs. Diskin brought him to R’ Diskin’s room. He put his maaser down and said, “Come, let’s write to the Rebbe.”

R’ Diskin was stunned. He asked him, “Didn’t you hear?!”

The man’s answer was simple and inspiring. “What difference does it make? We need to stick to our agreement with the Rebbe so let’s write to him. And as we do every month, we’ll send the letter to the secretaries. They’ll decide what to do with the letter. We will have done our part!”

It was only when the man received a confirmation that his fax had reached its destination that he allowed himself to leave; it was as simple as that.

What lesson do you take from this story?

I’m always saying that I want the Rebbe to be revealed to me and suddenly, I realized that this is the revelation! We are used to saying “hashgacha pratis” when something good happens to us, but the truth is, as the Mitteler Rebbe says, that hashgacha pratis is a tangible revelation of G-dliness!

It’s not that Hashem arranged something for my benefit; that’s not hashgacha pratis. Obviously, Hashem is running everything. Hashgacha pratis is that Hashem is revealed to me in a tangible way. It’s not, “Wow, look at what Hashem did for me,” rather, that Hashem is saying to me, here I am! I’m here, in the most material things, the most trivial things, the simplest everyday things.

I felt it was a revelation of the Rebbe to me, as though he was saying: Here I am, I’m here. I’m alive. I’m with you. You’re worried what will be with your son, how he will manage in Chabad, whether he will be negatively influenced by others? Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m with you and your child.

WHEN YOU DRINK FROM THE SOURCE, THERE ARE NO DOUBTS

How do people in the community react to talk about Moshiach and the eternal life of the Nasi HaDor?

First, you must understand that opposition arises from people who don’t know you personally. When people know you, they hear that you explain things clearly and you bring them to the source, to the actual s’farim, and the questions melt away.

I’ll tell you a story. I met a friend who learned with me in yeshiva. He was an ilui who learned in Yeshivas Ponevezh. He knew I had become a Chabadnik and he asked me how I handled the topic of the Rebbe as Moshiach.

I told him straightforwardly, at the very least, we need to relate to the Rebbe after 3 Tammuz, the way the Rebbe related to the Rebbe Rayatz after Yud Shevat. When you learn the sichos, how the Rebbe spoke about the Rebbe Rayatz after Yud Shevat 5710, you understand that the Rebbe is “at least” like that. I say “at least” since you obviously have to add to that the fact that we are the seventh generation, the fact that the Rebbe advanced the world with giant steps toward the Geula and declared that our generation is the seventh generation, as well as the simple fact that the Rebbe did not appoint a successor, etc.

When you learn the first sichos in Toras Menachem, and concurrently the sichos of the last year which are the D’var Malchus, there simply aren’t any questions.

At the same time, it’s important that I stress that the Gemara teaches us that even when we see that the “eulogizers eulogized,” there is the source in the verse that teaches us that “he too is alive.”

If we’re already speaking about the main point, there is something that I farbreng about a lot. In my humble opinion, it is important to use Beis Moshiach to promote this:

We cited earlier that the ways of Chassidus are that all Chassidim should be one family according to Torah, with love. Therefore, if G-d forbid, someone thinks that because his fellow uses certain terms about the Rebbe, he is not a Chassid, he is not harming his friend but himself, his own ways of Chassidus. Because when you create divisions between family members, that is not the ways of Chassidus.

A CHASSID MUST CONNECT PEOPLE TO THE REBBE

With what good resolution do you suggest we leave this farbrengen/interview?

The resolution needs to be to connect more Jews to the Rebbe!

I will share a story that really brings out this point. I had a friend whose rav spoke incessantly against Chabad and against Breslov. Despite the great respect that he has for his teacher, the opposition and negative talk of the rav against the Rebbe (Heaven protect us) had no effect on my friend. When I asked him, “How is that possible?” he gave me a very moving response. When he was a child, his mother took him for “hakafos shniyos” in Kfar Chabad. At some point, they ran out of flags and he was very disappointed. One of the Chassidim there who saw this took a picture of the Rebbe out of his pocket and gave it to him as a gift.

My friend described to me the feelings he had then as a child, “I felt that I had gotten what was truly real.” He would kiss the picture of the Rebbe every night before going to sleep and put it under his pillow. When he got older, his parents hung the picture for him opposite his bed.

This was a small act, done by that Chassid who had (and still has) no idea what influence his action had on a fellow Jew throughout the years. Now let us imagine for ourselves. Every Chassid encounters dozens or even hundreds of Jews on a given day. Expose people to the Rebbe, share a “vort” from the Rebbe, tell a story, or give them a picture. If you touch another Jew, that means the Rebbe touched him through your agency. You were the emissary to accomplish this.

We need to remember: once the Rebbe enters into his heart, this is a seedling that can yet produce an entire fruit bearing tree.

However, all of that is on the level of external influence, but for a Chassid to be an illuminating light, he himself has to be lit up. I would suggest to every Chassid to (not only learn the first maamer that the Rebbe said in 5711, but also to) learn the sichos that came before and after the saying of the maamer Basi L’Gani. It is simply a pleasure to see how the Rebbe set the agenda: Moshiach, Ahavas Yisroel, avoda through one’s own efforts.

In conjunction with this, I would also suggest – not only for newbies, but also for the born and bred – to take a volume of the Rebbe’s farbrengens and to really get into it, simply to experience farbrenging with the Rebbe, as well as to learn the D’var Malchus. There is so much sweetness in the farbrengens of the Rebbe as they are described in the unedited versions.

When a Chassid lives with what the Rebbe lives, he becomes alive to the point of giving life to others, but to know what the Rebbe says, it is obligatory to learn; to simply sit and learn. The importance of learning is not in order to serve as a good segula, and not even to fill ourselves with knowledge, and not even to pass the message along to others, but in order to be alive, to live with the Rebbe.

Along these lines, one can explain the statement of the Gemara, “Rebbi lo shana, Chiya minayin” (literally, if Rebbi did not record it in the Mishna, where did Rebbi Chiya who recorded the Braisos get it from?) to mean that if a Chassid does not learn the words of the Rebbe, how could he live it? When the words of the Rebbe are fluent in your mouth and you are immersed in the words of the Rebbe, then you can have “chiya,” life and energy.

As the Rebbe said before he exited the farbrengen of Yud Shevat 5711, that all of the great blessings are on condition that there be shalom, i.e., that all of those who are connected with the Rebbe will be together with achdus. The way to achieve the achdus of Chassidim is through simcha.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
See website for complete article licensing information.