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Feb252011

THE ‘DRY’ FARBRENGEN

“NO” TO BOOTLEGGED ALCOHOL

When the Rebbe Rayatz visited America in 5690/1930, Judaism and Chassidus were very much on the sidelines. Aid to Russian Jewry consisted of politely opening ears to the Rebbe but not opening hearts or pockets. Back then, the North Pole seemed warmer than American Jewry.

The question is, why was that so? Why were the hearts of American Jews, many of whom had come from Eastern Europe, cold to the plight of their brethren back in Europe as well as to Torah and mitzvos?

The answer lies in the fact that after they came to America they would get swept up in the daily struggle of existence. Under these circumstances it was difficult dealing with problems such as Shabbos observance and Jewish identity. Furthermore, the Stock Market Crash made people very wary about parting with their money.

From 1919 until 1933 it was illegal to import or export alcoholic beverages under the laws of Prohibition. Those who were really addicted had to buy liquor on the black market, smuggled in from Canada and Mexico. So Jews from Eastern Europe who were used to raising cups in l’chaim to mark a yahrtzait, birthday or simply in honor of friends and family, had to abstain completely from alcohol and their inner warmth cooled off until they froze over.

However, the Chassidim in Milwaukee could not imagine a farbrengen with the Rebbe, with the participation of hundreds of people, sans mashke. They suggested that mashke be bought illegally but the Rebbe adamantly refused to allow this. “Tables were set up with soda and lemonade. They wanted mashke but I did not allow it because in America it was illegal,” wrote the Rebbe in his diary. It was a large public event and concern for the law was obvious. So this farbrengen was held with no mashke at all!

However, the tremendous warmth that emanated from the heart of the Nasi warmed up the participants as will be related.

THE REBBE’S WELCOME

Milwaukee is the largest city in Wisconsin and is located on the west side of Lake Michigan. At that time, about 30,000 Jews lived there which included a sizable number of Chassidim as well as a large group of Jews who descended from Chabad Chassidim. Amongst them was a wealthy man from the Lubavitcher Chanin family who helped fund the Rebbe Rayatz’s activities.

An entourage of about twenty men escorted the Rebbe from Chicago to Milwaukee which included his son-in-law Rashag and the secretaries Rabbi Chatshe Feigin and Rabbi Chaim Lieberman as well as the Rebbe’s uncle, Rabbi Moshe Horenstein. They traveled together on Sunday, 9 Adar. In the evening they arrived at the train station in Milwaukee where a magnificent welcome had been prepared for the Rebbe. On the cars that came to welcome the Rebbe waved American flags as well as flags with Magen Davids which said “Boruch Haba” on them.

The Rebbe stepped out of the train and journalists’ cameras began to click all around him. The crowd was obviously excited; for most of them, this was the first time they were seeing the Rebbe. The Rebbe left the train station leading a convoy of about 200 cars. In front of the Rebbe’s car was a police car with welcome signs on it that stopped traffic on the street in the Rebbe’s honor.

The Rebbe davened Maariv in the Anshei Lubavitch shul and from there he went to the apartment that had been prepared for him which was attached to the shul. Even during this short walk he was surrounded by a large crowd and many journalists who didn’t stop taking pictures. The non-Jews who gathered said the Rebbe was a personality who made a positive impression. The apartment was decorated with welcome signs and colorful flags.

After a brief supper the first visitors arrived, members of a delegation from the nearby town of Sheboygan. They were thirty men, old and young. The community so greatly desired to see the Rebbe that they went to Milwaukee to invite the Rebbe to their town. They pleaded with the Rebbe to visit them for at least one day but the Rebbe’s crowded calendar and his desire to fan the inspiration in Milwaukee and Chicago prevented him from giving them a positive response. The meeting ended after about half an hour and the visit to Sheboygan did not come to pass.

After the delegation left, people came in for yechidus (private audience) for several hours.

VA’YAVO AMALEK

The following day, Monday, 10 Adar, many Jews continued to see the Rebbe including quite a few young Americans. In a letter to his wife, the Rebbe wrote that the young men listened politely and some of them even promised to put on t’fillin.

The delegation from Sheboygan together with the Chassidim in Milwaukee as well as those who weren’t Chassidim, sat together to farbreng. This gave the Rebbe much nachas and he wrote, “A hundred people sat and farbrenged, speaking a bit, telling one another stories, warming one another up. That’s what they told me, it made a nice impression.” At the end of the farbrengen the people from Sheboygan went to the train station to return home and the Jews of Milwaukee escorted them.

From morning till night the Rebbe’s apartment hummed with many Jews from all backgrounds who wanted to see him. In the evening, Jews from Milwaukee packed the Anshei Lubavitch shul in anticipation of the Rebbe saying a maamer Chassidus.

The large hall of the shul was full with Jews from all walks of life, young and old, those with trimmed beards and those with untouched beards, those who put a yarmulke on in the entrance to the shul as well as rabbanim, shochtim, chazanim and students. The women’s section was also full with women from various communities.

The shul was lit up and there was a babble of languages, Yiddish and English, and then suddenly, silence. All eyes were turned to the main entrance. The Rebbe, wearing a black coat and a tall fur hat walked in and strode the length of the shul, went up near the Aron Kodesh and sat in an armchair next to a small table. He gazed at the crowd and waited for a few minutes before beginning the maamer that begins “Va’yavo Amalek.”

The audience listened avidly to the maamer that took an hour and twenty minutes. The Rebbe described the scene in a letter to his wife:

The people sat in their places in utter silence, with great respect, all of them riveted to their seats, all of them looking at one place, inclining their heads forward, listening, comprehending, wanting to understand. It was like sitting in a garden amongst plants that move in the breeze. Their lips move but their voices are not heard. It was apparent that each of them was going outside of himself, wanting to know what was being said, wanting to understand, wanting to know, and on all was apparent a smile of delight which expressed thanks and joy.

There are some Jews here in their forties and fifties from our district in Vitebsk who were with their fathers in Lubavitch in their youth and heard and reviewed Chassidus and occasionally learned, but their devotion to religion ceased and they cooled off but the taste of Chassidus still remains with them. They put on t’fillin, keep Shabbos to the extent they can … but this visit inspired them, shook them up. The first time I spoke, on Sunday (so they say), they “lost it” completely, they cried hysterically, and said the SheHechiyanu blessings with tears of joy and sorrow.

The maamer was able to affect even those who were not in Lubavitch; however, on those [who were in Lubavitch] even more … How much they understood of the Chassidus I don’t know, but they spoke about it amongst themselves. They are in America for twenty years already and speak a very good English. They repeated the content of what was said in English to those who knew nothing (aside from what they saw).

Present were also reporters from English language newspapers, one a Jew and one a Christian. The latter did not understand what the Rebbe said in Yiddish but the entire scene made a good impression on him.

The Rebbe quickly wrote up the maamer, working on it that night for two hours, and in the days that followed he devoted additional time to completing it. Nineteen years later, the Rebbe published it as per the instructions of the Rebbe Rayatz in a kuntres (booklet) that was published for 10-13 Shevat 5709 and was reprinted in the Seifer HaMaamarim 5709, p. 34.

A FARBRENGEN WITHOUT MASHKE

In a letter to his wife, the Rebbe wrote about the many things he did on Tuesday, 11 Adar. From nine in the morning until one in the afternoon there was yechidus and receiving of panim.

From 1:00 until 1:45 there was a special yechidus with Rabbi Yehuda Leib Twersky, the Horensteipel Rebbe, a descendent of the Mitteler Rebbe. Rabbi Twersky visited the Rebbe in Chicago, was present for the welcome at the train station in Milwaukee, was with the Rebbe in the shul, and then had yechidus.

From two until four – lunch, resting, and Mincha.

Between four and eight – there were yechidus and the receiving of panim and Maariv.

Between eight and nine, a break to continue writing the maamer.

From nine until ten – yechidus and the receiving of panim.

Between ten and twelve – a special meeting that was actually a farbrengen in the Anshei Lubavitch shul that was attended by about a hundred Chassidim and distinguished people from the Jewish community including about twenty of Chassidic origin. There was also a large group of women who listened from the women’s section.

The tables were set with soda and lemonade and no mashke at all. At the beginning of the farbrengen the Rebbe explained about the difference between Torah and t’filla. The Rebbe spoke in Yiddish in a way that even a child could understand and then he launched into an inspiring sicha in a Lubavitcher style. The Rebbe described it in a letter to his wife:

… an inspiring sicha “like at home,” the crowd warmed up a bit. Out of the two hours that I farbrenged, I spoke for about an hour in four installments… It penetrated to their core, both men and women were moved … I spoke about Jewish communities in America not thinking about themselves. They leave “children of stone” after them. None of them think about the chinuch of children that they become like Jews in the Old Country. Rather, each one gives money to found orphanages, for old age homes, for shuls, and they write on it their names, i.e. they engrave their names in stone as an everlasting memorial, “a child of stone.” I spoke about it at length with the appropriate terms with colorful true to life descriptions.

On Wednesday, the last day of the visit, the Rebbe addressed many Jews who came to listen to him. On that day there was a meeting of Chassidim and Jews of Milwaukee about maamad (monetary support for the Rebbe’s household).

LETTERS OF INSPIRATION

The Rebbe returned to Chicago on Wednesday evening, even as the impact of the visit continued to reverberate. A week later, on Wednesday, 19 Adar, some Jews in Milwaukee felt a great desire to see the Rebbe and so they went to Chicago to see him and gave him special regards from the Jews of their city.

In the days following the trip, the Rebbe wrote special letters of inspiration to some of the Jews of Milwaukee and one of them was sent to “Reb Chaim Eliezer,” to whom the Rebbe wrote that their community could do a lot to strengthen Judaism in general and Chassidus in particular, particularly as they had amongst them “men of stature.”

On a practical note, the Rebbe explains that Chabad Chassidim were always mekarev those who davened in shuls and gave them shiurim in Chassidus in a style suitable to them on their level on topics of avoda, i.e. t’filla and correction of middos. Similarly, it was always the custom to exert influence on the youth in order to introduce within them a glimmer of light.

The Rebbe expresses special nachas in his letter regarding the spiritual arousal in response to what he said during the meeting in the Lubavitch shul:

I was pleased to see an inner arousal, an inner feeling, an inner enthusiasm, albeit covered in the dust of the flow of life, wrapped in a mantle of worries but it peeks through the cracks and it is easy, with Hashem’s help, to arouse it and to bring it from concealment out into the open.

The Rebbe concludes the letter:

The group of Anash in your city is worthy of channeling the blessing of G-d to found a group of people who study Chassidus at set times according to the conditions of the place and to agitate for the establishment of a shiur in Gemara amongst the balabatim. And the learning, whether of Chassidus or Gemara, should take place in the shul of their choice.

Sources: The article is based on Toldos Chabad in the US, edited by Rabbi Sholom Ber Levin; letters of the Rebbe Rayatz to his wife that were published for the first time by Rabbi Sholom Yaakov Chazan in “Beis Moshiach.” Seifer HaMaamarim 5709, Igros Kodesh Admur Rayatz, Sichos Admur Rayatz, Toldos Chabad in Soviet Russia, Yiras Hashem Otzaro, etc.

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