THE SECRET TO SUCCESS: TURNING SUPPORTERS INTO SHLUCHIM
November 21, 2018
Nosson Avrohom in #1142, France, Shlichus

It has been seventeen years since Rabbi Shalom Dovber Amram and his wife Bruria began their outreach activities in the picturesque French town of S.-Brice-sous-Forêt. They came to this quiet and sleepy little community, whose Jewish community has doubled in size since their arrival. Once the Chabad House was established, the activities grew and intensified manifold. What is their secret? They transform those newly involved in Chabad into ‘activists’ and even ‘shluchim’ in the service of the king.

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry

This is the seventeenth year of activities for the shliach Rabbi Shalom Dovber Amram and his wife Bruria in the picturesque French town of S.-Brice-sous-Forêt. The town is a kind of commune with fourteen thousand residents, located in the northern suburbs of Paris, about ten miles outside the city limits. The proximity of S.-Brice-sous-Forêt to the city of Sarcelles, where a large Jewish community lives, has led to the growth of a respectable Jewish community of its own, numbering several hundred families. For his part, within a few years after his arrival, Rabbi Amram created a virtual Jewish revolution.

Anyone acquainted with Rabbi Amram knows that he is a chassid completely devoted to his shlichus. This interview was conducted by telephone at a late evening hour. Periodically during our conversation, Rabbi Amram had to pause while he went into the house of local residents and put up a mezuzah, leave a pair of tefillin, speak with people about the importance of separating the meat and dairy dishes, or taking all their new dishes to immerse them in the mikveh. In addition, Rabbi Amram is occupied with the final stages of the construction process of a large Chabad House with a front exterior similar to 770.

Rabbi Amram has received great love and appreciation from the local population. Hundreds of residents take part in the Chabad Center’s activities – men, women, and children, and we can see that the Jewish community in this sleepy town has experienced an actual revival. “My strategy in spreading the wellsprings of Chassidus is to make a major investment in the town’s young people, nurturing them to nurture others. Youngsters who only a few years earlier had been totally secular and unaffiliated are today assisting in the shlichus work, thereby doubling its manpower strength, conducting the same activities with others that had been done so effectively with them.”

FROM A SLEEPY TOWN TO A FORWARD THRUST

Rabbi Shalom Dovber Amram was born into a home of shlichus. His father is Rabbi Daniel Amram, one of the Rebbe’s shluchim in Lyon.

During his childhood, he received his education in Chabad learning institutions in Paris and Aubervilliers. As a bachur, he was a student in the Chabad yeshivos in Brunoy and Morristown. After marrying his wife Bruria, they established their residence in Nachalat Har Chabad, where he learned as an avreich in Rabbi Mendel Wechter’s kollel. Throughout the period of his kollel studies, it was clear to Rabbi Amram and his wife that they were now getting ready to go out on shlichus and prepare another place on the globe for the revelation of the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach.

The Amrams arrived in S.-Brice-sous-Forêt in 5762. “We arrived in a tranquil little town, a small place, totally different from France’s large cities. There are less apartment buildings here and more private homes. During that time, there were two synagogues in operation and about seven hundred Jewish families lived here. Today, seventeen years later, the town has six synagogues, including a Chabad House, and the Jewish community registry shows about fifteen hundred families – more than twice the amount that lived here when we first arrived.”

Those in the know can safely say that the Chabad House has brought a Jewish revolution to the town. From a quiet community whose members were on the level of “every man under his vine and under his fig-tree,” each one to himself, S.-Brice-sous-Forêt now holds a wide range of Jewish activities with many people taking part.

“Our first activity in town was running a summer camp for children of all ages. The response was relatively good, about sixty kids, among them many with whom I have been in contact to this day. Over the years, some of them have even become Lubavitcher chassidim. Each year, more than two hundred children participate in our summer camp.”

The Chabad House’s biggest programs take place during the Chanukah and Purim holidays. Throughout the year there are house visits along with Tefillin and Mezuzah mitzvah campaign activities. “Even before we opened the Chabad House, I was determined to prepare the ground and get to know the local residents. Rather than take bachurim from the yeshiva in Brunoy to help me, I specifically used youngsters who had participated in our summer camps. We’re talking about children from traditional homes and there are even those who were raised completely secular. They operate mitzvah campaign stands and work prior to Jewish holidays as shluchim in every respect… To illustrate this point, t’kias Shofar was blown and public sukkahs were erected this year in ten locations, nine of which were staffed by these young people…”

While you are French natives, what was it that brought you to S.-Brice-sous-Forêt?

“Even while in my youth, it was clear to me that my life was designated for shlichus. When I married my wife, I discovered that she had a similar desire.

“We were privileged to receive a series of three answers from the Rebbe regarding going out on shlichus. In the second reply, the Rebbe writes explicitly on the matter, among other things urging the shliach to build a mikveh. In the third answer we received via ‘Igros Kodesh,’ the Rebbe gave a sharp and clear response that left no room for doubt: I already told him when he was here that he should invest all his strength and energy in education and building the mikveh.

“Within a few weeks, we had packed up our belongings. At first, we lived temporarily in Paris, while we looked for an appropriate place to go on shlichus. The head shliach in Paris, Rabbi Shmuel (Mulle) Azimov, of blessed memory, was most helpful in coming up with several options, even though they didn’t work out in the end.

“The person who eventually directed us to S.-Brice-sous-Forêt was the shliach in Sarcelles, Rabbi Yaakov Bitton, whose dynamic activities in this town had also achieved a great deal of success over the years. I came to the city, spent several Shabbosim there, and I felt that this would make a suitable place for shlichus. After receiving the approval of Rabbis Bitton and Azimov, we moved to S.-Brice. What was most moving and amazing is that during my first meeting with the local Jewish community head, he took me to a large area, very thickly forested at the time. He said that the community had purchased the land specifically for the construction of a mikveh…

“I became very excited; this is exactly what the Rebbe had written to me before I left for shlichus. I literally saw a realization of the Rebbe’s bracha. I asked the community head to have the mikveh built according to the Chabad custom of ‘bor al gabbei bor,’ and he agreed. Construction began within a short period of time and I was personally involved in the process, coming each day to make certain that everything was being done with the utmost halachic stringency. I arranged with the community head that I would cover half the construction costs. Then, as often happens when holy projects begin to move forward, the opposing forces fight back. It took the form of a leading rabbinical figure who regularly fought against the construction of Chabad mikvaos.”

With no alternative, Rabbi Amram decided together with the community leader that while the mikveh would not be built according to Chabad standards, he still wanted the mikveh to be as halachically stringent as possible, and therefore, he would continue to oversee the construction. “At the conclusion of this mikveh’s construction, we began building a modest mikveh according to the ruling of the Rebbe Rashab, which serves us today. Now, after seventeen years on our shlichus, we are fulfilling the Rebbe’s will. We are presently in the midst of constructing a large and attractive mikveh in the basement of the Chabad House facility.”

THE CHECKS SUDDENLY ARRIVED

We return now to the early years of shlichus.

During his first year in S.-Brice-sous-Forêt, Rabbi Amram had no plans for building a Chabad House; he did this only after several years had passed. “We moved to S.-Brice-sous-Forêt in 5763, but it was only three years later that we opened an organized place of our own. At the start of our activities, only a very few people came. However, with the passage of time, our presence became known among the townspeople and many Jews found their place with us. The Chabad House’s first location was a store that we rented and renovated. I’ll never forget that at the start of our shlichus in S.-Brice, we didn’t even have the funds necessary to cover our rental expenses. We slowly but surely raised the money and we managed to reach our goal in a most miraculous fashion.”

After signing the rental contract, Rabbi Amram had to raise twenty-five thousand euros, in addition to the monthly rent expense. “Fundraising was never my strong suit (and it still isn’t today!). I invested several days in telephone conversations with friends and acquaintances until we managed to raise five hundred euros, a disappointing amount that wouldn’t go very far. I realized that I had to ask Alm-ghty G-d to lift this burden off my shoulders. I managed to come to an agreement with the landlord on paying this debt in installments. On Yom Kippur, we sold honors and aliyos, and this helped a bit.

“As the month of Kislev approached, I was at my wit’s end. Our money had run out and the landlord was pressuring me to bring him the full amount. He gave me an extension of one day; I was simply beside myself. I had a hundred euros in my pocket, a paltry amount in light of what I needed to pay the landlord. I was deeply troubled and I didn’t know what to do. That night, a friend from Paris called to invite me to a farbrengen in his home. Although I wasn’t really in the mood, I decided to go. On my way there, I remembered that there was a Jewish restaurant owner living in the area with whom I had previously been in contact. I hadn’t visited him for some time and I decided to stop by and see him. My plan was to say hello, speak with him a little about the weekly Torah portion, and then head to my friend’s house.

“He was very happy to see me, and before we parted from one another, he said that he had decided some time ago to assist us in our activities and he proceeded to write a check for a very generous donation. This man had never helped us financially in the past, and before I had a chance to grasp what was happening, he asked me to wait a few minutes. He then called his brother-in-law to ask if he too wanted to contribute to our Chabad House. He got his permission to write another check for a very sizable amount.

“However, that’s not the end of the story, as he later gave another check on behalf of his father-in-law.

“Thus, the wonders and miracles continued. The large sum of money that I received that night from the restaurant owner covered the entire outstanding debt. This is one example among many of the salvations we see here.”

GATHERING THE SOULS

Within a brief period of time, the Chabad House became a virtual magnet for local Jewish residents. On Shabbos and weekdays, the seats in the synagogues are filled and many Jews have begun to get closer to Torah and mitzvos through the teachings of Chassidus. “Many silk kapotes and full-fledged Lubavitcher families have come forth from our Chabad House, each one a story unto itself,” says Rabbi Amram. “A Jew came to us who said that doctors had revealed that his daughter was suffering from a terminal illness. Since his wife had learned in Chabad institutions as a girl, she remembered that you can write to the Rebbe and ask for a bracha.

“This Jew, a real estate agent by profession, came to me with a sad and crestfallen expression. We wrote to the Rebbe together and received his blessing. They made good Torah resolutions, and the entire family even flew to 770. Since then, it can be said that they have become an integral part of the Chabad House family. They got closer to Yiddishkait every day until they became Chabad chassidim. Recently, this family immigrated to Eretz HaKodesh and their daughter miraculously recovered.”

According to Rabbi Amram, the Chabad House not only has a positive influence upon those who are not Torah observant, but also on those who learned in Sephardic and Litvishe yeshivos and have discovered the light of Chassidus. “We have in our Chabad House a young Litvishe avreich, a big Torah scholar. He started coming closer to Chassidus when he was still in Paris, and when he came to us he became part of the community. His whole family began to take on Chabad customs. On one occasion, he shared with me how amazed he is at himself, getting closer to Chabad, in light of the hostile education he had received towards anything that even smelled of Chabad and Chassidus.”

Rabbi Amram says that this avreich today serves as his “right-hand man,” and he even sends him to other shuls, where he gives over concepts from the Rebbe’s sichos to local worshippers.

As a shliach who is constantly busy with his shlichus responsibilities, Rabbi Amram tells us stories of Divine Providence that occur virtually on a daily basis. “There is little assimilation in our town relative to other cities in France,” he says. “As I mentioned earlier, I bring young people who got closer to Yiddishkait through our activities to participate in our shlichus work. I invest much time and effort in these youngsters, whether through farbrengens, private conversations, Shabbos meals, summer camps, and more. After they are deeply involved in these matters, I give them direction towards assisting in our Chabad House activities, thereby strengthening their overall Chabad experience.

“The following story took place about seven years ago.

“At the height of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, we sent several teams to various locations throughout the city to give Jews the opportunity of hearing t’kias Shofar. As is the case every year, they went from place to place until sundown. During their activities, they noticed one house with a mezuzah on the doorpost, and they knocked on the door. A young boy answered the door and they immediately asked him if his family had heard the blowing of the shofar. ‘We aren’t religious,’ the boy replied. ‘Are you Jewish?’ they asked him. ‘My father isn’t, but my mother is,’ he said, and they asked him to call his mother and brother. Within a few minutes, they were all present and had the privilege of hearing t’kias Shofar.

“As they left the house, these young shluchim looked for the mezuzah they had seen when they entered only a few minutes earlier, but they found nothing. It turned out that what they had seen was a decorative ornament having nothing to do with a mezuzah… In any case, this family, the mother and her two children, established a strong connection with us after Rosh Hashanah. The boys come to learn at the Chabad House, and this time a stringently kosher mezuzah was affixed to the front doorpost of their house.”

Rabbi Amram has numerous such examples, and he shares another one with us from Chanukah six years ago. “During our activities giving out menorahs and candles at the homes of Jewish families, I noticed one neighborhood house with a sign on the entrance bearing the words ‘The Kadosh Family.’ Clearly, this was a Jewish home, and while there was a symbol of the Christian holidays standing in the front yard, I went over to knock on the door. A couple came out, and I soon realized that the husband was a Gentile while his wife was a Jew from Eretz Yisroel. A truly sad reality.

“Since the man did not understand Hebrew, I spoke with him in French about the significance to this family name, the holiness of the Jewish People, and how it is different from the other nations of the world. As we were then celebrating the holiday of Chanukah, I connected this idea with the oil of the menorah, which floats separately on top no matter how much people try to mix it. The woman reacted coolly, albeit politely. Before continuing on our way, I asked her if she knew of any other Jews in the area, and she sent me to the home of her mother and brother. They had emigrated from Eretz Yisroel and settled in town. I went straight to their house, where they welcomed me most warmly. I spoke with the family about the meaning of Chanukah, and since then they have become quite close to Chabad activities, even spending this past Sukkos with us. Their children now learn in our Talmud Torah and get stronger in their observance of Jewish tradition – all in the merit of that nameplate on the door that caused me to go in and check.”

THE FUTURE REPLICA OF 770

During the coming year, the Chabad House will undergo a major expansion. The current location is already far too crowded to hold all those coming through its gates, and Rabbi Amram and his staff began the construction of a more spacious facility befitting its name – a four-story building with an attractive mikveh to be built in its basement. “When we opened the Chabad House, we had difficulty getting a minyan together,” recalled Rabbi Amram in a voice filled with nostalgia. “While people had heard about Chabad, they didn’t know us well. Over the years, we expanded our synagogue several times, and we soon became convinced that this would not be enough. We decided to build.

“Today, about one hundred and twenty Jews come and daven at the Chabad House each Shabbos. I spent a lengthy amount of time looking for an appropriate place until I eventually found the place where the Chabad House presently exists. Our initial plans were simply to renovate what we already had. However, after looking into the matter, we decided to demolish the old building and construct a larger, more suitable facility, capable of housing a synagogue, a Chabad House, and an events’ hall. As the project got underway, I wasn’t thinking about building a mikveh; I had completely forgotten that this had been the Rebbe’s request even before we went out on shlichus.

“One Friday last year, after I had already agreed on all construction matters with the architect and the engineer, a Jew rushed into my office to show me a letter he had just received from the Rebbe in ‘Igros Kodesh.’ In this letter, the Rebbe writes about a Chabad institution that bought a large parcel of land for building a Chabad House, and the Rebbe says that he doesn’t understand why no one thought about building a mikveh there… I saw this as a clear sign from Heaven, a reminder from the Rebbe.

“I quickly called the architect and asked him to add a mikveh. Since he was Jewish, he was rather surprised by my telephone call just before Shabbos. Nevertheless, he promised to change the plans as soon as Shabbos ended. On Sunday, he came to show me a new sketch, in which he managed to make room for the mikveh by reducing the amount of area available for the Chabad House and the synagogue. I would not agree to this. ‘In Chabad,’ I made clear to him, ‘we expand; we don’t make limitations. Building the mikveh is an addition and does not come in place of something that already exists.’ He was very surprised and asked, ‘Do you have money for all this?’ Experienced in praying for miracles, I replied that I had no money for anything…

“At the end, we decided that the mikveh would be built in the basement of the new building, resulting in the addition of another floor. The mikveh construction process created its own share of obstacles and pitfalls, as the spiritual forces of impurity tried to sabotage this holy project. The ground was sandy, and it was necessary to build doubly strong foundations and add numerous construction elements, thereby making things far more expensive. There were those who pressured me to relent on this point, but I knew that this was what the Rebbe wanted, and with G-d’s help, the mikveh has already been built.”

Where do you get the money for all this?

“That’s a good question for which I have no answer… In all matters connected with the cost of this construction project, we have seen miracles and wonders at every step. I recall that in the early days there wasn’t a single bank that would agree to give us a loan, and all my bank loan applications remained unanswered.

“Eventually, there was one banker who agreed to look into our request. The main difficulty was that the Chabad House is not a business that can show monthly profits, and therefore, the banks were hesitant to grant us a loan. However, this particular banker did agree to consider the matter and promised to update me with an answer via e-mail. I checked my electronic inbox each day to see if he had replied.

“One morning, I received notification that the bank had approved the loan. I was very happy and pleased. Then, suddenly, I received a message from Rabbi Azimov: ‘Mazel tov.’ I was stunned. I hadn’t had an opportunity to tell anyone yet. How did he know?

“I called him, but he didn’t understand what loan I was talking about… It turned out that he had been in the ‘Beit Lubavitch’ Synagogue in Paris, where a raffle was held for an airline ticket to Beis Chayeinu. He heard that I had won the raffle, and therefore, he was offering me his congratulations. I was in shock. I felt that the Rebbe appreciated my work and was inviting me to come and see him. Incredibly, just a few months later, as the construction workers completed the process of demolishing the old building, I was informed that I had once again won a ticket to 770. It was this that led to my decision to build the facility with its facade similar to 770.”

GEULA IN S.-BRICE-SUS-FORET

We are conducting this interview during the week of the International Shluchim Conference. We all recall the Rebbe’s sicha during the 5752 conference about how the only remaining shlichus is to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu. How do you implement these instructions in S.-Brice-sous-Forêt?

“In our Chabad House, we bring and present the whole concept of ‘Rebbe’ and ‘Moshiach’ quite simply before our friends and supporters. We don’t do anything to arouse opposition within anyone. Jews come to write and connect to the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach. Naturally, we proclaim ‘Yechi Adoneinu’ after every tefilla and all those participating accept this in the simplest terms.

“A few years ago, several avreichim came to us who had not gotten along with the rabbi of the synagogue where they used to pray. As a result, I was worried that they might bring discord and strife, and I asked Rabbi Mulle Azimov how I should act.

“My greatest concern was that while we were learning Chassidus and ‘D’var Malchus’, they were studying Gemara at the other end of the shul. Rabbi Azimov asked me if they were disturbing our Chassidus studies. When I replied in the negative, he advised me not to pay any attention to it. Today, this group learns Chassidus and participates regularly in the Chassidus classes.

“We must make certain that the message about Moshiach and Redemption is conveyed ‘b’ofen ha’miskabel,’ i.e., proclaiming ‘Yechi Adoneinu’ while demonstrating a willingness to explain and respond to questions.

“There’s one Litvishe member of our community who asked a lot of questions during the initial period after our arrival. He neither yelled nor acted defiantly, rather he asked to know and learn. When I saw this, I sat with him and we learned about Moshiach and the Redemption together and how everything was in full accordance with halacha. At first, he listened, but he didn’t accept it. About two weeks later, he came over to me and said, ‘I thought about it, looked into the matter, and you’re right – the Lubavitcher Rebbe is Melech HaMoshiach.’ Since then, a Shabbos doesn’t go by without his learning Chassidus, and recently he even managed to bring his brother, a student at the Mir yeshiva in Yerushalayim, to learn Chassidus as well.”

You are now building a new and most impressive facility. Together with this project, do you have any plans for the future?

“From my standpoint, the most important and urgent thing now is to complete our current building project. I invest days and nights of my time on its completion. Another program we have advanced is the ‘Talmud Torah.’ We initiated this program a year ago with two children, and today, about thirty children participate! We’re talking about youngsters who learn in state-run schools, however, on Sundays, they come to us to learn about Judaism. I can tell you quite happily that all the children from last year have transferred to learn in Jewish day schools, as most of the children learning with us this year are new students. I tell parents that my plan is to close the ‘Talmud Torah’ as soon as all the children in the city are learning in Jewish schools.”

THE REBBE’S LETTER CHANGED THE WHOLE PICTURE

The Jews of S.-Brice-sous-Forêt know that they can come into the Chabad House at any time to write a letter to the Rebbe and receive his advice in all matters, large and small. Rabbi Amram has numerous miracle stories in connection with asking the Rebbe via “Igros Kodesh”:

“Several years ago, there was a new housing project in the city, and several Jewish families arrived from out of town to take up residence in these new units. The first opportunity I had to do ‘mivtzaim’ with them was during the Sukkos holiday that year. I came to the homes where Jews were living and gave them the privilege of making a bracha on the Daled Minim.

“One house I visited was particularly noisy. The entire extended family was staying there, and it was an excellent opportunity for us to give numerous Jews the chance to fulfill the mitzvos of that holiday season. They were all sitting together for a meal and I used this event as my platform. I hesitated as I thought whether to give them a d’var Torah or tell them a story, and I finally decided to tell a miracle story in connection with writing to the Rebbe via ‘Igros Kodesh.’ When I finished and started walking towards the door to leave, one of the women came over to me and asked if she could speak to me privately. She said that she and her husband had been married for several years already, but they still didn’t have any children, and she wanted to ask the Rebbe for his blessing.

“While I did have a volume of ‘Igros Kodesh’ in my case, I preferred to send her to the shliach in the section of Paris where she lived, and he would help her write her letter. However, she would not relent and after she pressured me, I consented. If a Jewish woman wants to write a letter to the Rebbe, who am I to prevent her from doing so? The answer she received was simply amazing! The Rebbe writes to a woman about the need to change her doctor. She was stunned by this clear answer and we each went our separate ways. Two months later, after I had forgotten about the whole matter, my phone rang while I was in the middle of a Torah class.

“When I opened my phone after the class, there was a message waiting for me in my voice mailbox from this woman, asking me to write another letter to the Rebbe on her behalf. I did as she requested, and the answer she received was for a woman who had asked the Rebbe where to send her child – to a yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel or overseas. In a lengthy correspondence, the Rebbe listed all the unique qualities of Eretz Yisroel and of the yeshivos in the diaspora, and he eventually recommended to this woman that she send her son to learn in America.

“While I didn’t know how this answer pertained to her situation, this was the answer she received and I called her to read it to her over the phone, word for word.

“I didn’t understand why as I heard her voice on the line, it was choking with emotion. After she calmed down a little, she told me that she had been having a hard time choosing between two doctors, one of whom worked for an American hospital in Paris. Clearly, after receiving such an answer from the Rebbe she chose this doctor. Since then, I hadn’t heard anything from her. Then, this past Sukkos, after I met one of her family members by Divine Providence in one of the local synagogues, I asked to know how she was.

“He looked at me with his eyes opened wide in surprise. ‘What? She didn’t tell you?’ When I said no, he continued with great excitement: ‘Last week she gave birth to twins and tomorrow morning they will each have their bris here in the synagogue.’ I was overjoyed, and the next day I attended a very moving double circumcision ceremony. Everyone knew in whose merit these two infants had entered the world…

“One detail that moved me personally was the manner in which this family showed its thanks and appreciation to the Rebbe. One of the twins received the name ‘Menachem Mendel.’”

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