“Will You Let A Reform Rabbi Officiate At the Gala Wedding?”
August 16, 2019
Menachem Ziegelboim in #1178, 15 Menachem-Av, Life on Shlichus

That was the question a group of wealthy Jewish donors asked 25-year-old shliach, Rabbi Mottel Kanelsky at a parlor meeting to benefit Bris Avrohom’s Gala

 – PART I –

The phone in Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky’s office in Hillside, New Jersey, rang one day in 5744. That would not have been unusual except that it was Rabbi Chadakov, the Rebbe’s secretary.

“Come here,” said R’ Chadakov, referring, of course, to 770.

R’ Kanelsky immediately understood that such a request was no small matter and he rushed to his car and drove to 770. There, he entered the narrow room at the end of the long corridor on the first floor, R’ Chadakov’s modest office.

“I heard that there are people in New Jersey who are living together without having had a chuppa.”

R’ Kanelsky had not expected that. He realized that R’ Chadakov wanted to talk to him about this but R’ Chadakov was silent.

“Nu?” asked R’ Kanelsky.

But R’ Chadakov did not react; he just repeated, “I heard that there are people in New Jersey who are living together without having had a chuppa.”

R’ Kanelsky understood that the first time, but did not know where R’ Chadakov, who was known to be a well thought out person, was going with this.  When he heard the same line a third time, he realized that R’ Chadakov was quoting the Rebbe. He also realized that this referred to Russian Jews living in New Jersey, being that when they lived in Russia, they had been unable to marry in the Jewish tradition. He understood that the Rebbe was giving him the job to marry them properly according to halacha, since he had founded Bris Avrohom to serve the needs of Russian Jews.

Either way, the days passed without any concrete action.

A few weeks passed and the phone in his office rang with R’ Chadakov on the line again, calling the shliach to urgently come to his office. R’ Kanelsky did not know why, but as an obedient soldier, he went to headquarters immediately.

When he walked into R’ Chadakov’s office, the latter gave him a look and said, “I heard that there are people in New Jersey who are living together without having had a chuppa.” This time, R’ Kanelsky did not ask questions. He knew where this was coming from.

R’ Kanelsky went back to his intensive workload at Bris Avrohom and promised himself to hurry up and take care of this matter. It was an enormous undertaking which required a lot of money. This time too, a thousand and one things that demanded his involvement prevented him from developing any practical plan of action.

 – PART II –

Our story revolves around the phone in the Bris Avrohom office that seemed to never stop ringing. Once again the phone rang and this time, on the line, was a woman who introduced herself as the secretary of a certain businessman who wanted to talk to R’ Kanelsky. She wanted to arrange a convenient time for them to talk.

R’ Kanelsky, who was just on his way to a meeting with the mayor of Jersey City, said he was very busy but would be happy to get back to her. He wrote down the businessman’s phone number and promised to call back.

On the highway on his way to his meeting, he heard the news announcer mention the name of that same businessman whose secretary had just called him. The announcer said that this businessman had announced his donation of $100,000 toward the war on terror. This was enough for R’ Kanelsky to realize that this was a person with serious financial resources. As soon as he returned to his office, he called the businessman.

In their phone conversation, the businessman introduced himself as a Jew whose father had emigrated from Russia to the United States. Recently, he had read in the local paper that Bris Avrohom provided educational activities for Jewish children from Russia who lived in New Jersey. This excited him and he decided to donate $1000 to the Chabad organization.

When a donation comes out of the blue it’s wonderful news and R’ Kanelsky responded with the traditional Jewish blessing, “tizkeh l’mitzvos.”

“What did you say?” asked the man, who did not understand.

R’ Kanelsky explained that Jews don’t say thank you when tzedaka is given; they give the blessing “tizkeh l’mitzvos,” that there should be the ability to continue and help again.

“One minute,” said the man. “I give you a donation and instead of saying thank you, you try to give me a lesson in Judaism?”

R’ Kanelsky repeated his explanation and said that he conducts himself according to Jewish values even when there is money involved.

An enthusiastic cry could be heard from the other end of the line.  “Rabbi, I love it! I’m going to give you an additional $1000.”

Tizkeh l’mitzvos,” said R’ Kanelsky again.

From there, it did not take long for an actual meeting between the Rebbe’s shliach and the businessman. It took place in the man’s fancy office and the man related an old dream he had had, to arrange a wedding for Jewish couples who left Russia that would include a big affair and a chuppa. He was looking for someone to arrange an event like this.

R’ Kanelsky was speechless. He felt as though the Rebbe had sent him this man in order to push him toward carrying out his order about arranging chuppa and kiddushin, an order that he had yet to carry out, whether due to busyness or lack of money or any other reason.

He told the man about what the Rebbe had said about this and that he was ready to do anything to get as many Russian couples as possible under the chuppa.

“If I have a dream like this and you have a dream like this, we have a deal,” said R’ Kanelsky, and they shook hands.

The preparations for the grand weddings began. It wasn’t a wedding for one couple but for about twenty couples simultaneously. It involved complex logistics because twenty couples needed to be prepared for a Jewish marriage and they needed twenty rabbis, twenty kesubos, forty kosher witnesses for the chuppa and kiddushin, numerous unterfirers, and more and more.

The businessman decided that the event would take place in an exclusive hotel that was managed by his good friend.

 – PART III –

In the weeks prior to the weddings, the businessman decided to include a group of wealthy Jews in New Jersey so they could help bear the cost of some of the expenses.

An elegant dinner party was scheduled in the man’s home with the participation of R’ Kanelsky. He was supposed to present the plans with all the complex challenges involved. The exquisite dinner was prepared by the best chefs. The businessman knew that to open people’s hearts, you need to set the right atmosphere.

That night, gleaming luxury vehicles began to pull up to the large expanse in front of the man’s house. R’ Kanelsky was surprised to find some of the richest Jews in all of the United States, including members of the Jewish Federation and Joint and other internationally known organizations.

The huge mansion was lit up. All around were furnishings costing an amount that would gladden the heart of any shliach.  The guests sat down around the table and waiters began serving the delicacies. Aged wines were placed on the table and the atmosphere warmed up.

At a certain point, the host got up, tapped on his glass, and asked for the attention of the guests. He introduced R’ Kanelsky and told of his familiarity with the work of Bris Avrohom. He expanded on the idea of having a beautiful wedding event for dozens of Jewish couples.

R’ Kanelsky then got up to speak. He was a young Lubavitcher man who had just turned 25. He wanted to carry out the Rebbe’s shlichus and open the pockets of these super-affluent players.

He presented the participants with the plans and how he envisioned the event unfolding with twenty rabbis conducting twenty wedding ceremonies for twenty couples who had not been previously married according to halacha, to be followed by an elegant celebration. This would certainly make waves all across the Jewish world in New Jersey which would get other couples to want to do the same.

When he finished, some people had questions for him. Rich people don’t open their wallets so fast.

“Will Bris Avrohom hold a wedding or bar mitzva for a Jew who is not circumcised?”

R’ Kanelsky said no; making it clear that bris mila is a precondition.

Eyes turned to the next person with a question.

“Can one of the rabbis from our community, who is not Orthodox, participate by officiating at a wedding?”

A tense silence fell upon the room. The question was explosive. Everyone knew how relations between the various streams of American Jewry had become such a sensitive issue. So much personal pride and emotional sensitivity hung in the balance.

R’ Kanelsky shook his head, no. Then he said, “We cannot allow a rabbi like that, who is not Orthodox, to have a role in this event.”

The crowd shifted uncomfortably on the upholstered chairs and angry murmuring began to be heard.

One man raised his hand and asked, “Are you a Lubavitcher? Is it your Rebbe who screams against Who Is a Jew?”

When R’ Kanelsky said yes, everyone stood up in a fury and left the house as they angrily exclaimed, “Your Rebbe does not recognize the Jewishness of our grandchildren, we want nothing to do with you!”

The host was utterly embarrassed and extremely upset. He had invested so much in these friends and now he faced an empty table. He was boiling mad. The way he saw it, R’ Kanelsky had just torpedoed the whole plan and not only that, but he had shamed him in front of his friends.

“You idiot!” he screamed. “I brought people here for you, each of whom can write a check for $100,000, and you chased them away!”

The situation was extremely uncomfortable. Nevertheless, R’ Kanelsky responded firmly, “I am a Lubavitcher! If the president of Russia, Brezhnev, did not change my father’s views when he was in Russia, then a million dollars won’t change my views. I was born to be a Lubavitcher and I am proud to be a Lubavitcher all my life!”

The host had not expected such a response. He was taken aback and he left the room. The heavy wooden door clicked shut but R’ Kanelsky remained. After a while, he concluded that he would have to drop the idea of having a big event.

He couldn’t help but hear the host talking loudly with his wife. He realized that he must be discussing with her what he should do now with this person who had caused him so much grief in front of his distinguished friends.

Ten minutes later, which seemed like an eternity, the man returned.


“I respect you as a Jew, that you are proud about who you are and are not willing to compromise. I commit to donating $50,000 of my personal money to pay for the weddings,” he said. He removed his checkbook and wrote the first check, for $25,000, quite a sum back then. He promised the other half when the preparations for the weddings would be completed.

 – PART IV –

Sivan 5746/1986. The wedding day had arrived.

Hundreds of Jews, twenty grooms, twenty brides, twenty rabbanim, dozens of unterfirers, and many excited relatives and guests came to this most unusual event. Among the participants were businessmen who were friends of the donor, politicians, senators, and Jewish public figures from every community. The event garnered tremendous coverage with television stations and newspapers sending reporters to cover the event, including the New York Times.

In honor of the event, the Rebbe sent twenty-one letters of bracha, a letter for each of the couples and a general letter in English for the participants at the event in which he explained the significance of a wedding in Sivan. The Rebbe expressed his hopes that the event be a symbol and sign for the entire state of New Jersey.

R’ Kanelsky was honored with reading the Rebbe’s letter, which he did with intense emotion.  Upon concluding the letter, he fainted. It took him three hours to return to the event, with the high point of the evening when he presented an award to the businessman who sponsored the event.

When the crowd began to leave, an older woman approached R’ Kanelsky and said, “Next year, my husband will be celebrating his seventieth birthday. In his honor, I want to pay for another event just like this one.”

R’ Kanelsky was speechless yet again. He saw how the Rebbe was helping him carry out this important shlichus.

Indeed, the following year, 26 couples wed, in a symbolic salute to R’ Kanelsky’s twenty-sixth birthday.

Out of all the many programs, the weddings held by Bris Avrohom every year became the signature activity of the organization.

Whenever R’ Kanelsky brought donors and major contributors for “dollars” on Sunday, the Rebbe asked whether they were connected with the big wedding that the organization makes.

Every year, on the Sunday before the wedding, all the grooms and brides with the unterfirers and donors would go for dollars and the Rebbe would give each one two dollars for bracha and hatzlacha.

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