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God’s Work

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In particular, Schneerson expanded the Lubavitcher concept of Chabad (a Hebrew acronym for the words wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) to include outreach to all Jews anywhere. The network of Mitzvah Mobiles, roving rabbis, Chabad Houses, and married emissaries called shluchim that he fostered has, since his death, grown even bigger, so that Chabad-Lubavitch, as it is sometimes called, is now the fastest-growing—and most visible—Jewish movement in the world.

The chance to meet Schneerson as a prize for memorizing lengthy rabbinical tracts leaves some boys frozen in terror. Most shuffle quickly by the awesome personage, receiving a dollar from a stack of bills to give to charity, barely lifting their faces. But Gabi stops the line dead to ask a question, and even when the Rebbe answers (“You should have a blessing in everything you need”), he keeps talking. Is the Rebbe amused, surprised beneath his whiskers? In any case, Gabi gets what he came for: a blessing on his family.

The Rebbe speaks in Crown Heights: “Don’t convince yourself that you can live off the fat of the land and reside in these few blocks. Here you have radio and television, fresh milk every day, you can shower twice a day; there is no shortage of kosher milk and kosher bread, and you can serve God here and remain here. Listen! There is a ‘desolate land,’ which is thus far undeveloped spiritually. There are Jews there who don’t even know that they lack anything. You had the unearned privilege to be brought up with Torah and mitzvahs: ‘How lucky we are, how good is our lot.’ Be there for a day, a week, a month, a year, ten years. You won’t have nice clothes and a comfortable home? The Jews in the places you are going also manage without them. Why should you be better? Perhaps they’re better than you. If you have not used your treasures for this, it must bother you. And if you are not pained, then you are lacking in your love of God.”

Rivki Rosenberg’s yeshiva life, like that of most girls, is less about standing out as a scholar or analyzing the brilliant debates of the sages than about candles and purity and making a Jewish home. She is naturally inclined to do good: She helps girls who fall behind in their studies. But she is looking for a challenge. Every summer she can she travels, always within the context of Jewish works. When she attends a wedding—and there are many weddings—she loves to dance, as if to shake off the desire for something she can’t name. At one of these weddings, in 2001, when a cousin of hers marries one of the sons of Nachman Holtzberg, Nachman has a thought. “I see this girl, a very special girl. Maybe now Gabi”—who is in Israel to complete his rabbinical training—“will take the cousin?”

They are each other’s first date. Gabi is not as handsome as Rivki is pretty, but Chabad valorizes the nerd. The boy who in secular society would be the outcast—the most studious, least athletic, shyest around girls—is here the star. It’s he who is asked to go furthest into the world to represent Jewish values. Gabi immediately explains to Rivki the crazy kind of life he is seeking as an emissary. He says, “I want to tell you I’m a special meshuggener. What I need to do, I will do. Are you ready to do?” And she says, “I’m the same way,” as if relieved.

They marry in 2002. She is 22, he 23. In wedding pictures she is ethereal, wisplike, shining; with his sketchy fluff of reddish beard and pink cheeks, he looks boyish, surprised by his good fortune. For the first time, she dons the sheitel—the wig Hasidic women wear in public as a sign of modesty. Friends will soon notice that she always adorns it with a clip of some kind and that she is always fiddling with the clip.

To be an emissary, a man must first have his smicha and his wife. Though he must also be spiritual, that isn’t enough. “You need a certain resourcefulness,” says Yosef Kantor, head of a Chabad House in Bangkok and regional director for the area. “Your head not up in the heavens, but able to function on Earth.”

Gabi is one of the best he’s seen: a brilliant scholar and also, like his father, a shochet and (not unrelatedly) a mohel. But where to place him? Chabad outposts in Boise and Bondi Beach and the suburbs of Paris are not what Gabi is looking for. It is, in a way, a shittach, a matchmaking job. “There’s a certain element of providence,” Kantor says. “You think you can know everything about a prospective partner and hope you’ll find out pleasant things, but the opposite sometimes happens.” Nevertheless, the cleaving of shluchim to their posts, like spouses to a marriage, is taken seriously; it’s not like opening a foreign bank branch. No couple is forced to accept a posting, but once they do, they are expected to hold it for life.


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