Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Rebbe "The Last one to Abandon A Ship is the Captain"

"Your kind tribute to the Lubavitch movement, which I am privileged to head, is a message of encouragement to me and to our members in the USA and abroad. Of course,"

-From a Letter to President George Bush, August 1990

I would like to present a Yechidus of the Rebbe that Rabbi Shabsi Katz who was the Rabbi of Pretoria, the Administrative Capital of the Republic of South Africa, for nearly 40 years. The Yechidus took place in the winter of 1972. Also included is an interesting picture of the Rebbe (Part 84 in the Series).

"The first time we came to visit the Rebbe was in the winter of 1972. The whole scene was new to me, so it was with some degree of uncertainty that I sat outside the Rebbe's office with my husband waiting for our Yechidus ("private audience"). When at last it was our turn, we were told, "Only five minutes." But it was 40 minutes later, well after 2:30 a.m., when we came out. As we entered, the Rebbe stood up partially, and asked us to be seated. We said that we had been told not to sit during the Yechidus.

The Rebbe replied, "I won't tell if you don't tell." The Rebbe waited for me to be seated before sitting back down himself. I suddenly felt completely at ease. My husband had written down the two questions that were causing him concern, and he handed the paper to the Rebbe. The Rebbe looked at it for a brief moment, made a couple of marks with the pencil he was holding, and started to speak.

At that time the Apartheid Laws were very much in place in South Africa , and although we were all against these laws, it was really only the Activists who spoke out against them, often courting trouble for themselves by doing so. My husband's dilemma was whether he should openly oppose Apartheid, and thus his first question was, "Should I, as an Orthodox Rabbi in the Republic of South Africa, speak out against Apartheid?"

The Rebbe began by saying that while he could find absolutely no justification for Apartheid, he wanted to point out that my husband's work in Pretoria was with the Jewish community, and he was well aware of the problems there. "You have assimilation, you have intermarriage, you have drugs," he said. "You have so many problems that weaken your community and its Yiddishkeit."

The Rebbe continued by saying that if you lived in a town and a fire was burning that threatened to destroy all the houses, it would be your obligation to put out the fire in your own house first before going to the aid of others to save their property.

He looked at my husband and said, "There is a fire in your community! You have intermarriage, you have drug abuse, you have a lack of Jewish education. You have so many things that you as the Rabbi have to attend to. Therefore, I say to you, put out the fire in your own house."
We had been living in Pretoria for nearly 20 years. Our children were growing up, and we had often contemplated the necessity of a more Jewish environment. My husband's second question to the Rebbe was whether we should consider emigrating to Israel.

In reply, the Rebbe spoke to my husband about his work with the lay community of Pretoria, the capital city. The Rebbe knew of the government contacts he had built up over the years, and he pointed out how my husband was able to use these contacts to the advantage of fellow Jews. The fact that he knew whom to contact when Jews, within his community or outside, needed assistance, was very important for the whole Jewish community.

The Rebbe spoke to us warmly, as if he had firsthand experience of what was going on in Pretoria, as he pointed out that one has to make sacrifices to be Jewish. He looked at me and said he wanted to tell me something important to me as a Jewish woman and mother. "You know," he said, "what it is to make a sacrifice to be Jewish. You know what it means when your children are invited to a birthday party and they can't eat there. That is a sacrifice for being Jewish. You know what it means when your son wants to play football but he has to go to cheder. That is a sacrifice for being Jewish." That we must remain in Pretoria was quite clear. That my husband must continue the work he had done over the years or was the Rebbe's answer to the question of moving to Israel.

The Rebbe told us, "My experience in the military is the Navy. I learned that the last one to abandon ship is the captain.

"If you moved to Israel, you would be saving yourselves, but abandoning those you leave behind. If you stay in Pretoria and take care of G-d's children, G-d will take care of your children."

The Rebbe mentioned my husband's work as a chaplain at the army's headquarters in Pretoria. He said that in the army, the general must be there to lead, and only if the soldiers were led were they an effective force.

Toward the conclusion of the yechidus the Rebbe asked my husband if he was going to listen to what he had said.

My husband replied, "Rebbe, my experience in the military is in the army. In the army there are generals and there are privates. A private must listen to his general. Rebbe, you are my general. I will do as you say."

Immediately, the Rebbe replied, "Oh no! You mustn't do it because I said so! You must do it out of conviction!"

Good Yom tov.


Copyright © Menachem Kirschenbaum 2007