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Until the Last Yid

Aryeh Ehrlich

It doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of rebbes or Chassidus. In any corner of the world where there are Jews, the Kalover Rebbe will find them. For 35 years, the Rebbe’s chassidim in Williamsburg have been waiting for him to stay put, but the Rebbe has a bigger mission: If there is a Jew anywhere who needs chizuk, he’ll pack his bags and fly off to give it.

Monday, September 02, 2013

It would be hard to imagine a greater study in contrasts than the Sephardic shul onHaTemarim Street in Eilat, where the Kalover Rebbe ofWilliamsburg is speaking with Guy and Zohar, two secular suntanned teenagers who have come for a brachah.

The Rebbe, Rav Moshe Taub shlita (not to be confused with his second cousin Rav Menachem Mendel Taub, the Kaliver Rebbe of Jerusalem) keeps his well-worn suitcase next to him — partially unpacked and spilling over with his tallis, tefillin, and seforim — the piece of luggage accompanying the Rebbe throughout the wanderings of his self-imposed exile of 35 years and 61 countries so far.

On one side of the table is a yellowing sefer. On the other side is a brightly colored cellular device, bursting with the newest must-have apps (turned off for these minutes in deference to the Rebbe). On one side sits an elderly, dignified rebbe who speaks a heavy Hebrew mixed with Yiddish. On the other side sit two boys with piercings in various places, conversing in the language of the street.

What’s this holy rebbe doing in Eilat — that hedonistic bastion of Israeli secularism on the shores of the Red Sea— in the middle of Elul? What could he possibly be looking for that he wouldn’t find ensconced in his shtiebel inWilliamsburg? The answer, in a word: Jews. If there are Jewish people here, then the Rebbe will spread his light.

The chassidim in New York are constantly vying for the Rebbe’s attention, grudgingly sharing their mentor with Jews in Argentina and Chile, Morocco and Tunis — and in 60 other countries the Rebbe visits on a rotating basis. Barely two weeks go by without the Rebbe packing his bags, choosing a gabbai to accompany him, and boarding a plane headed for a destination somewhere in the world, as remote and hostile as it may be. “I will go anywhere there are Jews,” he told me in the course of a rare and inspiring interview.

On this visit (he’s been to Eretz Yisrael seven times in the past year) he spent four days in Eilat and saw about 3,000 people who poured out their troubles, made him promises, and received his blessings.

The Kalover Rebbe has a rule: A person who does not commit to mend his ways will not receive his brachah. Guy and Zohar, neither of whom has ever learned Torah, thought they would simply solicit his blessing, until they found themselves facing a stubborn and demanding rebbe. “I will not leave you alone until you promise me Shabbos, tzitzis, and tefillin,” he declared. Ultimately, they gave in. Was there a choice, sitting in front of this holy man who was gracious enough to share his precious time with them?

It was already 2:00 a.m., the crowds had thinned, and the Rebbe gathered up the large pile of notes. He read the last one to me: “Rebbe, I must succeed on the test and find a job. I am unemployed. I have failed five tests already. I am very depressed.”

I had seen Dani, the writer of the note, when he came in. His haircut was reminiscent of a rooster’s comb; his head had been shaved bald on either side, with an untamed mane running across the center like a narrow bridge. I loaned him my kippah and told him to turn off his smartphone. 

“Look at what our generation is facing,” the Rebbe whispered to me. “This boy’s father is actually traditional — he learns Torah, but the boy is completely immersed in the futilities of This World. He wants a job, but I told him that the key to success is to live a life of kedushah. If he will abandon his frivolities, he will pass the test and find work. If not, then the Zohar HaKadosh already teaches us that a person who does not protect his soul brings poverty on himself.

“There is financial poverty, and there is poverty in wisdom.” The Rebbe sighs. “And then there are people who suffer both.”

A large sign in the entranceway proclaims, “Please do not leave money.” The Rebbe won’t take a penny, even from his most ardent, wealthy supporters, and he funds all his own travel expenses.

So where do all those funds come from? Rabbi Uriel Chafif, an Argentinean-born avreich who serves as the Rebbe’s translator in Spanish-speaking countries, related that once when the Rebbe was visiting Chile, he revealed that while he was still a yungerman being supported by his father-in-law, Rav Levi Yitzchak Klughoft ofLondon, he had once seen a building for sale. “I wanted to buy it,” the Rebbe related at the time, “but I had no money. So what did I do? I went to the bank and asked for a mortgage. The bank manager knew my father-in-law’s family and approved the mortgage for me. I bought the building, and continue to use the profits from that blessed deal to travel throughout the world and bring Jewish people back to their roots.”

Rabbi Chafif said he once raised a more brazen question: “I once asked him, ‘Doesn’t the Rebbe have needs of his own, to take care of his own large family?’ And the Rebbe told me, ‘I have married off my children and given them all that they need. [The mechutanim from his four sons and seven daughters are a who’s who of rebbes fromAmerica and Eretz Yisrael.] Now I must help the children of Hashem.…’ ”

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