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Heaven’s Kitchen

Riki Goldstein

In a hollowed-out basement under a shul in Sydney, Australia, a New York rabbi and his Aussie wife have built a community-run, nondenominational kitchen gathering others to cook for a cause

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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B’ZCHUS NASHIM “If not for my wife’s astonishing generosity and love of chesed, I would be in business or politics,” admits Rabbi Slavin. “She just has this absolute passion to help people and feed them” (Photos: Nadine Saacks)

H ow did a New York rabbinical student with no secular education wind up with a PhD and create one of largest charitable kitchens in Australia? Actually, if you’d asked Rabbi Dr. Dovid Slavin 25 years ago if he could imagine himself one day running a multimillion-dollar food operation Down Under and becoming a recognized academic to boot, he probably wouldn’t have flinched.

“If you want to make G-d laugh, tell Him your plans,” he says today. “I take every day and every challenge and every opportunity as it comes.”

That’s how Rabbi Slavin, together with his wife Laya, wound up transforming the basement of Sydney’s Yeshiva Centre — the Chabad headquarters of New South Wales — into a massive multicultural kitchen that would be used to benefit anyone in the region, Jew and gentile alike.

The idea for creating Our Big Kitchen grew out of the Slavins’ optimistic, chesed-oriented worldview and seemingly endless energy when it comes to helping people in need. And Sydney became the place where they’d make their mark.

Back in 1988, Dovid Slavin’s cousin was getting married in Melbourne, and he and his father traveled to the wedding. “I was a 22-year-old Lubavitcher bochur then, and before we left, my mother gave my father one very strict instruction: Under no circumstances should you listen to any Australian shidduch suggestions,” Rabbi Slavin recounts. “Lo and behold, on our second day in Australia, my cousin approached my father to suggest Laya for me. But he followed instructions.”

It took almost two years before the shidduch was suggested again and Dovid and Laya finally met. They married in Sydney and then went back to New York where Dovid learned in kollel. The following year, in 1992, on a trip to Sydney for the birth of their oldest, job offers began to drift toward the young American.

“I wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe about two jobs I was interested in, plus an offer from Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, head shaliach of New South Wales, about a director position in the Yeshiva Gedola of Sydney, which I was not particularly interested in. The Rebbe responded by wishing me brachah v’hatzlachah in the Yeshiva Gedola position, and ignored the other openings. I followed instructions.”

He’s been executive director of the Yeshiva Gedola Rabbinical College of Sydney ever since, and at the end of 2012 assumed responsibility for the Children’s Cheder as well, bringing the energy and passion of Crown Heights to the laid-back Australian coastal city.

Education is a prime Australian commodity, with students from all over the Pacific Rim attracted to Australian universities. Yeshiva Gedola of Sydney was also drawing bochurim from abroad, but since the yeshivah was not a registered institution, accepting them was problematic. In order to get the institution accredited, its director, Rabbi Slavin, was advised to enroll in university himself. His chinuch in Crown Heights and previous shlichus in Russia did not include any secular studies, but today Rabbi Dr. Slavin has earned a PhD in education and history from the University of Sydney. “Successful Innovation to Preserve Tradition” was the title of his thesis, which examined the educational contribution of Rav Meir Shapiro to the Jewish world. He was drawn to this as it was the world of his own grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Dovid Mintzberg Hy”d, who was mashgiach of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.

“It was a huge learning curve,” he says, noting the challenge of being accepted to a doctoral program with no prior secular academic background.

“It’s a great, happy place to work.” At Our Big Kitchen, everyone helps out, even prison inmates and those sentenced to community service

True, he had never been to college before, but the university took into account his years of nonstop communal action. Rabbi Slavin is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Cancer Institute of New South Wales and co-founding director of Gift of Life Australia, an organization maintaining a register of prospective bone-marrow donors — founded on the sensitivity of his own sister’s successful bone-marrow transplant in 1980, which gave her another 30 years of life. He also serves as chaplain in the Ambulance Service of New South Wales.

Charity Begins at Home

Despite his heavy load of educational achievement and communal activism, it is Our Big Kitchen that has become Rabbi Slavin’s flagship project and demonstrated the true value of unconditional service. And it all started in Laya’s wig salon.

Laya Slavin trained as a sheitelmacher as a newlywed in New York and took the profession back with her to Sydney. While the business angle wasn’t her thing, interacting with clients was. Laya’s wig salon became not only a place for frum women to spruce up their sheitels, but became a draw for cancer patients, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who found encouragement in Laya’s warmth and empathy. When she inquired as to how the patients were managing to get by, the young rebbetzin noticed that their families were invariably struggling with food. Tactfully and discreetly, she offered them the “extras” of the fresh and healthy meals she had cooked for her own family. Laya’s motto became, “A meal doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but it does make life easier to deal with.”

Soon, volunteers were helping to cook and send food from the Slavin kitchen to families in need. When one lady in the community with a large family was unwell for an extended period, Laya Slavin got hold of a commercial kitchen for one day’s use, enlisting a team of women who cooked and packaged tens of meals for this family to freeze and use as needed. “The feeling of achdus and the power it engendered was incredible,” Rabbi Slavin says. “Laya and I realized that we wanted to do this on a big scale. We thought, If only we could build a kitchen of chesed.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 654)

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