September 21, 2019

Poway and the Power of Chabad

Screenshot from Twitter.

With anti-Semitism on the rise, the deadly shooting at the synagogue in Poway last Shabbat had a tragic familiarity. Here we go again: Six months ago we had Pittsburgh, now it’s Poway. What’s next?

It’s even worse in Europe, and especially in France, where the cliché “you can walk the streets as long as you don’t wear a yarmulke” is now well established.

But every time I hear that warning, a question puzzles me: What about Chabad? They don’t wear just yarmulkes — they wear complete Chassidic garb that screams Jewish, and they’re certainly not afraid to walk the streets of the hundred or so countries in which they practice the art of Jewish outreach. Doesn’t that blatant visibility make them the choice targets for Jew-haters everywhere?

One would think.

Here you have thousands of obviously Jewish emissaries operating in sometimes dangerous neighborhoods around the world, and, somehow, the haters seem to leave them alone. What gives? Of course, it’s not as if Chabad has been immune from the poison of terrorism — let’s not forget the horrible attack in Mumbai in 2008 and a recent assault in Nigeria.

But relative to its immense visibility, attacks on Chabad are remarkably rare. How does one explain that? At a time when so many Jews feel under siege, how do you explain that Chabad emissaries can be so visibly Jewish and yet so fearless?

At a time when so many Jews feel under siege, how do you explain that Chabad emissaries can be so visibly Jewish and yet so fearless?

In other words, is there something about the “Chabad way” that perhaps disarms aggression?

“The way we combat anti-Semitism is by being happy and proud of who we are and what we represent,” my friend Rabbi Chaim Cunin of Chabad of California told me after the Poway shooting.

Many of us have experienced what Cunin is referring to — a joyful, positive vibe that seems to be wired into every Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin. As Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington, D.C. posted on Facebook: “I don’t believe that there is a Jew alive that hasn’t been impacted in some way by the powerful spiritual energy of Chabad…[They have] an infinite love for all Jews and indeed for all humans.”

This positive energy means you’ll rarely see a Chabad group get angry and lead demonstrations against some form of injustice. They leave that important work to others; their specialty is love.

It is certainly the specialty of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was wounded in the Poway attack and witnessed the killing of synagogue member Lori Gilbert-Kaye.

While paramedics were eager to take him to the hospital after the suspected killer had left the premises and people were still in shock, the rabbi, with a few blown-off fingers bleeding profusely, willed himself to get up and speak words of peace, defiance and unity. He wouldn’t allow the force of darkness to get the last word in his own synagogue.

A day later, with the glare of media cameras on him, he repeated his message that “We need to battle darkness with light.”

It turns out that when Goldstein confronted the shooter, he couldn’t see his eyes. All he saw was darkness. 

At this moment, thousands of emissaries like Goldstein are walking the streets of the planet looking for Jews who may need a Shabbat meal in Nepal, a mezuzah in Denmark, a kosher kitchen in Costa Rica or a Jewish kindergarten in Bakersfield.

“Here is a young man with a rifle, pointing right at me,” he said. “And I look at him. He has sunglasses on. I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his soul. I froze.”

It was as if Goldstein wanted a chance to look the killer in the eyes and see his soul. Who knows what might have happened then? The Chabad way is to believe in miracles.

While so many of us were fuming with outrage at the evil of Jew-haters and making plans to combat that evil, Rabbi Goldstein was telling the world that “a little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.”

In fact, he called for more than a little: “A lot of light will push away a lot more. And the Rebbe (the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, spiritual leader of Chabad) would say we all need to teach everyone, we need to do random acts of kindness, we need to tilt the scale. There’s so much darkness now in the world, but you and I have the ability to change.”

Goldstein doesn’t rely solely on kindness and miracles. He’s savvy enough to institute security training at his synagogue and take other precautionary measures, as all Jewish spaces must do.

But that’s only his starting point. His journey is to spread the light of goodness and kindness through Torah.

At this moment, thousands of emissaries like Goldstein are walking the streets of the planet looking for Jews who may need a Shabbat meal in Nepal, a mezuzah in Denmark, a kosher kitchen in Costa Rica or a Jewish kindergarten in Bakersfield.

Who knows, maybe it really is disarming to see people who are so joyful, loving and giving—and who are utterly unafraid to look so proudly Jewish.