By Larry Gordon
My attitude had always been to look somewhat askance at people who put themselves in the position of being honored at organizational dinners. In fact, I made up my mind a long time ago that if by chance someday some organization would ask us to place ourselves in that position, we would adamantly refuse. And that’s not just me—my wife sees it the same way. That doesn’t say much about having personal policies and not breaking self-imposed rules.
If you read these pages with any regularity, then you saw the photo of my wife, Esta, and me as one of the couples that will be—okay, let’s call it honored at the forthcoming 18th annual dinner of Chabad of the Five Towns. Well, that all seems nice and sweet, but what now?
All I can say is that, other than in this circumstance and at the request of Rebbetzin Chanie and Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, I would not, I hope, accede to such a request. While the shul is about a mile and a half from where I live and I rarely attend services there, all that the Wolowiks represent and dedicate every waking hour to is a belief system that is part of my DNA too. And you cannot deny or wiggle out of your DNA. In other words, perhaps you can run, but you cannot hide.
I’m sure you will agree that Chabad has evolved as one of the premier global movements in the world today. Its reach extends as effectively in its own backyard as it does in the far reaches of the world, and that is far beyond the confines of the Jewish world. So, I suppose, in a sense, when you attach your name to anything that is associated with Chabad, locally or internationally, you are assisting them and perhaps even yourself to continue the global impact they have on so many every day.
My connection goes back to the day I was born and my life as a kid and young adult in Crown Heights. As the years went by, many Jewish families began to pack up and emigrate from Crown Heights, but the Chabad Lubavitch families stayed behind. Up until the year that I married and moved out, the fact of Chabad was just as available to me as the air that I would breathe. Looking back, I guess I can say that the Chabad community, the person of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the oxygen in the air were all things that I just took for granted.
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I was aware that there were Chabad rabbis and families in faraway places doing wonderful and even miraculous things. But I think I just took those things for granted or perhaps did not possess the right intellectual equipment to appreciate what was going on.
I was a kid who would play with my friends on Shabbos afternoon on Kingston Avenue. We would be running around and I can recall at least one instance when we spotted the Rebbe walking down Kingston Avenue on one of those Shabbos afternoons. I remember relating to my father that, you know, I saw the Rebbe walking down Kingston Avenue today all by himself. My father explained to me that the Rebbe was most likely going to visit his mother who lived nearby. But it was puzzling to a kid. What? The Rebbe? Visiting his mother? He has a mother? And so on.
Then people I grew up with—mostly cousins and other extended family members—were getting married and then suddenly being dispatched to faraway places. I could not fathom starting life all over again by being an emissary or shliach of the Rebbe. One moved to Johannesburg; others to Melbourne, London, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and numerous other venues around the globe. The news was interesting and nice as well as exotic but really had nothing to do with me.
So after we were married, that is I to a young lady with no ties to anything to do with Chabad, we moved on and forged a new life together. She was and is creative, attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, has an uncanny insight, and sees and perceives opportunity when it presents itself. She encouraged and went along with some of my crazy ideas like a daily radio show (that still broadcasts today on WFMU 91.1) and, of course, worked alongside me to launch this newspaper through some fairly challenging times.
Almost two decades ago we came out to the Five Towns. My father had passed away a few years before that and we had observed the few yahrzeits in Israel where, if it fell out on a Shabbos, we would daven at the Tzemach Tzedek shul, the Chabad shul in the Old City of Jerusalem.
And then, about 18 years or so ago, we found ourselves scheduled to be home on the day of the yahrzeit. It was a Shabbos, and my brother Binyomin (Ben) and I discussed how to observe the yahrzeit. We wanted to daven Nusach Ari, which features several more recitations of the Kaddish than the other texts that are used in many of the local shuls. So we approached Rabbi Tuvia Teldon who maintained an office in Cedarhurst but spent Shabbosos where he lived and ran his own minyan and shul in Commack in Suffolk County.
Our idea was to put together about 20 people and have our own minyan in Tuvia’s office with a nice kiddush following the services, and that’s what we did. The thing was that we enjoyed it so much that we decided to try to put together a minyan and kiddush every week.
The kiddush was the easy part. There were some Shabbosos—believe it or not—when even with the few young men we imported from Crown Heights for Shabbos, we still could not manage to manufacture a minyan. Some Shabbosos I would join the young men out on Central Avenue at about 10:30 a.m. or later to try to grab a ninth or tenth person for our little minyan. Sometimes we were successful, other times not.
On some of these Shabbosos we would be sitting around waiting for people to show up and speak amongst ourselves saying that this is a crazy idea, that there obviously can’t be a Chabad in the Five Towns, there are too many other shuls, and it was just not doable.
But as you can see we were very wrong, which for once anyway is very encouraging. When we started to comfortably draw 15 or 20 men, we began to think that what this fledgling little minyan needed was a rabbi. No, not just a rabbi, a shliach whose very essence was to carry the Rebbe’s message—not just by word but with action in every aspect and moment of his day and night.
And that describes Chanie and Zalman. Granted that they probably could have done what they do anywhere in the world. And they would have done it effectively and successfully. But fate brought them to the Five Towns, and for 18 years now they have not let up their torrid efforts or let anyone down. There have been challenges—extreme challenges—but we have watched them and have observed that their resolve and determination was only strengthened. They are great at what they do, and we are very fortunate to have them here in the Five Towns with us.
So maybe this will give you a little bit of additional insight into how we became honorees at this year’s dinner. When Rav Zalman was in my office and broached the idea, I told him that he was making a terrible mistake and that we’d be the worst kind of dinner people.
We came up with a list of reasons why this was a bad idea, but then there were at least two reasons that I just could not say no. And those two are Chanie and Zalman Wolowik. Please try to join us on Sunday, November 4. If you would like to attend, call the Chabad office at 516-295-2478. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.