Roll Calls and Life's Calling

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For most of our history, the expression “roll call” did not have positive connotations for the Jewish people.  Daily roll call during the Holocaust, for example, meant standing still, possibly for hours, and wearing a thin uniform, often in freezing conditions.   Today, there are two annual roll calls that I try to listen to and they both literally give me goose bumps as they exhibit just how far our people have come.


AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference attracts thousands of pro-Israel activists.  Attending a conference for a few days with such diverse people united by their passion for a strong US-Israel relationship is nothing short of exhilarating.  By far, the peak of the annual experience is the roll call at the gala event on the final evening of the conference.  The names of all Senators, Congressmen, Ambassadors, and members of the Administration in attendance are proclaimed loudly as those gathered cheer on these dignitaries’ support of Israel.  It is said that AIPAC’s policy conference is the largest gathering of members of Congress each year, other than the State of the Union.


The magnitude of support reflects the tireless work of AIPAC advocates and our capacity to truly influence policy towards Israel.  That influence may be more necessary now than ever.  As the international community seems poised to strike a deal with Iran that would ease sanctions, Iranian State Television took the opportunity to broadcast a simulated strike against Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is emphatic that this is a historically bad deal with potentially catastrophic consequences.   Now is when loyal Israel activists will need to use all of our influence to encourage Congress not to accept a sanctions reduction, but instead to turn up the pressure in an effort to persuade Iran to cease its path to nuclear weapons.


The second roll call may be even more impressive than the first.  Every year Chabad Shluchim (emissaries) gather from around the world for a conference.  It, too, culminates with a banquet and a Shluchim roll call welcoming the emissaries from all corners of the globe.  While I have not yet had the privilege of attending this dinner in person, I make an effort to watch it online each year and to listen to the often far and exotic locations where the 4,500 Chabad Shluchim faithfully serve.


I was incredibly inspired and moved this week by a meeting with Rabbi Yisroel Hahn.  Rabbi Hahn not only has close connections to our community, but also has become a dear friend and colleague.  A few years ago, he and his family moved to Spokane, Washington, to create the Chabad of Spokane.  I remember asking him then why he chose Spokane and being blown away by his reply.  He explained that there is a waiting list to go out and open a new Chabad house.  One jumps at the first opportunity given to him without hesitating or asking questions.


Rabbi Hahn shared with me the incredible progress he has made in the short time that he is there, including creating a Shul with a beautiful Adult Education Program, starting a small pre-school and building a Mikvah, since the closest one otherwise would be hours and hours away.   Hearing of the remarkable accomplishments, I asked him, how many Jews are there in Spokane?  His response was shocking.  There are 1,000–1,200 Jews.  Not 1,000 families, but 1,000 Jews.  I was flabbergasted and asked, why in the world would he be exerting such effort and making such extraordinary personal sacrifices to be in a place with a whopping total of 1,000 Jews?


His answer touched me in a way that I will not soon forget.  He explained that when the opportunity came up to go to Spokane, he recognized it as his mission in life.  Life is not about serving our happiness, our pleasure or ourselves.  Life, he quoted the Rebbe as teaching, is about identifying our mission and our purpose and pursuing them with everything we’ve got.


To be clear, taking one’s observant family to Spokane Washington for a few years is a tremendous act of mesirus nefesh, selflessness.  Moving there permanently is an act of literal self-sacrifice, sacrificing one’s pursuit of his lowly self in order to perform a mission and actualize a higher self.  You see, when a Chabad emissary accepts a shelichus, a mission, they buy a one-way ticket to their new destination because they are there for good.  It makes no difference that there is no Kosher food available, or that their children have to be home-schooled to get a Jewish education, or that there is often no mikvah, no eruv, and only a handful of other shomer Shabbos people.  It doesn’t deter them that there is no endowment, or consistent membership dues, and that if they are going to keep the lights on it is up to them to raise the funds to do so.


The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, had a vision that has changed the Jewish world.  Go almost anywhere in the world on business, vacation, or to live and you will find a Chabad house welcoming you and providing for your Jewish needs.  He created an army that works together across the world to spread the light of Torah and to extend a loving hand to Jews no matter where they are found.


Rabbi Hahn explained to me that the Rebbe believed in sending a shliach to any place that has even one Jewish resident.  At first I thought this to be  inefficient, but after further consideration I realized, would we not go anywhere in the world to show love and concern for even one of our children no matter where he or she may be found?  To the Rebbe and to his loyal Chabad shluchim, every Jew is a precious child deserving of mesirus nefesh, selfless dedication and devotion.


After trying to absorb some of Rabbi Hahn’s excitement, enthusiasm, and fervor I asked him – where do you think you got this commitment from?  Who imbued you with the willingness to negate your self-interests in order to pursue a sense of mission?  He thought for a moment and while he couldn’t identify a particular person, it was clear, he said, that it is the result of the culture and philosophy of Chabad, communicated through word and example, and celebrated at every opportunity.


As I sat across from Rabbi Hahn, he, the leader of a community with a maximum potential of 1,000 people and me, the Rabbi of a Shul with over 700 families and 1,000 children alone, I felt terribly small and insignificant.  Rabbinic greatness is not measured by the size of one’s membership list, the expanse of one’s campus, or the scale of one’s budget.   It is defined by the calling towards selfless dedication and the noble devotion to serve God’s children faithfully, wherever they may be.


To me, producing generations of followers, eager to suffer mesirus nefesh in order to answer a divine calling, is the Rebbe’s greatest achievement and legacy.  Such devotion is unparalleled in Rabbinic circles among any other denomination or any other segment of orthodoxy.  The 4,500 Chabad shluchim are the unsung heroes of our people: manning positions and strongholds in places we may visit, but we would unlikely ever be willing to live.  They sacrifice greatly in order to show love and be a resource for Jews, no matter where they may be.


As our ancestors stood at the roll calls of their oppressors, they never could have imagined what roll calls mean to us today.  The roll calls at AIPAC and the Shluchim Conference, display strength and influence in the physical and spiritual realms alike.  Let’s not take either for granted, and instead let’s continue to show steadfast support to both so that we can benefit from their impact on Am Yisroel and Eretz Yisroel, values that matter so much to us all.