Herein part 2.
As stated in part 1, our trip, although planned, was somewhat up in the air awaiting various confirmations. As it turned out, Baruch Hashem these came through and we arrived on a Wednesday in Crown Heights, New York, for the first leg. I had never been to crown heights, nor, as I have stated did I ever have a great interest in visiting there. And this, despite the fact that I went to a Chabad School, and daven in Chabad. I’d heard things about the place, but admittedly, I really only listened with one ear, but for me, spending time in Yerusholayim, Ir HaKodesh, was and remains the focus of my heart and mind. Our son, Yossi is currently learning in Israel, and both my wife and I felt that despite our yearning to visit Israel once more, it would be better not to disrupt Yossi’s progress with our ever presence for a few weeks. So, based on my wife’s previous year’s experience, and her suggestion I acceded without rancour to a visit to Crown Heights en route to Montreal, and then our holiday in Miami.
It was difficult to pack because one encountered the cold winter cold of Crown Heights and colder winter of Montreal and then the physical warmth of Miami; a contradiction in weather patterns, it say the least. My wife expertly found us what is known as a ‘basement’ for our lodging. Observing the architecture, it became clear that basements are a regular fixture of narrower houses that invariably are built on an incline. I was reminded of parts of Sydney. Down the steps we went, and into a basement. It was nightfall already, and the flight via Hong Kong had been longer than expected because our Melbourne to Hong Kong leg departed late, and we missed the connecting flight. I did enjoy a few scotches in the Cathay lounge in stuporous compensation. Marc Schachter was also present, and he was a more experienced flier to these regions, providing sound advice. It was impossible to get food into the airport, and while there was the usual sprinkling of OU Nash, that wasn’t exactly what we were after. This also meant there was no Kosher food on the long missed subsequent leg to New York, as they require 48 hours notice. That God, my wife had a few Wurst Sandwiches which we devoured early on the flight. I did contact Chabad close by, but there wasn’t enough time to effect any changes.
Arriving in Crown Heights, New York, the basement was neat and clean and had amenities for those who maintain a fidelity to Halacha. We quickly grabbed a sandwich from a 24 hour place near vt. It was overpriced, but tasty nonetheless and we were hungry. I mentioned to my wife, that despite sleeping on the plane, I had no idea what time I would wake in the morning and hopefully it wouldn’t be too late for a minyan.
As it turned out, I managed to wake in the morning hours at a reasonable time, grabbed my tallis and tefillin and noticed lots of chassidim in the street walking in a particular direction. I followed them and then found myself literally 2 minutes later standing in front of 770. We were obviously very close to 770. I recognised it, ironically, from the 770 facade in Caulfield!
I wasn’t sure what to do. I am not comfortable davening with meshichisten, and I wondered if I would end up in a Shule therein bedraped with signs, people taking dollars from nobody, drinking Kos Shel Brocho from nobody, or pretending to make a pathway for nobody to walk through. These are scenes I don’t want to be ever be connected with. I become aggravated weekly from the unnecessary single sign at the back of Yeshivah in Hotham Street Melbourne which effectively states that there cannot be a Moshiach other than the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. This is a nonsense by any stretch of normative Judaism. There is nobody who can or should state who the Moshiach must be. It isn’t part of our Mesora to do that. I am not going to get into the issue from a learned perspective, but an interested and serious reader would do well to read the work of HaRav HaGaon R’ Yechezkel Sofer in his important Kuntress Yisboraru Veyislabnu, for which he was ridiculed and called R’ Yechezkel Kofer (a disgusting pejorative).
That sign grates on many people, but remains up because the Chassidim who run the Shule in Melbourne, including the clergy, don’t actually follow the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s directives which included the point that if such a thing causes one person not to come in or feel comfortable, then they should be discarded as they are not the essence of Chabad. Those people have their own rules for what is term Hiskashrus and that concept seems to supersede even what their own Rebbe stated clearly and plainly. I will stop there on that topic.
All these thoughts were in my mind as I stood at the doorway, wondering whether I should go in. I knew I’d be able to find another Shule, but my sense of direction is so woeful, I feared walking further. In addition, I had just finished reading the three recent books about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and these had an effect on me. I decided to brave matters and enter.
Opening the door and there was a narrow corridor, and I noticed some people milling about. I recognised Rabbi Shem Tov; he has distinctive eye brows! He was rather self-effacing and pointed to a room and said a minyan would start there in 15 minutes. I searched for a place to put my coat, such that I might find it again and then the door opened and I walked in and readied myself for davening. I noticed that it was an office and that the bookshelves has been sealed. In front of me was a small desk, and it then became obvious that I was in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office, the room where many a famous yechidus/discussion took place. When a few men turned around and briefly eye-balled me, I realised that the Rebbes’s three secretaries were also in this minyan. My mind wandered to the many stories described in the three books (a draft review of which I have had for some time but have not managed to complete) It was a surreal experience finding myself in that very room. Some people strangely were davening just outside the room even though there was space therein. I was to learn later that this was their way of according respect, because they had no “permission” to enter. Not being a Chabad Chasid myself, I didn’t feel uncomfortable davening in the office and entered as I would in any circumstance.
I looked at the chair, and felt some sadness that there was nobody occupying it. At the same time I was made to feel very welcome. There were no shrieks of Yechi here, no emblazoned Yarmulkas, and no yellow lapel badges, all of which continue to annoy me as they are expressions of a false reality. Instead, call it by divine providence, my first encounter was with those who I consider “normal, level-headed” Chassidim who were no less connected to their late Rebbe than the type who feel the need to advertise their views. We are lucky that tattoos are forbidden. If not, I would imagine Hiskashrus would be akin to tattooing the Rebbe on one’s back, forehead, and anywhere else.
Being a Thursday, there was layning. It was also Chanuka. The Gabbay, whose son-in-law is the Rabbi of Central Synagogue in Sydney, is a warm man, and when he called out “is there a Cohen”, I answered in the affirmative. I follow the Psak of Rav Soltoveitchik that these days, it is highly questionable whether one should make a Brocho of Gomel after flying as it happens to be safer than crossing a road (statistically). I am a stubborn type in the sense that I don’t like to deviate from what I have been taught to be clear halacha. Accordingly, I made the Brachos on an open sefer torah (and not closing it as per many including Chabad). The Baal Koreh didn’t interfere, and I respect him for that. I felt a bit cheeky doing so, but it is how I do it naturally. When I finished the second bracha, I decided that I would bench Gomel. When I think back why I did so, I think the primary reason was that it was a tad fortuitous and pre-ordained that I should immediately be in the Rebbe’s Yechidus Room, and I felt that Minhag Hamakom should prevail. I wasn’t consistent, because I used the Brocho of Gomel of Nusach Sfard instead of Chabad, but impressively, not a single person blinked an eye lid or issued any complaint. This seemed to be the type of inclusive environment I was used to as a youth, and although my actions were contradictory, I felt a feeling of “acceptance”. At the conclusion of davening, which was undoubtedly more meaningful for me because I was, where I was, and thereby able to commune more effectively with God, I was asked who I was etc.
I couldn’t really answer in any meaningful way except to say I was a Mechutan of Rabbi Yossy Goldman and Rabbi Shabsy Chaiton, both of whom everyone seemed to know. It probably sounded like I was trying to brandish Yichus, but that wasn’t my intention at all. Isaac Balbin, is a meaningless name, although I was to find out that a few people were readers of my blog and enjoyed it. That’s a bonus, but not the reason I write. Indeed, I am writing now, after visiting my father’s Tziyun at Springvale, and whilst I should be learning more Mishnayos, this post is what I am capable of doing at the minute in my state of mind.
I continued returning to this Minyan later for Mincha etc. It seems it isn’t always available but being Chanuka, I was fortunate. I love the haunting Haneyros Halolu from Chabad, and enjoyed that immensely. Each time I noticed a few more rooms and then it dawned on me that one had to go downstairs to see the “main shule”. I forgot that everything is below ground here!
I didn’t want to go there. I had seen pictures. I had seen the Tzfatim outside, and that atmosphere as opposed to the one where I davened, provided no attraction to me. I didn’t go downstairs.
Shabbos was looming, and Ari Raskin’s aufruf was also to be upstairs, and that was lucky (for me at least). That day is a Parsha in of itself and will be Part 4 of the trip.