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Chabad emissaries are stepping into communal gaps – for good

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden is a stone’s throw from my house. I pass its gated entrance on my walks along Eastern Parkway several times a week and promise myself to visit soon. But the last time I strolled under its gorgeous cherry trees was two years ago.

It’s a little like the relationship that some of us have with our community: We love knowing it’s there.

People who rarely engaged with Chabad are expressing a need to connect with others and, also, with the deeper, spiritual part of themselves.

Baila Olidort

If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic made us pause long enough to consider the details that fill our canvas. It reminded us that we assume, at our own peril, that the things, the experiences and the people that make up the backdrop to our lives (and indeed, that we ourselves) will be there long enough for us to finally notice and appreciate.

But the cherry blossoms bloom only for two weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the socioeconomic disparities we live with. But it also exposed another big difference, between those who belong to a caring community and those who go it alone. Patients hospitalized with the virus have reported that the prayers, support, and networking by their communities made a critical difference to their recovery. For those who lost loved ones, having community to lean on also meant help with everything from burial to kaddish — true logistical feats in the age of coronavirus.

And those who lack a community have started to seek one out, according to Chabad shluchim — emissaries across the globe. Our shluchim report that this brush with the unknown has caused many reach out to Chabad, some for the first time in their lives. People have been joining online classes, participating in Zoom discussions, and learning how to own mitzvahs — ritual practices.

Some are taking a closer look at the elevating experience of Shabbat and are building their week around it. Knowing that for now, their Chabad rabbi won’t be at their door helping them wrap tefillin, many have finally been emboldened to make it a part of their daily routine.

People who rarely engaged with Chabad are expressing a need to connect with others, and with the deeper, spiritual part of themselves. If before the pandemic they were content to make an annual donation and show up once a year, they now want a more substantive engagement with the community.

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It is true, as one campus rabbi told me, that young people can’t wait to hit the bars again. But right now, they are lining up, virtually, for one-on-one Torah study sessions and deep conversations with their rabbis and rebbetzins.

Is this momentum sustainable? The relationships that many developed these past months with their shluchim over questions of meaning and purpose will likely endure. There’s a new, perceptible appreciation for community, and in particular for the Rebbe’s radical innovation of shlichut. In these uncertain days, the steadying presence of his emissaries — strategically placed to support Jewish life — elicits profound gratitude.

In the meantime, spring has come late this year to Brooklyn where the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. If only the Garden would open.

Baila Olidort is the Editor-in-Chief of Lubavitch International Magazine.

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