Chabad has been a part of my life before birth. You see, when my parents immigrated to America from Israel in the late 1970’s, they were familiar with Chabad’s international efforts. Knowing that when they build a new life for themselves in America, they could find a local Chabad House to connect to the Jewish community and meet other Jewish people in America.
Like many immigrants, my parents arrived in America with a dream for a better life, where they can give back and reach their fullest potentials. My parents wanted their children to have a better life, and at times, that meant sacrificing themselves, to give me and my sister a better life.
What is Chabad? Chabad is a Jewish organization committed to Jewish outreach that strives to connect Jews worldwide through providing communities where Jewish people can study Torah, do mitzvot, pray, celebrate events, and of course drink wine and eat yummy Kosher food. Most likely, you have a Chabad House nearby (you can use the Chabad House search engine, or just Google “Chabad and [Your city]” to find your nearest Chabad).
Chabad is run by the world’s ultimate entrepreneurs. Rabbi’s and Rebbetzin’s are deployed around the world and successfully build and create communities, with little resources and many times from scratch. Like Navy Seals, there is no location too remote or situation too challenging, if there is a community to serve, Chabad is 100% there (Chabad just placed a Rabbi in South Dakota, Rabbi Alperowitz, to serve a tiny community of only 300 Jewish people that live there).
When my parents moved a world away from their families and friends, they gave up the abundant social resources that they had, all in order to give us a better future. Finding Chabad in 1987, was a lighthouse for my parents, who spent the past decade pursuing their Master’s degrees and setting up their family’s foundation. They loved being able to attend services and share holidays with their children and other families where their native Hebrew was not only spoken, but upheld with heart.
Here’s a family photo of us in 1984.
Going to Chabad as a Kid
I was five years old when I first went to Chabad. From elementary school until my Bar Mitzvah, I attended Chabad of Upper Montgomery County in North Potomac, Maryland, run by Rabbi Sholom Raichik and Rebbetzin Chana Raichik.
Some of my best childhood memories are from going to the Raichik’s Chabad House as a kid. The Chabad House was this magical place where my parents always got along, sang songs together, and my family felt like it was perfect for once. The Raichik’s Chabad house was where I also learned that I love chicken. Chabad Houses cook the most amazing chicken. I can still remember when they started and operated out of the basement in their home, and 25+ years later, they are moving into a beautiful, historic farm house.
Little known fact: I was Rabbi Sholom Raichik’s first Bar Mitzvah student at his Chabad House. By now, he’s surely helped hundreds of young men approach their transition to adulthood.
After I graduated from high school, I moved to Indiana for college, and started attending Indiana University’s Chabad House, run by Rabbi Yehoshua and Zlata Chincholker.
At six feet, Rabbi Chincholker, originally from India, was intimidating at first glance, but I quickly discovered that he was the nicest and most caring person that I’ve ever met. I was really lucky to have him in my life too. Since I did not know anyone when I moved to Indiana University, it meant a lot to have Rabbi Yehoshua Chincholker and his wife Rebbetzin Zlata’s Chabad House to go to when I needed to feel at home. They took me under their wing, and I am forever grateful for making me feel like family.
After I graduated from Indiana University, I moved to New York City and started working at Lehman Brothers in 2004. Although I had a couple of cousins in the city, given that NYC had such an immense population, I felt like I was back at square one. I did not really know anyone when I first got here (and now that’s the opposite case, as 12+ years later I have had the pleasure of meeting tens of thousands of awesome people; plus Olya Moskalenko, one of my favorite NYC-ers, who calls me the “networking King of New York City”). At Lehman Brothers, I was always too busy at work to celebrate most holidays, and when I did have time, I would spend it with my cousins.
In 2008, I was way more immersed in the Indian-American community than the Jewish community (I served as a Board Member of the America India Foundation’s New York Young Professionals Chapter “AIF NYYP”, co-founded a retail store that exclusively worked with top Indian fashion designers), and some of my best friends were Indian including Sunny Parikh. I served on the Board of AIF NYYP for four years, and one of our Board Members, Priya Malani of Stash Wealth, even thought I was Indian at first.
While I may not be Indian, but I am an official Phaal Curry Master. I love Indian food and can handle the heat. For anyone familiar with the famous hottest curry served in the U.S. at Bricklane Curry House’s in NYC, just know that I finished that entire bowl of curry and it was delicious. Here’s a photo of me and my Phaal Curry Master award.
The truth is that everywhere that I have been in my life, at each time, is more than and beyond my understanding. That same year when I was involved so much in the Indian community was the year of the brutal Mumbai Attacks against Indians. Even Mumbai’s Chabad House was fatally attacked in 2008, tragically ending the lives of the young Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg.
A few days after the attack, the Indo-American Arts Council and the South Asian Journalists Association at the Asia Society organized a panel to discuss the tragedy, which was moderated by Sree Sreenivasan and included prominent members of the Indian-American community in New York City, including Sir Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta, Mira Kamdar, and BBC Executive Producer Rome Hartman.
After hearing about the discussion being organized in New York City with hundreds of guests and prominent dignitaries, I knew that I needed to make sure that Chabad was part of this discussion. India has always been a great place for the Jewish community (unlike many parts of the world, Jews have historically lived in India without any instances of antisemitism). Given that the Chabad organization has had to persevere through terrorism and violence, while promoting peace and the greater good, it became my mission to make 100% sure that a Chabad voice was part of this panel.
My first thought was Rabbi Yehoshua Chincolker, my Indiana University Chabad rabbi of Indian descent who was also born in India. Alas, he could not make it, but he connected me with other members of Chabad in NYC who could help me, including Shmuel Butman, Avraham Berkowitz, and Yirmi Berkowitz.
It was through those efforts that Chabad was invited to speak at the Asia Society conference. Chabad got a roaring ovation after their speech that highlighted the lives of the Holtzbergs and the great history of India for the Jewish people.
A week later, as a thank you, Shmuel Butman invited me to light the world’s largest Chanukah Menorah! I was lifted up on a crane just to light it. Yes it was that tall! I had to use a torch just to light it. Yes it was that large!
Now, let’s fast-forward to mid-March 2009. I wanted to celebrate Passover, but did not have a place to go.
I did what any person living in 2009 would do in my situation, I used Google, and searched “NYC Passover Young Professionals.” Actually, many people just Google their city and Chabad, but I specialized my search to find a Chabad that caters towards young professionals (and I guess those details matter when it comes to becoming “The Networking King of New York City”).
It turned out that Rabbi Levi and Rebbetzin Perel Shmotikin’s Chabad Young Professionals was Google’s #1 Search Result. I later learned that Levi and Perel actually moved to NYC the month before to start a Chabad House for Young Professionals in NYC. Surprised by having the top search result on Google, I asked Levi was who does your marketing, he said “Hashem.”
Here is Levi and me.
Even eight years later, ChabadYP.com still ranks as the #1 search result.
It used to be that Chabad Houses were organized by geography, but now with so many Chabad Houses around the world, they can now focused on demography. So, I made sure to invite as many people as I could to their events to help them increase their awareness in NYC. Levi also recently invited me to be a guest speaker at the first ever Chabad Young Professionals convention hosted by WeWork.
Later, Rabbi Levi told me that he was not even sure if they were supposed to host that first Passover Seder in 2009. Given that the Passover Seder is one of the most elaborate holidays – it goes on for hours, there are procedures of eating and meals, with washing hands and prayers, and you need a lot of space and a ton of Kosher food that takes days to weeks to prep – Levi was not sure if he and Perel should be hosting a seder. They had just moved to NYC and Perel was only weeks away to giving birth to their first child. For weeks no one was making a reservation. What are they supposed to do if no one is going to show up?
Feeling forlorn and confused, Levi decided to pray on it. So Levi went to Ohel Chabad, the Rebbe’s gravesite, and asked what he should do. He sought the Rebbe’s support by being there, similar to having a lawyer by your side as you stand before the judge, Levi prayed for help and clarity.
What is a Rebbe? The leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch organization, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or the “Rebbe”. Many world leaders and famous people know the power of the man, like Ronald Regan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Rudolph Juliani, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and even the latest winner of the triple crown.
While Levi was at the gravesite, he turned his phone off as a sign of respect. When he came out again, and turned on his phone, behold! A text message from one of Levi’s congregants appeared on the screen, requesting reservations for the Passover Sedar. Now there was no question. Levi and Perel would be hosting a seder that year.
Guess what also happened during that time when Levi was praying at the Ohel? Picture it, there I was, Googling for a Passover Sedar! They ended up having a sizeable turnout that year.
My Personal Experience at The Ohel
Rabbi Levi Shmotkin also taught me by example when I was in a predicament a few years ago.
I was beside myself when one of my housemates not only refused to pay rent, but also refused to leave the apartment. The housemate literally hijacked the room, changing the lock on the door and everything. It was a terrible situation.
After a couple months, I asked Levi what I should do. Nothing was getting better. “Do I call the police and put a restraining order so my roommate can’t legally come into the apartment? Do I move all my roommate’s belongings out during the middle of the day? Do I have to get a lawyer and legally evict my roommate?” The list went on.
Levi told me that he was going to the Ohel and suggested I come with him, to pray for help.
Two days later, Levi picks me up and we drive to the Ohel. When I get there I write a note and say I literally need immediate help now. I will do anything and this intolerable situation is affecting my life. Levi then dropped me off at my apartment, and within 10 minutes of being back at my apartment my roommate told me she was leaving.
Just in case you missed the last part, here is a summary: I prayed for help, came home, ten minutes after I got home, my squatting housemate who was resistant for months suddenly decides to give up and move out.
Levi encouraged I make sure to donate money to charity, tzedakah, every single day, even if it’s only a penny.
Fast-forward to last year, when I was looking at the Rebbe’s picture and I said to myself, what a brilliant man, he’s giving out dollars but the true value of the dollar is to make a connection with another human being as well as enable that human being to make a connection with someone else. It’s a simple, powerful plan.
The Rebbe may have passed away in 1994, but his memory is still bright and loving, and when I looked at his picture that day, I said to myself, “I will bring back the Rebbe’s Sunday dollars.”
The next thing that I knew, I was at Shabbat dinner at Saadya and Mushky Notik’s apartment (Musky is also the co-Founder of MIMU Maxi) and we were happening to talk about the Rebbe and how he inspired me to give to people in the subway. Sarah Kamaras of NowThis media was at that dinner.
Saadya and I are a lot alike. He also truly believes that if you happen to stand next to a random stranger, then it’s for a good reason. Saadya, also like I am, is willing to go up to anyone at any time for whatever reason just to say hello and connect with a fellow human.
For anyone who has not been on a subway in NYC, here’s a shocker: Pretty much everyone in the NYC subway keeps to him or herself. There is little willful human interaction. And eye contact? Forget about it.
Wait wait wait, I must confess that yes, there are some people who stand up, making announcements to the general subway car public as they await their future destinations. As far as I know, those announcements are generally petitions or pleas for your donations.
But how many people do you know that willingly give out money or blessings to complete strangers? The Rebbe did that!
I knew that we needed to make that happen again.
Seeing people get up to request money made me realize that it’s time to flip the script in the 1Dollar NYC subways. Instead of asking, we need to give. Instead of ignoring, we need to acknowledge. Instead of begging, let’s go blessing.
Just a couple of months ago, NowThis featured our NYC subway Sunday Dollars story!
Chabad’s Other Volunteer and Charitable Opportunities
I’ve been a board member of Chabad’s Children’s of Chernobyl (CCOC) which helps children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. To date, CCOC has saved 2,878 children on 100 rescue flights, providing them with housing, education and medical care in a loving, supportive environment. CCOC also provides assistance to those in the affected areas. In 2009, we were invited by NASDAQ to ring the closing bell (I’m pictured on the right side in the front with the rest of the CCOC team).
I’m also a board member of the Chabad Relief Project, and every month we organize food drives to deliver meals to elderly and underprivileged households in NYC (it’s estimated that 20% of NYC’s elderly population lives in poverty). Besides just giving them a box of food, it’s also an opportunity to make a personal contact with elderly and less fortunate people in NYC, many of whom had had amazing experiences in their lifetimes.
That’s all I have for now. I look forward to continuing to work with Chabad and with their mission around the world. I am not the only one here whose life has been changed by Chabad and their communities – that’s why I felt obligated to write and share my story.
Thank you to my amazing sister Laurie Harari for helping edit this post, as well as my other posts!