A Chasidic Evening in Rio De Janeiro

by Baila Olidort - RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

August 28, 2002

Before the introduction of Chasidism, Jews were either rich or poor, educated or ignorant, and recognized along those distinctions. Then came the Baal Shem Tov and soon after, Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Suddenly, “a Jew was a Jew, and that’s all that mattered.”

In a word, that was Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s take on the gift of Chasidism to Jewish life. Speaking to an audience of 200 in the beautiful Beit Lubavitch Jewish center in Rio De Janeiro, Hertzberg explored the origins of Chasidism, and shared his thoughts on the phenomenon that is Chabad-Lubavitch.

The occasion was the 18th day of Elul, corresponding this year to August 26, which marked both the birthdate of the founder of Chasidism, the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), and of the founder of Chabad Chasidism, Reb Schneur Zalman (1745-1812).

Mr. Israel Klabin, the former mayor of Rio who has been very instrumental in promoting the work of Chabad in this city, introduced the evening’s speaker, and a simultaneous translation in Portuguese was rendered.

Rabbi Hertzberg, who served as President of the American Jewish Congress and subsequently as Vice President of the World Jewish Congress, is now Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University. He reflected on the transformation Chasidism has achieved in the way Jewish life is perceived and experienced. For the better part of an hour, Hertzberg shared historic perspectives, anecdotal information and a deep recognition and appreciation for what the Lubavitcher Rebbe had achieved in his lifetime—saving Jewish life by his revolutionary outreach activities.

That 200 people in a city famous for its heady nightlife would choose to spend a hot August evening learning about Jewish history, was itself proof of Rabbi Hertberg’s assertion. Fifteen years ago, there were 1500 Jews in the upscale community of Leblon, in Rio De Janeiro. But there was no Jewish activity.

Then Rabbi Yehoshua Binyomin Goldman and his wife came as Shluchim of the Rebbe in 1987, and Rio hasn’t been the same since. So intensive was their outreach that before long, the Goldmans would recruit another 10 Lubavitch couples—Shluchim all—from different parts of the world, to join in their efforts, establishing Jewish institutions in neighboring communities of Copacabana, Ipanema, Tijuca and Leblon.

Rabbi Hertzberg recalled a meeting some years ago with another Jewish group who lamented the dearth of Jewish leadership. He suggested that they train rabbinical graduates and then send them out to various outposts to reach out to Jewish communities. Much to his dismay, the response he got was that these graduates are on a career path, and that would be a primary criterion in determining whether they would agree to undertake such positions.

Contrasting this to the response of Lubavitch Shluchim who would go in a heartbeat whenever and wherever the need arises, without any regard for all other considerations, Hertzberg observed their unique commitment to the Rebbe’s vision of Jewish life, and a deeply held value that the way to enrich one’s own soul is by helping a fellow Jew. “This,” said Rabbi Hertzberg, “is why Lubavitch is different from everyone else.”

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