Looking Back: A Quarter Century Later


by S. Olidort - TEL-AVIV, ISRAEL

February 27, 2003

“The house—if you could call it that, was prehistoric. Rough stone walls and floors, no heating and the most primitive plumbing,” laughs Tila Hecht, describing the hovel in the ancient city of Safed, which she and her husband called home.

Then young newlyweds brimming with idealism and ready to take on a sustained challenge, the Hechts are still at it, 25 years later. Today they live with their multi-lingual Israeli children in a pleasant home in Eilat, where Rabbi Hecht is the city’s chief rabbi, and Tila is principal of the day school. Mrs. Hecht will typically log a 12-hour day, while her husband is on call 24/7, their home open to a constant stream of community traffic.

It’s a lifestyle that leaves little time for the luxury of reflection, but last week, thirty of these 70's pioneers, appointed by the Rebbe to pack up and “move to Israel,” took some time to reminisce. United by a bond that reaches beyond the scope of their shared rough beginnings and common achievements, the Shluchim gathered to celebrate 25 years in Israel.

1976 was only a few years after the Yom Kippur war, and the morale in Israel was still at an all time low. In a bold initiative characteristic of the Rebbe’s leadership, he appointed young, dynamic men and women bursting with possibility, to establish communities and become involved with people Israel-wide on a grass-roots level. Quoting Isaiah, the Rebbe charged the Shluchim to “Gather, one at a time, the children of Israel.”

The mission continued with another group arriving a year later, and a third and final group in ’78. Rabbi Menachem M. Gluckowsky, a native of Canada, was among this last group. “The Rebbe appointed us representatives of North American Jewry, to support Israel,” he says. Although Chabad has a long history in Israel, dating back to the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, this would be the first time that the Rebbe would send whole groups to settle permanently in Israel.

“We were so excited to have been selected by the Rebbe as Shluchim to Israel,” explains Rabbi Gluckowsky, then a rabbinical student, “that we came here not knowing what to expect, and oblivious to the hardships and the primitive living conditions that greeted us.” Having initially settled in Safed and Jerusalem, the new arrivals were soon directed to branch out to various cities across Israel, where many assumed important leadership positions as members of the Chief Rabbinate and directors and founders of Yeshivas. More impressive than their individual achievements, notes Rabbi Gluckowsky, today the chief rabbi of the city of Rechovot, is the effect of the Americans on their Israeli counterparts, “acting as a catalyst for new generations of Israeli shluchim to surface nationwide."

The concept of a Chabad House, open round the clock for anyone to stop in for a cup of coffee, a chat with the rabbi, or a Shabbat dinner, was decidedly American, and for the most part, did not exist at the time in Israel. Today, the Chabad House is a ubiquitous fixture in every city in Israel. Speaking at the reunion was Rabbi Yossi Gerlitsky, who hosted the reunion at the local Chabad yeshiva and runs a Chabad House in central Tel Aviv. “Today, most observant people are leaving Tel Aviv, a predominantly secular city,” he noted. “But Chabad is recruiting young observant families to establish themselves here to enhance the educational and Jewish experience of life in Tel Aviv, for the city’s children and families,” he said, illustrating the impact of Chabad-Lubavitch on the character of a community.

The ties shared by these men and women are profound, and they stay in close contact, traveling the length of Israel to participate in each other’s personal milestones. Many of these Shluchim have married off some of their children by now, and a second generation, committed to the same goals is opening new Chabad Houses and enlarging on the activities and programs that began with their parents arrival in Israel.

At the reunion, Shluchim listened raptly to a recording of the Rebbe’s meeting with the group twenty-five years ago. The Rebbe’s voice, his words of guidance and encouragement confirmed his particular concern for these Shluchim, their personal well-being, and the success of their activities.

The reunion continued with round-table discussions in which Shluchim informally exchanged anecdotes and stories from personal experiences in their respective cities and towns, reviewing the turns their lives have taken since their first years together as pioneers.

There were hard times and there were good times. Through it all, the Shluchim carried a sense of mission—and privilege at having been selected by the Rebbe—living moment to moment with the Rebbe’s mandate and his blessings. This, they will tell you unanimously, is what sustained them and fortified them and continues to keep them going strong.

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