By Moshe Kahana
Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin, 36 years old, is the son and grandson of Shluchim. His father, Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin is the Shliach in Burlington Vermont, and his grandfather, Rabbi Leibel Raskin, served in Morocco until his passing in 5764/2004.
Recently, Rabbi Raskin was appointed to be the Rov of the Chabad community of Central Petach Tikvah in Eretz Yisroel. With Smicha and Dayonus from several prominent Rabbonim, within Chabad and outside of it, and certification as “Rav Ir” from Heichal Shlomo, he is certainly well-credentialed for the position. He also serves as a Dayan on several Batei Din and a halacha columnist in The Weekly Farbrengen publication.
Many have certainly seen and enjoyed his column published here on Anash.org and other places where he responds clearly to practical questions, with a broad knowledge of Halacha and Chabad Minhogim.
In this interview, Rabbi Raskin shares a fascinating perspective on the role and unique challenges of a young Rov in this generation.
You have recently been chosen to be the Rov of the Chabad community of Central Petach Tikvah. The shul has been around for more than a hundred years. Over that time, many well-known and outstanding rabbonim, such as HaRav Dovid Chanzin and Harav Moshe Zvi No’eh, have led the community. What prepared you for this? How does it feel to step into these large shoes at your relatively young age?
Rabbi Raskin: I was only six months old when I went on Shlichus with my parents to Burlington, VT. I grew up there without a regular Cheder until I was 11 years old. At times I had a private tutor, other times my father learnt with me or I went to private lessons.
In spite of the fact that we were far from any large Chabad community, my parents always made sure that I kept up to the grade level of my peers in regular Chabad schools.
At 11 years old, I began going to school in Montreal, about 2 hours from home. For yeshiva, I learned in Detroit, Ohelei Torah followed by Shlichus in Chicago and Smicha in Morristown. Pretty much the standard American yeshiva “system.”
13 years ago, after I got married, I joined Rabbi Meir Ahron’s Kollel in Rechovot. My focus was on learning for Rabonus and Dayanus, and I took the Rabanut’s tests.
To address your question directly, we are taught “במקום גדולים אל תעמוד” and there were certainly many great Rabonim here. Rabbi Chanzin, for example, fought fiercely to protect the interests of Chabad in Petach Tikva. When there were those who sought to close the Chabad Mikvah in town, he responded: “In Russia they closed Mikvahs, in Eretz Yisroel it will not happen under any circumstances.”
At the same time, on Yud Alef Nissan 5745/1985, the Rebbe spoke about a Rov who was disrespected because of his physical height. The Rov responded, “True I am small, but the seat – the position – is very big!” To me, this means that although I may be young, I may be small, I was given a big chair, a large responsibility. That is my focus, not on myself, but on the responsibility that I was tasked with.
In preparation for this responsibility, I got “Shimush” in the halachos of financial disputes from Harav Moshe Landau Z”L, the late rov of Bnei Brak. From him, I also learned integrity and strength. When I observed Harav Yosef Yitzchok Belinow, son-in-law of Harav Landau and rov of Central Bnei Brak, responding to Taharas Hamishpacha questions, I saw how a Rov must act kindly and warmly welcome everyone.
Here in the community, I work with the Gaboim, Rabbi Naftali Lipsker and Reb Effy Segal who help to ensure there is ever-increasing Torah learning. In general, we have a wonderful community that is growing by the day.
How can an older member of the community feel comfortable asking a shailah to a Rov that is so much younger than them?
Rabbi Raskin: There are two types of questions, some are Halacha questions and others are questions of Hashkafa.
When someone approaches me with a question in Halacha, I try to respond not just with the ruling, but also with some sources that I am basing my psak on. This way it is not coming from me; it’s coming from the seforim.
As an aside, some people find it easier to ask indirectly. People will sometimes approach me and ask for references to where an issue is discussed. I can respond to those questions as well. Regardless of how the question is asked, it is my job as a Rov to respond with kindness and tact.
Hashkafa questions are approached differently and depend very much on the person. However, the title itself makes people more comfortable approaching me with all types of questions. One day, when I was in the supermarket, the cashier noticed my name and identified me as the Rov. She immediately opened up about a question she was facing regarding the chinuch of her children.
How has your experience in the Kollel Hora’a in Rechovot prepared you for “real life” as a Rov?
Rabbi Raskin: You can learn Shulchan Aruch and be well versed in Halacha, and still be unable to apply that which you’ve learnt to address practical questions. More than anything else, the Kollel gave me the skills to apply Halacha practically. That is the added value that the Kollel provided, to see things from the proper perspective and to take the reality into the picture. In a community, that is the most vital dynamic, because the questions are from “real life.”
Many questions are the subject of debate, between poskim and even amongst Rabbonim. How do you know which approach to take? When to be machmir and when to be meikil? Rabbi Aharon, in addition to his vast knowledge, also has a clear perspective and a familiarity with the proverbial “fifth (unwritten) section of Shulchan Aruch.” His students pick that up from him, and I have been helped greatly by his guidance in this area.
What unique challenges have you encountered so far? What kind of questions come today that did not come up in previous generations?
Rabbi Raskin: The Chabad community in Petach Tikvah, unlike most other communities in Eretz Yisroel, in not in an exclusively frum neighborhood. This means that the community is made up of different types of Jews. There are those that grew up in Chabad, some are Ba’alei Teshuva and others grew up frum, but are new to Chabad. This mix means that shailos that we face are different than those that are asked in strictly regular Anash communities.
For example, Baalei Teshuva will ask hosting their not yet frum parents on Shabbos, and whether they can use non-mevushal wine for kiddush.
In one instance, a family asked if they can chip in with the rest of their family to buy their elderly father an electric wheelchair. On one hand, the father, who is not yet frum, will certainly use the chair on Shabbos. However, if they refuse that will damage their relationship with the whole family and make them even more distant from Yiddishkeit.
Recently there has been a trend that many elderly people have live-in aides or nurses who are not Jewish. In the past, it was uncommon to have a non-jew living in the home, particularly in Eretz Yisroel. There are lots of shailos that this brings up, in areas such as Yichud, Bishul Akum, and so on.
Do you find that the younger generation feels comfortable asking shailos in person? Do they have a personal relationship with the Rabbonim?
Rabbi Raskin: It is true that today many people prefer to get a quick response to a shailah via text, but people still appreciate having someone who listens to them and who they can see understands their question. It’s not the same when you get a response through a machine, even when you know the Rov answering the question.
From my part as well, it’s not the same when answering to someone who I don’t know without speaking to them. In a verbal conversation, I can get a lot more nuanced, and small details that don’t come across in a text are clarified. That’s why, whenever possible, I try to call and get more context for the shaila. Then I can give a more precise answer.
Also, when people feel a personal connection they have an easier time accepting the psak.
As the Mara D’Asrah, who deals with so many people in the community, you see clearly what is going on. What is the one thing you would change or improve?
Rabbi Raskin: Before Rabbi Grunblatt, the head shliach to Argentina, went on Shlichus, Rabbi Chodokov, the Rebbe’s chief-of-staff, told him “First imagine what you want the Kehilla to look like. Then, start working on getting there.”
The most important thing I want to improve is the shiurim for yungeleit. If a yungerman who works for a living doesn’t join shiurim, it’s because we have not been providing him with the right opportunity. When I started working with this kehilla, even before I moved here, I started giving a weekly shiur. My weekday shiurim are recorded and made available to the public. I bump into people all the time, even those who I don’t know, who tell me that they’ve been listening to the recordings. When someone adds one hour of learning, that is one more hour that he is dedicated to his ruchniusdike growth. That hour changes him, it improves him.
My grandfather, Reb Shmuel Issac Popack a”h, was a businessman in Crown Heights. He worked very hard, but he also had 4 or 5 shiurim every single day. At 6:00 am, he had a chavrusah with Rabbi Zalman Gurary. Aside from that, every day at 11:00 am, 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm he had a seder to learn.
Watching him, I witnessed something amazing. When my Zeidy was sitting with his chavrusah and learning, it was as if the world didn’t exist. He completely disengaged from business. After he finished, he would deal with business matters, and get intensely involved, but when the time for the next seder came, it all stopped. From him I realized that a person can work, and work hard, but still could balance that with learning and still be successful in both.
My father was born in Morocco, where his parents were shluchim. In fact, my grandmother is still there and continues her shlichus. In the summer of 5735/1975, when my father was 14 and a half years old, he went home for his brother’s bar mitzvah. While he was in Morocco, he spent the month and a half of summer vacation learning with people in the community.
Before he left back to Yeshiva, his father reminded him to write to the Rebbe about what he had done on shlichus. Shortly after he got back to NY and sent in his report, he got word that the Rebbe’s mazkir Rabbi Binyomin Klein was looking for him in 770. Rabbi Klein told him that in response to his letter the Rebbe asked, “I see in your duch that you learnt with mekuravim, but what did you learn for yourself?”
I’m telling you this story to answer your question about what most needs to be improved. In addition to our shlichus work in teaching others, it is imperative that we learn ourselves. We must learn for our own future, we must learn for our children’s sake.
I am a third-generation shliach. In this generation, shlichus within our community is no less important than working with those who are “outside.” It’s not enough to make people into Baalei Teshuva, we also have to ensure that they are integrated into the community once they are frum. My Shlichus is with those that have become frum already, and now need help in finding their place in the community. My wife just met with a young woman who became frum, and now we are helping her settle and become part of our community. This is an opportunity and responsibility that we dare not miss.
But it’s not just mekuravim. Working with those that already are “Anash” is no less important.
Someone once asked me why I was going into Rabbanus and not going on shlichus.
As a bochur, my Grandfather, Rabbi Leibel Raskin would bring the Likutei Sichos into the Rebbe to be edited. Once Rabbi Chodokov asked him, “Do you know how busy the Rebbe is with things that are life and death? How do you dare to take up so much of the Rebbe’s time?” My grandfather responded, “Chassidim having sichos to learn is also a matter of life or death…” After that conversation, the Rebbe continued to edit the sichos, and those sichos are what made up the first two volumes of Likutei Sichos.
I feel that my shlichus is to bring Halacha, Likutei Sichos, and the Rebbe into Chabad communities. I hope that I will make the Rebbe proud.
Adapted from the Hebrew