Rabbi Levi Greenberg, shliach in El Paso, Texas, writes an open letter to his grandfather Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik, recounting a late-night encounter that left him with a life-long impression.
By Rabbi Levi Greenberg, shliach to El Paso, Texas
I never wrote you letters, nor did I ever express to you what our relationship means to me, but as we mourn your passing I feel it appropriate to write you a public letter so others can learn from you as well.
From the moment I learned of your passing, a veritable ocean of information has been flooding my WhatsApp feed around the clock. You meant so much to the global Chabad community and the anecdotes, photos and videos being shared tell the story of a man who merited to not only be enshrined in the annals of recent Chabad history, but of someone who managed to inspire thousands just by being around.
It was your joyful Chassidic vigor and your unbridled love for the Rebbe – the Rebbe’s teachings and the Rebbe’s work – which you constantly projected, that made your very presence a source of inspiration to so many.
But I’ll leave the official obituaries and tributes to others (and here is one I think everyone should read: chabad.org/5045087) and I will try to express what you meant to me as a grandfather.
Living in El Paso meant we were geographically distant, but you made a point to visit us fairly regularly and we often saw you in New York on our trips there as well. Growing up you were a familiar presence in our lives although we barely communicated in a meaningful way. There was a real language barrier between us, but that didn’t matter. Your bright smile, cheerful vibe and the candies you ceremoniously gave us kids made us feel your warmth and love in ways that transcended words and activities.
One summer night in Brooklyn when I was fifteen years old I had an experience I am still processing today. It was the Third of Tammuz, the Rebbe’s Yahrtzeit, and there were many events happening in the Crown Heights neighborhood that evening. On my way to one of the main gatherings I was hungry and decided to make a detour to my uncle and aunt’s home for a quick supper.
I found an empty home but a full refrigerator and as I fixed myself something to eat, you walked into the kitchen and greeted me with your bright smile. As I sat down to eat, after offering you a glass of tea which you so graciously accepted, we had our first real conversation. I was fluent in Yiddish by then and for the next two hours you shared stories and anecdotes of what meant everything in your life: the Rebbe.
The conversation was casual and flowed from story to story. I asked you questions about the glorious years you spent in 770 basking in the Rebbe’s presence and you shared more and more. Sometimes you responded to my probing questions with one of your signature smiles and refused to pursue the topic, but never did I feel shut out of anything.
Most of the stories you shared that night I heard from you again on multiple occasions later on, but the significance of that conversation for me was much more than the information you shared. It was the fact that as an elder Chossid you conversed with me as if I was an equal. You spoke of the Rebbe as if I had been there with you and devoted the past 60 years of my life dedicated to his mission.
I did not realize it then, but the two hours you spent with me that night illustrated a fundamental truth I am still processing today. Without saying it you basically told me that night “Levi, you are a Chossid. Whatever it meant to be a Chossid since the dawn of the Chassidic movement over 250 years ago, applies to you, one hundred percent.”
You didn’t preach to me what it means to be a Chossid; you treated me like a full fledged Chossid. And for that I am forever grateful.
Whenever family came together for an occasion or even at a random dinner you had the custom of reading one of the hundreds of letters you merited to receive from the Rebbe over the span of 35 years. You always read the letters with such awe and reverence and often they were letters that were connected to that time period.
Recently you started reading the same letter every time. One you received on the 11th of Nissan 1972 – the Rebbe’s birthday. The content of the letter is similar to the pre Passover blessings the Rebbe would send to thousands each year, but you read it every time as if you were the only one to receive such a beautiful blessing and as if it came in the mail that morning.
I admit that in my youthful impatience and immaturity I would inwardly groan, but thinking about it now I realize what you taught us by sharing the same letter again and again: New discoveries might be exciting, but a serious human being must aspire to appreciate even one empowering lesson and shape their life around its message.
Most of our conversations revolved around stories and I find it providential that the first Shabbat after your passing is connected to one of the stories you told me.
This Shabbat during synagogue services we will read the short Torah portion “Zachor” (lit. remember) reminding us of the diabolical Amalekite nation who attacked the Israelites after their exodus, for no good reason other than senseless hatred. G-d commanded us to remember the despicable act and to cleanse the world of this evil. In the Haftara we read the story of King Shaul, who was commanded by G-d to wage war on the Amalekites and eradicate their memory.
Reb Zalman Zezmer was a disciple of the Alter Rebbe – the founder of the Chabad movement. As a brilliant young scholar he was unaware of the Chassidic movement until one year on Shabbat Zachor a visiting scholar named Reb Binyamin Kletzker, already a legendary Chossid at the time, was honored with reciting the Haftara. Listening to Reb Binyomin recite the chapter about Amalek, the young Zalmen sensed that he truly hated Amalek with a passion, unlike anything he had heard before. Reb Binyomin was not raging against an ancient enemy of the distant past, but rather fighting against something current, real and relatable.
He asked Reb Binyomin where he learned to hate Amalek with such a passion and after a series of events Reb Binyomin brought him to the Alter Rebbe where he discovered the life changing teachings of Chassidus and learned about the Amalek within each one of us here and now. The force that seeks to dampen our Jewish enthusiasm and distract us from what’s really important. Something you can truly hate when you realize that it’s present and relevant here and now.
Zaidy, you embodied the idea that Judaism is not an academic or religious pursuit, but rather life itself. And you joyfully projected this truth to everyone around you, especially family.
As I continue to hear more of your life and your accomplishments I hope to not be distracted by the fascinating history it all represents but rather seek to apply these lessons in a real way so that I can live up to your treating me as a full fledged Chossid. As I continue to do my part in the corner of planet earth we call El Paso to prepare the world for redemption, please storm the heavens and entreat G-d to finally send us Moshiach, who will usher in an era of global peace and tranquility for all.
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This letter should become a classic – you hit the nail on the head. Taking young chassidim seriously is the hallmark of a true chossid, and your letter to your Zaidy illustrates this beautifully. It should be part of the manual for all mashpiim of young people – bochurim as well as girls. I can recall a brief conversation with your zaidy when I was a teenager, and you captured the experience perfectly. Thank you for sharing this.