‘one of us’

Friday, 6 January, 2023 - 6:55 am

Before I went out on my shlichut here in Basel, I learned in a kollel (yeshiva for married students) for two years. I lived in Kiryat Malachi, and the Kollel was in Rechovot. It was called “Ohr Zarua – Ohr Yaakov” – it was established in memory of Rabbi Yaakov Mizrachi z”l, and to this day his family maintains it, and now I have the opportunity to thank them personally for their labors. 

The beloved Rabbi Meir Aharon z”l was the head of this kollel.

In Chabad it is not customary to stay in a kollel for one’s entire life; rather, one learns for only for a year or two after getting married, and then goes out to real life. So the kollel had mainly young avrechim (married students) about my age, but also some older guys who had been sitting there for years. 

One of them, whose name I don’t remember, was a wise and special person, who sat and learned, but in the breaks between the sessions, during recess or in the kitchenette would mainly talk about discrimination, about the Ashkenazim patronizing the Sephardim and not giving them the same opportunities, and the whole topic of the different ethnic groups, which for some reason that escapes my memory was at its height then. 

Unfortunately, what he said was not far from the truth. Even though he was around 40 years old, he expressed the deep pain of a child who grew up in a ma’abara (temporary camp for new immigrants), and had experienced patronization, silencing of protests and discrimination. From his point of view, the fact that I and my Ashkenazi friends had come to learn in this Yemenite kollel was some sort of righting of this wrong.

One day, I sat with him and we talked openly. I listened, and apparently that was the first time I heard in first person about experiences of discrimination and silencing, things that later on in life I saw how much they still exist – and hurt. 

Suddenly, he told me that when he was young, he had learned in the crafts’ school in Kfar Chabad. “Wait a minute,” I stopped him. “During which years? Because my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Wishedski z”l, was the mashpia (religious guide) in that school until 1986 (5746). Perhaps you met him?”

“The mashpia, Reb Moshe, was your grandfather?” He asked, surprised. And suddenly his tone softened. The anger disappeared and so did the pain. I just sat there silently, watching him drink his tea, his eyes focusing somewhere above my head, watching a movie from the past.

“You understand,” he said, “that the mashpia, Reb Moshe, was not Ashkenazi. He was ‘one of us’. I know he came from Russia, I know he spent time in jail and in exile there. He himself told us that. But listen, I’m telling you what I felt every time I met him: There was no patronizing, just love at eye level, as an equal. He was ‘one of us’.”

I understood immediately what he was saying, because as a young boy, I would come to my Zaide every day to learn Tanya, and I always felt that he was talking to me at eye level. I thought that he was someone like me. I know this feeling of “one of us”. Afterwards I heard similar things from other grandchildren and others who had met my grandfather. They all felt it – that feeling of “one of us”.

Today I know already that this cannot be feigned. You can’t put on an act. The person you are facing will be able to sense and know immediately whether you are just playacting this “one of us”, or whether you really are “one of us”. My grandfather apparently truly internalized chapter 32 (lev – heart) in the Tanya; he really managed to be “one of us” for every human being. 

Today, the 13th of Tevet, is his yahrzeit. He passed away in 1986 (5746). I pray I will know to learn from him. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalman Wishedski

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