I think I was member no. 2649, or something like that. Relatively #OG, I guess.
By then, the group was picking up major momentum, only started the day before.
And now, a week later, this group of only-admin-approved members is roughly 7k strong.
It’s a Facebook group started by, and for, Chabad Jews– regardless of current affiliation or practice. It’s a diverse hodgepodge of 18-40 somethings from around the world, men and women, gezhe, FFBs, BTs, children of BTs, OTDs, Chabad Lite, Chabad Shtark, believers, agnostics, atheists, and any other label you could throw on them like spaghetti, who mainly identify with, or call themselves, Lubavitchers.
And oh, what a group.
At first, the content (which is impossible to keep up with, ask anyone who tries) was extremely funny. Like laugh-out-loud, tears-rolling-down-your-face funny. The stories from cheder, yeshiva, high school and seminary. The inside jokes. The impersonations. The memes. All the Mendel quips. We were all laughing with and at ourselves, any smatterings of tension totally dissolved in the humor. Wow. You get that joke, too? That happened to you, too? You can relate? Wow.
And then it became clear that for many, in those jokes, in those laughs, lies so much pain.
And the conversation shifted.
Hundreds of posts and comments on our shared experience as Lubavitchers, layers of cognitive dissonance in our beliefs and practices, education gaps (a hot topic), community dysfunction, leadership lacks, intermarriage (“would you ever marry a goy?”), abuse, drugs, marriage, shlichus, children of ba’alei teshuvah, modesty, sex, music (thank you Tali Yess for your nightly niggun live shows), familial expectations, racism, gender roles and norms, the chassidus we love to learn, spirituality, physical abuse in yeshivas (so heart wrenching), G-d, Judaism, identity, the highs, the lows, the memories we hold onto and the ones we wish to forget– and the line the group agreed never to cross: always show respect for our Rebbe.
At no other time or space have so many people from the our broader community gathered with an open, (relatively) non-judgemental forum to truly bond, share, reflect, commiserate, laugh, and support each other.
Its like letting the puss out of a stubborn pimple, the collective catharsis of a community yearning for healing and understanding is a real relief- and so awesome to take part of. We are witnessing, for each other, the pain, joy, privilege, and mystery that is being a Lubavitcher, today.
A couple of months back, I sat with a loved one who is no longer observant. I wanted to ask him all the questions that burned in my heart and soul, and I wanted him to ask me, tell me, anything that lingered in him. Why did he leave? Did something happen? Does he ever miss it? Does he think he’ll ever come back? What, if at all, is the line he will never cross?
He agreed to let me record the conversation- and I did. All two hours of it. And it was hard to hear. But so incredible. So honest. So telling about his path and the choices he made to bring him to where he is now.
And although at first he had fewer questions for me, as we talked and talked, his questions emerged. Do I have any doubts? Regrets? Thoughts I push out of my head lest they start nagging at my soul?
I had so many misconceptions about why he left observant practice and what I assumed him to believe about me, his still-religious older sister.
I was wrong.
How often do these conversations happen? How often do we truly listen, without hesitation? How often do we stop trying to be right and just be? How often do we place our judgements on the altar of real love and connection, ready to let go of our preconceptions to truly discover the Other?
Not often enough.
And here, in this Facebook group, in front of 7k other members, we are showing deep curiosity and empathy of each other. We are listening- and learning.
“For anyone here who left, would you ever come back?” “What do you miss, if anything?” “How can I reclaim my spiritual connection to the Rebbe?” “Do you believe in G-d?”
We are different, that is for sure. We don’t all agree with each other’s choices. And it hurts.
But we are part of one family.
There was a time in my life, much younger, when I felt calling myself a Lubavitcher was almost a misnomer. Like if I did, I’d get in trouble. Found out. An imposter. I was young, in cheder, figuring who I am and who I needed to be to truly deserve that label.
What would make me a Lubavitcher? Was it something I did? Believed? Where my family was from? How long my father’s beard, how many hours of Chassidus he learnt?
There was a moment, an epiphany of sorts, that I witnessed my mother realize one night at the dinner table. We were talking about the community and where we fit in… and didn’t. My mother, at the time with hair uncovered, Persian and proud, non-conformist, suddenly stated, “You know, I am a Lubavitcher. I love the Rebbe… What else is there?”
Something in that moment gave me permission to embody an identity I already felt so aligned with.
For what, really, is a Lubavitcher?
It is not just where we’re from, who we know, what we learn, what we do. There’s no checklist.
It’s a feeling.
I remember when I first moved to Crown Heights and met a whole bunch of young chabadniks who, you could say, were no longer yeshiva kids. But even though they melded into the landscape of the East Village, there was no denying that Chabad spark, still lighting up their faces. It was no secret they were Lubavitchers.
And in the past twenty years (I feel old) I’ve wondered again and again if that spark is wearing off. Are we, as a community, continually being confused for hipsters, not hassids? Is our Chabad identity slipping? Is the feeling gone?
No. After one week in this group, I can say I don’t believe it is.
In this Facebook group of almost 7k misfits, rebels, warriors and modern day chasidim, that feeling is so strong.
And it’s created a bond so intense.
Yet nostalgia is not enough to drive our growth.
War stories will only get us so far.
We need to look at this reservoir of narratives, at our collective pain and struggles, and ask ourselves: what are we going to do to make our community better for our children?
It’s time for us to take a hard look at ourselves and take ownership. Yes, there is light. There is joy. There is pride. There is so much goodness.
Yet there is brokenness too.
How are we fixing our schools? Allowing for more diversity? Creating opportunities for listening and empathy? Addressing power vacuums and organizational dysfunctions?
How do we account for all our brothers and sisters leaving our communities, angry and disillusioned?
How are we encouraging real, authentic exploration of our teachings and heritage — with space to ask questions and push back, with no fallout?
When will we finally eradicate all kinds of abuse from within our community?
When will we put as much effort and energy into inreach as we do with outreach?
Because being a Lubavitcher – no matter what our beliefs and practice – is being ingrained with the mission to make this world a better place.
And it’s gotta start with us.
Because once a Lubavitcher, always a Lubavitcher. #amiright?
Illustration by Tomer Hanuka. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/cover-story-2016-04-11