I found myself feeling very comfortable as an Asian-looking person in the midst of a the synagogue at 770 Crown Heights in New York. The second night there, we had a Farbrengen, during which it is customary to have food and drink (though the Rebbe recommends less than 4 shots of vodka) late into the night, talking about good deeds and good people.
Two days there, and I was feeling really good. The environment in 770 Crown Heights is permeated with goodness and kindness. If I struggled to find a prayer book in English, someone would hiss to get my attention (as Israelis do) and hand me a prayer book opened to the right page. People would come to ask me about life in Japan, about what it was like for Jewish people living there, about how long I had known Rabbi B. One man said he’d like to study with me, and pulled out a copy of the Tanya (a book of philosophy based on the Torah) and we started going through it slowly one day before prayers.
The method of reading is to go line by line, talking about what various words mean, and talking about different opinions and precedents. My friend was so familiar with the text that he would transition smoothly the written word, to discussing it, and flowing back to the written word. I thought that this is the way one might study a physics textbook, going through basic concepts and tying them together into larger concepts. Yet, this was the approach taken with a book on ethics, a book that talked about giving to charity, about humility, about holding one’s tongue when disagreeing except in certain situations. What sort of situations and why is it worth speaking out in these situations?…
Evening prayers were about to start, and people lined up on either side of the aisle, leaving a space for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to walk to the front of the synagogue. Rabbi Menachem Schneerson has not physically walked here ever since his physical body died, but many believe he is very much spiritually alive. One Israeli man who had handed me a prayer book for afternoon prayers said to me then. “Now, want with all of your heart and soul to see the Rebbe.” And people started chanting Yechi…
I learned from Rabbi B’s five-year-old son that people asked him about me – “is he Japanese, is he Jewish?” to which he would reply – “no, he is from the states, and he is not Jewish, but helps us a lot.”
After prayer services, there would be singing and dancing, and I would dance in the prayer hall counterclockwise in a circle, singing along in Hebrew that we are longing for the Messiah. This was done with smiles all around, someone waving a big yellow flag with a blue crown and the word Messiah in Hebrew in red lettering. Hands on each other’s shoulders walking, or arms interlocked jumping and chanting “Yechi” may he live. To chant Yechi is to wish for the messiah to come, to usher in a new era when all the people and nations of the world can live in harmony – to so fervently wish for that era that one’s actions in the present are dedicated to working for harmony and inclusion, to make the world into a welcoming one for the messiah. I felt – yeah. I want that. What’s more, I have always liked dancing, though it’s always been clubbing or disco, dancing here was just as fun, and on top of dancing, to chant Yechi got me right into a good mood with everyone else. The physical and the spiritual must lift each other up.
At the Farbrengen, I spoke. “You guys have made me feel very welcome here. I want to say that you’ve reminded me that it’s healthy to take an interest in your fellow man. People in Japan – they want to be polite. This has its good points and bad points, but one of the bad points is that people keep each other at a distance. They are afraid to intrude. Because of this, it’s possible to know people for a long time without really knowing them. But here, in 770, I have been able to speak about matters of the heart and have a feeling of connection with you that would take a very long time to develop in Japan. This is the glue that binds society together: connection, not distance. I like this atmosphere, and I want to take back to Japan.”
The man sitting across the table said “You will succeed. The (Lubavitcher) Rebbe said that ‘a Hasid always has the power change the world around him!'”
I smiled and thanked him, because he was indirectly calling me a Hasid, an enacter of loving-kindness.
The Farbrengen continued, and Rabbi B and I told stories of works of charity and adventures in Japan, other people told stories of great teachers they knew, or good things they had seen or participated in. People were took turns talking. It was a style of spontaneous turn-taking conversation at a table that I had never seen except in Japan, but here the table was bigger, voices were louder, and people other than the highest status members of the table had a voice. People were focused on learning from each other and fully interested in how to better themselves and bring happiness to others through a good work or deed.
Young college grads are intent on soaking up knowledge with the aim of becoming rich or successful. These kids – about the same age – were focused on soaking up knowledge with the aim of bringing loving kindness into the world. Amazing.