Yossi Lipsker’s demeanor is not so much rabbinical as it is entrepreneurial. He marches through a tour of renovations; newly finished, underway and forthcoming, with a ferocity of mission suggesting that whatever he builds will never be enough, even though his Chabad of the North Shore “campus” is starting to feel big enough to justly be labeled a campus. “There is one rule,” Lipsker explained. “The rule is to approach everything with an unbridled enthusiasm. And the opportunities that ensue are astounding. When the enthusiasm is there, it’s an entirely different game.”
Lipsker explained the details of Chabad’s growth as he walked at a fast clip around the outside of the building and through what seemed to be every inch of the interior, touching the mezuzah and kissing his hand with each crossing of a threshold – 30 or 40 times perhaps – paying homage to the force that drives him and holds his community close. “There’s a saying from an Hasidic rebbe that’s always resonated with me,” he said. “’The day I was born was the day that God decided that the world could not exist without me.’”
The front yard of Chabad Lubavitch no longer features “patches of brown grass,” as he described it. It now sports newly-poured concrete which has created a courtyard for outdoor events. A large wraparound porch is close to being finished to the right of the main entrance, with an integrated handicapped access ramp that will include benches and charging stations so teens can hang out and enjoy the space, but “phase two” will bring the porch to the left side and around to the existing deck on that side of the building, creating more space for busy days.
On the backside of the building, outside the entrance to the nursery school, a playground is under construction. The job foreman got nervous watching her client slide down a wall of pebbles to drop a few feet to street level, but Lipsker didn’t miss a beat. While he descended, as though on an escalator, he continued to explain how a synthetic surface will make the playground safe for young children. “The top layer is firm,” explained Lipsker, “with a soft foam layer underneath like the pad under a carpet.”
The rabbi wears a blue jacket with brass double-breasted buttons, but it’s made of floppy summer cotton and reads more like a smock, as if Lipsker, with his baseball cap and his sneakers, will be jumping in to swing a hammer or add a coat of paint as soon as he has the chance. It is this passion that the rabbi trusts to make his goals contagious. “I think there is an energy that runs through what we’re doing and everybody who is involved here is passionate about what we’re trying to achieve,” said Lipsker.
On the sidewalk next to the playground construction, Lipsker turned to look up Phillips Street, the road that runs down the back of the Chabad, and pointed out a two family house that sits diagonally across the street. This, he said, is the organization’s latest acquisition, a place where Chabad families hoping to resettle in the area can be housed (the first has recently moved in). The campus also includes two homes on Burrill Street, to the right of the main entrance to the Chabad, that serve as residences for the two rabbis and their families.
Looking down Phillips Street toward downtown Swampscott, the ocean views are compelling and the proximity to the main route into town provides a branding opportunity, one that hasn’t escaped Lipsker. “It’s going to be something that transforms that whole side of the building that you can see walking down the street, walking down the beach. It’s all good things wrapped up in one, it’s much more than a playground.”
Inside the building, a few feet away from the playground project, workers swing hammers as they finish the framing work on the third classroom being constructed in as many years, one that will allow the nursery school to expand to 30 students from its original six in 2014.
Like Lipsker himself, there is a swirl of activity at Chabad.
Upstairs, on the first floor just behind the main sanctuary, the space that Lipsker and fellow rabbi Shmaya Friedman use for offices will soon be transformed into another space for groups to gather, but this time with waterfront views and a planned outdoor deck, with the rabbis’ offices moved up a floor.
But what is the source of all this energy? Lipsker deflects an invitation to describe his own drive. “It’s hard for me to talk about myself. I can tell you that my mentor and spiritual visionary who imagined this worldwide Chabad movement – the rebbe – he was all energy, all passion, all hope, all optimism, all love, and all positive. All about where we’re going as opposed to where we’ve been.”
As we walked down the side of the building, Lipsker sensed two workers feeling self-conscious about having a “butt-break” as they sit outside smoking. “Don’t worry about the cigarettes,” he offered. “I may bum one from you when I’m done with this interview.”
Rabbi Lipsker said that there’s just one rule at Chabad of the North Shore, and that rule goes unbroken during our visit – his enthusiasm is unbridled. He appears to be squeezing every drop of potential out of “every moment and every encounter, in every geographical sliver of life in every morsel we eat in every human relationship or career move that we make,” because this is, he believes, one of the expectations – and gifts – of Judaism.