Just back from a late February, school vacation week aid trip to New Orleans, the two rabbis from Chabad of the North Shore are still glowing with joy. Leading a volunteer effort that brought a stunning 55 volunteers to the impoverished Ninth Ward – which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago – represents the kind of extreme giving that energizes the synagogue and its leader, Rabbi Yossi Lipsker.
The two men seem very different, which may be why they also seem to work so well with each other and their wives. Rabbi Yossi is well known in the area after 25 years at Chabad. The younger of the two, Rabbi Shmaya Friedman, is only 30 but has been at Chabad for seven years. The older man is the gas pedal while the younger one is the policeman making sure that the speed limit, if not exactly being honored, is at least acknowledged.
“This is how it works. Yossi comes to me and he says, ‘Shmaya, this is what we’re doing,’” explained Rabbi Friedman. “And I say to myself, ‘Okay, how much Zantac (i.e. heartburn relief) am I going to need for this idea?’”
The trip to New Orleans is the third in a series of volunteer sojourns that Chabad has organized to that region since summer, explained Friedman. “But when Yossi said, ‘We’re taking 50 people to New Orleans,’ Friedman recounted, laughing as he described the Zantac moment, “I’m thinking, ‘So, forty of them teenagers, in the middle of Mardi Gras? That gets me a little concerned.”
The younger rabbi doesn’t mind owning up to being the cautious one. “I don’t take one step forward,” admitted Rabbi Friedman, “without knowing what’s waiting two steps down the path.” But this guy (pointing to Rabbi Yossi) is always like, “Let’s go, let’s do it now!” Rabbi Lipsker, with months of renovations to the synagogue on Burrill Street in Swampscott still in progress, explains just as readily his contrary approach. “There’s no waiting around here – we just do.”
This philosophy is the same message Rabbi Lipsker sought to infuse into the lives of the teens on the trip. “We did lots of talking with the kids, at the beginning of each day and at the end of each day. And the low hanging fruit of every talk was the same. ‘Right now, this is the holiest time of your life,’” he explained. “That’s a very refreshing idea to children who are programmed by society to live half of their lives as a training session for the rest of their lives.”
The cost of the trip – the total cost for each volunteer’s involvement with the relief effort – has been subsidized by entrepreneur Nate Dalton, once of the North Shore but now relocated to Florida. And it is part of a larger program being branded as 1Mitzvah, based on the idea that a single act of good can change the world.
“There is this idea that in Judaism you have your designated high moments like Yom Kippur or Shabbat,” Rabbi Lipsker said, “but if you want to talk about the Jewish mysticism or spirituality, every day is Yom Kippur.”
Why would one approach giving in a half-hearted way? Rabbi Lipsker seemed to be asking. Why would one approach life with a focus on anything but the most immediate need at the moment? “We’re not getting somewhere,” said the rabbi, “we’re there right now.”
The volunteer trip was a gift to the people still struggling in the flood zones of Louisiana, but also, as expected, it was a gift for the givers, the teens. “I made a point of not hiring a bus – I made a point of hiring five 15 passenger vans, so we were constantly talking to the teens,” agreed Rabbi Friedman. “Everything was done so there would be a certain togetherness, giving the opportunity for them to talk with me and my wife and Yossi and the other adults.” And, importantly, “I had more meaningful conversations with these teens then I’ve ever had,” he added.
“One night on the trip, it was 9 p.m., and the kids were exhausted, they were begging us, ‘Please, can’t we go back to the hotel and go to sleep, we’re so tired!” And we’re like, ‘No, we’re going to do a history tour now, and then we’re going out for beignets!” explained Rabbi Shmaya. “After a few days, there was such a harmony and a love, it was really heartwarming.”
Rabbi Yossi, as usual, was overflowing with passion, repeating the message he wanted the young people to absorb. “This house that we’re jacking up that has no insulation, that has no siding on it, that’s being rotted from the inside and the people who own it have been living in a hotel for four years?” he asked, nearly in a shout. “This is the holiest place in the world, this is Jerusalem! This is Judaism!”