Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman has been the spiritual leader of Chabad of Peabody since its inception in 2003. He grew up in Long Beach, Calif., where his father established the first Chabad center there. He received his rabbinic ordination in Israel. In addition to leading a congregation, Rabbi Schusterman is a mohel. He is married to Raizel Schusterman, and the couple have seven children: Mendy, Mordy, Rochel Leah, Shaya, Levi, Sarah, and Henny.
Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up and your family background?
I grew up in Long Beach, Calif., number 4 of 11 children, to a family that did Chabad work, so that is what I grew up doing and knowing and is all I ever really wanted to do. The community was much smaller than it is today, so I was friends with the other rabbi’s kids, and my neighbors on the block who were not Jewish and my classmates who were not observant. That was completely fine with me, as I didn’t even know that I was missing out on the pleasure of living in a religious community – think Brooklyn. So hanging out with non-religious people felt more comfortable to me than hanging with the religious. That sentiment has continued into adulthood. The warm weather was a given, and though I had lived many places and climates in the world, the long New England winters [as a long-term resident] were and still are jarring even today.
My father and mother [of blessed memory] and then my Ema, his second wife, were of the early pioneer shluchim that helped establish the Chabad community in Long Beach in August of 1971. It was a great life as I recall it, though much of it was impacted by my mother’s early passing when I was only 10 years old. By the time I came of age, they had already established a Jewish Day School in nearby Huntington Beach, and by third grade I was commuting daily to Los Angeles – a 45-60 minute drive. Later in high school, I joined the ranks of the “Yeshiva Bochurim” Boys and stayed at the dormitory in LA.
My Yeshiva schooling took me from Los Angeles, to France, to Russia, South Africa, and finally I concluded my Semicha [rabbinic ordination] in Israel. I spent summers or short stints as a student assistant in England, Italy, Bulgaria, Ukraine and every country in the southern half of Africa, from Malawi and south. I even made an unscheduled stop due to airplane mechanical failure in Malta, where I got to spend a day. I have managed to get around a bit.
I began my post of Chabad shaliach and rabbi in August of 2003.
Did you always want to be a rabbi?
I always knew I wanted to be a part of the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe’s Army. I didn’t know the specifics – rabbi, director of a school, or another position that would allow me to serve others – but I knew that I wanted to be a part of that special group. The Rebbe heaped praise and attention on his “frontline soldiers” – those who would go out of the comfort of the religious community to do this holy work. At overnight camp, we shluchim kids were celebrated and glorified and I basked in it awaiting the day I could do it as a full representative and not only my parents’ child.
You established the first Chabad House in Peabody. How did you decide to come to Peabody?
Chabad of Peabody was established in August of 2003 when Raizel and I were invited by Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, director of Chabad of the North Shore, to establish a new center for the growing needs of the Jewish community. Prior to our time in Peabody, we worked in an assistant position for Rabbi Yossi’s sister and brother-in-law, so when it became time to move on, they made the shidduch, introducing us to Rabbi Yossi. As they say, the rest is history.
Local Chabad centers are evolving into many things – a shul, a Hebrew School, an adult education center. How would you explain Chabad to someone who never heard of the organization?
A Chabad house is all of the above but so much more. If we are doing our job right, it is a place that can fill any Jewish need that a person might have. Essentially, we are a lean machine, not bogged down by boards and rules, and can pivot to create as many on-ramps or entry points for every Jew that moves. At every juncture in life, there is a need for Yiddishkeit. From birth, to Mommy and Me, schooling, relationships, marriage, illness and, sadly, death. In our signature loving and nonjudgmental way, people find that they can approach a Chassidic Orthodox rabbi in a safe way for direction, guidance, love, and support to help them through whatever life brings.
A recent Pew survey found that 38 percent of American Jews had engaged in some way with Chabad, and that 75 percent of those involved with Chabad do not identify as Orthodox. How do you explain the attraction of Chabad’s Orthodox Judaism to largely secular Jews?
The Rebbe, my mentor and teacher, was also an incredible business visionary. Intentionally or not, he created a model that has shown to be one that spawns more and more success. He created a decentralized system where each Chabad center has the autonomous ability to figure out how to convey the Rebbe’s one-of-a-kind love: to gently convey the values of Judaism, Torah study and mitzvoth observance. Gently prodding people to advance their Yiddishkeit at a pace they are comfortable, but never being satisfied.
While the “traditional” models of belonging to a shul are struggling, and everyone is doing what they can to shore up an old system, the Rebbe encouraged his followers not to be followers, but leaders. If the old system isn’t working, make a new one. Be innovative and figure out how to do it all better. To that end, if it means not having dues, so be it. If it means creating programs that are not typically associated with a shul, but are inviting to someone who is normally afraid of a shul, do it. It can mean hosting an event offsite at a nearby hotel if need be to make people feel safe, regardless of how you do it, just make Jews feel welcomed.
The only strict and nonnegotiable rule is that whatever you do must adhere to the strict guidelines of Halachah. Everyone responds to warm, authentic care and consideration. A good spiritual hug [and sometimes physical hug] can accomplish more than you can imagine.
Your wife Raizel Schusterman, who is a Positive Psychology Based Life Coach, has been your partner in building Chabad of Peabody. What role has she played in the process?
At Chabad, the rabbi and rebitzen are a team. The rabbi is not “in charge” and the spouse can play a supporting role if they choose, rather it is at least a 50/50 share effort if not more. In our case, Raizel is creative and brilliant and helps raise the standard of everything that we do, so I’d say she is more than 50 percent. Her training as a Positive Psychology Based Life Coach has only helped since it gives her extra tools to help others, and guide me as well when I am struggling for an answer.
You’re a rabbi and a mohel. Why did you decide to become a mohel?
That’s a great question. I can tell you this for sure, it was not one of those things that I said, “I want to be a mohel when get older.” I had been a summer counselor in camps in Russia and Ukraine and had been up close and personal with brisim for a number of months.
Then a few years into our work here in Peabody, I broke my foot and had to leave for Pesach and we went to my brother in Atlanta, who was already a mohel, for the holiday. I accompanied him to the bris, and I said, “Oh, that’s easy, I can do that.” So I asked my wife how she felt about spending the summer in Israel to train and she was extremely supportive. That was kind of all there was to it. I will say, it has helped me in my Yiddishkeit work as well as connecting unaffiliated Jews with their local Jewish and Chabad centers across the state.
You’re in your 18th year at Chabad. How have you been marking the anniversary?
No doubt this year was one we never could have fathomed or planned for. Nevertheless, as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “The answer to why, is what.” I have no idea why this pandemic happened, and literally just as we were about to launch a year full of carefully planned programs and events dubbed “Year of love.” What I did know is we couldn’t let that bog us down, and that we’d have to figure out what do about it.
We did find a way to celebrate the year with many exciting activities as featured in a recent Jewish Journal article. It included food giveaways for holidays, multiple mailed offerings to all on our mailing lists [Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, and more], a drive-in Jewish movie theater, many online free Zoom events to carefully planned pandemic safe events throughout the year. Our plan is to conclude the Torah that we began writing last August with a large ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and a final in-person party open to the community in November, Entitled “To Life – Finally.” At the guidance of our closer friends and supporters, we are deferring our 18th year gala dinner till next year so that all can feel safe to come out and celebrate.
When you’re not in synagogue, how do you like to best spend your time?
I love to read, write, and learn, and laugh. I have written a number of articles for Chabad.org, the most trafficked Jewish website out there, and I am within a year of completing the entire Talmud. About a year and a half ago, I joined an eight-year study program to complete the Lekkutei Sichos, the central work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings. I like to spend time with my children and my wife. Travel is something I am looking forward to resuming more of as the kids get older.