My grandfather, Rabbi Leibel Alevsky, director of Chabad of Northeast Ohio, moved to Cleveland in 1971 to establish a permanent Chabad presence. Prior to that, he served as the director of public relations in the Lubavitch Youth Organization based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Part of his responsibilities included connecting Jewish community leaders with the Chabad movement and giving them the opportunity to meet the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Shneerson, o.b.m.
One of the leaders Alevsky contacted was Gordon Zacks of Columbus. At the time, he served as the chairman of the Young Leadership Cabinet of the national United Jewish Appeal.
Zacks wrote about the encounter in his memoirs.
“In December 1969, I received a call from a man named Leibel Alevsky. He was a rabbi with the Lubavitch movement in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn,” Zacks’ reports read. “He said the Rebbe wanted to meet me. Given the tone of the phone call, I thought I was being invited for a royal audience. I immediately said yes to a date in January, but I didn’t even know who the Rebbe was. My rabbi gave me some background and urged me to go ahead with the meeting.
“On the appointed day in January, Alevsky and I were finishing dinner in his home at 11:15 at night. We got a call that the Rebbe would see me now. I walked with Alevsky to a modest building to find 300 people from around the world, each waiting at the Rebbe’s headquarters, the Chabad Center, in the middle of the night for an audience with the Rebbe.”
The Rebbe had followed reports about Zacks’ efforts to ensure Jewish continuity through various initiatives. He had called him for this meeting to encourage him to invest – specifically – in Jewish education.
“The Jewish house is on fire,” the Rebbe said, referring to assimilation and its threat to Jewish continuity. “We have an emergency, and this is not the time to experiment with new ways to put out the fire. Instead, you call the proven and tested fire department.”
Jewish education, the Rebbe maintained, is the proven method.
Zacks left impressed and inspired to direct more of his efforts toward Jewish education, and he maintained a continuous correspondence with the Rebbe.
Beginning in 1986, the Rebbe had a receiving line on Sunday in which he passed out a dollar bill to be given by the recipient as tzedakah to charity. His reasoning: “When two people meet, something good should result for a third.” One week in 1988, Zacks and his daughter joined the line to see the Rebbe again.
“When it was our turn to speak with the Rebbe,” Gordon wrote, “he looked at me and asked ‘What are you doing for Jewish education?’ His eyes had the same penetrating look that had scanned me 17 years earlier. It was as though I had just walked back into his office. In truth, hundreds of thousands of people had filed past him over those years.
“‘You are amazing!’ I exclaimed to him.”
According to Zacks, the Rebbe replied, “What does that have to do with saving Jewish lives? What are you doing for Jewish education?”
The Rebbe dedicated his efforts not only to Jewish education, but to education in general. It was President Jimmy Carter who first recognized the Rebbe’s efforts by designating the Rebbe’s birthday as Education Day U.S.A., a national day dedicated to educational awareness. This designation has been repeated by all United States presidents ever since.
“Education, in general,” the Rebbe said when Education Day was first declared, “should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge or to make a better living. And we must think in terms of a ‘better living’ not only for the individual, but also for the society as a whole. The school system must pay more attention, indeed the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values. They must put greater emphasis on the promotion of fundamental human rights and obligations of justice and morality.”
June 25 marks the 26th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing. With the challenges we have been facing as a nation over the last few weeks, the Rebbe’s call for education as the key to heal our society remains as relevant as ever.
Each of us in the Jewish community must ask themself the question that the Rebbe posed to Gordon Zacks: “What are you doing for Jewish education?”
Rabbi Mendy Greenberg is director of Twinsburg Chabad, which he established with his wife Mussie in 2017.