In one way or another, we all live with, and learn to accept, some sort of contradiction in our lives. At times it hinders our ability to get things done, but sometimes the contradiction itself is the source of our accomplishments.

In the past, I’ve been asked how it is possible that a young person like me, who was raised in a Jewish religious environment, and attended yeshivah educational institutions to study Talmud, Jewish law and mysticism for most of my waking hours, can continue with that lifestyle while living in a mostly secular community.

This is the life I lead as a shliach, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary. The majority of people I interact with on a daily basis do not look or behave like me, yet every Jew is welcome in my home regardless of how the person leads his or her life. The life of a shliach consists of a balance between accepting all Jews for who they are and maintaining one’s own personal religious standards.

To be sure, the concept of bridging two “worlds” is indeed central to chassidic teachings; bringing the physical and spiritual together is something I have always been taught to do and strive to implement. But practically speaking, how do I do it?

This week, as my family mourned the passing of my grandfather, Rabbi Hirsch Chitrik, I believe I discovered the source of my ability to capitalize on the paradox between my two worlds.

Zeide,” as we called him, was a living example of someone who straddled two worlds and succeeded in both.

Scholar and Businessman

My grandfather studying the Talmud in our backyard .
My grandfather studying the Talmud in our backyard .
My grandfather was a scholarly man and very well-versed in all areas of Torah and Jewish knowledge. He spent many hours studying, and he always shared what he learnt with others. The morning before leaving to the hospital for the routine surgery from which he never returned, he spent an hour reviewing a tractate of Talmud he was hoping to conclude before Passover. When his son, my uncle, came to pick him up, instead of talking about the procedure he was about to undergo, he preferred to discuss the subject he had just learned.

He also was extremely knowledgeable in many general subjects. He was able to hold his own in a Talmudic debate, as well as one involving science, history, philosophy or even politics. He loved learning about new topics, and was never satisfied until he mastered a subject in its entirety.

As one of my cousins pointed out this week, Zeide was a focused individual, able to tackle one area completely at a given moment and then shift his attention to something entirely different soon after. I saw this trait first-hand two years ago when my grandparents joined us for the occasion of my son Yudi’s third birthday and stayed with us throughout the weekend.

Over that Shabbat our community had the opportunity to meet Zeide, and they were enthralled by the stories and insights from the Torah that he shared as he intertwined them with less-than-spiritual matters.

For more than five decades, my Zeide built and ran a successful jewelry business, which he headed until his final day. Inevitably, Zeide would encounter many different people in the course of his business activities, and he always enjoyed sharing a Torah thought or a word of inspiration with them.

Being a successful entrepreneur enabled him to contribute generously to many charitable causes, and with his legendary honesty he was able to demonstrate that living an observant Jewish life holds one to higher standards. In fact, it was due to his involvement in and constant interaction with the business world at large that he was able to inspire others, Jews and non-Jews, to be better people.

A Proud Jew

My grandfather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
My grandfather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
But let me tell you of a time when my Zeide was a new father and recent immigrant from war-torn Europe, and he and his young wife and infant son traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to become leaders in the Jewish community. There he led a life very similar to the one I live, building Jewish institutions and community. This is a story that my aunt, Esther Piekarski, who is the director of Chabad of North Tel Aviv, tells about my Zeide:

In the spring of 1977 I was meeting with a group of children at a secular public school in preparation for Passover. Before beginning my presentation I was introduced by the headmaster as being a representative of Chabad.

The headmaster went on to relate that 20 years earlier he had been sent by the Jewish Agency to Brazil with the task of encouraging local Jews to make aliyah, to immigrate to Israel.

One day while using public transportation he saw a tall man, who from his beard and clothing was obviously a religious Jew, board the bus. The self-conscious Jew within him was suddenly overwhelmed with concern about what people would say or think regarding this “old fashioned” looking Jew.

To his surprise, the man was treated with great dignity and respect by all on board. This short episode had a profound impact on the headmaster, who said that from that moment he learned what it means to be a proud Jew.

He was sure that this person was the Chabad representative in Rio, and from the description of the person on the Brazilian bus, I am certain that the man was my father, bringing the story full circle.

That was my Zeide, a proud Jew, never compromising on who he was, yet always down to earth and greeting everyone with a smile. He lived in both worlds and did not allow a challenge to prevent him from reaching his goals. He turned a seemingly contradictory way of life into an opportunity to accomplish something he otherwise would not have been able to.

So, while I still have a lot to learn from my grandfather, I hope that this vital trait of his will continue to drive me to be a better person, a better Jew, and a better Jewish leader.