“Why be Jewish, or any label for that matter?” I declared to the rabbi. “All the problems in the world, well, most of them anyhow, can be traced to some sort of organized religion.”

The rabbi sat quiet for a moment in front of the entire class. It was winter semester in 1972 at the University of Buffalo, and good ol’ Divine providence had placed me in a course titled “Jewish Mysticism.” It was also my last semester before“Why be Jewish?” I asked graduating. I had a job lined up to help teach geodesic dome-building and assist at an organic farm. In my four-plus years since high school, I had been through quite a lot. I was coming out of the Eastern religions/meditation scene. Despite having a roommate who was a drug dealer, I was now clean and realized that scene was a dead-end street.

Being born Jewish and not really knowing what that meant, I was intrigued by the course description. Was there really anything “mystical” about Judaism? Was there really anything beyond joining a country club, and eating bagels and lox on Sunday mornings?

Despite the intriguing course title, I fought with this teacher all semester long. I figured, who was he to teach me? After all, I had been around the world in my travels. Whereas I figured that Rabbi Gurary, who was affectionately known as “Rabbi G,” had probably never even left Brooklyn, N.Y. (well, maybe to go on a short trip or two to the Catskills) before he arrived in town to open a Chabad center.

No, my attitude was that I was going to learn him a thing or two about life. My spiritual creed at that time was very much, pardon the expression, in tune with John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” In my argument with Rabbi G, I couldn’t help but focus on one line which the Beatles’ main singer croons: “Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.”

Indeed. It seemed like a profound yet simple truth. Wasn’t it organized religion that was making most, if not all, the main trouble on the planet? From the Crusades to the European Wars of Religion to modern-day terrorism, there’s this notion of justifying “killing in the name of … .”

I put my hands up a bit, smiled, and uttered an expression he had actually taught me: “Nu?” Perhaps I had stumped the rabbi at last, and he had no answer to my wisdom.

“Oh, you’ll love Chabad,” Rabbi G responded with a twinkle in his eye. “We’re very disorganized.”

The author in 1972, the year he enrolled in Rabbi Gurary's class at University of Buffalo.
The author in 1972, the year he enrolled in Rabbi Gurary's class at University of Buffalo.

The entire class broke out in laughter, myself included. The answer to that particular dilemma would come later, as would about a hundred other questions I had. But I was slowly beginning to see that there was a lot more to this Judaism business, and that I was just scratching the surface.

This past weekend, I had an educational conference in New York City that coincided with the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, more commonly known as the Kinus Hashluchim. My wife Gittel and I stayed with our son Rafi, who lives in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the conference is held, and so we got to experience a bit of the energy and inspiration that pervades this incredible annual gathering. This year’s convention featured more than 4,500 Chabad rabbis, who arrived in New York from all over the world. I’m actually surprised that there isn’t a Chabad House on the moon yet, but it’s probably not too far in the making.

Just walkingJust walking the streets of Crown Heights was electifying! the streets of Crown Heights was electrifying. On one corner, I met an emissary from Hawaii. On another was a rabbi from Paris. In the bagel shop, I schmoozed with some shluchim from England, where I had formerly given some concerts and Shabbatons. Each encounter didn’t just reflect on the past, but more importantly, represented a chizuk—that proverbial “booster shot in the arm”—as we discussed future endeavors and projects. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was never content with past accomplishments. With Chabad, it’s always a matter of m’chayil el chayil—moving ever onward and upward.

Being in Crown Heights over the weekend also gave me a powerful feeling of gratitude to the Rebbe’s awesome army of shluchim. I couldn’t help but marvel at all the changes that had taken place since that class with Rabbi G. Forty-plus years after a course on “Jewish Mysticism,” and I’m walking around Crown Heights on Shabbat, feeling very comfortable with my beard and my long black coat, looking more like Rabbi G than I ever could have imagined. I was not only a father to seven beautiful children but a grandfather to more than I can count. If it wasn’t for the shluchim—if Rabbi G didn’t have the mesiras nefesh to come to Buffalo and start a Chabad House—who knows what, where and who I would have been? I shudder to think of how I could have easily ended up. So many of my high school and college friends got lost along the way: some from drugs; others from Eastern-type religions; a few ended up in psychiatric wards. Many never married, and now confess to me how lonely their lives seem without the nachas of children and grandkids.

Eventually, I learned that Judaism is not a religion; it’s a way of life. It lives and breathes meaning and inspiration into our daily existence. It infuses joy into everything we do.

However, I did discover one thing that Rabbi G was very wrong about. I saw it with my own eyes. And it was absolutely mind-boggling.

Two of our grandsons came in for the convention, and I had the privilege of bringing them to their various drop-off points for the simultaneous program for “young shluchim,” the sons of emissaries. There were probably close to 1,000 kids whoI learned that Judaism is not a religion; it’s a way of life came in for the weekend, and Chabad kept them safe, busy and happy for days and nights on end. Each kid was placed in a bunk with several counselors. There were buses, and sleeping arrangements, and nametags, and a zillion pieces of luggage, and thousands of meals to worry about—and a whole host of details that I can’t even begin to imagine. So besides the almost 5,000 shluchim attending the main convention, there was also this incredibly successful massive overnight camp that took place at the same time. We all know how hard it is to try and keep our own kids happy; now try that daunting task for 1,000 others. I’m sorry Rabbi G, but I got ya on this one! Chabad is anything but disorganized. Props to all the amazing staff who ran events for these boys. You can work at my summer camp anytime!

While Rabbi G won the vast majority of our discussions back in Buffalo, I think I am the one who has been the real winner.

The author and his wife at a Shabbaton where he spoke in Burlington, Vermont, 2016.
The author and his wife at a Shabbaton where he spoke in Burlington, Vermont, 2016.