Rabbi David Lau, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, began his first official visit to the United States today with early-morning prayers in Manhattan, followed by a visit to the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., the resting place of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—and his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

Rabbi Lau entered the open-roofed Ohel on an overcast and cool morning, accompanied by the Rebbe's secretaries, Rabbis Binyomin Klein and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky—who is also chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch—and a small entourage of aides and well-wishers, including Martin Oliner, chairman of the board of Religious Zionists of America, the organization that is sponsoring the rabbi's trip.

Lighting a candle before entering the Ohel (Credit: Eliau Piha/Chabad.org)
Lighting a candle before entering the Ohel (Credit: Eliau Piha/Chabad.org)

Rabbi Lau had the rare distinction of praying from the Rebbe’s personal Maane Lashon—a book containing traditional prayers and readings to be said at the resting place of the righteous—which the Rebbe used for 40 years and gave as a gift to Rabbi Krinsky, who regularly accompanied the Rebbe to the Ohel for decades.

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The 48-year-old was elected chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel in the summer of 2013. It is a position that his father, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, held with distinction from 1993 to 2003.

Prior to the visit to the Ohel, Rabbi Krinsky shared personal memories of the warm connection that Rabbi Lau’s family and the Rebbe enjoyed over the decades. In turn, Rabbi Lau expressed his own admiration for the Rebbe’s prodigious Torah scholarship and positive impact on Jewish life in Israel.

Like his father, Lau is recognized for his ability to reach beyond the confines of Israel’s religious communities and connect to people of all backgrounds.

As rabbi of Modi’in from 1997 to his recent call to the chief rabbinate, he was known as a rabbi who built bridges and fostered understanding in a young city that is home to a diverse community of Jews with a broad range of religious and political affiliations. He vigorously supported the work of Chabad emissaries while rabbi of Modi’in and participated in many Chabad activities, including marching along with rabbis and community members in the annual Lag B’Omer day parades.

Praying at the Rebbe's resting place (Credit: Eliau Piha/Chabad.org)
Praying at the Rebbe's resting place (Credit: Eliau Piha/Chabad.org)

Rabbi Boruch Slonim, director of Chabad of Modi'in, notes that Rabbi Lau’s success is due in large part to the personal connections he builds with constituents. “He honors every individual, and they reciprocate in kind,” says Slonim, who was accompanied by Lau at the International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries two years ago. “He very much takes the Rebbe’s message to heart. There are many times when we talk about communal matters and he asks me: ‘What would the Rebbe say about this?’ ”

The younger Lau’s approach is often perceived as an extension his father’s rich legacy.

The senior Rabbi Lau was a child survivor of Buchenwald who came from a long chain of European rabbis going back a thousand years. Even before his first audience with the Rebbe in the spring of 1974—a little more than 40 years ago—the elder Rabbi Lau had a close relationship with the Rebbe, whom he referred to as his guiding “pillar of fire.”

In fact, in 1992 it was the Rebbe who first predicted that Lau—then chief rabbi of Tel Aviv—would one day become chief rabbi of Israel, if, indeed, he wanted the position.

When his son was elected to the same position 20 years later during a time of social upheaval and political tension, he called his son and told him, “Dudi [a diminutive for David], you have a heavy responsibility because the rabbinate has never been easy … in the Jewish world, it’s the hardest job in the world.”

From left: Rabbi David Eliezrie, Martin Oliner, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky and Rabbi David Lau outside the Rebbe's resting place. (Credit: Eliau Piha/Chabad.org)
From left: Rabbi David Eliezrie, Martin Oliner, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky and Rabbi David Lau outside the Rebbe's resting place. (Credit: Eliau Piha/Chabad.org)