When the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, arranged for a young Rabbi Marvin Tokayer to serve Jews across Asia from a post in Tokyo, the former U.S. Air Force chaplain didn’t understand why he had been singled out for such a task. Sure, he had been stationed in Tokyo during his stint in the military, but he didn’t speak Japanese. He was engaged to be married to an Israeli woman who wasn’t too keen about travelling to such a foreign land. And he wasn’t even a Chabad-Lubavitch Chasid.

But the Rebbe persisted, telling Tokayer that “no community should be abandoned. We cannot abandon any ship.” He had to go back.

While at first hesitant about the request – which was followed up several times over the course of a few months by the president of the Jewish community of Japan – Tokayer and his new wife soon embraced the idea, looking at it as a two-year escape. They stayed in Asia for 20 years.

Tokayer talked about his experiences Sunday at a community-wide banquet commemorating 17 years since the Rebbe’s passing. His address, “My Encounter With the Rebbe,” gave the more than 400 people who had gathered at The Shul’s Jack and Miriam Shenkman Building in West Bloomfield, Mich., a window into the Rebbe’s wisdom and foresight in encouraging the rabbi to take up a mission that changed his life.

Tokayer, who was advised to grow a beard so he would be taken more seriously by his new congregants, arrived in 1968 to find a community of less than 1,000 Jews. Within hours, he had been greeted by Russian-speaking Jews from Siberia, German Jews, and Iraqi Jews. As the only rabbi at the time in the Far East, his work would take him to India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea. Tokayer and his wife raised four children during their time in Asia.

“I went for two years on a leave of absence and forgot to come home,” remarked Tokayer. “It opened my eyes to the entire world.”

Tokayer described the experience of meeting one-on-one with the Rebbe, which he was privileged to do several times. He said he was impressed by the Rebbe’s vast knowledge of numerous subjects both religious and secular, and that their conversations frequently turned to philosophy, archaeology, science and mathematics.

But what really affected Tokayer was the Rebbe’s ability to make him feel as if he were the most important subject in the world.

“Those sparkling blue eyes looked right through me,” said Tokayer, a description he has used several times, including in an interview for the Judaism website Chabad.org. “He knew me more than I knew myself. I was naked before him. For those precious minutes, he looked me square in the eye like he had nothing else to think about.”

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer addresses the gathering.
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer addresses the gathering.

Regional Conference

Coming as part of a regional conference of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, the Sunday banquet began with a welcome from Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of The Shul, followed by an address by Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz of Chicago, who talked about transforming the “oy to joy” by reflecting on the Rebbe’s teachings and finding the common soul that unites the Jewish people.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, focused on the Rebbe’s vision of strengthening Jewish communities throughout the world through his network of emissaries.

“There’s no such entity in the world as a small Jew,” said Kotlarsky. “This is the driving force of emissaries.”

The presentations were punctuated with music by acclaimed Chasidic singer Benny Friedman.

“It was very moving,” said Paula Stone of Farmington Hills. Kotlarsky “got to the heart of it: That every Jewish soul is precious, no matter where.”

Tokayer said the Rebbe encouraged his emissaries to bring a “Peace Corps mentality” to their work and that it was important to make every Jew proud of his ancestry. He also said that the Rebbe taught him that attending synagogue should be an uplifting experience.

“If people leave the same way they came in, then nothing happened,” explained Tokayer. “It should be a spiritual religious experience.”

Now a resident of Great Neck, N.Y., the rabbi still travels frequently to Asia and India to conduct tours and visit friends and former congregants. He still does not consider himself a Lubavitcher, but he maintains that his encounters with the Rebbe left an indelible impression.

Jerry Beale of West Bloomfield said he found the presentation to be both inspirational and educational.

“It gave us a tremendous understanding of the Rebbe, his religious and secular knowledge, and the work that has enabled Jews throughout the world to seek help when they need it,” said Beale. “The energy [the Rebbe] had was unbelievable.”