I sat in the large oval brick sanctuary of Chicago’s Congregation B’nei Ruven in Chicago with several hundred other Chassidic men and women. Separated by the traditional mechitza, we were gathered to mark Yud Shevat (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat), the anniversary of passing of the Previous Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—in 1950. One year later, his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, officially accepted the position of Rebbe at a Chassidic gathering held at Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

As I looked around the hall, I was immediately struck by the size of the crowd. Every seat in the room was taken; I had to make do with sitting on the stairs to the raised platform that held the ark. I don’t think this would have been the case 20 or 30 years ago, when there were but a handful of Chassidic families in the area.

I was then struck by the fact that not one of the people seated had ever met the Previous Rebbe—appropriate for what has become as much a celebration of the beginning of the Rebbe’s tenure as it is a memorial for his father-in-law.

The evening’s speaker was Rabbi Yoseph Y. Groner, head shaliach in North Carolina and executive director of the Lubavitch Education Center North Carolina in Charlotte. The son of one of the Rebbe’s long-serving aides, he had a wealth of personal interactions with the Rebbe from which he wove a powerful talk.

“The Rebbe never dismissed a single individual,” he said, citing the example of how the Rebbe smiled and even hugged an Israeli policymaker who had actively opposed the Rebbe’s efforts to safeguard the spiritual nature of the Jewish state. “This is a powerful lesson we can all take and apply in our own lives, with our families, friends and anyone we come across.”

An Ongoing Partnership

There were audible giggles when he told of the time he snuggled up inside the Rebbe’s tallit during prayer services—much to the horror of the assembled—but most of his talk had a decidedly serious air, with a sense of purpose and urgency.

“There is a partnership between the Rebbe and the Chassidim,” he said. “When you were writing to the Rebbe about something that was for the greater communal good, you knew that he would reply. People don’t realize it, but the Rebbe put in real effort into what he did. When we put in effort, he reciprocated in kind.”

Rabbi Yoseph Y. Groner.
Rabbi Yoseph Y. Groner.

As he paused to sing a niggun—a slow, soul-stirring Chassidic melody—I thought back to the first 10 Shevatfarbrengen with the Rebbe in 1951. I once asked my grandfather—at whose wedding the Rebbe would officiate less than three weeks later—if he was there. He told me that he was not. Why? Because the Rebbe had sent him on shlichus to Los Angeles, and the Rebbe wanted him to continue doing what he was doing.

The Rebbe demanded work, from himself and from others.

To drive the point home, the rabbi told the story of a young boy who had wandered into the Rebbe’s study one Shabbat afternoon while the Rebbe sat learning. Looking up, the Rebbe asked the child what he was doing. In response to the boy’s reply that he was doing “nothing,” the Rebbe motioned to the books lining the walls of the study and asked, “And when will you have time to learn all of this?”

As midnight approached, I headed for the door. On my way out, I met a friend who opened a Chabad center with his wife less than two years ago. We joked about how our conversation may become the stuff of my next article (how right he was), and he then told me how many people in his community read Chabad.org regularly.

“Just the other day, one of our friends told me that he was preparing his 2015 business plan,” he related, “when he took a break and watched Challenge [a video on the Rebbe’s relentless call for every Jew to never rest], and that gave him the boost to do it in an entirely different way.”

“Yes,” I told him. “That’s just the right way to end the farbrengen."

"We must always do more, and the Rebbe will be there to help us do just that.”