Photo: Dudu Bechar
Chabad children
Photo: Dudu Bechar

The rabbi's army

Chabad summer camp includes money collection, love of God; 'the object is to send emissaries all over the world so that every Jew would have the option of receiving physical and spiritual aid,' coordinator says

They stand in a line, fall in a group of threes and are ordered to go to the parade ground, equipped with a discipline manual. Despite the similarities to any army recruitment center, these are not 18-year-old kids who are joining the IDF, these are children, aged 9 to 13 who were accepted to a unique program aimed at training the children as "house managers" for the countless Chabad houses located worldwide. The program is run by the Chabad organization itself.


For this purpose, Kfar Galim, a youth village located near the coastal town of Atlit was chosen. Some 150 children, who are planning to become emissaries of the Rabbi of Lubavitch, still get to go to the pool and field trips, but the bulk of the training is given in an entirely military-like discipline, which includes an intensive program where the children stay at the youth village for more than two weeks without returning home to mom and dad.


Among the activities the children attend are lectures on the various aspects of being a Chabad emissary, from helping the poor to holding Passover Seders for the hundreds of Israeli backpackers overseas who desire a little piece of home.


This course, the first of its kind, was designed and is run by Chabad's youth organization, headed by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Aharonov, and is aimed to instill the essence of emissary work for Chabad, and build up a renewing pool of potential future emissaries.


"This course is designed to continue the Rabbi of Lubavitch's way, to educate the next generation of Chabad leadership and to instill the love of Israel", said Rabbi Aharonov, "These children will be the representatives of Chabad everywhere". The results, he hopes, will be evident in a few years when these children get married, only then, if they wish and are able to meet the criteria required, can they become emissaries for Chabad.


'You have joined Hashem's army'

For most people, the encounter in Israel with a member of Chabad takes place when they offer tefillin to male passersby or offer a Shabbat lighting kit to the female members of the crowd. The more in-depth encounters however occur overseas, where many Chabad "bases" are located, filled with basic things a Jew requires – from kosher food to tefillin, to more complex things like diplomatic assistance and aid to the young Israeli backpackers who get into trouble far from home.


Usually the emissaries are the heads of small, close knit families – a father, a mother and a few children, who need help adjusting to their new environment, and gradually help their parents more and more when they are older.


"The objective is to send emissaries all over the world so that every Jew would have the option of receiving physical and spiritual aid," says Nahman Barod, a camp coordinator, affectionately nicknamed "the commander', who is in charge of a platoon of kids.


"To be an emissary for Chabad requires some sacrifice and adjustment to a certain reality. The fact that some of the children here arrive from emissary families, gives them an edge of sorts. While their parents need to adjust to the emissary life style, for them this life is routine".


Chabad believes that the more these children learn, the better their chances are of being successful in the field, or by paraphrasing an old army saying, "hard in training, easy in the battle for the soul". Using army terms is not new for the members of Chabad, even though no one will admit to it out loud, in contrast to other Orthodox sects in Judaism, their members serve in the IDF without social condemnation, and the emissaries' work sometimes completely interacts with the army.


The Chabad emissaries, among their different duties, visit different army bases before holidays and Shabbat and sometimes work together with "the army aunts" and give out food for soldiers on the road.


"I have friends in the army and I have talked to many soldiers in my life" says Barod, "we divided the 'troops' into three regiments, comprised of nine companies. Each 'soldier' received a folder with everything they need to know. We give the children a sense that we are fighting an enemy, the enemy being evil nature. Each 'soldier' must follow our rules; most of them are aimed at the children's safety: no hitting other children, no leaving the camp grounds, and attendance at camp functions are mandatory."


One such activity is the morning parade. But the day actually starts earlier, with a military style wake up at 7:15 am. The different companies march to the mikveh, and after a dip, say the Morning Prayer and head to the parade ground, where the children stand at attention in front of a picture of the Rabbi of Leubavits, who is referred to as the "chief of staff", salute, and then begin the hoisting of the flag, accompanied by the "soldiers" singing adherent hymns, and mention the 12 verses that the Rabbi of Leubavits decreed that every child should say during the day – six during the morning parade, and the other six during the evening parade.


"Summer camp is the best way to educate the children, because the activities yield an experience", says Barod. Among the different activities, the children play Monopoly, where instead of cities they buy countries in order to establish Chabad Houses. Children over the age of 13 however, are already learning to place tefillin on other people, raise money and organize massive holiday dinners and more.


The day's agenda is carefully planned, with base rules and course content handed out at the end of enlistment. "You have joined Hashem's army. The Jewish army is like any other army. It is built on discipline and values, and as the Rabbi said, you can rise through the ranks", states the notebook that each recruit receives.


Unlike the course that is offered through the Foreign Ministry, where only 30 people out of thousands are accepted every year, the children who get accepted to the Chabad emissary course got accepted the old fashioned way – their relation to current emissaries. Chabad's youth organization explains that the reason for this is that the children have the potential to be the best because they come from that particular environment - because they have already experienced the lifestyle.


The course is affectionately referred to as "Hashem's commandos", and the children know that they are soldiers in the Rabbi of Lubavitch's army, and while he is chief of staff, God still outranks him.


Besides being the children of emissaries, the other common thing these kids have is their devotion to "the rebbe", Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of the movement. The admiration to "The Rebbe" is so huge, that the Chabad movement has been without a clear cut leader since Schneerson's death in 1994.


A small group of followers went ahead and declared Schneerson as the messiah, a move that divided Chabad. Chabad's youth organization rejected this belief and opted for the position that while the movement is without a leader, the last leader's customs should be upheld.


This attitude is carried out with displays of affection and admiration to the character of "The Rebbe" and his deeds and is expressed in the institute of the emissaries, who carry the voice of "The Rebbe" throughout the world.


Another sign of admiration is the custom to name children after "The Rebbe." Among the popular names are Schneer, Menachem or Mendy, short for Mendel. The children are taught from a young age to continue the Rebbe's teachings. They salute the Chabad flag at every summer camp, study the torah and parts of the Mishnah that "The Rebbe" loved, and of course continue the emissary work.


'We are the commandos'

A classic candidate for the course is Mendy Gorlik, who is only 12 and is already planning to open a Chabad house is one of the former soviet republics. "My father is an emissary in Moscow and so are a few of my relatives," he says.


Twelve-year-old Mendy Van Frach, whose father is the emissary to Holland, plans to become one as well when he grows up. "I really hope that in the future I will be an emissary in Israel." When asked about the difficulties regarding living abroad, away from friends and family, he smiles and says "I get asked a lot on whether or not I'm lonely, and I explain that I meet a lot of interesting people and I do a lot of good deeds with my father and I understand the importance of being a Chabad emissary.


"All of the other children are basically soldiers in Hashem's army, and every soldier, after he gets married and approved for the job will go whereever he is told. We keep getting told that we are the commandos, before I didn't know what that meant, but after I was told what it meant and understood it's meaning I feel good about myself," he said.


"When you bring a Jew closer to Judaism and he performs a mitzvah, you are a part of it and its fun" says Mendy from Beersheba. "Sometimes you don't know if you are going to be an emissary, so I came here and it renewed my interest in becoming an emissary, to be a part of bringing people together".


Mendy's future "service" is dependant on a dream that he and his parents share. "You never know what's going to happen" he says with a smile, "what if the Messiah arrives tomorrow?"


פרסום ראשון: 08.21.08, 16:53
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