Back in the ‘70s, my husband and I wanted to live in a larger home, so we moved to Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. Mountain Lakes was a beautiful town, but the Jewish community there was highly assimilated.
Click here for full-color print version
I myself had a very Jewish upbringing, having grown up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a community that was quite traditional, even if not all of its members were observant. Despite that, I became less involved with my Judaism as I grew older and more worldly.
My husband Chaim, of blessed memory, was a mechanical engineer working near the Battery Tunnel in Manhattan. One day he went to work and saw a Mitzvah Tank parked outside, with a few yeshivah students standing nearby.
“Are you Jewish?” they asked, and he replied that he was.
“Then come in with us,” they said.
He didn’t know what to expect, but he followed them inside the Mitzvah Tank. They put on tefillin, recited the Shema, and when they were done, he asked them: “How much do I owe you?”
“Owe us?” they asked. “It’s our mitzvah to do this!” They explained that they were there at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and that was probably the first time that either my husband or I had ever heard of the Rebbe.
In Mountain Lakes, we were members of a neighboring Conservative congregation. The rabbi of that congregation, who happened to have studied in a Lubavitch school in his youth, would take members on adult education trips, one of which was to the Rabbinical College of America, a Chabad yeshivah in Morristown, New Jersey. My husband joined the trip and came back elated. After we joined a Chabad Shabbaton together, he began attending classes at the yeshivah, and from there, our love of Judaism, and our connection to Lubavitch grew.
We became observant in 1978 – the only Orthodox family in town – and before long, began looking to move to a place more suited to our religious and communal needs. Instead of driving our children ten miles to the Chabad school in Morristown, we wanted to live in a place that had a Jewish school, and where our children could be friends and playmates with like-minded peers. Although we hadn’t yet met the Rebbe in person, it felt natural for us to seek his blessing. So in 1980, we wrote a letter to the Rebbe, giving two options we had been considering in New Jersey: Morristown, or another religious community in West Orange.
The answer we received in reply, a full-page letter, blew our minds.
After praising the recent changes we had made in our lives, the Rebbe wrote: “I have often pointed out that one has to think not only of oneself, but also of one’s obligation to the community in which one lives.”
“Therefore,” he continued, “it would not be right to abandon the battlefront. Instead, a more determined effort should be made to strengthen and spread Yiddishkeit in the community, all the more since there are not many who are willing or able to do this.”
We were taken aback by this letter, and the people we showed it to in Morristown were flabbergasted: We had only been observant for a very short time, had no extensive knowledge of Judaism, were both working full-time, and we had children. Yes, I had learned a bit growing up, but I didn’t know much. Furthermore, Mountain Lakes was a very sophisticated, largely professional community, and we wondered how we would be able to fulfill the Rebbe’s directives there. What did we know?
Although Rabbis Moshe Herson, Avremel Lipsker, and Dovid Vichnin – of the Morristown yeshivah – played a major role in our religious development, Chabad’s outreach network wasn’t as organized as it is nowadays; we had no special guidance on how to fulfill this mission – it was just sink or swim. Well, we swam. We just saw what was happening in the yeshivah, looked in some magazines to find out what Chabad was doing elsewhere, and rose to the challenge.
We had guests for Shabbat and the holidays, we gave people matzah for Passover, and had menorah lightings on Chanukah. Every week, we had Tea and Torah at the home of a local family, bringing in Asher Herson, a young Chabad rabbi, to teach the class. My husband, who was by then working for the Department of Defense, put up a sukkah at his workplace, and held Torah classes there as well. When the Rebbe spoke about the importance of printing Tanyas in all Jewish communities, we even did that, printing one on our own property.
It was all very daunting, especially because I’m a perfectionist, and if I’m going to undertake something, I want to do it with my whole heart and soul. I certainly didn’t want to represent Lubavitch poorly, or embarrass the Rebbe. Yet here we were, serving as his emissaries, as unofficial shluchim. We stayed, soldiered on, and kept learning and growing.
There was one family who became observant as a result of our efforts – and then moved out to be closer to a religious community – and many more who became much more aware of their Judaism. The Rebbe’s idea was that our very presence would ignite other Jewish souls, and we witnessed that happening.
In addition to writing to the Rebbe every time we started a new initiative, I would also write from time to time, asking if we could leave. But he never answered that question. He had told us he was very happy with what we were doing, so we stayed put. At one point, I started a kosher catering business, but running it alongside our existing activities, while raising a family, became hectic. Again, I wrote to the Rebbe to say that I thought it was too much for me to keep the business open.
In reply, he wrote about how providing kosher food to Jewish people was such an amazing mitzvah. He didn’t say that I had to keep doing it, but he advised consulting with some experts in the field. I ended up staying with it and eventually my daughter took over the business.
After over a decade, Rabbi Asher Herson was brought to serve as a permanent shliach in a neighboring community. With him nearby, we felt it was time for us to move. One day, while the Rebbe was giving out dollars for charity, my husband told him that we would like a blessing to move. The Rebbe gave him two dollars: “One for you, and one for moving.” So, we gave our activities over to Rabbi Herson, moved to Morristown and have lived here happily ever after.
I don’t know how many people with a background as limited as ours were ever appointed by the Rebbe as his emissaries, but he had incredible confidence in us, and he never wavered in his decision.
Being the only religious people in our town could be very lonely; living there was a tremendous struggle and a sacrifice, and at times our children resented it. But it was a beautiful period in our lives, and our children grew up to be terrific kids, who are making us proud by continuing to live with the Rebbe’s mission.
As the Rebbe often explained, G-d put each of us into this world with a unique mission and a unique set of talents. Everybody has something to offer to those in need of spirituality; everybody can be a shliach in their own right.
Mrs. Sarah Hein is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who works as a Jewish event coordinator for Holiday Inn. She resides in Morristown, New Jersey, and was interviewed in March, 2023.