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Dr. Menachem Kovacs

9 May 2024

I didn’t grow up in a religious home, but my life was changed when – at age 26 – I attended an “Encounter with Chabad” event for college students, also known as a pegishah. That pegishah – which was held at the end of December 1972 – included inspiriting Torah lectures as well as lots of robust singing of chasidic melodies. It proved very meaningful to me spiritually.

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The event ended around midnight on December 31 and, walking out of Chabad Headquarters onto Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, I saw non-Jewish people celebrating the New Year, mindlessly blowing horns and falling down drunk. The contrast between what I just experienced and what I was seeing in front of me couldn’t have been greater.

This had such a profound effect on me that when I went back home to Silver Spring, Maryland, I sought out the Orthodox rabbi of the Hillel House at George Washington University and the Chabad emissary at the University of Maryland, and I began regularly studying Torah with them.

Not long after, I decided to take a leave of absence from my job – as a teacher of sociology at Montgomery College – and I enrolled in Tiferes Bachurim, the Chabad yeshivah in Morristown, New Jersey, geared to students who were just beginning to learn about Judaism. While studying there, I had my first meeting with the Rebbe.

In preparation for that meeting, I wrote a note outlining my life issues for which I was seeking the Rebbe’s advice.

One of those issues was that I did not want to return to my job in Silver Spring because there was no rabbinic leadership there. Ethics of the Fathers teaches that one must have a rabbi to guide him – a point which later became the focus of one of the Rebbe’s campaigns – and I had no one there.

In response, the Rebbe asked me, “Have you ever checked out Baltimore?”

This I had never done because it seemed to be too far from my teaching job. But the Rebbe insisted that I look into it. He said, “You say you want a mentor, so check it out.”

On his advice, I did just that and soon connected with Rabbi Mendel Feldman, a Chabad chasid who served as the spiritual leader of Shearith Israel Congregation and later of Khal Ahavas Tzemach Tzedek, which he founded. He was quite an impressive figure, and he became my mentor, my spiritual grandfather, my teacher of Torah. He also ordained me as a rabbi some years later.

Another issue I raised was my career. I did not want to continue teaching at a secular institution of higher learning. I wanted to teach in a religious environment, possibly at Yeshiva University or Touro College, where I had already interviewed for a job.

But the Rebbe did not think that this was a good idea. When he said that, I was startled. I thought, “A religious Jew should not try to work at a religious institution? Why not?”

He said, “You could get a job at a religious college but your whole career might be stymied. Why? Because in the back of their minds, your Jewish colleagues might resent the fact that your level of observance is different than theirs. For example, they are clean-shaven while you have a beard. They might not even realize that this is something that bothers them, but, unwittingly, they might stand in the way of your advancement.”

“Moreover,” he continued, “being in a large, secular institution of higher education, as you are now, presents you with more outreach opportunities. I want you to be a ‘light unto the nations’ as well as a ‘light unto the Jews.’”

Realizing that his advice was very wise and pragmatic, I did what he said. I returned to my job, where I was eventually promoted to be the chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, as well as the chair of the committee comprised of all twenty department chairs. As a result, I was able to work as an informal Chabad emissary on campus and, for many years, I led the Jewish Roots Center for Jewish outreach. The student body is comprised of about 2,000 Jews and 18,000 non-Jews, and as the Rebbe instructed, I influenced many students in both categories, sometimes without realizing I had done so. Just being an overtly religious Jew in my position had a tremendous impact.

A third issue that came up in my audience with the Rebbe was my doctoral thesis. By then, I had a Master’s Degree in sociology, and I intended to go on for a PhD. To obtain that degree, I had to write a thesis and I considered using lessons from Ethics of the Fathers as my subject. But the Rebbe advised against it. He felt that it would be premature for me to write a commentary on such a text, which great scholars have been analyzing for millennia, and he redirected me to find a subject within my area of expertise.

In the end, my doctoral thesis was a sociological study based on my interviews with my fellow yeshivah students over the years, examining how being in yeshivah changed them and the course of their lives.

In conclusion, I would like to say that all the advice the Rebbe gave me did not just impact my life when I was a young man, it continues to do so even now so many years later.

It says in the Tanya that when a holy man (a tzaddik) leaves this world, his influence becomes even more powerful. And I know from my personal experience how true this is. Although the Rebbe gave me life-transforming guidance when he was here, his blessings have stayed with me, and I feel their even greater power today.

A professor emeritus of sociology, Dr. Menachem Kovacs taught at Montgomery College in Maryland for 32 years. He was interviewed in February 2024.