Rabbi Zalman Itkin (1953-2006)
Open up any Chabad magazine or website and all you see are pictures of Chabad rabbis and shluchim (representatives) embracing politicians and international philanthropists, or standing in front of shiny new buildings with donors' names on the outside and acres of fiber-optic networks and designer furniture on the inside.
Don’t get me wrong, the success the Chabad movement has enjoyed over the last 40 years has been built on the back of the sacrifice and hard work of those same rabbis and shluchim. The proud smiles in those photos paper over the worry and heartache of meeting the mortgage, 24-hour workdays and stressing over the need to balance their public duties with familial responsibilities.
Every one of those shluchim chose to lead the life out of a commitment to the ideology and loyalty to the vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to change the world one person at a time, to change the landscape of Jewish life, one Jew at a time. Had they elected to direct their drive and determination to any other business, I have no doubt that they’d have enjoyed tremendous financial success. The fact that they willingly chose the spiritual struggle of Jewish outreach reflects only to their credit.
But the fact remains, that it is the large-town shluchim, with the multiple institutions operating out of those shiny buildings, that get all the glory.
It is ironic in a way; the philosophy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe accentuated the value on action over theory, performance over principle. To the Rebbe’s mind it was the individual deed of Jews that would realize the redemption, and all the gloss and glamour is just a means to an end.
But we live in a hedonistic world where it’s not what you say, but how loud you say it. Where showmanship rules supreme and the more publicity you pull, the more admiration you attract.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, when I first met my father in law, Rabbi Zalman Itkin -- the Chabad representative in Hamilton, Ontario -- I too was less than impressed. A nice guy sure, well regarded by all, with a good word and a joke at the ready for everyone he met. People liked him. But was he a success?
He’d spent 20 years in Hamilton and never established a Synagogue. He ran a converted two-story house next to campus as a student center for the college kids, but where was his pedestal from which to shine out over the town?
There were reasons for his reticence. When he’d first been sent to Hamilton in 1981, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, his ‘boss,’ gave him parting instructions: “You are going there to add to the town, not to cause machlokes (disharmony).” Hamilton had a successful local rabbi and an infrastructure of achievement. Starting a competing institution would have been counter productive to his mission to add Judaism and Jews.
And so he didn’t compete but supplemented. He sat at the back of shul (synagogue) and made every person feel welcome as they walked in. No one else was ministering to the students, so he rose to the challenge. He visited people in their offices, gave private shiurim and touched lives, one soul at a time.
It was really only at his shiva that I truly began to appreciate the scale of his achievements. Person after person, of all ages and degrees of observance walked in broadcasting the same message, “I loved that man, he changed my life”.
To some he was “my only link to Judaism,” to others he’d been the inspiration to commit to a life of greater observance. Students who had eaten at his table every Shabbat for 4 years huddled in grief next to grandmothers who lit Chanukah candles annually only because he brought them the menorah. Little kids felt like they’d lost a personal friend -- the cuddly big man who’d sing to them Jewish songs and tell them stories, while older couples related how it was his counseling and advice that had saved their marriage.
And the same constant refrain; he was always joyful, always inspired, and his passion for people attracted people to him and they couldn’t help but want some of whatever he was on.
When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, Joseph recognised his brothers but they did not recognize him (Genesis 42:8). The worldly nobleman they were encountering, beset and besieged by the cares of the entire world existed on a plane far removed from their more humdrum existence.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that one can be a statesman and remain spiritual, you can walk with kings and be personally unaffected; spend one’s day entwined in the machinations of state and remain the ‘son of Yaakov’.
Nowadays we struggle with a different dilemma; everyone wants to be a general, no one a foot soldier. Whereas in Joseph’s day the challenge was to prove that a King can be a Jew, nowadays the question the world asks is whether you can live life on a smaller scale and still be counted as a success.
My father-in-law achieved greatness not in newspaper headlines but by the impression imprinted on the consciousness of family and friends. He left behind no Taj Mahal of bricks and mortar but a legacy of love and devotion. Over his 54 years of life, he touched the souls of thousands by focusing his care and attention on each individual, and proved that even someone who aims for the common denominator can truly be a king.
I didn’t have the brains or maturity to tell you this to you when you were here, my dear father in law, but I love you and admire you, and will look up to you forever.
Note: This past Sunday, January 7, 2007, marked the Shloshim, thirty-day mourning period since the sudden passing of Rabbi Chaim Shneur Zalman Itkin, an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada for 26 years. Rabbi Itkin, a father of 6, passed away suddenly on Friday, 17 Kislev 5767, Decmber 8, 2006, a few days before the wedding of his 3rd daughter, Shaina. To contribute to the fund established in the memory of Rabbi Itkin and help support his family and the continuation of his work, please click here.
Leah and Elisha Greenbaum, Rabbi Itkin’s oldest daughter and son-in-law, live in Melbourne, Australia, where Elisha serves as a community rabbi.