Photo: Avram Mlotek
Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in his Monsey home.Photo: Avram Mlotek
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Open Doors

Even in the wake of a violent attack on his home, a rebbe continues to welcome visitors—regardless of differences

Avram Mlotek
January 24, 2020
Photo: Avram Mlotek
Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in his Monsey home.Photo: Avram Mlotek

His door was unlocked. Two weeks prior, a man took advantage of this basic act of radical kindness when Grafton Thomas burst through Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg’s home in Monsey, N.Y., slashing at people with an 18-inch machete, leaving one man in critical condition.

Some might see Rottenberg’s decision to keep his door open after that vicious assault as naïve or unsafe. Others might view it as an affirmation of the Mishnaic rabbinic dictum: “Let your home be open abundantly.”

Regardless, the rabbi was expecting guests. It was Saturday night and his Hasidim were to join him for a melaveh malkah—a religious feast held after the Sabbath’s departure as a farewell.

I showed up, not dressed in Hasidic garb—with a yarmulke, yes, but one that was knitted, not a fur hat.

An obvious outlier in the room, the rebbe welcomed me immediately, warmly and graciously. He made space at his table, a great honor for a guest.

To an outsider, this may seem like a compassionate but trivial detail.

The rabbi was not merely a rabbi, though; he was a rebbe. A rebbe is a rabbi, but more. The head of a Hasidic clan, his community is tight-knit and his words are followed with bated breath. We witnessed this when the rebbe told a story later in the evening and his Hasidim stood up from their seats, farther away, to draw near when the rebbe spoke.

Sitting at this table in Monsey, I was transported to my own home. I, too, leave my apartment door unlocked when expecting guests.

As a rabbi and founder of Base, my partner and I open our home to young unaffiliated Jews on a regular basis for Shabbat, learning, and community service opportunities. We do this along with couples across the country and Europe who are committed to this shared value of hospitality.

I wasn’t there to host, though. I was there to come out of respect, out of a sense of brotherly belonging, a belief that all of Israel are intertwined, sharing the same fate, regardless of our political leanings or religious affiliations.

I came because on the Sunday of the previous week, 25,000 New Yorkers crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to state that the recent assault on ultra-Orthodox Jews was unacceptable.

I came because I was wearing my kippah the year before when I was verbally accosted by a Black Israelite on the subway, swearing and calling me a fake Jew, a cocksucker, a faggot. He told me that “Jews were responsible for the world’s mess,” and that Israel was not mine.

I came because my maternal grandfather grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as this rebbe. My grandfather told me about how the Italian Catholic kids would bully him, asking why he killed their god. He was in second grade then.

I came because my paternal grandfather fled Warsaw as a young man when Germans invaded Poland, leaving most of his family to Hitler’s barbarism.

I came because just a few weeks ago in Manhattan, my kippah-wearing father left the theater where he conducts Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, to a greeting of, “F*cking Yiddish c*nts.”

I came because as a religious Jew, even one who holds vastly different theological and political beliefs of my Haredi counterparts, we are one people.

The night proceeded with a common Jewish unifier: a multiple-course meal consisting of soup, salads, fishes, desserts, drinks. It included boisterous songs and words from the rebbe.

As I sat at the table, I met heroes from two weeks prior: Yosef Gluck, who stopped the attacker with a table, and Dovid, whose father Joseph lies critically wounded in a hospital. We met one of the rebbe’s sons who showed us his shtreiml, his fur hat, whose circular metallic base had been gashed in the attack.

I closed my eyes listening to the music as well as the rebbe’s words in Yiddish and felt transported to another time, imagining that this is what some of my ancestors might have felt like in Poland.

Later that night, the rabbi’s son took us into the rabbi’s study, where the rabbi joined us. He shared the heartache his community has endured, how he has sat with dozens of young boys and girls, children traumatized refusing to go to sleep since the attack.

The rebbe counsels, teaches, organizes, hosts, and more. Our Base rabbis are not ultra-Orthodox like Chabad or like Rabbi Rottenberg; our rabbis are women and our homes are egalitarian.

And yet, in this brief moment of encounter, none of those differences mattered.

In that brief moment, we were both subject to the violence against Jews, no matter our synagogue affiliation.

As a rabbi, I have traveled to Jersey City after the fatal shooting in a kosher supermarket, to Pittsburgh after a synagogue left 11 Jews dead. I flew to Paris after a Holocaust survivor was brutally murdered in her apartment. However, it was especially in Monsey, in the rebbe’s home, that I felt in my kishkes, my bones, why I was drawn here. Because even if you come after us, our doors—like our hearts—stay open.


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Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel and spiritual leader of its Manhattan site.

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