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When the Rebbe Asked Me for $100 Million

And then He Began Quoting Zorba the Greek

    Gordon Zacks

  • February 2, 2012
  • |
  • 9 Sh'vat 5772

Mr. Gordon Zacks

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Class Summary:

When the Rebbe Asked Me for $100 Million - And then He Began Quoting Zorba the Greek

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, in the loving memory of a young soul Alta Shula Swerdlov, daughter of Rabbi Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov. And in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya," Schottenstein

By Gordon Zacks

In tribute to the 62nd yartzeit of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, and the succession to leadership by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, this Friday, 10 Shevat (1950-2012)

In 1969, I was the Chairman of the Young Leadership Cabinet of the national United Jewish Appeal. As such, I was invited to deliver the keynote address to the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds Annual Conference, being held that year in November in Boston. The theme was "Youth Looks at the Future of the American Jewish Community." I spent six months preparing for this talk. Usually, I speak extemporaneously with at most a one-page outline. This time — because of its importance — I elected to read the entire speech.

In it, I thanked my parents' generation for supporting the creation of the state of Israel and rescuing survivors from the Holocaust. In its aftermath, two million Jews had been delivered through their efforts from lands of oppression and resettled to lands of freedom. Nonetheless, I pointed out that we faced a disaster in the field of Jewish education. We ran the risk of losing more Jews through assimilation than we had saved through affirmation. We needed to address the failure of our Jewish educational system to inspire many young Jews to continue to be Jewish. I recommended that we create a national Jewish research and development venture capital fund to invest risk capital in innovative approaches to make Jewish education relevant to young people and to create an Institute for Jewish Life that would manage the process.

To fund this Institute, I proposed that the Jewish community endow the Institute with $l00 million of State of Israel bonds for a period of ten years. The purchasers would receive a tax deduction. At the end of ten years, they would get their principal back. The Institute would get the use of the interest. Annually it would provide about $6 million in revenue. We would have ten years in which to evaluate the results. If the concept didn't produce worthwhile results, that would be the end of the Institute. Ultimately the idea was adopted in an abbreviated form with funding of $3.5 million. In this truncated version, it failed in its mission and was eventually closed. Still, it stimulated a lot of discussion about Jewish education, and placed it right behind rescue as a priority for the American Jewish community.

In December 1969, I received a call from a man named Leibel Alevsky. He was a rabbi with the Lubavitch movement in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He said the Lubavitcher Rebbe wanted to meet me. Given the tone of the phone call, I thought I was being invited for a royal audience. I immediately said yes to a date in January, but I didn't even know who the Rebbe was! My rabbi gave me some background and urged me to go ahead with the meeting. On the appointed day in January, Alevsky and I were finishing dinner in his home at 11:15 at night. We got a call that the Rebbe would see me now. I walked with Alevsky to a modest building to find 300 people — from around the world —each waiting at the Rebbe's headquarters, the Chabad Center, in the middle of the night for an audience with the Rebbe!

Later I learned that the Rebbe held these audiences three times each week, lasting from sundown often until the middle of the night.

I went in alone to see the Rebbe. In his office, illuminated by a single ceiling light, books were stacked from the floor to the ceiling. He was a slight man with translucent skin and absolutely clear whites of his eyes—the sclera encircling his sparkling blue irises, his beard outlining an impish grin. The Rebbe was sixty-seven at the time. He looked at me in such a penetrating way that I felt like I was being x-rayed.

"Mr. Zacks, I have read your speech," he began, "and it's clear you have taken good care of your mind. I can look at you, and it's clear you have taken good care of your body. What have you done to take care of your soul?"

No small talk about how I was, or if I had a pleasant trip. I was stunned.

"The Jewish house is on fire," he continued. "We have an emergency, and this is not the time to experiment with new ways to put out the fire. Instead, you call the proven and tested fire department. We are that fire department. We—the Lubavitchers—don't have drugs or intermarriage problems with our children or kids opting out of Judaism. Our tradition works, and our children are being educated. We have a worldwide outreach program that contacts and impacts non-observant Jews and saves souls. Give us the $100 million, and we will spend it to correct the problems that you are concerned about."

"Rebbe," I asked after pausing for a moment, "what if the house is on fire, but people have forgotten your telephone number?" "G-d will provide," he answered me.

"There are millions of Jews whose houses are on fire," I said to him. "Most of them are Jews who will not call you, either because they have lost your number or they won't accept the lifestyle compromises you expect. They're still worthy of saving in their own way, and they are entitled to a quality Jewish education that makes Judaism relevant to their lives. That's why we need this Institute."

"Do you believe in revelation, Mr. Zacks?" he asked me next.

"I believe in G-d and I believe he inspires... but I don't believe he writes," I answered.

"You mean, Mr. Zacks, that there is this vast structure G-d has created of plants, animals, food chains, stars, and planets. And, that the only creature in all of creation that doesn't understand how to fit in and live their life purposefully is the human?"

I told him yes.

"What about the complexity of the human body? What about the jewel of the human cell? How does the body ingest food and renew itself with absolute consistency?"

I had no answer.

"Why, Mr. Zacks, is the nose always where the nose belongs? Why are the eyes always on the face for generation after generation?"

I could only shrug my shoulders, but my respect for him deepened by the moment.

"And, how can you account for the brain and the mind? How do they steer this remarkable system in a purposeful and precise way? And, what about how we fit into the earth's ecosystem, where we inhale the oxygen that plants so wonderfully manufacture for us? Could this all be accidental?"

How could I answer him?

"And, beyond what happens on earth. What about all the heavenly bodies in the sky that seem to follow such a perfect order and don't collide with each other? Is man the only creature on the planet earth without guidelines for living its life? Should man ignore the Torah given to us by G-d as a roadmap to guide us? This is the missing link which connects us to the complexity of Nature!"

So it went. Comment after comment. More times than not, I could not begin to answer his points.

He quoted Kazantzakis' book Zorba the Greek to me during our conversation. "Do you remember the young man talking with Zorba on the beach, when Zorba asks what the purpose of life is? The young fellow admits he doesn't know. And Zorba comments, 'Well, all those books you read — what good are they? Why do you read them?' Zorba's friend says he doesn't know. Zorba can see his friend doesn't have an answer to the most fundamental question. That's the trouble with you. 'A man's head is like a grocer,' Zorba says, 'it keeps accounts... The head's a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.' Wise men and grocers weigh everything. They can never cut the cord and be free.

“Your problem, Mr. Zacks, is that you are trying to find G-d's map through your head. You are unlikely to find it that way. You have to experience before you can truly feel and then be free to learn. Let me send a teacher to live with you for a year and teach you how to be Jewish. You will unleash a whole new dimension to your life. If you really want to change the world, change yourself! It's like dropping a stone into a pool of water and watching the concentric circles radiate to the shore. You will influence all the people around you, and they will influence others in turn. That's how you bring about improvement in the world."

"Rebbe, I'm not ready to do that," I told him. I remained firm despite the incredibly woven tapestry of the universe he presented to me.

"What do you have to lose?" he asked, "One year of your life? What if I'm right? It could gain you an eternity if I'm right, but only cost you one year if I'm wrong."

"I'll think about it," I said as we wrapped up our hour-and-a-half conversation. The normal audience with the Rebbe was thirty seconds to a minute. Three hundred people were still waiting to come in at one in the morning.


The Rebbe took people the way they were. His ultimate goal was to bring you to the ways of Jewish life, but his means were not confrontational and demanding. You could literally feel his warmth and love in addition to the power of his vast intellect. Once he established the Chabad Center at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, I don't think he ever left it. Yet he was totally wired into the events of the world. I sensed this in my first meeting with the Rebbe. He radiated compassion, love, and respect for others — a servant leader totally committed to serving G-d through helping others.

The Rebbe wrote me letters encouraging me to devote myself to Jewish education. Over a series of years, I received five letters from him saying that he wanted to send his representative to me to spend a year teaching me how to be Jewish. I responded to each of them and declined.

Beginning in 1986, the Rebbe had a receiving line on Sunday in which he passed out a dollar bill to be given by the recipient as tzedakah to charity. His reasoning: "When two people meet, something good should result for a third." People waited in line for as long as four hours to be greeted by him and receive his blessing and the dollar bill. The Rebbe was eighty-four when he started doing this. An older woman in the line asked him how he could manage to perform this demanding task. "Every soul is a diamond," he answered. "Can one grow tired of counting diamonds?"

In 1987, my youngest daughter, Kim, had just returned from Israel and she wanted to participate in the custom of Sunday Dollars. I said fine I would take her. I neither called nor told anyone who I was when we arrived. I stood in line with her. It had been seventeen years since I had seen the Rebbe and ten years since he wrote me his last letter. When it was our turn to speak with the Rebbe, he looked at me and asked "What are you doing for Jewish education?" His eyes had the same penetrating look that had scanned me seventeen years earlier and asked, "What are you doing to take care of your soul, Mr. Zacks?" It was as though I had just walked back into his office. In truth, hundreds of thousands of people had filed past him over those years.

"You are amazing!" I exclaimed to him.

"What has that to do with saving Jewish lives? What are you doing for Jewish education?" he retorted. He may not have gotten exactly what he wanted from me, but the Rebbe surely taught me the power of changing yourself to influence others. He wanted to enlist me as his fundraiser for Jewish education. While I certainly considered his invitation, I declined it. Still he may have been the most charismatic man I ever met. He had an incredible aura to him, partly because he was such a combination of charisma and pragmatism. This man came out of the scientific community to return to the religious life. Every Israeli prime minister and Israeli chief of staff found his way to the Rebbe's doorstep when they came to the United States.

The most amazing thing? The Rebbe saw himself as perfecting G-d's will. He had no power in the sense that a police commissioner, a general, or a tax collector does. He had no one enforcing his decisions. What he did have was the authority of his holiness, which caused others to connect to him. It wasn't his title that gave the Rebbe authority. It was his presence and his profound grasp of bringing the principles of the Torah to life in himself and in others. The Rebbe didn't declare himself a leader. His overpowering presence inspired those around him to declare him their leader and to revere him. Through earning respect and trust, people endowed him with leadership.

About ten years after I first met the Rebbe, I attended a dinner in Cleveland at the home of Leibel Alevsky. At the table with us was the man the Rebbe sent to the Soviet Union to save Jews. When the Rebbe sent him on this mission, he didn't give him a plan or give him money! This was during the Stalin era. The anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist mentality of the Soviets may have been at its very worst. The Rebbe's designate went to the Soviet Union, lived and worked by his wits, and figured out how he could smuggle Jews out to Poland by train. He succeeded. At the same time, he was smuggling in prayer books, religious articles, and calendars for those still in the Soviet Union. And, he set up secret schools to teach Hebrew. The Lubavitchers are incredibly resourceful people, whose outreach is one-on-one.

The Lubavitchers are the essence of true believers. As I traveled abroad, I first noted their presence in Morocco. They ran schools for kids in the ghetto. That may sound noble, but not earth-shattering until you understand the kind of "social security system" that prevailed in Morocco at the time. Children were the system. At birth, many infants —Arabs and Jews both — were maimed and deformed by their parents so the kids could beg more effectively! The Lubavitchers bought the children from their parents for one more dirham than the market value of the child begging on the street for a year, and then they gave the children an education.

You could see the evidence of the Rebbe's positive work all over the world in places like the Soviet Union, Morocco, and Iran. How did these devout Lubavitchers get there? The Rebbe would simply say, "Go to Morocco and save souls." They didn't get a dime or an ounce of organizational help. They saved thousands and thousands of Jews physically, and they spiritually changed many more. The conviction they are doing G-d's work carries them forward. Their passion brings them to college campuses all over the United States. They will send out a representative wearing payos and a black frock coat and open up a Chabad house on campuses like University of California at Berkeley. They get kids off narcotics and give them a spiritual jolt instead of a buzz on drugs. "Get high on G-d!" they preach. Their individual missions are great illustrations of the power of one. The Rebbe's passion for saving Jewish souls lives through them.

Unlike every other Jewish figure in this book, the Rebbe was not a Zionist. Though very supportive of the state of Israel and its defense forces, he felt that redemption would only be ushered in by the Messiah. He also drove home the point that a commitment to the state of Israel does not exempt us from fulfilling age-old Judaic commandments. In fact, it should actually elicit more loyalty to the Torah. The Rebbe was completely devoted to fulfilling G-d's will.

The essence of the Rebbe's teaching is celebration of G-d. The Chabad radiate a wonderful joy of life that is a reverberation of the Rebbe's spirit. I wish I could believe the way they do, with their absolute confidence in their answer. Their sheer love in celebrating the Jewish traditions with singing and dancing is unmatched. Nothing equals the celebration of a Shabbat with a Chabadnik. The food is homemade, delicious — though not necessarily healthy for your arteries — but it's only the beginning of the positive energy that flows in each Shabbat from celebrating the birthday of the world.

*Mr. Gordon Zacks was general chairman designate of the National UJA and was a founding member and chairman of the Young Leadership Cabinet of the UJA. Excerpted from his book Defining Moments, published by Beaufort Books. Our thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Caltman (Columbus, OH) for sending us this chapter of the book with permission.


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    Gordon Zacks
    • February 2, 2012
    • |
    • 9 Sh'vat 5772
    • |
    • Comment

    Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, in the loving memory of a young soul Alta Shula Swerdlov, daughter of Rabbi Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov. And in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya," Schottenstein

    Class Summary:

    When the Rebbe Asked Me for $100 Million - And then He Began Quoting Zorba the Greek

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