Bringing The Light From Brooklyn To Brooklyn
By Shneur Zalman Berger

Only a few months have elapsed since the Chabad House in Brooklyn, a neighborhood in S. Paulo, Brazil, opened, and the first buds of the Chassidic revolution have begun to sprout. * A new shul, Torah classes, special projects, and many house calls – and that’s only the beginning. * A peek into one of many Chabad Houses dotting the map in S. Paulo

What does a shliach do when he opens a volume of Igros Kodesh after inserting a duch (report) to the Rebbe, and gets an answer about opening a shul? What does he do in response to the next duch when the Rebbe communicates his surprise that he still did not open the shul – and then, a few days later, the head of the community informs him that the community can’t continue to support him at full salary?

Rabbi Yaakov Gerenstat, a young Lubavitcher, experienced these dilemmas and today directs a successful Chabad House in Brooklyn in S. Paulo, Brazil. He recently visited Eretz Yisroel for a family simcha, and in an interview with Beis Moshiach he told of the chain of directives he received from the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh, and about the great success his new Chabad House is now enjoying.

* * *

About a year after he got married, Rabbi Yaakov Gerenstat and his wife, Ruchy, went on shlichus. Yaakov was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, so it made sense for him to look for a shlichus position in Brazil. He soon began working to further the cause of Chabad outreach in S. Paulo.

Yaakov’s official work was to be in charge of Torah lectures as well as special Shabbatons called "Shabbos with Chabad." His work actually encompassed a great deal more than lectures; he organized many projects that strengthened the ties between the people and the shul, and even organized a few groups that traveled with him to Eretz Yisroel. The purpose of these trips was to strengthen their Jewish awareness, and Yaakov mentioned the tremendous impression these trips made on them.

Just then he received the Rebbe’s directive about opening a shul. "I was right in the middle of preparing for Rosh HaShana 5760," Yaakov says, "when I read a letter in the Igros Kodesh about opening a shul. I was very surprised. I was satisfied with my work and it was difficult to leave my lectures, the mekuravim, and begin all over again. And opening a new shul in Brazil with the high cost of living requires a lot of money – money I didn’t have.

"The needs of Tishrei took my attention away from the answer, and after Tishrei I took another group with me to Eretz Yisroel. Once in Eretz Yisroel, I sat down to write another letter to the Rebbe and I asked for a bracha for success with my group. The answer I got stunned me. In it, the Rebbe said he was surprised about the delay in opening the shul!

"Now I knew for certain that when I returned to Brazil I had to open a shul. I had no idea where I would open it or how I would get the money for an independent project, but I knew that this is what the Rebbe wanted.

"I arrived in Brazil and immediately saw how the Rebbe was making things happen. A few days after my return, the president of the community called me to a meeting where he told me that the community’s financial state didn’t allow them to pay me as a full-time worker, and I had to decide whether I wanted to leave or work part time.

"The president, who expected me to attempt to dissuade him, was quite surprised when I said I would leave. After all, he wasn’t aware of the Rebbe’s answers!

"Then began months of searching for a suitable place to open a shul and a new Chabad House. Since I had many mekuravim in S. Paulo, I wanted to remain there in order to keep in touch, but shluchim were already working in most areas of the city. When I found one neighborhood where there was no shliach, the rav of the local community asked me not to open shop since he claimed it would be hasagas g’vul. When I asked the Rebbe, I received a negative reply and I understood that the Rebbe wanted me to start a new place, to start from scratch.

"I continued looking until I found Brooklyn. It was until then a lower-class neighborhood, but just a few months earlier hundreds of expensive apartments had been built nearby and dozens of well-to-do Jewish families had moved in. So the neighborhood was the home of hundreds of Jewish families of both the upper and lower classes."

* * *

Yaakov first got to meet the people of the neighborhood on Purim. He decided to make a big Purim party and invite them all. After checking out halls and hotels that were far too expensive, he came to a hotel with a mezuza on the door. He asked to speak with the manager, who turned out to be a Jew, and when he told him about the Purim party and asked for a good price, the manager thought for a moment and then said, "For Chabad’s work on Purim? You can have it for free!"

A few days after Yaakov decided to work in Brooklyn, he managed to get a list of the neighborhood Jews from the Federation of S. Paulo. It had 450 families listed, but generally these lists only include half the actual number of Jews. He sent out invitations to the Purim party, which resulted in dozens of Jewish families showing up. When they heard about his intentions to open a shul and a center for Jewish activity, many expressed their appreciation.

The days following the party were devoted to searching for a suitable place for a shul and Chabad House. While occupied with this, Yaakov opened a volume of Igros Kodesh and read: "When you get this answer, carry it out even though it will cost a lot. Don’t worry, because we have a special fund for things like these, and you have to write to us here so we know to whom to send the check."

Shortly after receiving this answer, Yaakov managed to find a large house for rent at a reasonable price. From the moment he signed the contract, he saw how the Rebbe arranged for him to receive the money he needed for his work. The interesting thing is that the money he receives covers his precise needs for his programs – neither more nor less.

Yaakov describes one of the more outstanding miracles he’s experienced: "Before moving into the new building we had to have it thoroughly cleaned. The price was too high, so I began to haggle with the cleaning company. A few days later the manager of the company called, and after hearing I couldn’t afford the high price he said, ‘Since the price is too high, I’ll call the president of the shul in the next neighborhood.’

"I didn’t understand what he meant because the president of that shul is a wealthy Satmar Chassid, who upon hearing that I was going to open a shul nearby claimed I would be taking people away from his shul. I had explained to him that I wouldn’t encroach on his territory, but he didn’t accept that and told me, ‘If you open a shul, I’ll take you to a din Torah.’

"Considering our unpleasant encounter, I tried to explain to the manager of the cleaning company that the president of that shul didn’t look favorably upon my opening a new shul. To my surprise the manager said, ‘I talked to him already and he told me that if you find it hard to pay, he would pay it all!’

"I don’t know what made him change his mind, but to me it was an open sign of the miraculous help the Rebbe gives his shluchim.

"One day I called one of my mekuravim with whom I regularly learned Tanya and invited him to a Shabbos meal at my home. He told me he was very busy and couldn’t make it, but he wanted to tell me that his grandmother had died and his mother wanted to donate some of the inheritance money to the Chabad House. As always, it was exactly the amount I needed at the time!"

How do you begin work in a new neighborhood?

After months of renovations, we wanted to have an official opening ceremony and invite all the Jewish residents of the neighborhood. A few days before the event we were uncertain whether to hold a formal ceremony or to make it more of a Chassidishe farbrengen. I wrote to the Rebbe and in the answer I opened up to in the Igros Kodesh the Rebbe said I should make a farbrengen.

We ended up making the chanukas ha’bayis on Shabbos Mevarchim Elul 5760. A week before the farbrengen, the Jews of the neighborhood received personal invitations, and whoever didn’t get one read about the event in the Jewish newspapers or heard about it on the Jewish radio and television stations.

We held the farbrengen that Shabbos after davening, with the participation of dozens of local residents. They promised to participate and help in future Chabad House activities. Representatives of the neighborhood who had helped in opening the new shul spoke during the course of the farbrengen.

After the initial introduction at that farbrengen, I expanded the roster of classes. There are a few good classes that take place every day at the Chabad House. Evening classes are particularly popular. They begin at 9:00 p.m. and are scheduled to end at 10:00 p.m., but not one class has ended at ten. We always linger until late at night discussing the nature of the Jewish soul, etc.

At these classes I have an excellent opportunity to convey the besuras ha’Geula. Every class, no matter the topic, always comes back to the point: how does this get us closer to Moshiach. In addition, there are classes that are entirely devoted to the topic of Moshiach. People are thirsty to hear more and more about it, and are happy to hear that the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach promised that the Geula will take place in our generation.

A particularly auspicious time for kiruv is during the Shabbos meals at the Chabad House after davening. All types of people attend these meals; young and old, simple people as well as intellectuals. One Shabbos, when I noticed a distinguished Jew who serves as dean of the largest university in Latin America eating with us, I knew that I had succeeded giving the residents of this neighborhood the feeling that the Chabad House is for every Jew.

On Shabbos there are special programs for children, and my wife gives classes for women. Bachurim come every Shabbos to lend a hand. These bachurim, as well as young couples who live all over the city and want to spend Shabbos with us, stay free of charge at the hotel where I made the first Purim party, thanks to the great esteem the hotel manager has for our work.

During the week, my wife and I make house calls to Jewish families whose names are on the list I got from the Federation. During these visits I put t’fillin on with the men, affix mezuzos, and convey the Rebbe’s besuras ha’Geula. Naturally I invite people to the activities and programs at the Chabad House.

As with every mosad, we also have to endure the difficulties of beginning something new. It’s not all rosy, but when we get daily encouragement from the Rebbe through open miracles, we make it through with simcha. Last Erev Rosh HaShana, I wrote to the Rebbe a detailed report about everything we had done up until then, and I asked for a bracha. The answer was about a shul again, and at the end of the letter the Rebbe said that this letter was connected with the previous letter of the last year. This answer gave me special kochos for Rosh HaShana.

The t’fillos of Rosh HaShana took place in a very special and uplifting atmosphere. A Chabad Machzor in Portuguese was available for the first time, so that the people who daven at our shul were able to daven in a Machzor with a translation they understood.

A moving story took place on Rosh HaShana concerning a Jew from the neighborhood who is one of the leading Communists in Brazil. His wife is a mekureves of the Chabad House, and she tried to convince her husband to join the davening there on Rosh HaShana. At first he strongly refused, saying that he had once gone to a shul and he couldn’t relate to it at all. After a lot of persuasion on her part he agreed to go just for Rosh HaShana and just for fifteen minutes.

The couple arrived. After fifteen minutes somebody went to tell him that his wife was waiting for him outside, but he decided not to leave and stayed until the end of the davening. When they went home he burst into tears like a child. He told his wife that when he entered the Chabad House, he began having thoughts of teshuva, that perhaps he wasn’t on the right path after all. This hisorerus continued and today he is one of the regular participants at the Torah classes, and he sends his children to the Shabbos programs.

Before coming on this trip to Eretz Yisroel I spoke with the people at my shul about the critical situation in Eretz Yisroel, and concluded with the suggestion that they resolve to put t’fillin on every day as a merit for the people living there. That Jew, who not that long ago was an ardent Communist, came over to me and asked me to buy him t’fillin and promised to use them every day!

Dozens of people crowded into the shul on Yom Kippur. This was the first time many of them were fasting on Yom Kippur.

An interesting episode took place after Ne’ila. A woman in her seventies went over to Yaakov, and wiping tears from her eyes, told him that her parents had been religious, but since there hadn’t been an Orthodox shul in the area, she attended the Reform temple.

She said that at the temple at Ne’ila they would shut the lights and all family members would go under the tallis of the father, and then the chazanit would say the Birkas Kohanim and sing sad songs. "It was terrible for me," said the old woman tearfully, "because I’m all alone; I don’t have anybody to take me under their tallis. But here there were joyous niggunim and it felt so good. From now on, I’m only coming to the Chabad House."

On Erev Sukkos, Yaakov and his wife worked hard to prepare an enormous meal to take place in the shul’s large sukka. Forty people reserved in advance, but more than seventy people actually came! It was very crowded, but the joy knew no bounds.

On Chol HaMoed, Yaakov provided an original attraction for the neighborhood. He went around in a mobile sukka on a horse and wagon and called out to Jews he passed along the way to come and say a bracha on the four minim. It wasn’t only Jews who liked the idea; Brazil’s national television sent a reporter to cover the attraction. The reporter interviewed children and told his listeners about the new Chabad House that opened in S. Paulo.

Even that amount of exposure wouldn’t keep Yaakov home. List in hand, he went from house to house to offer Jews the opportunity to say a bracha over the minim. All of them without exception were so moved by the unique experience that even those who generally were unwilling to perform mitzvos couldn’t refuse.

On one of these visits he approached a magnificent villa, where according to his records there lived a Jewish family. The entrance to the courtyard was locked, and when he rang the bell, he heard the owner yell that he had no time. He rang again and said, "It’s Rav Yaakov. Please open!"

Hearing this, the owner said in surprise, "Oh, a Jewish rabbi?" and he quickly came and opened the door. They went into the villa. After the man said the bracha over the minim, he told Yaakov that although his father is gentile, his mother is Jewish. He asked that they pray for his ill mother at the Chabad House. Two weeks later his mother passed away and he came to the Chabad House to ask that they arrange a Jewish funeral for her. After the funeral he wanted to know what needed to be done according to Jewish law, and he sat Shiva for his mother. Now he davens at the Chabad House every day with a minyan in order to say Kaddish.

When I asked Yaakov to tell us a little bit about the difficulties he had in starting out, his wife filled in some details. "Unlike my husband, who is Brazilian born, I was born in Eretz Yisroel, so the first difficulty for me was Portuguese. In the early years it was extremely difficult, but I began learning the language and today I can have long conversations in Portuguese.

"Another problem was the financial situation. In the transitional stage, when my husband left his previous job and still hadn’t established the new Chabad House, we were utterly strapped for money. I remember weeks when I couldn’t even buy milk! When the children asked for milk, we didn’t want to worry them, so we told them that in Brazil it was hard to get kosher milk.

"On Shavuos, when we went to shul with the children and they saw the dairy dishes and milk on the table, my three-year-old daughter said, "Ima, you said it was hard to get kosher milk!" That broke my heart.

"But, looking at the results, it was all worth it. In the z’chus of the Chabad House, dozens of Jewish families are getting involved in Torah and mitzvos and becoming aware of the besuras ha’Geula."

* * *

Rabbi Yaakov Gerenstat operates l’chatchila aribber. When he was a yeshiva student and was on shlichus in a Moslem country, he asked the head shliach for permission to build a mobile sukka. At first, the shliach refused because he feared the reaction of the Arabs, but Yaakov insisted and the shliach allowed him to do it.

Yaakov constructed the mobile sukka, attracting hundreds of Jews to say the bracha over the lulav. Moslems stood by in amazement as they watched Jews publicly celebrating their holiday.

Fast-forward a few years to Kabbalas Shabbos services Yaakov held for a year in the finest hotel in S. Paolo. "The owner of that hotel was an Arab, but he had a good relationship with one of his assistants, who was a Jew and a mekurav of the Chabad House," Yaakov said. "The assistant had spoken to the Arab, who agreed to give us the hall for free on Friday nights, but on one condition: We would not be allowed to bring in food and drink that could make a mess."

"Since we always have Kiddush after davening, we decided to go l’chatchila aribber. We did bring in wine and cake, but, baruch Hashem, everything remained tidy and the Arab never got upset."


Mivtza Lulav on the streets of S. Paulo

A mobile sukka on horse and wagon




The manager thought for a moment and then said, "For Chabad’s work on Purim? You can have it for free!"





"I don’t know what made him change his mind, but to me it was an open sign of the miraculous help the Rebbe gives his shluchim.


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