An Act of Loving-Kindness: Remembering Reb Zalman

By Carol Rose

Carol Rose is a spiritual counselor, author, educator, and award winning poet. Her books of poetry include, Behind the Blue Gate (1997), and From the Dream (2013). She and her husband Neal were among the earliest students of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, considered one of the great teachers of Hasidism and Kabbalah in the last century. He passed on in 2014.

As was often the case (in the mid-60’s), Rabbi Zalman Schachter (better known as 'Reb Zalman') would come to New York and we would have an opportunity to host him. At the time, we were students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and we lived in mid-Manhattan in an older apartment building. New housing was just becoming available near the Seminary in an effort to integrate the neighborhood. There were co-ops (apartments that our professors generally lived in) and low income apartments, where many of the students lived. We applied for and were granted an apartment. We then phoned our folks to see if we could gather the first month’s rent plus a required security deposit.

That day we met Zalman for lunch at the Seminary and we shared our excitement about being able to move to a larger (and newly built) apartment. Since there were no cell phones, Zalman walked us to the phone booth (on 122nd and Broadway) and he waited outside as I tried to ask my in-laws for (what seemed to us) a large sum of money. We knew we would receive our salary cheques in a month or two, but in order to get one of these highly sought after apartments, we needed the full cash amount, immediately.

Zalman stood outside the clear glass booth as I tried to explain the advantages of living closer to the Seminary, of being part of a community dedicated to integrating the area, and about the apartment itself, which was a 2 bedroom, on the 21st floor overlooking Broadway, with a tiny view of the Hudson River, where we could watch the sun rise and set everyday.

My in-laws, seemed unimpressed. They did not buy our pitch. Zalman saw the tears streaming down my cheeks and he rapped on the glass door, waving for me to hang up and come out and talk to him. I ended the call and came out just as Zalman was whipping out his cheque book.

"Here is your first two months rent, plus the security deposit,” he said. I think the cheque was for a grand total of $180! But it seemed like so much money and I sobbed and blubbered something about not wanting charity, to which Zalman said, “this is Gemilut Chesed”  (a mitzvah, or commandment to make an 'act of loving-kindness'), and you will remember this when you have an opportunity to help someone else. Sure enough, the cheque was made out to us and, on the bottom, as an explanation to himself, I saw "Gemilut Chesed."

And we've never forgotten. We took that apartment on 125th and Broadway, and  Zalman stayed there on many of his New York visits. In fact, one of our first purchases, as a married couple, was a Castro Convertible sofa. Its only requirement was that it be Zalman sized! He always had a room at our inn!

But the story doesn’t quite end here. After I wiped my eyes, Zalman and I went for a walk, to Grant’s Tomb. It was a fall day and it was still pleasant enough to enjoy a relaxing walk. All of a sudden Zalman stopped walking and he pointed, "Do you see that?" he asked excitedly. I looked down at the ground. “A dandelion, Zalman, is that what you’re pointing at,” I asked?  Yes, he said. "Do you see its determination? Such a strong desire to survive . . . even through concrete . . . such a strong desire to live.” And this teaching has always remained with me . . . "such a strong desire to survive . . . even through concrete . . . such a strong desire to live."  

Although we had the blessing of  sharing more than 50 years of friendship and learning with Zalman, these two simple teachings remain part our personal legacy. Gemilut Chesed and such a strong desire to break through concrete and live!