Bentzi Avtzon listened to his grandfather’s stories, absorbing the words but not quite believing them.
Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis had played an instrumental role in guiding college hippies of the 1960s and ’70s back to the Jewish faith, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov would tell his grandson. Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — and rabbis.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right,’” Avtzon recalled on a scorching June afternoon. He was holed up in his air-conditioned Bala Cynwyd office, sitting in front of two massive desktop screens, putting the finishing touches on his most recent documentary. He stroked his black beard.
“I always thought, maybe [Shemtov was] overplaying the role of the rabbis in the whole story,” Avtzon said.
That is, until he started researching and filming The Time in Between, which will be presented on June 20 at the International House Philadelphia in honor of the 24th yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The film explores the experiences of three men — Elliot Lasky, Larry Caroline and David Lazerson — who rediscovered their connection to Judaism at the Chabad House at the University at Buffalo. It was Schneerson who sent emissaries across the United States, tasking the rabbis with serving far-flung Jewish communities around the world, including at colleges and universities. The practice continues to this day, with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement dispatching young married couples to serve various roles as teachers, rabbinical leaders and counselors, often at the same time.
It was a decision questioned by many; how could rabbis possibly jibe with students riding the wave of anti-establishment feelings? The Rebbe was resolute. Rabbis were needed, then more than ever.
Shemtov was one of them. He was dispatched to Philadelphia, where he led classes with students at Temple University despite speaking very little English. (Today, Shemtov oversees Chabad-Lubavitch activities throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and is the director of Lubavitch House of Philadelphia and chairman of the board of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella group of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.)
“I was completely not familiar with the scene of colleges and universities. Period. Certainly not the ’60s colleges and universities,” Shemtov said. “It was a very revolutionary time.”
Avtzon chalked the mentality of the time up to frustration. The United States’ youth didn’t quite understand the rationale behind the Vietnam War, and why the older generation was sending them off to fight. That mindset infiltrated the generation’s worldview, manifesting in the hippie movement.
“It was in many ways a consequence of a generation not feeling fulfilled from the values their parents were giving them. They weren’t convinced by them. The [young people] didn’t find [their parents’ values] compelling,” Avtzon said.
And so, in came the rabbis.
Shemtov recalled an early visit to Temple after the end of one Shabbat. He was told that earlier in the day, an influential Jewish leader had given a presentation about religious life; in the middle of the presentation, the leader took out a pen and paper to jot down some notes. Students asked the man how he could be violating his holy day in such a manner.
“I wish I would act as I teach,” the man said.
To Shemtov, the leader had it backwards. The role of a leader is to teach how he acts. The students, having a visceral distrust of hypocrisy, picked up on that.
“Primarily, the goal was very clear and simple and united by all: Break away from the present and look into the future,” Shemtov said.
Over the years, Shemtov witnessed the students he dealt with transforming their lives. He recalled one man — “a real hippie” — who had long hair reminiscent of the era. Then something changed. One morning, when he visited Shemtov, the man’s hair had been cut and he was dressed like a “mensch.” He had a job interview.
“That is something that is future,” said Shemtov.
Lasky, a New York real estate developer and former music manager who was friends with the Rolling Stones, experienced a similar transformation in Buffalo. Lasky had all but shed his religious upbringing when he met Rabbi Nosson Gurary. the Lubavitch rabbi there.
Still, he developed a relationship with Gurary. At a certain point, Lasky demanded Gurary prove to him that God exists. The rabbi sent Lasky to the Rebbe, who left Lasky with a simple, important message: “[God] is everyplace.”
“The words themselves are not [interesting],” Avtzon said. “There are tons of stories where a rabbi told someone that. … It was certainly more than the words. It wasn’t a philosophical dialogue. It was an encounter with two people, living in two very different worlds.”
Avtzon, 30, didn’t meet the Rebbe, who passed away in 1994. But, he said, time does not equal irrelevance. The Rebbe, and his efforts to send Lubavitchers around the world, played an important role in preserving the Jewish faith. And that is worth documenting.
“These people have come to embody those moments that happened years ago,” Avtzon said of Lasky, Caroline and Lazerson. “They live these moments. Their lives are shaped [by] them, to some extent, and that’s why it’s still relevant.”
Those wishing to register for the film should visit legacyevenings.com.
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