Above: Rabbi Meir Abehsera
Rabbi Meir Abehsera, internationally known both as a hasid of the late Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and as an herbalist, naturopath and author, has passed away.
Abehsera was best known to me and to thousands of others for his warmth and for running a truly open house all of the time.
Years ago, I called Meir to confirm, I think, a speaking engagement and to check in. It was proximate to a Jewish holiday – I don't recall which one – and the person who answered the phone in Meir's house didn't know who Meir was. I described him and the person said he would look and try to find him for me. After a few minutes of waiting, during which several people came to the phone, also didn't know Meir, and went to look for him after hearing my description of him, Meir finally got on the line.
"Who are these people?," Meir said to me. "I am a stranger in my own house!"
"Have you thought of locking the door?," I asked.
It sounds apocryphal, but it's true.
One person had brought another who brought another and before Meir knew it, his little house was literally filled with people, the vast majority of whom didn't know him or his family.
Literally hundreds of young Jews became Orthodox, mostly Chabad-Lubavitch, through him in that way – even though he never preached or tried to convince anyone to become frum.
He once told me his job as he saw it was to make space, to get out of the way, so Jews would have room.
He saw himself as a friend, not as an authority figure or rabbi, and certainly not as a kiruv (missionary) worker.
Yet this man who attracted rock stars like Bob Dylan, artists, poets, college students and mainline Sefardi businessmen did it by making himself – a larger than life figure if there ever was one – small.
He was guest in his own home, a man who made himself small so others could fill that space.
Unlike almost all other outreach rabbis, Meir refused to use tricks or manipulation to 'mekariv' Jews. He never tried to convince anyone to become Orthodox or Chabad. He didn't lavish the rich with praises or ply people with bottles of alcohol and catered food like so many outreach rabbis, be they Chabad, Litvish or Sefardi, do. He didn't lie.
He lived simply, his large family packed in a succession of small houses that somehow always had room for whoever arrived on his doorstep, announced or not, invited or not.
Somehow there was always enough food to feed those who came, always room somehow to pack another person around an already overcrowded table.
In all the times I was with Meir and his family, no one who came to his door was ever superfluous. Instead, everyone was always welcome and there was always room – always space – physically and emotionally for them.
The thousands of people who came to Meir were not his servants or his targets – they were his friends.
This wasn't some shtick or type of false humility.
It was just Meir, as he actually was.
Before he became Chabad, as young man in Paris, while respectful of rabbis and Orthodoxy but more traditional, perhaps, then haredi, Meir spent some time pursuing arts and literature, jazz and jazz dancing. For a time, he slept on a Paris subway, priced out of the the French capital's extremely expensive housing market.
In that way, he was both a ba'al teshuva and rebbe, someone who appreciated and even loved the finest non-Jewish culture and pop culture had to offer and integrated it with the hasidic Judaism he later came to love, a man who had lived without the space he so generously later gave to others.
May his memory be a blessing.