A rabbi who sermonizes in rap? Really?
Apparently, the answer is yes.
Rabbi Motte Flikshtein, leader of the Chabad Center in Wilmington, Delaware, did not begin as a rabbi. In fact, his life plan did not include anything religious at all.
When our story begins, Motte, who was raised by Russian immigrants in a completely secular family, is already in his late teens and on the road to becoming a drug dealer. He was already a rapper – at least in his own mind and those of his fellow high school students in Bucks County, PA.
There was a high crime rate in his school, and lots of opportunity for a young man to “fall in with the wrong crowd”, which is what Rabbi Motte says happened to him. His concerned parents wanted to move him to a private school, but the only one in the area was a religious Jewish school some of his cousins attended.
His mother was dubious but his father was unwaveringly against the idea, saying, “The last thing we need is a rabbi in this house!”
Concern for his son won and Motte changed schools.
The feared “conversion” did not happen. Motte remained adamantly secular and, when his parents met the local Chabad Rabbi and started attending holiday events, he refused to join them until his mother said she’d take away his car keys if he did not attend Shabbos services with them.
In his telling, he deliberately wore the most “gangsta” clothes he had, theorizing that he could use the Rabbi’s aversion to how he looked as a reason not to return.
When they arrived, however, Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein greeted him with a bear hug. Rabbi Motte recalled, “his warmth penetrated my tough armor and planted a seed within me – the undeniable fact that all Jews, no matter how they look, are part of one big loving family.” He started attending the “fun” events and developed a comfortable relationship with Rabbi and Mrs. Weinstein.
However, other than occasional visits to the Weinstein’s, Motte remained solidly secular.
After a year or so at Brandeis as a free-spirited, large-partying college student, he began wondering about the course of his life. It seemed as though he was spending all his time “paving the way for something that was yet to come.” Middle school prepared him for a good high school, which prepared him for a good college, which was supposed to prepare him for a good graduate school, which was meant to prepare him for a high-paying job, a big house, and a family.
But the image of “the 80- and 90-year-olds I knew who had lived their entire lives that way and were still chasing their elusive goal, waiting for ‘something’ to happen. I decided I did not want to end up like them. I wanted to feel that my life was meaningful in the present.”
These musings led him to spend a year in Israel with a close friend who was studying there even though his image of yeshiva was “a place for old men with long white beards to sit and pore over dusty books” which had led him to wonder how his friend ended up there. To his surprise, he found “young guys like him and me who simply wanted to have a good time while living a life of meaning.”
The next year was spent in yeshiva, although a different one. Then, to honor his promise to his parents to finish his degree, he transferred to Yeshiva University.
He met his future wife – the sister of the friend he’d gone to see in Israel – and during a discussion with her about not knowing what he wanted to do with his life, she asked what he was passionate about. “I love learning Torah and sharing it with others.”
“So,” she said, “become a rabbi”.
The idea was laughable to him; someone who had grown up outside “the system” would never be able to catch up.
Her response was to suggest that, “if it’s your passion and something you love, you’ll work hard to make it happen.” And she was right.
So, what about the rapping?
Rabbi Motte explained, “Everything we have is a tool, I just depends how we use it. Any talent, any skill, can be used for the positive or the negative and Rabbi Weinstein encouraged me to do a rap album with Jewish content and to take it on tour, telling my story through music. He told me ‘What you can accomplish through one song can probably do more than I can in 1,000 sermons.’”
When secular teens see Rabbi Motte in his Chasidic clothing, he says, “There is a huge gap in their minds between their worlds and mine. But, as soon as I start rapping or I give them an album, it breaks down the barriers and creates a really nice point for connection, especially when they know that I was on their side of the spectrum. I know the challenges of being a secular teen so they can relate to me that way.”
And, frum teens relate to him as well. It was after working as a counselor in the camp he directs that Devorah Scheiner encouraged her parents to offer this event. She was so enthusiastic that her sister and brother-in-law decided their Chabad House should participate.
You are encouraged to join the party as the Boulder Center for Judaism and Springfield Chabad present a joint multi-media Zoom presentation, From Rapper to Rabbi: A Journey Back Home on Thursday, July 23 at 6:00 pm (MST – Boulder, CO) and 7:00 pm (CST – Springfield, IL).
No reservations are required and the event is free and open to all.
Zoom meeting ID: 828 7839 2225