In many ways, I suppose, he was an unlikely technological hero; his education was exclusively Talmudic, his family background far from scientific. Yet, this mix of the Jewish thirst for knowledge, a splash of mystical fervor and traditional Chabad self-sacrifice - distilled in the Stalinist Russia his parents survived - somehow made Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen a pioneer in cyberspace at a time when even sophisticates didn't know what the word meant.
"Y.Y.," as he was affectionately known, was essentially a self-taught, self-motivated visionary. And, like most visionaries, the impact of his work is only today becoming apparent; sadly, after his untimely passing in the prime of life, at the age of 44.
Those still unfamiliar with the power of the computer, could only shake their heads in amazement, not quite grasping his use of this futuristic tool for Jewish education. 'On-line chassidim' followed Y.Y.'s exploits with intrigue and admiration. One day he'd come into the synagogue brandishing an e-mail from a serviceman stationed at an army base in Germany. The next day, it was a query from a Jewish scientist exploring Antarctica. And if that wasn't mind-boggling enough, the third day it was an Indian Christian writing from Malaysia to learn what Judaism expects of non-Jews!
Innovator though he was, Rabbi Kazen had a very good teacher, none other than the revered Lubavitcher Rebbe himself. The Rebbe had long maintained that technology, per se, is a neutral medium and can be used for good or, G-d forbid, the opposite. The challenge of our generation is to use state-of-the art technology to convey the most ancient of truths, Torah. It was here that Y.Y. was a true chasid, fulfilling his Rebbe's teachings to the letter.
Nearly 30 years ago, the Rebbe called for Mitzvah Tanks to go out to "the front" and combat assimilation head on. No longer could we afford to wait for the Jew to come to Shul of his own accord. It was time to become proactive, to hit the streets, find a Jew and bring him into the warm embrace of his heritage.
Chabad in Cyberspace was a new-generation Mitzvah Tank. It did house calls! It found the Jew in the comfort of his own home. Rabbi Kazen was reaching the otherwise unreachable; whether around the corner in Manhattan or around the world in Antarctica.
Already as a youngster, he was in the forefront of global communications, playing an active role in the international telephone hook-ups which broadcast the Rebbe's addresses live to the world. Later, he took on an administrative position in the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva. Eventually, he found his calling and together with his colleague, Rabbi Eli Winsbacher, received a brocha from the Rebbe to direct, design and manage the multi-faceted network of Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace.
We may never be able to appreciate Rabbi Kazen's true worth. Even his admirers are only now discovering how wide his own web extended. From the more than 1,000 personal condolences received by his family, we begin to realize that these and many more thousands the world over formed a unique and unusually devoted following. Small wonder, then, that he was dubbed the Virtual Rabbi. His "congregation" was the universe. Through his total commitment and infinite patience, he was more readily available - only a click away - than the flesh and blood cleric down the road.
His family, friends and colleagues are humbled and comforted by the sheer scope and magnitude of his work. He made a tangible difference in the lives of so many individuals around the world. We have been truly touched by the countless stories of how he helped people in so many ways and was "always there" for them. He made the often impersonal net a warm, welcoming site.
This modest volume is presented in memory of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak o.b.m. ben HoRav Shlomo Schneur Zalmen Sheyichyeh. It includes original thoughts by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on bereavement and the use of technology today, a sampling of Rabbi Kazen's correspondence, news clippings, testimonials and obituaries.
The family wishes to express its profound appreciation to a number of dear friends who helped prepare this volume for publication under a very demanding deadline: to Mrs. Hensha Stone Gansbourg for her tireless devotion and expertise in the layout and design; to Rabbi Yossi Friedman of Kehot Publications for much sound advice; to Mrs. Sara Muchnik for editing the voluminous correspondence and to Henoch Dubov for his general assistance.
Finally, King Solomon, in Koheleth, bids us all to heed the lessons of life and the message of our mortality. "V'Hachai Yiten El Libo" "And the living shall take to heart..." No life should be lived in a vacuum, nor in vain. We who survive have been bequeathed a legacy. Now, we must translate it into action. When we will have been inspired by his life to add goodness and kindness to ours, then he who has lived still lives and we who remain emerge wiser and richer.
May we speedily witness the prophecy of Redemption when "they who repose in dust shall awake and rejoice."
For the family-Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Johannesburg, South Africa
12 Teves 5759