My Encounter with the Rebbe records the oral histories of individuals who interacted with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, through videotaped first-person interviews. Please help us save these precious testimonies!
“A Smile That Lit Up The World”
Wed, Jul 29, 2015
In 1973, I was offered a job to establish and direct a Jewish day camp in Flatbush, New York. It was a significant project enrolling about 75 to 100 children at the start. But my wife and I threw ourselves into the job so wholeheartedly that, when the camp opened, we had more than 200 children.
That summer – which was not long before the Yom Kippur War – the Rebbe was speaking at every opportunity about the obligation of each Jew to see to it that every Jewish child get a Jewish education, and he also spoke in favor of day camps for all Jewish children.
Although the organization that had hired me was not a Chabad organization, since I was Lubavitch, I naturally wanted to fulfill the Rebbe’s instructions. So I met with the board of directors and asked them to expand the camp to children who could not afford the tuition. The board agreed.
I dedicated one full bus for non-paying children, and I wrote to the Rebbe that this is what I did. The Rebbe responded with a blessing that the camp should be a great success.
In the middle of the summer, I received an invitation from the Rebbe to bring my children to the next children’s rally at the Rebbe’s synagogue. The Rebbe himself would be attending the gathering. Although it was primarily Lubavitch children from the neighborhood who took part, the Rebbe singled my camp out for inclusion. I felt this was a great honor.
We collected the children and we came to 770 Eastern Parkway. When the afternoon prayers were finished, the Rebbe announced, “Leizer Laine and his camp should come up to receive coins to give out to charity.”
We walked up with the camp in two groups – boys and girls – and the Rebbe gave each child a coin.
Now some of the counsellors had just come from an outing and they were not dressed properly for a synagogue and they were embarrassed to go up to the Rebbe in shorts and flip-flops. They felt that would not be respectful.
After the Rebbe distributed the coins to the children, he turned to me and asked, “Did everybody in your camp get money for charity?”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t say yes because I knew that some of the counsellors did not come up. So I didn’t say anything. I just stood there and looked at the Rebbe.
Deeper than Psychoanalysis
Wed, Jul 22, 2015
I grew in Georgia, Soviet Union, where my father served as a rabbi. He had gone there on the advice of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose directions he always followed.
From my earliest years I remember my father speaking about the Previous Rebbe. It was as if the Rebbe was part of the family. He was our Zeide, our grandfather. My father taught me that, when something disturbing happens and you need advice, you write a letter to Zeide.
In 1941, when the Soviet Union entered World War Two, my father was arrested and charged with “engaging in an occupation that was not healthy for society,” meaning being a rabbi. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because otherwise he would have been drafted into the army. Likely, he would have been killed since the Red Army used people like him as cannon-fodder.
While my father was in prison, I reached Bar Mitzvah age, but there was no celebration because my mother was afraid that I might be arrested too. As my Bar Mitzvah present I got to visit my father in prison. He said to me: “Listen my son, you have to learn Torah. You have to learn Jewish law. You have to learn what to do because you don’t know what will come – here in prison I have to know Jewish law well, so that when I’m forced to do certain things on Shabbos, I do them in a way that doesn’t violate Torah. So you must learn well.”
After this I enrolled in Tomchei Temimim, the Chabad yeshiva, in Kutaisi. I stayed there until my father was released from prison in a general amnesty following the end of World War Two, and we left for Europe. Again, this was on the advice of the Previous Rebbe.
My father eventually accepted a position as a rabbi in Sweden, while I came to study at the Chabad yeshiva in New York. But after a few years in Sweden – this is in 1950 when the Korean War started – my father became frightened that the Cold War between the Soviets and the Americans would cause another world wide conflict. He decided that it would be prudent to leave Europe and migrate to Canada. He wrote about this to the Previous Rebbe, but, in the meanwhile, the Previous Rebbe passed away. Sometime after that, I received instructions from my father to direct his question to the future Rebbe who, at that time, had not yet formally accepted leadership of the movement.
A Lubavitcher Chasid
Wed, Jul 15, 2015
My name is Herbert (Chaim Zev) Bomzer. I was ordained a rabbi by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and also by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, where I obtained a doctorate in Jewish Education. For forty years, until my retirement in 1995, I served as the rabbi of Young Israel of Ocean Parkway and as professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University. I mention this because my education and career path have been decidedly Modern Orthodox, yet I call myself a Lubavitcher chasid. And I’d like to tell the story of how that came about.
It all began about thirty-five years ago when I befriended Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who worked for Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, under the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Around this time my oldest daughter Etty was going through a rough time. She had gotten married to a wonderful young man, a Kohen, a real scholar, and was trying to have a family. But each time she got pregnant she would miscarry. It happened once, twice, three times. Each time – heartbreak.
And then she got pregnant for the fourth time – this was in 1983 – and we were all holding our breath. I confided my concerns to Rabbi Kotlarsky. “My daughter is two months pregnant and having a very hard time,” I told him.
“Why don’t you write a letter to the Rebbe?” he asked.
I said, “Moshe, I’ve never done a thing like that … I don’t even know the formalities of how to write a letter to the Rebbe.” I mean writing “To our holy Rebbe” was just not part of my vocabulary. But he promised to help me, so I agreed to do it. After all, what wouldn’t I do for my daughter?
I wrote the letter which was delivered to the Rebbe’s office. Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, said that it would take two to three days to get an answer. But just one hour later, the answer came back! The Rebbe said, “She should remain in bed for the next seven months, and she will have a living child.”
It so happened that when I got the answer my daughter was staying in our house. She lived in New Jersey but she had come into Brooklyn for an appointment with a doctor that was scheduled for the next morning. This doctor, a Filipino woman at Caledonian Hospital here, was supposed to be the expert in these matters.
Tue, Jul 07, 2015
I first met the Rebbe in 1975, together with Rabbi Abraham Hecht from my congregation, the Congregation Shaare Zion. Although Shaare Zion is a Sephardic congregation, at the time, we had as our leader an Ashkenazi rabbi who was a follower of the Rebbe.
This did not matter to us because Rabbi Hecht was brilliant and great, and actually was also one of my closest friends. He often consulted with the Rebbe and, on one occasion, I asked him to please take me with him the next time he went to Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights.
He did better than that – he arranged a private audience for me and my family. I went with my mother and my wife and with our children. And it was a fascinating experience.
It was 1975, and I was in the record business at the time. When I mentioned this to the Rebbe, he said to me, “There’s something very important that I want to ask you to do for your community. I want you make a recording of the best cantor you can find singing your High Holiday liturgy. It is important that the children of your community understand how their grandparents and their parents prayed.”
I did as he asked. When the recording came out, my community was thrilled, because some of the people had never heard the chants sang in the correct manner.
Since the Sephardic community stretches around the world, we made audio cassettes – at that time there were no CDs – and we provided them for free to as many Sephardic synagogues around the world that we could. And the recordings continue to be in use until today – the cantors listen to them to learn the proper way to chant our prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
So the Rebbe’s advice resulted in a resounding success. This happened thanks to the Rebbe’s interest and respect for the Sephardic community – he was concerned about Jews everywhere – and thanks to our Rabbi Hecht, who followed his directives.
All the while, the Rebbe was very sensitive to the issues involved. He would always try to offer his guidance without appearing to interfere, because he certainly didn’t want members of the Sephardic community thinking that Rabbi Hecht was following the dictates of a chasidic Rebbe. He knew that his intentions could be misunderstood or might even generate antagonism.
Wed, Jul 01, 2015
My grandfather, Shneur Zalman Vilenkin was from Dnepropetrovsk, which in his day was called Yekaterinoslav. This was the place where the future Rebbe’s family also lived at the time. The Rebbe was just a boy then – for this was in the early 1900s – and he would come, along with his two little brothers, to my grandfather’s house to learn.
My mother remembers that these three boys always came very well dressed, and that they were very clean, very neat, very polite. My grandfather would learn with them for the allotted time, and then they would leave. How long this went on, I don’t know.
One time, when the Rebbe was already a young man, he came over and asked for my grandfather. My mother had answered the door and informed him that my grandfather wasn’t available. He told my mother, “I just came to return a book that I borrowed. I want to make sure that he gets it.” So my mother took it and thanked him.
My grandfather would often tell us about the Rebbe’s wedding celebration which took place in 1928 in Yekaterinoslav. Although the Rebbe got married in Warsaw, his own parents were not there because they were not permitted to leave Russia. So they arranged a second celebration in their home. My grandfather was there, and he danced the night away and even danced on the table – this is a known story.
After the war, our family – my grandfather included – left Europe and eventually moved to New York. And when we got here, my grandfather wanted to meet with the Rebbe. This was probably in 1955, though I am not sure.
At this time, my grandfather was partially paralyzed, so it was very hard for him to walk and very hard for him to stand. When he walked into the Rebbe’s office, he naturally wanted to do the respectful thing and stand, but the Rebbe insisted he sit down. He continued to stand, but the Rebbe said, “Many years ago, you and I sat across from each other on a table; we can sit across from each other at a table again.” That convinced my grandfather and he sat down.
The Rebbe just would not allow my grandfather to stand in his presence, and he later told one of my uncles that my grandfather “hut mir avek geshtelt auf de fees – put me on my feet.”
He Cared About Our Family
Wed, Jun 24, 2015
I come from a family of chasidim. My father was a Boyaner chasid, while my mother’s family was Chabad, and she had a connection – from the time that she was a young girl – to the family of the Rebbe in Russia.
The Rebbe – I’m speaking now about the Previous Rebbe, the Rebbe Rayatz – had three daughters, Chaya Mushka – who would later marry the future Rebbe – Chana and Shaina. These three girls would spend time in the countryside, where my grandparents, Levi and Rochma Lagovier, also liked to spend time, and there my mother and the three girls would be together. This went on until 1917, when the Russian Revolution broke out. After that, my mother lost contact with them until 1935, when she and my father went to a health resort in Marienbad. There they met up with the Previous Rebbe, who was taking the restorative waters. One of his daughters had accompanied him there, and my mother was able to renew the friendship. As well, my father got a chance to spend considerable time with the Rebbe.
In 1940, when the Previous Rebbe arrived in New York, we were already living here for over a year, and my father made it a point of going to welcome him. I was 14 at the time, and I was invited to come along.
The Rebbe was staying at the Greystone Hotel, and I remember that when we came in, he was sitting at a small table. He gave me his hand. At that moment he looked at me and I felt his eyes piercing me like two swords. In Europe I had met many other Rebbes, but never before had I experienced such a feeling and, ever since, I’ve been connected to Chabad.
After the meeting there was a joyous farbrengen, full of young people. That’s another thing that attracted me to Chabad. My father’s Rebbe, the Boyaner Rebbe, was a very sweet person, a talmid chacham, a wise sage, but he was surrounded by old people. Here were people like me, full of energy, and this also pulled me over to Chabad.
At this time, my father was trying very hard to bring over my mother’s parents to America. They were stuck in Belgium and needed a transit visa to Lisbon, Portugal, from where my father had arranged a boat passage for them. My father had a fish oil business, on account of which he had very close connections with steamship lines, and he was able to procure two tickets for them. But no matter what he did – the sums of money he spent to pay off officials – he could not get them that transit visa. There was one Nazi who refused to be bought and who stood in the way and, because of him, my grandparents never did make it out of Europe. Years later I found records that they were sent on a transport to Auschwitz.
A Needle In A Haystack
Wed, Jun 17, 2015
I was raised in a traditional Zionist Jewish home in Sydney, Australia. While on a visit in Israel, I became attracted to Chabad-Lubavitch and, upon return to Australia, I enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva, which eventually led me to learning in New York. That is when I found out I had Chabad ancestors – including the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Chabad – and I
became a loyal follower of the Chabad Rebbe.
While I was in New York, I was approached by a prestigious rabbi from another chasidic group, who told me about a family that was searching for their long-lost daughter. She had been born and raised in Boro Park, and she had married there; unfortunately, the marriage ended badly, but her husband – for whatever reason – refused to agree to a divorce.
After this went on for a period of time, she “snapped” (to use a slang term), and she suddenly disappeared. Her family had learned that she had gone to Australia, but they had no idea where. Since I was from Australia, the rabbi w
approached me thought that maybe I could help them bring their daughter back to her people.ho
I said, “Australia is geographically the size of the United States. Looking for someone there without an address is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
He said, “I don’t know what to tell you, but maybe the Rebbe would know what to do.”
Before returning to Australia I had an audience with the Rebbe, so I told him this whole story. He asked, “When are you going back?”
I said, “I’m going back Wednesday.”
He said, “Sometime after you get back, maybe the week after, you should take a trip to Brisbane.”
He didn’t explain why I should do this, but, of course, I would follow the Rebbe’s instructions without question. So, when I returned to Australia, I got on a plane to Brisbane.
“Sing a Niggun!”
Wed, Jun 10, 2015
My name is Ben Zion Shenker. My parents came to the United States in 1921 from the Lublin area of Poland, settling in New York, where I was born and raised.
When I was about 13 years old, a famous cantor by the name of Joshua Samuel Weisser heard me sing in our synagogue – this was a Polish shtiebel in Bedford Stuyvesant – and he asked my father if I could join his choir. At first, my parents wouldn’t give permission but Cantor Weisser persisted. Finally they agreed, with one condition: If I had to travel away from home because of a performance, then I would have to be housed at the home of a local rabbi, so that they could be sure I was in good hands.
Cantor Weisser was chazan at the Avenue O Jewish Center in Bensonhurst where Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky, a Chabad-Lubavitch chasid, was the rabbi. It is at Rabbi Kazarnovsky’s Shabbos table that I first heard Chabad teachings, and I learned to sing Chabad niggunim which I found very stimulating.
In 1946, when I was 21 years old, I accompanied my father on a trip to Eretz Yisrael and there I met a man by the name of Moshe Shimon Geshuri, who was very involved in chasidic music. Mr. Geshuri requested that I take some material back to New York to be delivered to a certain Rabbi Schneerson, who was the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
When I returned home, I went in search of this Rabbi Schneerson and found his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. Although I appeared there without any appointment, he welcomed me in. I had no way of knowing that, in a few years, he would become the Rebbe. I do recall, however, that he made quite an impression on me. He had a lot of charisma, that’s for sure, and he took an interest in me. I thought that I would just hand him the material from Mr. Geshuri and go, but he started asking me questions. He wanted to know who I was, where I was learning, and why I had gone to the Holy Land. So I explained that my father went to visit his brother and had taken me along. While in Eretz Yisrael I composed a niggun to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” which they immediately started singing in a shul in Haifa. Eventually, this became my most famous composition.
Not long after that meeting with the Rebbe, I started attending addresses that he was giving on special occasions. These classes were not specifically geared to Lubavitcher Chassidim, and they had become popular with other yeshiva students in the area – students from my school, Torah Vodaas, from Chaim Berlin, and from other yeshivas.
HMS: “Special Delivery”
Wed, Jun 03, 2015
I am the daughter of Rabbi Sholom Posner who, for many years, operated a Yeshiva Day School in Pittsburgh. That’s where I was raised and that’s where I went to school until age 12, when I was sent to a Bais Yaakov seminary in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It is from this time that my memories of the Rebbe begin. I and another girl would walk from Williamsburg to Crown Heights to observe the Rebbe’s farbrengens. I always waited for the Rebbe to look in my direction as he was passing by, because the Rebbe’s smile would light up a room.
I had previously accompanied my parents when they went to see the Rebbe about matters dealing with the yeshiva, but my first private audience came in 1960 when I was finishing teacher’s seminary, and I was trying to decide what to do next. I had four options – to teach at my father’s school in Pittsburgh, to accept an offer from a school in New York, to travel to Eretz Yisrael, or to join my sister Bessie in Milan, where she and her husband served as Chabad emissaries. I didn’t know what to do and I made an appointment with the Rebbe to seek his advice.
I was very nervous and worried about how I would begin explaining everything. Then my turn came and the door opened. As I walked in, the Rebbe was sitting behind his desk, writing something, and he lifted his head. “Good evening, Miss Posner,” he said. I wasn’t expecting that, and I just burst out laughing. My nervousness completely left me.
The Rebbe asked me lots of questions – why I was so thin and had dark circles under my eyes – and I explained that I was studying very hard for final exams, plus also teaching in another school. So the Rebbe gave me a blessing that I should be successful in all my endeavors. He also told me not to worry about what to do next year, just to take some time off and relax.
HMS: “Special Delivery”
Wed, May 27, 2015
My ancestors came to America from Europe in the late 1800s and settled on the Lower East Side of New York. When the Williamsburg Bridge was built, they moved across the river, and established a yeshiva in Williamsburg, the famous Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.
Although I was not raised Lubavitch, I became a Chabad chasid through an interesting set of circumstances.
After I got married, I was teaching school in Borough Park in Brooklyn, and a fellow teacher who was a Lubavitcher suggested I meet his Rebbe. I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I said, “I’ve met other Rebbes and I didn’t see much difference between them.” He said, “Come – I guarantee you’ll see something different.”
He was right. When I met with the Rebbe for the first time he was still a young man – this was in 1957 – but I was extremely impressed. I saw in him a depth of mind, clarity of thought, and I felt a very strong attachment to him from the start.
After that I would try to see him at least twice a year, and I would talk to him about many things. He gave me very good advice – he encouraged me to get involved in communal work outside New York. And that’s what I did – I went to Miami and established a congregation there. And when I did that, he advised me on how to handle the donors, how to handle the board of directors and how to handle other rabbis in the community.
There came a time, in 1970, when I realized that we needed to rebuild the local mikvah. It had been built thirty years prior, when proper building materials were not available due to the war, and it was starting to deteriorate. So several local rabbis got together, and we raised the money to rebuild it. Some of us wanted to build the new mikvah according to a high standard, but we found out that the rabbi who was in charge of the design did not follow that standard, and the result was that his mikvah did not even qualify as kosher. But this rabbi refused to change the design. And he found some rabbis to approve his mikvah.