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!
HMS: The Shabbos Mevorchim Kiddush
Wed, Jan 28, 2015
In the early 1940s, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, my family moved from Coney Island to Crown Heights. We didn’t move to Crown Heights because it was the seat of Chabad-Lubavitch – we were not Lubavitch, so that did not attract us at all. As a matter of fact, there were very few Lubavitchers in Crown Heights at that time, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe – the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak – lived there, and he had just established his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Once we were living in the neighborhood, for one reason or another, my father took a liking to the Lubavitchers, and he began to attend prayer services at 770. At that time, I was enrolled in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, but when I heard that a yeshiva for my age group was about to open at Lubavitch, I decided that I wanted to enroll.
But my father had misgivings about this. He said, “You’re an American kid, you’re not going to succeed in a chasidic yeshiva. It’s not like the yeshivas you’re used to – it’s a European yeshiva, not an American yeshiva.”
I said, “Well, they speak Yiddish at Torah Vodaas, and they’ll speak Yiddish at the Lubavitch yeshiva.”
My father said, “If you want to go, it’s okay with me – just be prepared that you may find it unpleasant.” But I didn’t find it unpleasant at all.
Meanwhile, my father’s minyan in the Lubavitch shul had expanded to include other men who were not chasidim. My father came to know these people because they would all sit down to make a kiddush together after Shabbos prayers. This was not a Lubavitch custom – the Lubavitchers went home, but these men stayed behind.
And that brings me to a story I want to tell about Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the Previous Rebbe, and also about the future Rebbe, who was then the Rebbe’s son-in-law. We knew him as Ramash – an acronym for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
HMS: How important is it to You?
Wed, Jan 21, 2015
Before my first visit with the Rebbe in 1966, I’d had no contact with him. At the time, I was facing difficulties in my business as a result of the tragic death of my partner.
I had heard a lot about the Rebbe, and when a friend suggested I consult him, I jumped at the chance.
I flew from London – where I lived and worked as an accountant – to New York, and my audience began at 2 a.m.
Before the audience, I had asked Rabbi Faivish Vogel, who accompanied me on my trip: “How do I explain my business affairs to the Rebbe? They are highly complicated!”
He said, “Write it all down before you go in and let the Rebbe read it.” So the day before the audience, I wrote it all down – about thirty pages of it! Now I know it was a great chutzpah for me to expect the Rebbe to wade through thirty pages of explanations, but Rabbi Vogel told me to put it in writing.
When I entered the Rebbe’s office, the Rebbe took up the thirty sheets of paper and started to read them. It took a while.
While the Rebbe was reading, I was thinking to myself: “Why am I wasting the Rebbe’s time? He can’t possibly understand all these business issues. It’s too complicated.”
My concerns were exacerbated by the fact that the Rebbe never stopped to ask me any questions – he just kept reading. And so the longer it took, the more doubts I had in my mind about whether the Rebbe could possibly understand what it was all about.
HMS: The recipe for a warm home
Wed, Jan 14, 2015
My name is Masha Lipskar. I was born in 1949 in Brooklyn. When I was four, my parents moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where my father, Rabbi Aaron Popack, took a job – at the behest of the Previous Rebbe – as the director of the Bais Yaakov seminary.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, after the war, it was a brave new world –where all that Jews really wanted was to be American. When I completed high school, my dream was to go to university and become a journalist. I thought that as a journalist out in the world I could best help spread the message of the Chabad Movement. But my parents felt that this was no occupation for an observant girl and that I should go to Bais Yaakov seminary instead.
There was no way I wanted to become the stereotypical Bais Yaakov girl. Bais Yaakov girls seemed to me like little copies of each other and, obviously, I didn’t want to become a copy of anyone.
My father consulted the Rebbe who suggested that, instead of Bais Yaakov, I should come to Crown Heights and attend Bais Rivkah. And this is what I did.
Bais Rivkah was a sorry sight – the school had no money for electricity and we were freezing; when it rained, the rain came in. I would call my parents crying my eyes out. My father advised me, “The Rebbe told you to go there, so you have to tell the Rebbe about this.” I wrote to the Rebbe and, after the mid-term break, Bais Rivkah reopened in a better location. I realized then how much the Rebbe listened to everyone, how much he cared about individuals and their needs.
I studied in Bais Rivkah for two years, and then my parents asked me to return home. I got a job teaching second grade, and it was a year of tremendous growth and learning, but I was very, very lonely. I spent all my time at home preparing my lessons and going to work, and I couldn’t wait for the summer when I could join my friends at camp.
HMS: All for the cause
Wed, Jan 07, 2015
My name is Moshe Salzberg. I was raised in Lisbon, Portugal, where my parents spent the wartime years. After high school, I came to New York to study at Yeshiva University and the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, but after I got married, I immigrated to Montreal, Quebec, in order to find work. I have lived in Montreal for close to fifty years now, and I’ve been involved with the Jewish community here. My involvement came about mostly because of my three children and my concern for their religious education.
In 1968, when my son Meyer was ready to start school, there was a Lithuanian-style yeshiva in Montreal, called Yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah, and there was also a Lubavitch yeshiva. As a matter of fact, the founders of Merkaz HaTorah came to town at the same time as the Lubavitchers. At one time they worked together, but eventually they split.
Lubavitch made its own institution – there was a large Lubavitcher community in Montreal, and they needed a yeshiva for the chasidic children – and Merkaz HaTorah made its own. But while Lubavitch prospered, Merkaz HaTorah did not do as well. They did not have enough students to fill all the grades.
So we didn’t see a future for Meyer at that school. A few of the other parents felt the same, and so we decided that maybe we should start another school, because it seemed to us that Merkaz HaTorah would eventually disappear.
That’s when I started talking with the Lubavitchers, who did not want another yeshiva in Montreal. Instead, they invited me and the other parents to bring our children to their yeshiva. At that time, they had just put up a new building on Westbury Avenue in Montreal, so they were conveniently located in the area.
We met with Rabbi Sputz, Rabbi Greenglass and Rabbi Gerlitzky, and we discussed the idea of making a yeshiva together. The meeting was going well until I asked: “Who decides on the teachers for these kids?”
HMS: Personal Care
Wed, Dec 31, 2014
My name is Leah Rivka Arkush. I come from England, where I grew up in Stamford Hill, in a non-religious home just two streets away from Beis Lubavitch – Lubavitch House.
When we first moved to Stamford Hill, I pointed out the Beis Lubavitch to my mother and I said to her, “Look, this is a place where I could go to school.” My mother agreed to check it out, but she didn’t. I had to nudge her a few times until, finally, she found out – and, yes, it was a place that would be good for me, so I started going to school there.
During those years, my father was badly injured in a car crash. The recuperation took a very long time, and while he was in the hospital, my mother struggled very much because we didn’t have any money.
One day, then the headmaster of the Chabad school, Rabbi A. D. Sufrin, got a phone call from the Rebbe’s office inquiring about us. How did the Rebbe know we were in trouble? I have no idea. But when Rabbi Sufrin related that we were not doing so well, he was told, “You must make sure that they have food and whatever they need.”
Even when my father came home from the hospital, he still wasn’t really well enough to go and work at a full-time job. So Lubavitch employed him at the Montefiore Home in Ramsgate, to get it ready for summer camp. He helped in building the Nissan House, and he stayed there until he was better.
It was right around this time that my parents decided it was best for me to change to a different school. When the Rebbe learned that I was leaving, however, he sent a message to Rabbi Sufrin: “She’s got to stay. You’ve got to sort out what has to be, but I want her in that school. I do not want her to leave.”
HMS: Out of the box
Wed, Dec 24, 2014
My name is Menachem Alexenberg, but I am also known as Mel Alexenberg. I was born in New York in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, which is now Interfaith Hospital. My bar mitzvah was in Flatbush in my uncle Morris’s synagogue, which is now a mosque, and I married my wife Miriam at the Park Manor Wedding Hall, which is now a Baptist church. So I like to say that I was born in Interfaith Hospital, had my bar mitzvah in a mosque and my wedding in a Baptist church. But however that makes me sound, the truth is that I grew up in an Orthodox Zionist family, went to yeshiva, then to Queens College where I studied biology, then to Yeshiva University where I earned a degree in education, and finally to New York University where I received an interdisciplinary doctorate in art, science and psychology.
I first met the Rebbe in 1962. Although I had no chasidic background, my sister-in-law – whose husband was studying at that time in the Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn – convinced me to request an audience with him. I had a fascinating discussion with him on the relationship between art, science, technology and Judaism, which has been my life’s work. He was very interested in these kinds of things, as a scientist and an engineer himself.
That first meeting led to many others, and to a voluminous correspondence between us. I cannot remember exactly at which meeting it came up, but the Rebbe told me one thing that became a central part of my thinking. He pointed out that, in Hebrew, the words for “matter” and “spirit” are interchangeable; that is the letters that spell chomer, meaning “matter,” also spell ruach, meaning “spirit” – all you have to do is drop one letter.
“What is the difference between the spiritual and material world?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s a matter of perspective. If you look at the world one way, you see a material world. But if you make a switch in your head, if you change the quality of your perception, if you look at things in a new, fresh way, then the same world becomes spiritual. The spiritual world and the material world are not two worlds. The quality of your relationship to the material world makes it spiritual.”
Because of this insight, a lot of my artwork – as a matter of fact almost all of my artwork – begins with Hebrew words and Torah concepts. It might become high-tech stuff, but it starts there.
HMS: Influencing the future
Tue, Dec 16, 2014
I first met the Rebbe in 1951 when he had just become the Rebbe. I was attending Yeshiva University high school, the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, which was on Bedford Avenue and President Street in Brooklyn. My best friend in school was Tzvi Groner whose uncle, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Groner, was the Rebbe’s secretary, and Tzvi and I used to walk over to the Chabad Headquarters sometimes to visit Rabbi Groner. We’d bring our sandwiches and spend our lunch-hour with him.
During these visits, the Rebbe would speak with us on occasion. This was before he had become world renowned, when he was a relatively young man. He would ask us about our learning – which section in Talmud we were studying – and he would talk a little bit about philosophy. Although these were very brief meetings, I was enormously impressed with the erudition of this man. I mean, he was so much better educated than my high school teachers. I would look forward to these occasional meetings.
The next time I met the Rebbe was in 1970 when I was clerking for Justice Arthur Goldberg, who was running for governor of New York. Justice Goldberg asked me to arrange an audience with the Rebbe, and I did. I expected to deliver Justice Goldberg to the Rebbe and stay outside but they invited me to participate in the meeting, which lasted about an hour.
The Rebbe was very interested in the role that Justice Goldberg had played at the United Nations, particularly during the 1967 War. It was fortuitous that Justice Goldberg, who was a Jew strongly supportive of Israel, would be the person picked to be at the United Nations at that very important time when Security Council Resolution 242 was being drafted, which essentially set the terms for how peace would be achieved.
The Rebbe and Justice Goldberg discussed the events of that time, but their discussion was not political. Also, there was no effort to get an endorsement. Justice Goldberg simply wanted advice from the Rebbe about New York and about the Jewish community, specifically the Chabad community. He was not particularly familiar with Brooklyn in those days. It was a very, very interesting and thoughtful exchange. I was mostly quiet and learned from both of them.
HMS #100: “I’m going with you”
Wed, Dec 10, 2014
In the summer of 1974, I was sent as the Rebbe’s emissary to Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst is a college town – the site of five colleges, the largest of which is the University of Massachusetts. With G-d’s help, with the Rebbe’s blessings, and with the assistance of one of the veteran emissaries, Rabbi Dovid Eidelman, I was able to set up a Chabad House right on the campus of the University of Massachusetts.
Back then, the term Chabad House was hardly the household word that it is today, and I very much wanted to open the Chabad House with a splash. So I decided to hold a concert in the newly-opened Fine Arts Center on campus, where there was a beautiful concert hall tailor made for this purpose. We hired Theodore Bikel, who was a superstar of Jewish music at that time, and we set about publicizing the event. I spared absolutely no expense. I had full-color flyers printed, I arranged for TV and radio ads, and I did everything possible to make sure everybody knew about this event.
The concert was scheduled for Sunday, and on the Friday afternoon – maybe an hour or two before Shabbos – I called up the ticket office to find out how many hundreds of tickets had been sold. The ticket lady said, “Hold on – I have to check the computer.” A minute later she came back on the line and said, matter-of-factly, “Eighty-seven.”
I said, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re talking about the concert this Sunday.”
“Theodore Bikel?” She asked.
“Yes, that’s the one!” I replied.
I was devastated. The Shabbos before the concert was probably the worst Shabbos of my life. I went up to the second floor of the Chabad House from where you could actually see the concert hall, and as I looked at it, I was thinking to myself, “Yisrael, you see that building over there? Tomorrow that’s going to be the scene of your downfall.” I don’t recall if I was literally crying, but inside, I was sobbing.
HMS: “We just called him “Monsieur”
Fri, Dec 05, 2014
I was born in 1934 in the village of Vizhnitz, Ukraine. When I was a small boy, my parents immigrated to Antwerp, Belgium. Belgium had a large Jewish community – some 50,000 Jews lived in Antwerp at that time – and they hoped to have a better life there.
Unfortunately, our stay did not last long. In 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium and immediately began deporting and killing Jews. So everybody started running. We ran across the border to France.
I was only six years old at the time, but I was old enough to realize that we were fleeing for our lives.
We made our way to Marseilles where my grandmother – that is, my mother’s mother – and also my mother’s sister lived. A group of Lubavitcher chasidim lived there, and we were welcomed warmly. But the problem was there was nothing for us there. By nothing, I mean that with the war going on there was not enough food, and also not enough adequate shelter to handle influx of all the refugees. We moved from house to house, from place to place. A few months later the Nazis invaded Paris, and the situation got even worse.
In the midst of all this chaos and upheaval, my family was forced to split up. Only after the war did I get to see them again. Meanwhile, I was sent to an orphanage in Marseilles.The orphanage housed some forty or maybe fifty children, many of them as young as three and four years old. Some of them knew that their parents had been killed; others didn’t know what became of their mother or father. Often, you would hear children crying, calling out for their parents who were not there to answer.
As the days wore on, the situation grew more and more desperate, and food became more and more scarce. Many a day we went hungry.
HMS: TURN UP THE LIGHTS
Fri, Jun 20, 2014
My Dad, of blessed memory, was Reb Chaim Mordechai Yitzchak HaKohen. He was named Chaim Mordechai because he was born a week before Purim. He also died a week before Purim. He came to America from Postov, Russia, which was a Chabad-Lubavitch town, and it was there that he was strongly influenced by Chabad ways.
As far back as I remember, I heard about Chabad. My father loved religion, and he belonged to half-a-dozen synagogues in Los Angeles where we lived, but he was not really at home in any of them; he would always tell me that the only sect of Judaism that he identified with was Chabad but, back then, there were no Chabad synagogues in the city.
I remember my father speaking with great reverence about the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and how much he would love to see the Rebbe, but it was impossible as the Rebbe was in Europe. Then the Rebbe came to America – this was in 1940, when I was ten. My father was just overjoyed; he was truly ecstatic. And he called the Rebbe’s office in New York right away.
Shortly thereafter, the first emissary of Chabad came to LA. His name was Rabbi Moshe Hecht. He impressed me tremendously because, while he had a beard and a black hat and coat, he was a modern guy. I remember him playing baseball with me and suddenly stopping to pray Mincha. Others came also, mostly to collect funds for Chabad schools – the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva and the Vocational Schools of the Holy Land, which was a Chabad program where boys were trained not just to learn Hebrew and become rabbis but also to learn a trade so that, if they didn’t find work as rabbis, they could at least make a living.
My father contributed, of course, and he also raised money for Chabad. My mother – who was very active in charitable causes, in Zionistic causes, and in political causes – knew how to organize fund-raising events. She knew how to set up the tables, who to invite, how much to charge, how to arrange the publicity … and, because of her know-how, we were able to raise considerable amounts of money.