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!
The One Hour Mission
Wed, Jan 11, 2017
I grew up on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the 1950s. Though Crown Heights is mostly Chabad-Lubavitch, my family was not – we were just “plain Orthodox.” However, due to the proximity and fame of the Rebbe, we would go see him twice a year during his public appearances.
One of those times was Simchat Torah, when we would go to see the Rebbe and his chasidim dancing with the Torah into the wee hours of the morning. The other time was on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when he conducted the Tashlich ceremony at the pond in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Thousands of people would march with the Rebbe, singing their hearts out, and I recall this making a tremendous impression on me as a child.
Those were my childhood memories of the Rebbe. When I grew up, I moved away from Crown Heights. I went to university, became a psychologist and, after getting married, became a U.S. Air Force chaplain in Alaska.
In 1973, while on my way to take up my post for the first time, my wife and I drove across the country, stopping among other places in St. Paul, Minnesota. There we met two Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum, who upon hearing about my deployment insisted that I inform the Rebbe.
I obliged and wrote to the Rebbe about my upcoming mission. In my letter, I noted the problem of building in Alaska a mikveh – the ritual pool, without which a Jewish community cannot function. The U.S. Army had allotted the money, but I could not find anyone who knew how to build a mikveh, at least not anyone willing to come to Alaska.
When I finished writing the letter I handed it to them, and they asked me if there was anything they could do to help me. I confided my problem to them and to my shock, the younger emissary, Rabbi Grossbaum told me that he makes a living doing exactly this – designing mikvehs and overseeing their construction – and he would love to help me.
“Here I am looking all over America for someone to build me a mikveh,” I thought. “And, before they even put the stamp on the letter to the Rebbe, my problem is solved!”
Fighting for Israel
Wed, Jan 04, 2017
During the summer of 1980, while I was serving as the director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry in Israel, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who would later become a member of the Knesset, invited me to attend his son’s wedding in New York. Once there, I took the opportunity to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As it happened, Rabbi Avraham Friedman, the Sadigura Rebbe, was also at the wedding and he also planned to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, so I, together with Rabbi Shapira, joined his entourage.
Having heard so much about the Rebbe and now preparing to meet him face to face for the first time, I felt a strong sense of apprehension. When I and the others arrived at 770 Eastern Parkway, we went directly into the Rebbe’s study and the first thing that made an impression on me were his deep and penetrating eyes – they bore deep inside me in a way that I can’t describe.
The Rebbe rose from his chair to greet us and invited us to sit in a semi-circle around his desk. The conversation that followed was conducted in Yiddish with phrases of Hebrew being interjected from time to time. The Rebbe began by inquiring about the Sadigura Rebbe’s institutions and about his plans for the future. The Sadigura Rebbe responded that most of his schools were in Bnei Brak while his synagogue was in Tel Aviv, so he was planning to move to Bnei Brak in order to be closer to his institutions.
“But if you move to Bnei Brak, what will become of the Jews of Tel Aviv?” the Rebbe asked. “If all the Rebbes move away, they will be abandoned.”
Apparently this argument touched the Sadigura Rebbe because, subsequently, he did not leave Tel Aviv – not until he reached an old age, and even then, he made a point of returning from time to time to help the community there.
Next, the Rebbe brought up the painful subject of a plan to give away swaths of the Land of Israel as part of a peace treaty with the Arabs. Our meeting was taking place a year after Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt and was considering doing the same with the West Bank. The Rebbe mentioned some of the open miracles which took place so that the Jewish people could acquire this land and how, with G-d’s help, they were victorious during the Six Day War. The Rebbe then exclaimed, “But instead of receiving this gift from G-d happily, there is now talk of giving it away!”
The Miracle of Empathy
Wed, Dec 21, 2016
I am a son of Holocaust survivors. While my parents did not suffer in the concentration camps, they lost their entire families during the war. They met after liberation and made a home in Vienna, where I was born in 1951. But, because of the anti-Semitism in Austria, they ended up coming to America when I was four – initially settling in Cleveland and later in Monsey, New York.
In 1967, when I was 16 and she was only 42, my mother found out she had terminal breast cancer. I was a wild teenager at the time, and so she asked me to go to Israel for a year and learn in yeshivah with the hope that I would settle down. I would have done anything for my mother, and so I went, enrolling in Keren B’Yavne. Learning there was a very meaningful experience for me – I spent a lot of time studying Jewish ethics (mussar), especially the writings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. At that time, I was befriended by the dean of the yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Goldvitcht. Afterwards, whenever he came to the United States, he would look me up, and I would become his personal chauffeur.
One day in 1969 he called and asked if I could drive him to a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Of course I said, “It would be my pleasure. What time and where should I pick you up?” It turned out the meeting was at 2 a.m. – something I hadn’t bargained for – but since I promised, I drove him. When we got to Chabad Headquarters, he went in to see the Rebbe while I waited outside.
At this time, my mother was still very ill. One of her doctors was advising that she have radical surgery, while another doctor was advising a harsh course of radiation. Neither doctor saw much hope.
The whole family was devastated by this situation and neither my father nor my mother seemed able to make a decision as which type of treatment to pursue. So, taking the opportunity that Rabbi Goldvitcht’s meeting presented, I asked permission to speak with the Rebbe about this issue.
I cornered the Rebbe as he was saying good-bye to Rabbi Goldvitcht, half-expecting that he would put me off. It was 3:30 a.m. and I thought he’d say, “I’m tired now. Ask my secretary for an appointment.” But instead, he said, “Please, please come in.”
Wed, Dec 14, 2016
When my wife and I were first sent as the Rebbe’s emissaries to Charlotte, North Carolina, we established a preschool there. It became very popular and, within five years, the enrollment was so high we had outgrown our facilities.
At that time – this was the end of 1985 – the local Jewish community was building a huge campus called Shalom Park, and on this site stood an old building which we wanted to use as our school. However, we were told it was not available.
No matter what we did to get it, the answer was: “It won’t be possible.”
And so it came down to the wire. Preschool was due to start in two weeks, and we had no place for the children.
Finally, my wife, who was the principal of the school at the time, sat down and wrote to the Rebbe. This was in the days before faxes were in popular use, so she wrote a letter. She said that she has a group of students and no place in which to teach them. She said she was at a loss as how to deal with this situation – what to tell the parents, what will happen to the kids’ education – and she was asking the Rebbe for advice and for a blessing.
Her letter went out on a Thursday. On Monday, we got a call from my father, Rabbi Leibel Groner, who was then the Rebbe’s secretary. When my wife picked up the phone, he told her to take a pencil and write down the Rebbe’s answer to her letter. It was this: “G-d, will provide everything that is needed. And may you always report with good news”
We were both overjoyed, and we immediately called all the parents and told them “Mazel Tov, we have a place!” Naturally, they asked, “Where?” And we said, “We don’t know yet, but we know we have a place. If the Rebbe said that G-d will provide everything that is needed, there will be a place.”
I also called one of my biggest supporters – State Senator Marshall Rauch – and he recommended that I approach the local Jewish Foundation again about the building in Shalom Park. He said I should tell them that we have a place but that we are giving them a final chance at last refusal. And this is what I did – I called the lawyer who was in charge of the Jewish Foundation and told him exactly that.
He said to me, “You know what, Rabbi Groner? I thought it over and I think we can give you that building for the preschool. We have to go to five different boards and get their approval, but we can do it.”
Wed, Dec 07, 2016
I was born, raised and educated in England, earning a law degree from London University. But, early on, I became disillusioned with practicing law and, in 1959, I decided to pursue a career in Jewish education instead.
About this time, I was introduced to Chabad Lubavitch, when I was invited to participate in the organization of the first Lag B’Omer children’s parade in London. This type of parade – where Jewish children publicly proclaimed their allegiance to Torah – was very successfully staged by Chabad in New York, but Jews in London, who kept a very low profile, didn’t think it would be popular here.
Despite this skepticism, Chabad pressed on with parade plans and word went out that they were seeking counselors to look after the children who would be participating. To make a long story short, I signed up and the experience was most inspiring. Nearly one-thousand children marched, openly affirming their connection to Yiddishkeit, and it was something most amazing to see.
The following year, on the urging of my new Chabad friends, I came to New York to explore the possibility of studying at the Chabad yeshivah in Crown Heights. This is when I met the Rebbe for the first time, and I have no words to describe what that was like. Suffice to say, it was very, very special.
I had not known what to say to the Rebbe or what to request of the Rebbe, so I asked advice of the mashpia – the yeshiva’s spiritual mentor – and he said, “Ask the Rebbe how you can be joyful all the time, the way a chasid is supposed to be.” The mashpia sized me up correctly; I was not a joyful sort of fellow, and I needed advice in this regard.
When I asked this question of the Rebbe, he answered me as follows: “If you keep in mind that the soul of a Jew is a part of G-d above, how can you not be constantly joyful?” Then he added, “I see that you are by nature a melancholy type of fellow, but if you bear this fact in mind at all times, you will be joyful.”
After this audience, the Rebbe looked out for me. Whenever there was a farbrengen and the Rebbe was handing out wine from his cup – what is known as Kos Shel Bracha – he would say to me “Un vos iz mit simcha? – And what’s with the joy?”
“She Can See You”
Wed, Nov 30, 2016
I was born and raised in Manchester, England. Although initially my family was not associated with Chabad Lubavitch, later in life my father became a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and, when he passed away, we discovered a rich correspondence between them. All told, my father received over 80 letters from the Rebbe!
We all had the custom of writing regularly to the Rebbe. I, myself, wrote asking the Rebbe’s advice about which yeshivah to attend, what career to pursue, where to live, and so forth. And I followed whatever advice he gave me.
On the Rebbe’s advice, I pursued a career in Jewish education – first in Manchester and later (again on his advice) in London. After I married, the Rebbe advised me to take out a mortgage and buy a house. That very week, the owner of the housing development we lived in offered me a mortgage, and I saw straightaway that, if you’ve got faith in the Rebbe’s advice, you’ve got no problems. We bought a house which quickly increased in value. We were able to sell it at a profit and buy a much larger home where we are living to this day.
In 1972, my wife gave birth to our seventh child who passed away at only nine weeks of age. I wrote to the Rebbe that we wanted to come visit him for some inspiration, but the Rebbe said to wait a little while. As our three-year-old son was to have his first hair-cut, the Rebbe suggested that we start the upsherin at home in England, and he would personally finish it when we arrived.
And this is what we did. I was greatly honored when, in the middle of the Purim gathering, the Rebbe called out, “Is Sufrin here from London?” I immediately rushed over to the Rebbe who gave me a bottle of vodka, for l’chaim, and told me to share it with people while I was visiting in New York, and also with others in Paris and London. He then told me, “May you only have joyous occasions from now onward.”
I was happy to share the vodka in New York and London, but how was I to do this in Paris, I wondered. And then the Rebbe told me that Chabad’s Paris emissary was also visiting in New York and that I should share with him so he could distribute in Paris.
During the private audience with the Rebbe, he talked to us about our baby who had passed away. “Although you are frustrated because you can’t see her,” he said, “she can see you. Please remember that.” The Rebbe also said that it would be advisable for us to have more children.
After that he clipped off some of my three-year-old son’s hair, completing the upsherin, and we all left very happy. The scissors he used have since been passed around the world, and many boys have had their hair cut for the first time using those particular scissors.
The Stray Kitten
Wed, Nov 23, 2016
When I was still a young girl, my family emigrated from Germany to the United States, settling in Brownsville, 1950 New York. I was a pretty tough kid, and I was expelled from my school in the middle of the year. My mother could not find another school that would accept me in the middle of a school year, until she came upon a small, new school in Brownsville named Bais Rivkah, the official Chabad girls’ school at the time. There were a few classrooms is a small house and I remember some classes being held in what smelled to me like a fish shop. Later Bais Rivkah moved to 400 Stone Ave. We stayed in that new building right through Seminary.
From the minute I walked in the door, I was happy. Rabbi Shloma Majesky and Rabbi Yitzchok Goldin, as well as several other teachers, really took an interest in me and made sure that I was doing well, even though I was far from the best student. Each year my mother asked the Rebbe if she should move me to Bais Yaakov or Esther Shoenfeld, the more established girl’s schools at that time. Each year the Rebbe answered her, “if she is happy leave her in Bais Rivkah”.
My mother had a deep respect for chasidic rabbis dating back to her years in Poland before the war, and she made sure to give me opportunities to develop a special connection to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom she visited frequently. Whenever she faced a difficult issue, she went to see the Rebbe, and if I was the concern of the moment, I would be dragged along.
The first time I was brought to the Rebbe, in 1959, I was about twelve years old. At first, I was frightened to be in his presence and did not know what to say, but I came to respect the brilliance and simplicity of his answers, which eventually left the greatest impression on me. This is how the Rebbe managed to shape my life in many ways.
One of the most impactful meetings took place, around 1965, before the New York Regents Exams when I was in 12th grade. I was interested in none of the subjects that were required Regent exams, least of all history. To make matters worse, the preparatory text was a huge book which I had not read nor ever wanted to read. I had resigned myself to failure. My mother, of course, would have none of that, so off we went to the Rebbe’s office at 770 Eastern Parkway.
The Rebbe’s response, after I explained myself to him, was simple: “Don’t worry about finishing the whole textbook. Just take one paragraph at a time. When you finish one, move onto the next.”
I followed his advice, and although I would never manage to finish the book, I developed a strong interest in history. Somehow, thanks to the Rebbe’s advice, I managed to pass my Regents. In my educational career History always became the focal point of my teaching, no matter what the subject was. I believe you can’t properly understand Tanach, Talmud, chasidut, Halacha or any secular subject without having proper knowledge of the history behind it and of how it developed.
Quantity and Quality
Wed, Nov 16, 2016
I connected with Lubavitch early on in life, when I enrolled in the Chabad Yeshiva College in Melbourne and I kept the connection even after I moved on to other schooling. . And, after university, I went to work for Lubavitch, running the youth organization in Australia, Tzeirei Agudas Chabad.
My first personal encounter with the Rebbe took place in 1974, when I was 21. I was among a group of young men from Australia who came to New York, and I got to see him privately for a few minutes. Walking in, I handed him a note with my name on it, but instead of writing my full Hebrew name, which is Raphael Yonason, I just wrote Raphael. The Rebbe looked at the note and said, “You should make sure that you are called by the correct name.” How did the Rebbe know that this was not my correct name? I have no idea.
During that same audience, I had asked the Rebbe for blessing for two boys I had been working with. I gave him no other information than their names, but the Rebbe took the time to offer advice. One of the boys had lost his father, so the Rebbe told me that he should strengthen his relationship with his mother and, as for the other, that he would grow out of his wild streak – that his wildness was not necessarily a bad thing, rather he should make sure to channel it towards the right things.
After that he asked me how things were going in Australia, and I complained to him how hard it was to operate the so-called “mitzvah tanks” in Melbourne, where I was trying to do it. The “mitzvah tanks” were vans which went around Jewish neighborhoods playing music through loud speakers and urging Jewish women to light Shabbat candles and Jewish men to put on tefillin. Some people found them offensive, and there was a lot of local opposition to them.
After hearing me out, the Rebbe said, “Not everything which is done in America must be done in Australia.” He explained that in America, the focus is generally on the numbers; the quantity. But in Australia, people require a more individualistic approach.
“So I shouldn’t do it in Australia?” I asked.
“No, you should do it in Australia,” the Rebbe responded. “But you need to find a way to do it more quietly, without arousing opposition.”
And then the Rebbe said, “It is similar to how one can focus on the commandment ‘to love their fellow Jew’. There are some who fulfill it in a general sense, by opening organizations and so on. Others fulfill it by forming relationships; your task is to focus on loving every Jew individually. And I give you a blessing to succeed at loving every Jew individually.”
I took this blessing as my personal mission statement in life. And once I had my priorities in order, I did succeed with the “mitzvah tanks,” toning them down a bit until people got used to them.
Beautiful on the Inside
Wed, Nov 09, 2016
I grew up in New York in a secular family, receiving almost no Jewish education. I became a nurse, married a doctor – a plastic surgeon like my father – and eventually moved to Hollywood, Florida, where we raised our family.
Our involvement with Judaism started through my son, Kenny, who was befriended by Chabad chasidim while attending the local Hebrew Academy. They invited him to spend Shabbat at the Landow Yeshiva in Miami Beach, and he ended up enrolling there.
Naturally, before we allowed him to do this, my husband and I went to check out the place and we got to know Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar, the Chabad emissary there, and the other Chabad emissaries there. They made a wonderful impression on us, and that’s how we were inspired to take our first steps toward Torah observance as a family.
Shortly thereafter, we decided to travel to Crown Heights to meet the Rebbe. It was an amazing experience which I lack the words to describe. We felt we were in the presence of a very great, very holy man, who made us feel most welcome.
I recall in that first audience telling the Rebbe that my husband and I were leading a very busy social life, yet that I felt empty inside.
He looked at me and said, “But you are Jewish. You have your religion.” And I understood that I should become more involved in Judaism – that this is what was lacking in my life. I had not figured this out for myself until the Rebbe pointed it out to me.
As well, in that first audience, I asked the Rebbe’s advice concerning my children’s health. They had come down with colds while we were visiting in New York, and being a nurse I was able to detect symptoms which suggested that they had caught the croup. I said to the Rebbe, “I am worried that this is serious. Do you think I should take them to the hospital?”
“No, you don’t have to,” he responded, “Just take them home and give them tea with sugar.”
I was very relieved and very happy that I didn’t have to take them to the hospital. I started to give them tea with sugar, but my husband was not sure. So he took one of the boys to a local pediatrician to ask if antibiotics should be prescribed. But the pediatrician said, “No, just give him tea with honey.” And we were amazed that the Rebbe knew what to do just as well as the pediatrician.
After that first meeting with the Rebbe, we returned time and again to see him, as we became more religiously involved. In a subsequent audience, the Rebbe said to me, “Your husband is a plastic surgeon; he makes people beautiful on the outside. It should be your mission to make people beautiful on the inside.”
Wed, Nov 02, 2016
While I never had a chance to meet the Rebbe personally, he managed to have a strong impact on my life through various patients of mine. Of course, already when I was a child growing up in Petach Tikvah, I heard about the Rebbe. The local Chabad rabbi, Dovid Chanazin, who was married to my mother’s first cousin, was a frequent visitor in our home and, whenever he came, he spoke about the Rebbe. Later, when I married, I heard about him from my father-in-law, Rabbi Meir Schochetman, who studied with the Rebbe at the Sorbonne in Paris, and continued to maintain contact with him.
But it was not until 1985, when I was a young and inexperienced doctor working at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center in the field of bone marrow transplantation, that I got to witness the power of the Rebbe’s blessings first hand.
One day we received a desperate call from a young man whose wife – a mother of two children – was diagnosed with leukemia. She had undergone treatment at a hospital in northern Israel, but to no avail. The cancer kept recurring and eventually turned more deadly, all the while causing greater damage to her body. Her doctors finally gave up, as they had exhausted all of the conventional means at their disposal. The woman’s husband, who was obviously very depressed because of the situation, happened to meet several Lubavitcher chasidim from Afula and told them about his wife. They explained to him that there was no reason for despair, and suggested that he write a letter to the Rebbe, which he did. In response, the Rebbe insisted that he turn to another hospital for help, adding his assurances that a remedy did exist.
Because of the Rebbe’s advice, this young husband called our department and, by Divine Providence, it was me who answered his call that day. After describing the cancer, the treatments and the subsequent failures, he told me that he was turning to us on the instruction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This got me thinking and I decided that, despite the failures of the previous doctors to remedy the situation, I would have to find an avenue which nobody had considered earlier. I said, “Let me confer with my staff. Come with your wife tomorrow, and we will have an answer.”
After a brief discussion, the members of my staff all agreed that we would accept the patient and try different experimental treatments which had passed testing in the lab, but had never been tried on human beings.
After this information was passed on to the Rebbe, he responded, “May they have much success, and she should achieve a complete recovery.” Despite the slim chances of success, I was greatly encouraged by the Rebbe’s blessing. I felt this was an opportunity to sanctify G-d’s name and show how a person with no medical hope can recover with the help of a blessing.