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!
“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.
I Have a Promise
Thu, Oct 27, 2016
My first encounter with the Rebbe – long before he became the Rebbe – was during a Sukkot gathering in 1941. He was speaking in the sukkah, though I don’t remember what about. But I do remember the dancing. At the time I was just a kid, twelve years old, and I was hanging around the edge of the crowd when, suddenly, I felt a hand pull me from behind. When I turned around I saw it was the Rebbe – who urged me to join in the dancing, which I did.
Over the next ten years, before he assumed leadership of Chabad Lubavitch, I had a chance to observe him many times from a youngster’s point of view. And what impressed me was how he related to his mother. She came to America in 1947, and I recall him walking with her, letting her arm rest on his arm as she climbed the stairs. This tender moment between them has stayed in my mind.
During the years I was a student in the Chabad yeshiva, many amazing things happened that demonstrated the power of the Rebbe’s blessings. I recall one particular incident that involved a distant relative.
On this occasion, my grandfather, Rabbi Yechiel Tarshish, had summoned me to East New York, where he lived, to show me a letter he had received from his nephew’s wife in Israel. She wrote that her husband, whose name was Menachem Mendel, the son of Chana, was experiencing terrible headaches. The doctors had determined that this was the result of an injury he received during the war. He had been captured by the Germans, and a soldier hit him in the head with the butt of his rifle. He fell down and others carried him away. Somehow he survived, migrated to Israel after the war and got married there. But now he was having these blinding headaches and the doctors were recommending very risky surgery, which would either remedy the situation or send him into a vegetative state. My grandfather wanted me to ask for a blessing from the Rebbe.
I did; the Rebbe gave his blessing, and the operation was successful – everything turned out well.
Some time later, as I was walking out of the 770 Eastern Parkway and the Rebbe was coming in, he turned to me and asked, “What happened with Menachem Mendel ben Chana?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about; I had forgotten all about it.
The Unforgotten Jew
Wed, Oct 05, 2016
I come from a Chabad family with roots in Russia and Germany, though by the time I was born in 1958, my parents were living in Crown Heights. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father came to see the Rebbe to ask for a blessing. At the time, it was the custom among some religious women to wear a partial wig covered with a kerchief. At the time the Rebbe had been campaigning that married women should cover their hair with a full sheitel (wig). When the Rebbe saw my mother he said to her, “A half a sheitel is a half a blessing, a whole sheitel is a whole blessing.”
After blessing them, the Rebbe asked to see my father privately and when my mother had left the room, he opened a drawer and took out a sum of money. It was a pretty large sum for those days. He then instructed my father to go to Manhattan and find out where the Broadway actors buy their wigs and buy my mother the nicest sheitel he could find. That is just one instance of the Rebbe’s sensitivity and caring that my family experienced.
My father was in the business of buying and selling postal stamps. As a result he travelled a lot, especially to Central and South America, buying stamps there and selling them to collectors in Europe. And, as if the Rebbe didn’t have enough on his mind, he instructed his secretariat to save the foreign stamps from his incoming mail for my father. I recall my father peeling off these stamps from the envelopes and arranging them in special collectors’ albums.
On one occasion in 1972, while my father was preparing to travel to a number of foreign cities – including Managua, Nicaragua – he wrote out his whole three-week itinerary for the Rebbe, asking for a blessing for a safe trip. The Rebbe gave the blessing, but also told my father not to rush. Meaning the Rebbe was blessing him to go, but not just yet.
So my father postponed his trip. And on December 23rd there was a massive earthquake in Managua. 6,000 people were killed and 20,000 injured. Some of the people that my father was to meet did not survive. The destruction and loss of life was terrible, but my father was spared.
Six months later my father decided to try again, and he asked the Rebbe if he should go now. This time the Rebbe instructed him, “Check and see what the US State Department advises.” My father called the State Department, and they said, “The situation following the earthquake is very bad. We don’t recommend that American citizens travel there.” So he waited.
Another three months passed, and again he asked the Rebbe, who told him that this time it was okay to go, provided he made sure to be inoculated against malaria and other tropical diseases.
Faith and Reason
Wed, Sep 28, 2016
I grew up in the Lower East Side of New York. At that time, it was a Jewish shtetl in every way, full of first generation immigrants, who dressed, talked and behaved as they did in Europe. But observing them and learning from them proved to be extremely valuable to me, as I had contact with authentic Judaism from an early age.
My father was a student of the Chafetz Chaim in Radun, Poland, and he guided my Torah learning. He sent me to the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Yeshiva (RIETS), where I received my rabbinic ordination, and where I studied with Rabbi Pelayah, Rabbi Belkin and Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik.
While there I merited to meet Shifra, the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the top Torah authority in America, and we got married. A year later – in 1949 – I was offered a part-time job teaching at RIETS, and that’s where I have been ever since. Meanwhile, I also received a doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University, where I was also offered a part-time teaching job and eventually become the chairman of the department.
Now, because I was the son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, I became the address for inquiries from various quarters; I was easier to reach than he was. Rabbi Hodakov, who was the secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, would often call me to pass on messages, and I served as an intermediary, but I had no direct contact with the Rebbe.
One day I got a call – I believe it was sometime in 1970 – that the Rebbe wanted to see me. This audience lasted from midnight until seven in the morning, and much of that time we spent talking biology.
The Rebbe was well-versed in secular knowledge and he was up-to-date on the latest advances in science. I have to admit that he was even ahead of me when it came to physics, especially the subject of radioisotope dating of the age of the earth.
Of course, his opinion was that any data that seems to suggest the earth is older than 5,700 years old is only a test from G-d, period. He argued that the rate of decay changed at the time that the creation of the earth was completed and, therefore, scientists are making a mistake in assuming that the current rate of decay has remained the same. Of course, if the rate of decay by which we date uranium has altered over time, then this would have a huge impact on the scientific dating system.
During our conversation, the Rebbe proposed that I write a biology textbook which would be acceptable to the New York State Department of Education but which would skirt the whole issue of evolution. At that time, the study of evolution was mandatory, and students could not pass the Regents tests without answering questions about this subject.
The Young Headmaster
Wed, Sep 21, 2016
My father came from a Lithuanian – that is, non-chasidic – background. He was born in England but was educated at the Mir Yeshiva in Russia, where he received rabbinic ordination. Upon returning to England, he worked as a communal rabbi in Manchester and in Glasgow, finally setting up a Jewish school of his own about fifty miles west of London.
This school was called Carmel College, and it was a Jewish high school for boys, the aim of which was to combine the best of a yeshivah education with the best of a secular education.
At the time, the top high schools in England were Eton and Harrow, and most upwardly-mobile Jews in England felt that, if their children didn’t go to these schools, they wouldn’t be able to make it in English society. However, my father saw that Jewish children were losing their connection to Judaism in these schools, so he sought to offer an alternative. He wanted to establish a rival school that would not only offer the very best in secular education but also the very best in Jewish studies.
Early on, Carmel College did attract some exceptional pupils who helped it establish a phenomenal academic reputation, but the majority of the students came there because they hadn’t been able to get into the top English schools, and this was the next best thing. They were not religious and not interested in a religious education, an attitude which was not aided by their non-religious parents.
I myself attended Carmel College as a youngster but, at age 16, I was sent to yeshivah in Israel. While there, in 1961, I received a call with the terrible news that my father was gravely ill with leukemia, and I rushed home. Upon return, I found him dramatically changed – he was wearing chasidic garb, and I learned that he had recently been to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York.
When we had a chance to talk about it, my father told me about this visit and the great impression it made on him. He said he told the Rebbe that he wanted to be a chasid, but the Rebbe, praising his work with Carmel College, said, “I don’t want you to be my disciple, I want you to be my partner.”
Why did my father make such a dramatic turn at the end of his life? He said that he came to the conclusion that the Chabad Movement had been most successful in bringing the concept of Ahavat Yisrael – love among Jews – to the forefront of Jewish thought.
After my father passed away, I enrolled at Cambridge University, where I majored in philosophy but, when I finished my studies, I decided I wanted to be ordained as a rabbi, so I returned to Israel, this time attending the Mir, the same yeshiva that had ordained my father in Russia.
Wed, Sep 14, 2016
My ancestors were Chassidic Jews from Poland who immigrated to Israel where I was born and educated. I studied in religious as well as in secular schools, and graduated from Hadassah Medical School of Hebrew University in 1966.
After the death of Professor Chaim Sheba, with whom I worked for a number of years, I became the director of the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer Hospital, the largest hospital in Israel with 1,700 beds, 7,000 employees and an annual budget of $600 million a year. In my capacity as director I came to the United States periodically, and on one such occasion in 1976, a friend invited me to a farbrengen.
This proved quite an experience. It was Simchat Torah, and the farbrengen was attended by several thousand Chassidim, who were dancing and joyously celebrating the holiday. But when the Rebbe walked in, everyone stood still – you could hear a pin drop. The awe and reverence with which those present held the Rebbe was palable.
At some point during the night, I was introduced to the Rebbe, and he asked me why, in Israel, we called a hospital a beit holim, meaning “house of the sick.” He expressed the opinion that it should be called beit refuah “house of healing.” He then invited me for a discussion on the subject after the holiday.
This was arranged. The meeting proved very friendly. It wan’t a formal dialogue, rather a give-and-take between two people coming from different worlds and holding sometimes similar, sometimes contrasting points of view. The conversation was conducted in a mixture of languages – in Yiddish, which I spoke a little thanks to my grandmother, in English, but mostly in Hebrew.
In his remarks, I recall that the Rebbe put an emphasis on the soul as the source of a human being’s strength. He said that the stronger a person’s connection is to his soul, the better he can cope with life. And he pointed out that the function of the mitzvah of visiting the sick is to help the sick person strengthen that connection to his soul.
The Rebbe also voiced an opinion that every person has the responsibility to take care of their own health. Yes, doctors have a role to play, but the primary responsibility lies with the individual Give a person the best doctor in the world, but someone who does not take care of himself, does not eat well, sleep enough or exercise enough will impair his health.
Today, there is a push in medicine toward “patient empowerment,” where we try to convince people that they must take responsibility for their health and not just rely on doctors. The Rebbe was speaking to me about this thirty years ago! It is interesting that, so many years ago, the Rebbe held was advocating this approach back then, when no one was thinking about the issue. Today it may seem obvious, but it has only become a basic rule of medical thinking in more recent years – that preventive medicine requires the individual to take responsibility. The doctor can help, but he cannot replace the patient’s own effort.