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!
Directions From A “Simple Jew”
Wed, May 20, 2015
My name is Avraham Pinter. I was born in 1940 in Tarbes, France, to a family of Holocaust survivors. They were originally from Galicia, Poland, which they fled to escape the pogroms. And then they lived for a time in Berlin, Germany, until they ran to escape the Nazis. Eventually, after I was born, we all made our way to America and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
While my father was a youngster living in Berlin in the early 1930s, he had the great fortune to find himself in the company of some of the most esteemed leaders of his generation, notably Rabbi Chaim Heller, who wrote the famous Sefer HaMitzvos based on the order first proposed by Maimonides.
Rabbi Heller was known as a world-class genius, and many people – some of whom were great scholars in their own right – gravitated to him, treated him with utmost reverence and sought admittance into his study hall, though only a select few made it inside.
Two of those that were part of Rabbi Heller’s inner circle in Berlin were Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who would later become the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, who would later become Rosh Yeshiva of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University. Indeed, it was Rabbi Soloveitchik who related to me the following story about my father.
At the time my father was a young chasidic student gifted with a phenomenal memory and a very, very good head; one day he came into Rabbi Heller’s study hall and tried to catch the great teacher’s eye. When he finally succeeded, Rabbi Heller called him over and asked, “Young man, what are you looking for here?”
My father answered, “My teacher sent me here to glean bits and pieces of knowledge.”
“Who is your teacher?”, Rabbi Heller asked.
“Rabbi Chaim Tobias,” my father answered, naming the Rosh Yeshiva of Kesser Torah Radomsker Yeshiva network.
HMS: The Rebbe looked after us
Wed, May 13, 2015
I was born in 1935 in Montreal, Canada. As a youngster, I went to a Jewish school where the practice was to take off one’s yarmulke for secular studies. There I learned a bit of Torah and Hebrew, and after school, I attended a Lubavitch afternoon school, and in the summers also a Lubavitch camp.
Later, when the Lubavitch school became an all-day yeshiva, I learned there full time. I was a very good student, but after my Bar Mitzvah, I decided to leave Montreal and to learn at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in New York. That was in 1948.
But once I landed in New York, even though I was at Torah Vodaas, I came to all the Lubavitcher farbrengens in Crown Heights that I could. And in 1951, when I was 16, I had my first audience with the Rebbe.
I was told in advance that it was not proper to sit in front of the Rebbe, but he invited me to sit down nevertheless, and even though I was just a teenager, he spoke to me like you’d speak to a respected person.
He asked me what I was learning in yeshiva, and I told him that I was learning Mesechtas Gittin which is the tractate of the Talmud that speaks about divorce. And he said to me, “You know, the concept of divorce, in a spiritual sense, applies to every single Jew. Why? Because we all have to divorce our yetzer hara, our evil inclination.”
He also told me that my yeshiva learning should include time for Mussar – that is, Jewish ethical behavior – and also time for Tanya, the seminal work of the Alter Rebbe, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement.
A Jew is Never Stuck
Wed, May 06, 2015
I was born in a city called Frunze in what is today Kyrgyzstan. I was very lucky that I was born into an incredible family. My mother’s father, Reb Mendel Schneerson, was a brother of Reb Boruch Schneur who was the Rebbe’s grandfather, which really means that my grandfather and the Rebbe’s grandfather were brothers.
In 1937, my uncle Reb Zalman Schneerson was sent to Paris by the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, and we followed him there ten years later in 1947. At that time, Paris was full of Jewish refugees, and one of them was Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother who managed to get out of Russia and who stayed with us in our home.
The Rebbe – who was not the Rebbe then, but the son-in-law of the Previous Rebbe – came from America to Paris to escort his mother to New York. At that time I was two years old, and I had a favorite song which I sang while sitting on the Rebbe’s lap.
In 1954, some seven years later, when we came to New York for an audience with him, the first thing he said to us kids was, “Children do you remember me? I remember you!” And then he asked me, “Do you still sing the same song?” Can you imagine – after all that time?!
The other thing that stands out in my mind about that audience is my mother asking the Rebbe for a blessing for a sick woman in Paris and getting no response from the Rebbe. Thinking that perhaps he hadn’t heard her, my mother asked again, and again the Rebbe didn’t answer her. After the audience there was a big discussion about this among the family. My mother said, “Why didn’t he answer?” And my brother said, “That was the answer – no answer is also an answer.” The woman passed away soon after that.
Subsequently, my family moved to Montreal, where I lived until I reached ninth grade. Then I came to New York to attend a Bais Yaakov school. After that I got married and ended up living in New Haven, Connecticut, which was not very far from New York. During those years, I had many encounters with the Rebbe.
HMS: America needs Jewish Educators
Wed, Apr 29, 2015
Back in the 1940s, when I was a student at Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University also known as RIETS, I became involved in a Chabad educational program, although I myself was not a follower of Chabad. It came about by chance. I had gone to do some weightlifting at the gym and another fellow there who happened to be a Chabadnik suggested that I get involved in their Released Time program.
The Released Time program – which allowed public schools to release students for religious studies off the premises – was very popular in the 1940s with something like 2 million kids involved. It is still operational. All religions took advantage of Released Time, but Jewishly, it was Chabad’s bailiwick.
At the time that I was part of it, Released Time was chiefly funded by the Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education administered by Rabbi J.J. Hecht. Later, after 1951, when the Rebbe became the Rebbe, he expanded the idea considerably under the slogan taken from the Book of Proverbs, “Yafutzu maynosecha chutzah – Let your wellsprings flow outwards.” Also, Chabad’s Kehot Publication Society started putting out books and pamphlets aimed at the Released Time kids. I remember The Story of Chanukah and The Story of Purim and The Story of Passover which were very captivating for young children and sold for only 20 or 25 cents a copy.
My yeshiva, RIETS, was not in favor of the program. My teachers didn’t try to stop me but I was given the message that my time would be better spent learning Torah and turning to education only after I completed my studies.
I saw it differently. My motivation was simple – these kids needed Jewish outreach very badly. Once, when I was conducting a Released Time class, I gave the students a quiz for a special prize. And I asked them, “What is the name of the son whose father was asked by Hashem to offer him up as a sacrifice?” And one of the children responded with the name of the founder of Christianity.
HMS: The Tefillin Campaign
Wed, Apr 22, 2015
My name is Chaim Jacobs. I was born in England and brought up in a traditional family in the Stamford Hill neighborhood of London. We lived on Cranwich Road, which just happened to be the Lubavitch Street in London. The Rebbe’s emissary, Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, lived on that street, and at 89 Cranwich Road, there was a Lubavitch Hebrew school. From the age of 5, I attended evening and Sunday classes there. This is how I and my whole family became involved with Chabad Lubavitch.
Later, I learned in the yeshiva at the Chabad Headquarters in New York, where I had the privilege of watching the Rebbe in action up close.
While I was in yeshiva, on the Shabbos before the start of the month of Sivan – which fell on June 3, 1967 – the Rebbe spoke about the situation in Israel. At this time, there was a tremendous crisis in the Middle East, because a few weeks earlier, President Nasser of Egypt had evicted the United Nations’ peacekeeping force and blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. Israeli ships could not come in and out of Eilat, and the crisis was becoming more and more serious every day. Quoting the Talmud, the Rebbe said that the verse, “The nations of the world see that the name of G-d is upon you, and they will fear you” refers to tefillin, and that this must be publicized to the Israel soldiers.
The next day, on Sunday, the Rebbe fasted, and on Monday – June 5th – the Six Day War began. I remember how excited everyone was to hear that, on the first day of the war, Israel had destroyed the entire Arab Air Force – military planes of Egypt, Syria and Jordan were out of commission; they never even got a chance to take off.
On the second day of the war, following the Rebbe’s directive, I and several other yeshiva students went out to ask non-religious Jewish businessmen to put on tefillin. We visited shops in the area of Kingston Avenue, Empire Boulevard and Utica Avenue, saying to every person we met, “Let’s help Israel to victory.” There wasn’t one man that morning who refused to put on tefillin. Everyone was so inspired by the victory that Israel was achieving.
HMS: On the Mark
Wed, Apr 15, 2015
At the outset I would like to say that I am not a chasid. My family came from Lithuania, so my background is Litvish and Misnagdish – meaning that my forebearers were opposed to chasidic ways. My mother came from Kovno, Lithuania, and my father came from Lomza, Poland, but he studied in the famed Slobodka Yeshiva, which was located before the war in the suburb of Kovno. And that’s where he met my mother.
My father came to the United States during World War One, in 1916, and eventually he brought over my mother and my three older siblings. He was offered a position as a rabbi in Canton, Ohio, and later became a rabbi in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he stayed until he retired and made Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.
Growing up in small towns like Canton and Bridgeport was a challenge. Obviously, we were a minority among minorities because very few of the Jewish people living there were Torah observant and, certainly, the vast majority of the people in the community were not Jewish.
I went to public school, populated mostly by Italian and Irish kids, and I had to cope as best as I could with trying to find friends. I managed to have some Jewish friends and to forge an uneasy kind of a friendship with my non-Jewish schoolmates.
In 1938, I enrolled in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, which I attended for the next six years. I was ordained a rabbi and I started working first as a teacher in a Jewish day school and then as a rabbi – first in Hartford, Connecticut, then in Saratoga Springs, New York, and then in Far Rockaway, New York, where I have been for the past 60 years.
As a rabbi, I became involved with Iggud HaRabbonim, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, which should not be confused with the Rabbinical Council of America. The Iggud HaRabbanim is a much more conservative organization and has taken much more conservative positions on Jewish issues, such as Mi Hu Yehudi – who is a Jew according to Jewish law. This issue was of great importance to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and it was in this context that I came to meet him in the late 1950s. It proved a very special encounter.
HMS: My audience 43 years ago
Wed, Apr 08, 2015
I’d like to describe my audience with the Rebbe back in May of 1971. But first I want to say a word about my background.
My parents were both Jewish refugees who fled Germany in 1939. They came over on the proverbial last train and made it to England. They were married in 1945, and established a Reform Jewish home.
I was born in London and, in the late 1960s, I attended Manchester University where I was introduced to Hillel House, which was my first experience with the Torah observant lifestyle. After university, work took me 20 miles outside of London to Surrey, where I was introduced to Jewish mysticism. I was really quite excited about it. I felt there was something really deep and meaningful behind all of this. My quest to know more brought me in contact with the Chabad-Lubavitch UK organization.
Before long, I was invited for Shabbos at the local Chabad House. I really enjoyed the free-wheeling atmosphere of the place, and I felt this was the form of Jewish observance that fitted me best. I went back again and again for Shabbos after Shabbos. And, in May of 1971, I joined a group of very excited Lubavitchers traveling to New York to meet the Rebbe.
I remember that we all assembled in the hallway of Chabad Headquarters at about midnight and we waited. While we waited, we recited Psalms. Eventually, my turn came – I believe it was at 4:30 a.m. So, it was quite a long wait.
I had my question written out on a piece of paper – something about Kabbalah – and when I was finally ushered into the Rebbe’s office, I handed it to him. The Rebbe answered my question and spoke to me for 40 minutes. Then I left.
HMS: Like a loving grandfather
Tue, Mar 31, 2015
My name is Tziporah Edelkopf. I was born in 1959, in Kharkov, Ukraine, which was then in the Soviet Union. My mother came from a Chabad-Lubavitch home, but my father did not, and we were not connected to Chabad during my childhood. However, we were Torah observant, and we kept all the Torah commandments as best we could.
Because it was so hard to keep kosher, we rarely ate meat. Once a week, on a Sunday, my parents would go to the market and buy one live chicken. We’d then take it to the kosher butcher and have it slaughtered in the proper way.
My father used to bake his own matzah for Passover, and we used to give it out to the few Jews that we knew. Keeping Shabbos was also a big issue. Either I would not go to school on Saturday, or I would go with my hand wrapped in a bandage and tell the teacher I was injured so I wouldn’t have to write and violate Shabbos. Of course, the teachers knew why I was doing this.
In order to immerse in a mikvah, as a Jewish woman must once a month, my mother had to travel to Kiev. In the summer, she could immerse in the local river, but in the winter, when the temperatures were minus 25 degrees Celsius, immersing in the river, which was completely iced-over was impossible. Then, she’d have to take the train to Kiev – which was 850 kilometers from our town – just to use the kosher mikvah.
In Kiev, there was one family that had a mikvah. The water in it was black, because it was never changed, and this water, too, froze over. But when my mother came, they would light up a little kerosene stove to melt the ice. She’d do this once a month on a Sunday, and then she’d run to catch the train home, because she had to be back by Monday morning for work. If she didn’t show up, we all ran the risk of being sent to Siberia.
HMS: “Go ahead with the procedure”
Wed, Mar 25, 2015
My family’s association with Chabad-Lubavitch goes back to my grandfather Rabbi Moshe Kowalsky, who, when he was a boy growing up in Warsaw, became enamored with the Chabad way. And he decided to run away from home and travel all the way from Poland to Russia, to learn at the Chabad yeshiva in Lubavitch.
His father, that is my great-grandfather, was a fierce Kotzker chasid, and he would have none of it. He went after his son to bring him back.
When my great-grandfather arrived in Lubavitch, he was invited to spend Shabbos with the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, and he consented. After that Shabbos – instead of demanding that his son return immediately home to Warsaw – he declared, “I was so impressed by the spirituality I experienced over Shabbos that I consent to have my son stay here.” So my grandfather got to study with Chabad, and he received rabbinic ordination from Chabad, and he became a very big Lubavitcher chasid.
In later years, when he was living in New York, my grandfather had an apartment in the same building as the Rebbe and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, and he even purchased a gravesite within four cubits of the gravesite of the Previous Rebbe, which is of course where the Rebbe is now buried as well.
I visited my grandfather often and my earliest memory – from the time I was about eight years old – is the Rosh Hashanah Tashlich ceremony at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The Rebbe would come marching down the street with all of his chasidim following behind him, in formation. It looked almost like a military parade.
HMS: Deeply involved in all the details
Wed, Mar 18, 2015
Deeply involved in all the details
I was born in a small town – McKeesport, Pennsylvania – in the 1930s, where I was the only Jew in my class at school, the only Jew on the block, even though our family was very religious.
My mother and father were both quite active in the Jewish community. My father taught an early morning class in the Talmud at the nearby synagogue, and afterwards he would go off to work, selling dry goods door to door. He did this because in those years – the 1930s and 1940s – that was the only way of making a living and not having to work on Shabbos.
I would sum up my home life as very vital and very beautiful religiously, but I would have to say that, as a family, we felt very isolated. And I remember my mother crying when she lit Shabbos candles and praying that all her children remain Jewish. I didn’t understand why my mother cried about that, but she was clearly aware that our environment was a breeding ground for assimilation.
In 1941, when I was ten years old, my parents brought home for Shabbos two emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – that is, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak. From that point onward, our lives changed quite dramatically, as my parents became involved in Jewish outreach.
My father started visiting the Previous Rebbe in New York quite often and he took me along to experience a Chabad farbrengen. I remember that a lot of people were crowded in the room and I couldn’t see a thing. But then Shmuel Isaac Popack – and I will be indebted to him for the rest of my life – saw little me trying to stand on my tippy-toes, and he swung me up so I could catch a glimpse of the Rebbe.