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 Show Must Go On
Wed, Jun 22, 2016
After I got married in 1961, I got involved with the Lubavitch community in Montreal, Canada, where we were living.
One of the first issues that came up was the lack of any kind of entertainment venues for the community – such as movies or theater productions. So, in order to fix that, I helped start a drama group with the aim of producing plays for women. Once a year around Purim time, we would stage a play with the proceeds going to Maot Chittim (the so-called “Wheat Fund” which provided poor families with Passover necessities).
Not only was the religious community served by these shows, many non-observant Jews got involved as well. They auditioned for parts in the plays and, in the process, we all became friends. In this way we were able to get to know people whom we’d never have met otherwise. And, as the rehearsals took place three or four nights a week, in the course of working so closely together, we had a lot of influence on them.
The shows were done quite professionally. We hired directors and musicians, and the scripts were written by Mrs. Golda Schwei, who adapted Broadway musicals, rewriting them and giving them a Jewish theme. For instance, we took The Sound of Music and called it The Sound of Torah. We kept the music, but we rewrote the lyrics. The result was a classy production, and our first two performances were filled to the capacity.
Of course, we sent the Rebbe a ticket each time, and each time, he sent us a letter wishing us success. As well, when he learned that some people ridiculed our efforts, he sent us a letter of support.
After four years of doing this, we realized that we had to stop. It just took too much effort. For fourth months, while we were rehearsing, we were consumed by the project. During this time, our husbands had to watch the kids. We’d be running out seven o’clock each night, and our husbands had to do the homework with the kids and put them to sleep. For those ladies whose husbands balked, it wasn’t easy.
Nevertheless, because the plays were so successful, we didn’t give up, even when it was clear we should. We kept saying, “This is going to be the last one,” but the next year we would start up again.
Then we finally decided – this is it. Our husbands were fed up; they didn’t want us doing it anymore.
But then the Rebbe stepped in.
“Listen To Your Doctor”
Wed, Jun 15, 2016
I grew up in Long Island, the son of Russian immigrant parents, who had escaped religious persecution and who raised me and my siblings in a non-observant atmosphere. I went to college in the late 1960s which was a very wild time. The hippie culture was on the rise, and young people were challenging the status quo. I also took part in that, questioning Judaism (among other things) and concluding that it didn’t really have much substance.
One day in the mid-1970s all of that changed, when I encountered a large van filled with young yeshivah students, which I later learned was called a Mitzvah Tank. One of the students asked me if I was Jewish, and when I answered that I was, he pulled me into the van and began wrapping teffilin on my arm. I remember being impressed by his earnestness and how important this seemed to him and his colleagues. When he finished, he convinced me to sign up for a new campaign the Rebbe had launched: the mezuzah campaign. A short while later, I received a brand new mezuzah for my apartment, free of charge.
From that point on I began exploring Judaism and, when I went to Medical College of Milwaukee, I got in touch with Rabbi Yisrael Shmotkin, who was the Chabad emissary there. Eventually, I ended up renting a room together with four other medical students at the Lubavitch House of Milwaukee. Needless to say we had a tremendous experience, and I began leading a Torah-observant life.
A few years later, in 1978, after I finished medical school, I moved on to Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx as an oncology fellow. While I was there, a fifty-year-old Iranian Jew who had recently immigrated to the United States came in for a consultation; as I recall he was accompanied by his two sons, and all were wearing yarmulkes.
As an oncology fellow, it was my duty to evaluate new patients. I took down this man’s medical history, and I learned that his family had lived in Iran for many generations. However, he left for the United States in order to get treatment for a blood tumor, known as multiple myeloma. This tumor can be quite aggressive, but often it hangs on for years until it finally gains momentum, and then it becomes problematic very quickly.
Initially, this patient had been treated in Baltimore, but after encountering some problems there, decided he wanted a second opinion and came to us.
It seemed to me that his myeloma was under control, so I decided to continue his current therapy to see how he would do over the next few months, and then make a decision.
The Fiery Conductor
Wed, Jun 08, 2016
I studied law at the London School of Economics, which we also called the London Shul of Economics because of the many Americans Jews studying there. Among my extra-curricular activities, I played violin in the school’s orchestra, eventually becoming its conductor.
In 1970, because of my previous involvement with the Jewish Society at LSE, I was invited by the World Union of Jewish Students to perform at their conference in Philadelphia. And when my friend Rabbi Shmuel Lew, who was the Chabad emissary in London, heard that I would be passing through New York, he offered to arrange an audience with the Rebbe for me.
Of course, I jumped at the chance.
Rabbi Lew had also arranged a place for me to stay in Crown Heights over Shabbat, and thus I was able to attend the Rebbe’s farbrengen on Shabbat afternoon. The experience was unbelievable. Although I couldn’t understand everything the Rebbe was saying, I did understand that he was urging everyone to love their fellow Jews. And when he said l’chaim, it felt to me as if he was saying l’chaim to me alone. This memory is something that is as real to me today, forty-five years later, as if it happened yesterday.
I was really impressed by the singing and camaraderie of the chasidim. But what affected me most profoundly were the survivors of the Siberian gulag who were there. Despite the harsh and oppressive conditions, they had prevailed in keeping keep the flame of Judaism alive in the Soviet Union. Right then and there, I decided that I didn’t want to be a lawyer – there were enough Jewish lawyers in the world; I wanted to make a bigger difference, and from that moment I committed my life to Jewish education.
Several days later, I had my one-on-one meeting with the Rebbe, which was conducted in English. At the outset I told him that I have a passion for two things – chamber music and chasidic melodies.
“What connection do chasidic melodies have with chamber music?” the Rebbe asked.
I answered that chamber music – especially that composed by Beethoven – is one of the most specialized forms of classical music. It’s very intense and deep. I felt that chasidic melodies had the exact same components.
Thus began a lively discussion about music. The Rebbe told me that the Alter Rebbe – Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who was the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement – was able to wash away a person’s impurities with music. He then went on to explain that we each have an intellectual and an emotional side. Our emotions seek expression through music as well as other art forms, which tap into the deepest levels of who we are.
No Operation Needed
Wed, Jun 01, 2016
My name is Dr. Harold Serebro. I was born and educated at Wits University in South Africa, where I studied medicine and from where I graduated as a medical doctor in 1961. I then did specialist training at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, and at Queens University in Ontario. After this, I returned to South Africa and opened a practice in gastroenterology.
In the course of my life, I became friendly with Rabbi Nachman Bernhard, who was my rabbi at the Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg. One day – sometime in the early 1980s – he arrived at my clinic with a pile of x-rays in his hand. He told the nurse in charge that he had to see me right away regarding an urgent matter.
It was a very busy day for me, but I knew he would not be so insistent if it was not important, so I finished my examination of the patient I was with and asked him to come into my office.
He explained his dilemma to me: He had a congregant who was an elderly lady, very sick. X-rays had revealed that she needed an operation urgently, but he had consulted with the Lubavitcher Rebbe on her behalf, and the Rebbe said that she cannot have an operation.
So I said to him, “What do you want me to do exactly?”
He said, “Look at the x-rays.”
Now, I would just like to point out that in those days there were no MRI scans, no ultra-sound, nor did we have available to us many of the sophisticated tests which we have now. X-rays were very important for diagnosis – in particular a diagnostic procedure called intravenous pyelogram, or IVP, during which a contrast medium is introduced into the patient’s bloodstream in order to x-ray the renal system.
I took a look. And I could clearly see that this lady had cancer in the upper pole of the kidney on the right – it was a well circumscribed cancer, a big mass.
“If these are the x-rays you sent to the Rebbe, it clearly shows cancer here,” I said.
He said, “I know, but the Rebbe says that no operation can be done on this lady.” So I said to him, “Rabbi Bernhard, there’s a big cancer here. You are a rabbi and not a doctor – you can’t interfere with the medical care of a patient. This woman needs an urgent operation.”
“There has to be a major reason why the Rebbe was so adamant she have no operation,” he replied.
Founding a Hospital
Wed, May 25, 2016
In 1975, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenburger Rebbe, opened a not-for-profit hospital in Netanya, Israel. In response to the astonishment of many that a Chassidic Rebbe would establish a hospital, he explained:
“While incarcerated in a Nazi death camps, I was shot in the arm. I was afraid to go to the Nazi infirmary, though there were doctors there. I knew that if I went in, I’d never come out alive … so I plucked a leaf from a tree and stuck it to my wound to stanch the bleeding. Then I cut a branch and tied it around the wound to hold it in place. With G-d’s help, it healed in three days. I promised myself then that, if I got out of there, I would build a hospital in Israel where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a G-d in this world and that, when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzvah of the Torah.”
The Sanzer Rebbe asked me to oversee the project while it was still in the early stages of development and the eventual director of the hospital. He wanted me to carry out his plan of creating a hospital which offered the highest level of care, while at the same time adhering to the highest level of Torah observance. Although this was a noble goal, we were struggling to raise the necessary funds. The Israeli Health Ministry, run by a secular party, was not very keen on supporting the project and most people were skeptical that we would actually succeed. Our main donors were Sanz chasidim who felt obligated to donate because it was their Rebbe’s undertaking. So we decided to establish a fund-raising committee and expand our reach to North and South America.
As part of this effort, the committee decided to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn and ask for his assistance and advice. Five members of the committee were chosen to go and I, as the director of the hospital, flew in from Israel to participate in the meeting.
We started off by introducing ourselves to the Rebbe and, being the youngest, my turn came last. I said, “I am the director of this hospital but I have no certification or experience whatsoever. My only experience till now has been assisting the Sanzer Rebbe. In fact, an Israeli newspaper headlined their story about the hospital with, ‘The Assistant who Became a Director.’”
The Rebbe reassured me, “I can only tell you one thing. The Sanzer Rebbe knows what he is doing and if he thinks that you are qualified for the job, then you do not need anyone else’s blessing.”
I felt very relieved; if I had the support of these two great rabbis then I was sure to succeed.
We began discussing the technicalities of the project in great depth. The Rebbe asked us many questions that we never dreamed he would ask and I had a hard time answering. Only one member of the committee, Rabbi Shlomo Greenwald, who had previous experience working in hospitals was capable of giving the answers. We were greatly surprised by the knowledge which the Rebbe displayed and by his pragmatic approach.
The Real Medicine
Thu, May 19, 2016
I first met the Lubavitcher Rebbe a few years after he arrived in the United States from war-torn Europe. Of course, he was not the Rebbe then; he was the son-in-law of the Previous Rebbe. At that time, I was enrolled in the Chabad Yeshiva in Crown Heights, and I would see him from time to time although I had very little contact with him.
In 1951, a year after the Previous Rebbe’s passing, he took over the leadership, and the works of wonder began almost immediately. I have several stories to tell about that.
One Shabbat, the phone in our home started ringing. Of course, we didn’t answer the phone on Shabbat, but it kept ringing and ringing. Whoever was calling finally rang our landlord, and we learned that the son of my grandfather’s friends had fallen into a deep coma and was in critical condition; his parents were calling because they wanted us to go to the Rebbe for a blessing.
I was selected to be the one to ask the Rebbe.
After Shabbat, I went to the Rebbe’s office. When he saw me standing outside his door, he invited me in, and I related their request. His instructions to me were to go to the hospital and scream in the man’s ear first the Previous Rebbe’s name and mother’s name, and then the man’s name and his mother’s name.
Interestingly enough, earlier that year the Rebbe related that, one time, a woman had fallen into a deep coma and the Previous Rebbe instructed her relatives to whisper his name into her ear. When they did so, she immediately began to stir and a short while made a full recovery.
So I did this. I went to the hospital and saw this man – his name was Noah Daniel, he was a department head in New York City’s Department of Taxation and Finance – lying there, white as a sheet. I put my lips to his ear and screamed as loud as I could what the Rebbe told me. Suddenly, he began to shake forcefully! Everybody watching was amazed. But he was still very much out of it. The doctors told his family that he was at death’s door. Even if he survived, he would never be normal again; likely, he would live out the rest of his life in a vegetative state.
“Every Jew is an example”
Fri, May 13, 2016
Someone Is Praying For You
Wed, Apr 20, 2016
In the summer of 1968, while I was studying at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Montreal, a fellow student and close friend of mine was appointed to be a teacher in the Lubavitch School in Boston, Massachusetts. In order to make the move, he asked me for my assistance. More than eager to help my friend, I agreed. We packed his family into the car and made the five-hour drive from Montreal to Boston. But, for me, the trip didn’t end there, as I needed to return to Montreal. Shortly after I returned to Montreal, I travelled to Chicago make to participate in a friend’s wedding. Upon my return to Montreal I decided to make the six-hour trek to Upstate New York to visit my younger brother who was working at a summer camp there.
I arrived late at night, and having driven close to 2,500 miles in a few days’ time, I was beyond exhausted. Too tired to look for my brother, I found his room and just collapsed on his bed. When he finally returned having no idea that I was there, he flipped on the light and woke me up. But when I opened my eyes, the indescribable happened – I felt as if a knife had sliced through my eyes; the pain was excruciating. I tried to go back to sleep but, of course, this was impossible and, as soon as morning arrived, I ran to the store to buy some Visine eye drops. They didn’t help at all. So, in great pain and having no choice, I got back home to Newark, New Jersey, where my mother arranged an appointment for me with an optician.
After examining my eye, the optician said, “I am sorry, but this is out of my league. I am going to refer you to an eye doctor by the name of Dr. Plain.”
Dr. Plain happened to be a Jewish doctor, although he struck me as someone who was uninformed of anything Jewish. He looked at my eye, spent several minutes examining it and then broke the news to me as gently as he could: “As a result of sleep deprivation, the pressure built up in your eye, and the cornea – tissue covering the eye – ruptured. Unless we perform a cornea transplant, you will lose your eye.”
In the meantime, he put a pressure patch on my eye to reduce the swelling and ease the pain. And he immediately arranged an appointment for me with a premiere eye surgeon in New York.
At that time there were only two doctors in America who performed such operations – a doctor in Texas and Dr. Kostoviaro in Manhattan – so Dr. Plain had to use all of his influence to squeeze me ahead of some two hundred people on the waiting list. However, he succeeded, and I was examined by Dr. Kostoviaro and his assistants. They concluded that surgery was necessary but, I would have to wait some time for a donor to become available.
Nothing To Fear
Wed, Apr 13, 2016
I grew up in South Africa, the son of an immigrant who came from a well-known Lubavitch family in Rokiskis, Lithuania – the Ruch family with whom the Previous Rebbe stayed in 1930 while visiting his followers residing there. True to his roots, my father was very attached to the Previous Rebbe and often sought his counsel.
For example, there came a time, in 1946, when my father was thinking of selling his cattle farm. He had been offered a very good price for it and, as he was strapped for cash, he thought this might be a good idea, but he wasn’t sure. He decided to ask the Previous Rebbe’s advice. The Rebbe’s answer came back that he should hold onto the property. That proved to be the right thing to do because two years later, he was offered much, much more – fifty thousand South African pounds –and this time the Rebbe said he should go forward with the sale.
In 1950, the Previous Rebbe passed away, a loss which my father felt deeply. However, he continued his connection to the new Rebbe and in 1955, when I was fourteen years old, he decided to send me to New York, to the Chabad yeshiva there. After two years I transferred to the Chabad yeshiva in Montreal, where I stayed for five more years.
I had not intended to study for so long. In fact, I wanted badly to return to South Africa, but the Rebbe urged me to stay put. He wrote me a heartfelt letter in which he praised my efforts as a student – something which surprised me because I did not consider myself to be among the top learners, to say the least – and explained that I was in my most formative years and, therefore, should continue learning without interruption. He said he understood that it was hard for my parents not to see me for so long, but that, in the end, they would take great pride in my accomplishments.
Of course, the Rebbe was right – these were my formative years and I was greatly influenced by the elder Chassidim who mentored me in Montreal – particularly Rabbi Hershel Feigelstock and Rabbi Menachem Zev Greenglass.
Years later, Rabbi Greenglass told me an amazing story. He said that there came a time when he went to see the Rebbe and expressed some disillusionment with his job as a teacher. In the course of the conversation, he asked rhetorically, “Was it worth it?”
Encouragement on the Campaign Trail
Fri, Apr 08, 2016
In 1989, my husband Scott decided to run for U.S. Congress on the Republican ticket. This meant challenging the incumbent Democrat, Congressman Harry Johnston, in Florida’s 14th district, which includes Boca Raton, where we were living at the time.
When our Lubavitcher friend, Rabbi Yossi Biston, heard about this plan, he immediately advised my husband to seek the Rebbe’s guidance and blessing. Although we were not Lubavitch ourselves, we were deeply connected to Chabad, and so we decided to follow Rabbi Biston’s advice.
On March 27, 1989, we travelled together to New York in order to meet the Rebbe. When it was our turn, Scott told the Rebbe, “I am considering running for United States Congress, and I would like to know whether or not it is proper for a Shabbat-observant Jew to do so.”
The Rebbe answered, “Not only is it proper, in many ways it is a sanctification of G-d’s name. If you are in Congress and everyone knows that you observe Shabbat, those gentiles who respect the Noahide Laws will be inspired to be more observant as well.”
As soon as we returned to Florida, my husband moved forward with the campaign, and he received the Republican nomination virtually without opposition. But then came the hard part. We were young and naïve and did not realize the amount of money that would be necessary to keep the campaign afloat. We had to hire expensive political advisors, and we took out substantial loans to pay for them. After a while, we began to question if we could raise enough money to make it till the end.
In addition to the fundraising problems, we were also facing nasty and libelous attacks in the press due to Scott’s opposition to abortion on demand. Almost every day there was another terrible comment about him. It was not a positive experience at all, and we were debating whether or not we should continue.
So again, we decided to seek the Rebbe’s advice. With the help of the local Chabad emissaries, we sent a fax to the Rebbe, but received no reply.