My Encounter with the Rebbe records the oral histories of individuals who interacted with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, through videotaped first-person interviews. Please help us save these precious testimonies!
HMS: Knowing Chicago’s Ropes
Thu, Dec 05, 2013
In 1969, after qualifying to become an elementary school principal, I was given my assignment – and it proved to be in a high-crime neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.
I didn’t know whether I should take it or not. I was apprehensive because it was the year after half of Chicago was burned down in the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. There was a lot of anger in the air, and a lot of anti-white anger. And here I would be replacing a black principal in a predominantly black school, at a time when only 8 out of 400 principals in the Chicago school system were African-American.
Was this a wise thing to do? I wasn’t sure, and so I decided to go to New York and get the Rebbe’s advice.
What happened in that audience with the Rebbe only intensified the awe and admiration I already had for him. It was a very special audience.
I asked the Rebbe a very serious question pertaining to my future: “Shall I accept this assignment in the heart of an African-American neighborhood or not?” But instead of answering me, the Rebbe responded with a question of his own: “Will Mayor Daley run for reelection?”
I didn’t understand what he meant – I didn’t see the connection to my question, but when he asked me this question a second time, I answered, “Yes, he will probably be mayor for the rest of his life.” I was speaking about Mayor Richard J. Daley, the father of the recent mayor of Chicago, who did in fact die in office after serving as mayor of the city for 21 years.
HMS: Light in Pretoria
Thu, Nov 28, 2013
From time to time, since the early 1970s, whenever my husband would travel to New York, he always made it a point to request an audience with the Rebbe. On this particular occasion, he arrived a few days before Chanukah – the year was 1978. This was when my husband was working as chaplain at the Pretoria Central Prison, the biggest prison in South Africa where many Jews were imprisoned, a lot of them for their anti-apartheid views.
As he later related to me, the Rebbe’s first question to him was, “What are you doing for the Jews confined in South African prisons?” My husband replied that he did what he could, although not much was permitted. He visited the prisoners regularly, brought them food parcels for Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and distributed prayer books. The Bible was the only book that the prisoners were allowed to have, and he would say to the prison wardens that the prayer book was “our Bible.”
“What about Chanukah candles?” the Rebbe asked.
“This would not be permitted,” my husband said.
But the Rebbe did not accept this answer: “Do you realize how much a little bit of light would mean to somebody incarcerated in a dark cell? How important it would be if they could light Chanukah candles? Can’t you arrange it?”
My husband promised that when he returned home, he’d try. “I will do my best to see that it’s done next year.” But again the Rebbe did not accept this answer:
“What about this year?”
My husband pointed out that he was in New York at the moment, far away from Pretoria and, besides, there was not enough time do anything. But the Rebbe simply said, “You can use the telephone. Make whatever phone calls you need, and see what you can arrange.”
HMS: A life of blessing
Thu, Nov 21, 2013
When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the country of my birth, I was a little girl, but I clearly remember the terrible times that began then for the Jews. We were herded into a ghetto from where most of us were shipped out to concentration camps. Almost my entire family perished. Only I and my brother and my mother survived. After a time, we immigrated to America, and there I worked as a teacher in a Hebrew day school in Queens.
Quite by accident, at a lecture of the Hebrew Teachers’ Association, I met my first husband. He was Moroccan – tall, dark and handsome – and he was a student at the Mir Yeshiva. In fact, he was a quite a Torah scholar. After a courtship of five months, we got married, but unfortunately, he turned out to be mentally ill. And worst of all, he was violent.
We were on our honeymoon when he hit me up the first time for no reason at all. We were talking about something and, all of a sudden, he got such a wild look in his eye and he slapped me in the face. And here, I was a survivor of the Holocaust, and the only time anybody had ever slapped me was an S.S. woman in Auschwitz.
Every time he didn’t like something, he became violent. When he didn’t like what I cooked, he picked up the whole dish and threw it against the wall. And later on, he beat me very severely. It was terrible. I suffered very much.
So I went to several different rabbis, and I said I wanted a get, a divorce, but each time he would say, “I’m going to be good, I promise.” And all the rabbis were always in favor of reconciliation – and, of course, it didn’t help my case that he was a Torah scholar. So they wouldn’t issue the divorce.
HMS: Young soldiers
Thu, Nov 14, 2013
My name is Dovid HaLevi Edelman, and I first came to Lubavitch in 1941, when I was sixteen years old – this was after I finished high school, the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Baltimore.
I was sent to study at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway by Rabbi Avraham Elya Axelrod of Baltimore who said to me and my friends, “My Rebbe started a yeshiva in New York. It’s a beautiful building, and you’ll have fresh food and everything good.” So, on his advice, we went there.
I knew nothing of chasidism, because I was coming from Baltimore, where there were no chasidim around. But when the Rebbe Rayatz came to America in 1940, his picture was in all the newspapers including the Baltimore Sun, and I happened to see the paper with the Rebbe’s picture. When I saw his regal countenance, I was just astonished. So I cut out that photo and put it on top of my bed, even though I didn’t know who the Rebbe was. And then, a year later I was going to his yeshiva.
I came on June 3rd, that was the day after Shavuos, in 1941.
Thirty days later, there arrived the Rebbe’s son-in-law, who would become the future Rebbe. He walked in and I was on the committee that welcomed him to 770. We yeshiva students took one look at him, and we fell in love at first sight. And he loved us back.
HMS: Jewish Science
Thu, Nov 07, 2013
In 1960, I began working for NASA as part of the Planetary Quarantine Division, which was then charged with trying to find life on Mars. The Rebbe was very, very interested in the work I was doing. When we first met, he asked me if I knew what the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the chasidic movement, meant when he spoke of Divine Providence.
I said that I did. The principle of Divine Providence which the Baal Shem Tov taught is that nothing a Jew sees and hears is random. Rather, it is all designed by Heaven to bring you closer to Torah and to G-d. There is nothing wasted.
And the Rebbe said, “If this is true for everybody, how much more true is it for a person who is exploring the stratosphere, or searching for life on Mars, or working in a medical laboratory dealing with diseases, or traveling all over the world and meeting so many people.”
He went on, “You must have a wealth of stories and anecdotes and events and impressions – each one of which demonstrates Divine Providence. You should keep a journal of these stories and events, and then try to analyze them to see what is the lesson you can learn from these things. And if you can’t figure it out by yourself, then bring them to me and I’ll help you.”
I followed his advice. And today I have a journal with hundreds and hundreds of stories and events, and I plan, some day, to disseminate these stories to as many people as possible.
Back then – this was the early 1970s – when word got around that I was working with NASA and looking for life on Mars, some chasidic Jews would rebuke me. They said, “You mustn’t do that. It’s forbidden by Jewish law. You shouldn’t be doing this kind of work.” Since, at this point, I had already begun my journey to Jewish practice, their words caused me concern – was I doing something wrong? I didn’t know what to make of these statements. Rabbi Feller suggested that the next time I would meet with the Rebbe, I should ask the Rebbe if that was, in fact, true.
HMS: “Name him Yosef Yitzchak”
Fri, Nov 01, 2013
My family immigrated to Israel from Ksar Souk, Morocco. We are Sephardi Jews of rich ancestry and this is why, when I was about ten, I began to wonder about an unusual picture that would hang on the wall of our home. Our Sephardi neighbors typically decorated their walls with portraits of Sephardi tzadikim – usually arrayed in turbans and robes – but we had a picture of a bearded man in a black hat, a suit, and a tie.
One time, I asked my mother about him, and she told me this story:
She told me that many years earlier, this was in the early 1950s, after the birth of my older brother Shmuel and sister Simcha, she became pregnant again. It was a normal pregnancy, nine months, and a normal birth in the local hospital. But a half-hour after the birth, the baby died.
When this happened the first time, the family was very upset, of course. When it happened a second time, they were shocked. But when it happened a third time, they began to panic.
And then, my mother became pregnant again. During the pregnancy, she consulted with specialists and with rabbis. The doctors said that there was no health problem – that this pregnancy was completely normal, just as the others had been, and that they had no idea at all what could be wrong. Then one of the rabbis in our city, Rabbi Rachamim Lasri – a relative of our family from whom I also learned aleph beis in school before I immigrated to Israel – suggested that she turn to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
At that time the Rebbe’s name was famous throughout Morocco because of the emissaries he had sent, some of whom our family was acquainted with. So, it was decided that Rabbi Lasri should write to the Rebbe.
HMS: A Jew in Bangladesh
Fri, Oct 25, 2013
MAX COHEN: In April 1991, a powerful cyclone struck Bangladesh, killing close to 140,000 people and leaving 10 million homeless. I was due to travel to Bangladesh on business shortly thereafter, and I didn’t know what to do. The Sunday morning that I was to depart, I heard the news that there was another cyclone aiming for the area that very day. I immediately called one of my textile suppliers over there, but he assured me that this cyclone was due to hit a hundred miles down the coast, and there was nothing to worry about.
But I have to say I was worried just the same. I had called the Rebbe’s office several times, but that hadn’t had a chance to pose my question to the Rebbe – should I make my trip to Bangladesh? I was sitting on the flight from Manchester to London – where I’d be catching the flight to Bangladesh – and I was weighing the situation. I didn’t have a blessing from the Rebbe, and I knew that everybody back home would be worried sick. So by the time I arrived in London, I had come to the decision that I was not going to travel any further.
I found a phone box and I called my in-laws to re-assure them, and that’s when my father-in-law told me that he had just gotten a phone call from Dovid, my brother-in-law – who at the time was a rabbinical student at the Chabad Headquarters in New York – that the Rebbe had given a blessing for my trip.
So, I immediately took my luggage and checked in for the flight to Bangladesh, and then I called Dovid who was waiting in New York to tell me the details.
What Dovid told me absolutely blew my mind. He said that the Rebbe was handing out dollars for charity, as was his custom every Sunday morning, and that he decided to enter the queue and ask for a blessing for my trip. Their conversation went like this:
HMS: Caring son
Fri, Oct 18, 2013
I was 14 years old in 1945, when I was liberated from the Gunskirchen Concentration Camp in Austria, having also spent time at Auschwitz and Mauthausen. After some months, I was reunited with my older brother Berel, and we both ended up at the Pocking DP Camp, where we awaited immigration to America.
At Pocking we met a very special person – Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, whose son had married Chaya Mushka, one of the daughters of the Rebbe Rayatz. She had heard that we were going to Brooklyn, and she came to see us. She was still waiting for her papers, and she didn’t know when she would be permitted to travel. She had a slow, soft way of speaking. She asked us if we would be so kind as to take a letter to her son. We asked, “Who is your son?” She said, “His name is Menachem Mendel. You’ll ask at the Chabad Headquarters. They’ll point out who he is.” Of course, we agreed. We had no idea at the time who she was introducing us to, or that her son would become the next Chabad Rebbe.
It took a while before we were permitted to board the boat for America, but we finally arrived on these golden shores. At the first opportunity, we went to the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway with the letter from Rebbetzin Chana. There we asked to see her son, Menachem Mendel, we learned that he was the son-in-law of the Rebbe Rayatz. He was pointed out to us. I remember that he wore a double-breasted gray suit, and a gray hat with a black band. We spoke to him in Yiddish, and we gave him the letter from his mother. He opened the letter and began to read it. From what I could see, it was not a long letter, but he took a long time with it. Too long, it seemed to me. I finally said to Berel, “What is he reading so much?” I did not understand that this letter was precious to him, as he’d had no communication with his mother for many years because of the war.
HMS: Trust in me
Fri, Oct 11, 2013
My father was a very unusual man. Although he was quite successful in his business and quite prosperous, you wouldn’t know it by the frugal way he lived. The bulk of the money he made, he gave away – and we found out only after he passed away how much that really was. He gave because he thought it was his duty to do so. He believed that this is why he was given certain advantages –everything that happened to him, happened for a purpose; there was no coincidence. He lived his whole life this way – he had no real worries because he trusted in G-d, and when he needed advice, he got it from the Rebbe.
The Rebbe was an integral part of his life, and there wasn’t anything that happened to him or his family that my father didn’t tell the Rebbe about.
There came a time when I was 16 years old – I had finished high school early and was ready for college – that I decided I wanted to go to a school away from home, away from Chicago. In particular, I settled on Stern College in New York. My father’s response to this was to send me to see the Rebbe. He said that, after I talked with the Rebbe, the decision would be made if I would be allowed to go or not.
I wasn’t happy about it – in fact I was resentful. I didn’t understand what this was about. I mean, if I wanted to go to Stern College, why shouldn’t I go? My friends had gone? I really didn’t grasp the significance of having an audience with the Rebbe.
My father bought me a plane ticket and I was sent to New York by myself to see the Rebbe.
My father told me not to sit in his presence but, as soon as I walked in the door, the Rebbe invited me to sit down. He immediately put me at ease. I began to feel that that he really cared about this matter – he asked me why I wanted to go to Stern, what I hoped to accomplish by it, what attracted me to that particular school. I had not given very much thought to any of this, because my main motivation was getting out of the house and living on my own.
HMS: Personal invitation
Fri, Oct 04, 2013
In the early 1980s, I arrived in Brooklyn to celebrate the final days of Sukkos with the Rebbe. It was the morning of Hoshana Rabba, the last of the festival’s “intermediate days.” That morning the Rebbe was handing out the traditional “lekach,” honey cake, in his sukkah, and people were lined up to receive a piece of cake and share a quick moment with the Rebbe. Standing ahead of me in line was a young fellow, dressed hippie-style in sloppy jeans and sporting an unkempt bush of hair. Standing behind me in line was a distinguished Satmar chasid, a Rosh Yeshiva in the Satmar yeshiva in Williamsburg.
As the unkempt fellow approached, the Rebbe asked him, “Where are you going to be tonight for the hakofos?” – referring to the traditional dancing with the Torah.
The man answered, “I have no plans to be anywhere for hakofos tonight or any other night.”
“It would be my great honor and privilege,” the Rebbe replied, “if you would attend hakofos tonight with me in the synagogue.”
The fellow thanked the Rebbe for his invitation, but remained noncommittal. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and walked away.
I was next in line. I received my lekach from the Rebbe without incident. Just behind me was the Satmar chasid. As he approached the Rebbe, I turned back, and I heard as the Rebbe addressed him: “I see that you’re wondering why I’m pleading with this fellow to come to hakofos tonight. What connection do I have with him?
“The answer is clearly articulated in the book Tehillah L’Moshe.”
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