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: The View from 50,000 Feet
Fri, Jun 27, 2014
HMS: TURN UP THE LIGHTS
Fri, Jun 20, 2014
My Dad, of blessed memory, was Reb Chaim Mordechai Yitzchak HaKohen. He was named Chaim Mordechai because he was born a week before Purim. He also died a week before Purim. He came to America from Postov, Russia, which was a Chabad-Lubavitch town, and it was there that he was strongly influenced by Chabad ways.
As far back as I remember, I heard about Chabad. My father loved religion, and he belonged to half-a-dozen synagogues in Los Angeles where we lived, but he was not really at home in any of them; he would always tell me that the only sect of Judaism that he identified with was Chabad but, back then, there were no Chabad synagogues in the city.
I remember my father speaking with great reverence about the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and how much he would love to see the Rebbe, but it was impossible as the Rebbe was in Europe. Then the Rebbe came to America – this was in 1940, when I was ten. My father was just overjoyed; he was truly ecstatic. And he called the Rebbe’s office in New York right away.
Shortly thereafter, the first emissary of Chabad came to LA. His name was Rabbi Moshe Hecht. He impressed me tremendously because, while he had a beard and a black hat and coat, he was a modern guy. I remember him playing baseball with me and suddenly stopping to pray Mincha. Others came also, mostly to collect funds for Chabad schools – the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva and the Vocational Schools of the Holy Land, which was a Chabad program where boys were trained not just to learn Hebrew and become rabbis but also to learn a trade so that, if they didn’t find work as rabbis, they could at least make a living.
My father contributed, of course, and he also raised money for Chabad. My mother – who was very active in charitable causes, in Zionistic causes, and in political causes – knew how to organize fund-raising events. She knew how to set up the tables, who to invite, how much to charge, how to arrange the publicity … and, because of her know-how, we were able to raise considerable amounts of money.
My Early Memories of the Rebbe
Thu, May 01, 2014
Shortly after my Bar Mitzvah in 1940, I came to the Chabad yeshiva in Crown Heights and, during those early years, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, I had the privilege to get to know his son-in-law. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – who would become the Lubavitcher Rebbe ten years hence – had escaped from Europe in 1941 with his wife, Chaya Mushka, who was the Rebbe’s daughter, and from that time he worked in the offices of Chabad.
I remember one occasion when I needed to ask him for a favor – namely to borrow his typewriter. I went to see him and explained myself: “There is someone to whom I need to write a letter, in order to draw him close to chasidism. But my handwriting is not so attractive, and I was thinking that if I typed it, it would be more presentable.”
Right away, the Rebbe – who was not yet the Rebbe, of course – said, “You want to borrow my typewriter?”
I said, “It’s the only one here.”
He said, “I’ll lend it to you gladly. There is just one thing – tonight I’m going to be upstairs with my father-in-law, and I’m going to be there very late. Now I know that you have to be here early in the morning to open the place up for a class in chassidus. And I know that if you don’t go to sleep on time, you might get up late, and people will be knocking on doors to get inside. So what I’ll do is this: I’ll let you take my typewriter to your room and, when you finish, bring it back and put it down on the floor in front of the door. When I come back, I’ll open up the office and put it back on the desk.”
I agreed. I took the typewriter and typed the letter, then brought it back and put it down in front of the office door as he had instructed. I was about to walk away when the thought hit me: “This isn’t right. The Rebbe’s son-in-law is going to have to bend over and pick this typewriter off the floor. It will not be respectful.”
So I decided to stand there and wait. When he returned, I would grab the typewriter and bring it into his office and put it on his desk.
I waited, and I waited. It was ten o’clock, then eleven o’clock, then midnight. My eyes were closing. One o’clock came and went, and I thought, “He’s upstairs for so long!”
Thu, May 01, 2014
In 1948, as a 17-year old high-school student I fought in Israel’s War of Independence. I served in the Palmach’s 9th Regiment, and while fighting the Egyptians, I was wounded. It had been my hope, after I finished the army, to study electrical engineering at Sorbonne University in Paris, because Sorbonne had an excellent reputation in that regard. But things did not turn out that way.
As it happened, my neighbors in Hadera, Israel, introduced me to a relative of theirs who was on the board of directors at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and he offered to help me with enrollment there. So that’s how, instead of Paris, I ended up in Brooklyn.
In the 1950s, I was working in New York as an interior contractor and, in the course of my work, I befriended Rabbi Yechezkel Besser. Unbeknown to me, Rabbi Besser was close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and when, shortly thereafter, I got engaged to be married, Rabbi Besser arranged for a blessing for my bride and me from the Rebbe himself.
When we got the call from Rabbi Besser that the Lubavitcher Rebbe wanted to see us, we assumed it was because of my bride’s lineage – she is six generations removed from the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. We were thrilled just the same, and I remember it was on a very snowy day in January, 1956, that we arrived at Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights.
We were given strict instructions that we were limited to fifteen minutes. The Rebbe’s secretary would come in after this time has passed, and that would be a signal for us to say thank you and leave.
We entered, and I saw a room with rows of wooden chairs and a big long desk in front. Behind that desk sat the Rebbe. What I remember most are his smiling blue eyes. I asked the Rebbe whether we should speak in English or Hebrew, and he said, “Italian, German or French would also be fine.” When he registered my surprise, he said, “I studied in France and I speak French,” and he told me that he received a degree in electrical engineering when studying in Paris.
I said, “You are an electrical engineer?”
And he nodded smiling. “I studied electrical engineering and I worked as an electrical engineer. When I came to this country in 1941, I wanted to contribute to the war effort, so I worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard supervising electrical work on ships.”
Underground Chabad Network
Thu, May 01, 2014
I was born in Brooklyn where my father had a dry goods store. It had the distinction of being the only one on Moore Street to be closed on Shabbos. Besides being a model to me of a Torah Jew, my father made sure I received a yeshiva education. I graduated from night classes at Brooklyn College and I received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.
My first encounter with the Rebbe, when he wasn’t yet Rebbe, was on January 29, 1950 at the funeral of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. There were such a huge throngs at the funeral, and there was so much pushing and shoving. I was right in front of the open burial plot and all of a sudden the crowd moved forward so hard that I almost fell into the grave. It was a split second decision, but I had the presence of mind to jump across instead. I landed next to the future Rebbe.
After he became Rebbe, I would go, from time to time, to a farbrengen at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. I remember these festive occasions vividly. The Rebbe would be sitting at the table with people all around him, and you could plainly see the respect and honor with which the chasidim held him. When he spoke, you could hear a pin drop – everyone stood in awe of him. As well they should. What he accomplished on this earth, what he did in bringing Jews back to Torah! There isn’t a corner on G-d’s earth where you can go and not find somebody there who is an emissary of the Rebbe, transmitting what he had preached.
And, of course, the Rebbe sent his emissaries to Russia long before anyone, when Russia was Communist, and when it was very dangerous to be active there.
In 1982, I went to Russia. I was involved with the Long Island Committee on Soviet Jewry and I, along with another fellow, were chosen to go. Once I was chosen I wanted to do something concrete there – not just go, visit and talk. So I contacted Lubavitch and I was introduced to two people, Rabbis Moshe Levertov and Gedalia Korf. I said to them, “I’m going to be going to the Soviet Union for two weeks, and I’d like to do something for Lubavitch, because I knew you people do tremendous work over there.” They gave me a duffel bag full of things to take – like mezuzahs, tefillin, siddurim, copies of the Tanya, matzah, and so forth.
I prepared carefully for the journey, so that the Soviets would not suspect what I was up to. I had no papers that said that I was a rabbi; I even had a different social security card; no driver’s license, nothing. For the first and last time in my life, I wore dungarees and a dungaree jacket, with a dungaree cap.
The Four Answers
Thu, Apr 10, 2014
I’ve been the Chabad emissary to Minneapolis-St. Paul – the Twin Cities of Minnesota – for over 50 years.
In 1971 – together with Rabbi Manis Friedman – I started Bais Chana, a program where non-religious girls could learn about Judaism. The first year we had 11 girls, the second year we had 47, the third year we had a 110, and it grew from there. Who would have thought that the kernel for Bais Chana – which became a citadel of Torah for women from all over the world – was planted in such an unlikely spot as Minnesota?
A couple of years after we started Bais Chana, which was a seasonal program, a full-time, year-round seminary for girls was founded in Crown Heights called Machon Chana. Because so many girls from Bais Chana were now learning at Machon Chana, and my wife and I were the father and mother figures for these girls, we were invited to lead the Passover Seder there. We did this every year starting in 1974.
In those years, it was the Rebbe’s custom to visit the Seders at various educational institutions before he went home to conduct his own. During the Rebbe’s visit in 1978, the following took place:
The Rebbe came in and inspected the whole place. He looked at the classrooms, went upstairs to the dormitory, and even went to the kitchen. More than a hundred women, including students, teachers and helpers, were watching his every move. As he was leaving, he turned to Rabbi Rabbi Groner, his secretary, and said, “Ver fregt da de fir kashes – Who’s asking the Four Questions here?”
“Feller’s son,” Rabbi Groner replied, referring to my son Mendel who was nine years old at the time.
The Rebbe was on the stairs coming up from the basement dining room where the Seder was being held; he looked over the banister at Mendel and asked him in Yiddish, “Du vayst de fir kashes? Du vayst de fir kashes baal peh? – Do you know the Four Questions? Do you know them by heart?”
Thu, Apr 10, 2014
My name is Dena Mendelowitz Horn. I was born in Bedford Stuyvesant, where my father was an Orthodox rabbi. He had come from Slobodka, Lithuania, where most of his and my mother’s family perished in the Holocaust. He himself was not well and died in 1940, when I was just 7 and my brother 13.
Shortly after this, my mother, newly widowed at only 33, moved us to Crown Heights, which was a terrific place to grow up because it was such a wonderful, warm community.
While we were living there, my mother became a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I am not sure how it happened, but she was a single parent with children who were going through a difficult adolescence, and I guess she was looking for some sort of help and guidance and a shoulder to cry on. I don’t know when she first went to the Rebbe for advice, but it was important and very reassuring for her when she did go. He was most welcoming to her, and when she felt the need for an appointment with him, she always got one.
I remember a couple of occasions, on Shabbos afternoon, I would be walking with my mom on Eastern Parkway when the Rebbe passed by. He would always touch the rim of his hat in acknowledgment of her, and that meant so much to her – she felt validated somehow.
After I enrolled in New York University, my mother asked me to come along with her to see the Rebbe. I don’t remember much from that audience other than his piercing eyes which were so very sensitive, and that he asked me about my college experience. He wanted to know what I was learning, and I told him about my involvement with the JCF, Jewish Culture Foundation, of which I was vice-president at the time.
After this meeting, a most surprising thing happened. A long letter from the Rebbe arrived at NYU, addressed to me at the Jewish Culture Foundation. This is what it said in part:
HMS: Lasting Impressions
Fri, Mar 28, 2014
My name is Norbert Weinberg and my Hebrew name is Natan – Natan Ben Yitzchak Dov.
I was born in Germany before the Holocaust. My family almost didn’t make it out; in fact, my father, who was a doctor in a little town called Bad-Nauheim, was arrested and sent to Buchenwald for six weeks. But somehow my mother moved mountains and got him out, and we left for England and then we came to America. I went to Yeshiva University and was ordained as a rabbi there.
In the mid-1950s, I became a principal of a Hebrew School in Yonkers. After a short time, however, I became quite discouraged about my work. The children were wonderful; they wanted to learn, and they loved learning. The parents, however, were a problem. Although they sent their children to our Hebrew School, the parents were not religious, in the sense that they didn’t keep the Torah. I think they did it because their neighbors did it – it was the thing to do – but the children were taught one thing in the school but every night they’d go home and be taught something else.
I began to feel that I was not making a dent. I was getting pretty disheartened about the whole thing.
At this time – it was the late 1950s – I was hearing a great deal about the Rebbe. He was becoming very well known then; he was becoming a force in Jewish life. So I decided to see him and ask his advice on the matter. Maybe he agrees with me that I should switch professions and become a lawyer or a doctor.
Somehow I arranged an audience with the Rebbe. I don’t remember the exact details of how it came about, though I do remember that my late cousin, Bjorn Bamberger, came with me.
We arrived and were told to wait a while. And it was quite an experience to see the Rebbe up close. I had seen him before at a number of farbrengens but this was face to face.
I remember that my cousin and I entered the room, and there was the Rebbe seated at a desk with a library of books behind him. He stood up when we walked in. We were nobody of importance but, nevertheless, he stood up for us, and shook our hands. This was a great surprise to me, and it made me feel that he wanted to speak to me.
HMS: A Visit with the Rebbetzin
Fri, Mar 21, 2014
I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a Conservative Jewish family. I was educated in public schools, though I also went to Hebrew school. In 1976, when I was 17 years old, I went on a trip to Israel that was sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative yeshiva in New York.
While in Israel, I stayed on a religious kibbutz – because there were no Conservative kibbutzim – and there I started keeping Shabbos and learning more about Judaism. After four months of this, I returned home and I wanted to continue keeping Shabbos.
So who did I call? Chabad, of course. I called up Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Chabad emissary in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and I said, “I just came back from Israel and I’d like to come for Shabbos.” He was elated and he immediately said, “Come and bring all your friends!” I had no friends to bring, because my friends were not interested in keeping Shabbos, so I went alone.
It was a wonderful experience, and even after I enrolled at the University of Minnesota that fall, I kept going for Shabbos to various Chabad families in St. Paul. The following summer – this was the summer of 1977 – I decided that I wanted to learn Torah full-time at Machon Chana, the Chabad seminary for young women in New York.
My parents were against this, and they were very upset that I insisted on going to Machon Chana. My siblings were also upset, my relatives were upset, and my friends basically dropped me. So I arrived in Crown Heights feeling very much alone. One day, I was sitting in the dorm at Machon Chana feeling like I had no one to talk to, and the thought entered my mind, “I could talk to the Rebbetzin.”
I shared this thought with two of my roommates from the dorm, and together we wrote a letter to the Rebbetzin. We said that we knew we were not worthy but, if possible, we would like to meet with her. We took this letter to the Rebbe’s and Rebbetzin’s house on President Street, we put it through the mail slot, and we ran away as fast as we could, not sure what was going to happen.
A few days later, Mrs. Galperin, the cook at Machon Chana, came up to me and, in a low voice, asked, “Did you write a letter to the Rebbetzin?”
My heart started to pound, and I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to be asked to leave Machon Chana. They’re going to kick me out, and I’ve been here only three months!”