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: “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.
HMS: “It should be better and better”
Wed, Mar 11, 2015
I was born in Israel, but when I was six years old my parents immigrated to the United States and initially settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. At this time we were not associated with Chabad, but my father would occasionally pray at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Chabad Headquarters. And my first encounter with the Rebbe happened then – in 1951 – when he first took over the leadership of Lubavitch.
I had come with my father, and I recall that the synagogue was packed. I felt a little lost, and I was looking around for a prayer book, a siddur, but could not find one. Then I saw a siddur perched on the table where the Rebbe sat. The Rebbe motioned for me to sit next to him and pray from hissiddur together with him. So I did. The chasidim didn’t like that and they started motioning to me to move away. The Rebbe looked up and said, “Vos vilt ir fun im, es davent zich zeir gut mit im!” Which means, “What do want from him? My prayers are going very well with him!”
I had many more encounters after that, some of which were quite special.
During one audience with the Rebbe in 1973 – after I was married already and had three children – I mentioned to the Rebbe that my oldest daughter would turn five on the 11th of Nissan, which happened also to be the Rebbe’s birthday. And I asked the Rebbe, “Since there is a custom among the chasidim to take on an additional mitzvah or a mitzvah upgrade on each birthday, I’d like to know if there is something I can do in conjunction with my daughter’s birthday?”
The Rebbe smiled and said, “Had you not asked me, I wouldn’t have told you, but since you did ask, I will suggest that your daughter start lighting Shabbos candles.”
HMS: Shalom Aleichem
Wed, Mar 04, 2015
Before I relate the story of my meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I would like to express my gratitude for this opportunity to share it. I’ve been waiting over 50 years to relate this story, so this goes to show that people should never give up hope, whatever they might be waiting for.
My name is Yonasan Wiener. I was born and bred in Melbourne, Australia, lived for a time in New York, and now I’m living and teaching in Jerusalem.
My family originally came from Poland, a place called Chrzanow, but they bounced around all of Eastern Europe – Krakow, Bremen, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt. In Frankfurt my father attended the yeshiva of Rabbi Yosef Breuer, Yeshivat Torah Lehranstalt, and he was there in November 1938 on Kristallnacht, when the Nazis began burning synagogues and Jewish places of business.
After Kristallnacht, my grandfather took his family and fled Germany. They first migrated to Holland and from there to France and then to Australia. My father attended Melbourne High School and Melbourne University, where he excelled because he had a brilliant mind. He got his Ph.D. there and he also studied medicine. In his spare time, my father researched poisons and their antidotes. He studied the red-back spider, a deadly spider in Australia, and he discovered the anti-venom. He also studied the stonefish, a toxic fish which buries itself in beach sand, and when people accidentally step on it, they die. He discovered the anti-venom for stonefish as well. He did this in his spare time, and he didn’t want any money for his discoveries.
When he was asked, at the end of his life, what motivated his altruistic research, he said, “Thanks to the Australian government I was saved with my entire family from the Nazis. If I had stayed in Europe I would have perished with my six million brothers and sisters.”
HMS: “I want you to smile”
Wed, Feb 25, 2015
I grew up in the Bronx, in a religious home. Although my parents were not affiliated with any chasidic group or movement, they sent me to a local Jewish day school which just happened to be operated by Chabad-Lubavitch. It was called the Bronx Lubavitch Yeshiva, and it accepted students from all walks in life.
While attending this school, I had the opportunity – when I was nine years old – to come for a Shabbaton in Crown Heights. This was my first introduction to what Chabad was all about. It was also the first time that I spend a night away from home, and I remember very vividly the dormitory experience – staying up the whole night, playing games and drinking green soda.
The Shabbaton concluded with a Farbrengen at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, by which time I was completely exhausted, having not slept for nearly 40 hours. The Rebbe started to speak – he was speaking Yiddish, which I understood because my parents spoke Yiddish at home – but I just couldn’t stay awake. I started nodding off.
Suddenly, I felt jolted awake, and I found myself staring straight into the Rebbe’s blue eyes. And he announced, “The boys from the Bronx should sing a niggun!”
That was my first encounter with the Rebbe.
Not long after, I switched schools and enrolled at the Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn. During those years, it was a custom for the yeshiva boys to have an audience with the Rebbe on their birthday, and I remember going in once and confiding in the Rebbe about something I had done wrong. Rabbi Yoel Kahan, my mentor in the yeshiva, had told me, “You can tell the Rebbe anything. If you did something wrong, tell him and he will advise you what tikkun you must make, how you can make it right. Ask him for advice, and he will help you.”
So I did. And the Rebbe’s response showed me his human side. He was so very compassionate. He didn’t exactly say, “It’s nothing what you did – don’t worry about it,” but he was very reassuring. I was just a naïve kid and that was exactly what I needed. I felt a personal connection with him at that moment – I felt understood totally.
HMS: “Weren’t you angry about the letter?”
Tue, Feb 17, 2015
My name is Adeena Singer. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, where my parents migrated in 1965, and where my father, Rabbi Nachman Bernhard, opened the first Orthodox elementary school, then called the Menorah Primary School.
During those early years, my father, being a Chabad chasid, had a lot of contact with the Rebbe – letters, phone calls, back and forth, and I grew up with a very strong idea that the Rebbe was our intimate, loving, warm teacher, guide, grandfather. That’s how I thought of him. I was too young to know his teachings, but I knew that he cared about me and, in turn, I cared about him – I would do what he needed me to do.
When I was thirteen, my father was asked to leave by the South African government because he was too outspoken politically. He stood very strongly for human decency and against the concept of apartheid, which he believed was completely against everything that Torah holds as good and true. I remember the police banging on our door in the middle of the night, and for years they wouldn’t give us permanent residency – we had to renew our residency every three months, until we were told to leave.
At that time, my father decided to immigrate to Israel. I was very excited about this idea but the Rebbe told my father that he had to complete what he started in South Africa, and he asked people in high places to intervene so that my father would be allowed to stay. I was very disappointed that we might not be going to Israel after all, and I decided to appeal to the Rebbe myself.
HMS: The Kollel student
Wed, Feb 11, 2015
My name is Chaim Brovender. I was born in Brooklyn in 1941, when Brooklyn was a great center of Jewish activity. I attended Modern Orthodox schools, namely the Yeshiva of Flatbush – both elementary school and high school – and after that I went to Yeshiva University, where I received my rabbinic ordination. In 1965, after I got married, I made Aliyah to Israel. There I also learned at Hebrew University and received a doctorate in Semitic languages.
While in Israel, I felt myself drawn to learning Torah and, after that, to teaching Torah, and that’s basically what I’ve done my whole life.
The story I’m about to share happened in 1967. My wife Miriam and I were living in Israel by then, but we were on a visit to New York and, although we were not chasidim, we decided to request an audience with the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. At that time, everybody understood that a blessing from the Rebbe was something worth grabbing onto, and my wife especially wanted a blessing to get pregnant – because we were having a problem conceiving – so we got an appointment to see him.
The appointment was for 3 a.m. because, in those days, the Rebbe learned and worked all day and would only see people at night.
We came into his office and were astonished to find it in perfect order. His desk – a very big desk – was absolutely clean. There was not one piece of paper on it. I believe there was a Book of Psalms on the desk, and that’s all.
HMS: “How is the young couple?”
Wed, Feb 04, 2015
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where my father attended medical school and where he later practiced general medicine. This is also where my family became connected to Chabad. We later moved to the Bronx.
In 1977, we all came to Crown Heights for the High Holidays, and this was when – on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret – the Rebbe suffered a heart attack. There was a great commotion in the Chabad synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, with people shouting to give the Rebbe some air, and my father – being a doctor – rushed over to help.
We ended up not seeing him for several days as he, and the other doctors in attendance, set up a mini-hospital and took care of the Rebbe.
A year later, when the Rebbe had somewhat recovered, my parents made a permanent move to Crown Heights. My father became one of the Rebbe’s doctor, and after a time, also one of the Rebbetzin’s doctor.
Because of their close relationship, when my sister, Rivky, was born in 1983, the Rebbetzin wanted to see her. My father brought me along as well, and that was the first time I met the Rebbetzin.
The Rebbetzin became very attached to Rivky and even asked – when Rivky started to talk – that she call her not “Rebbetzin” but Doda, meaning “Aunt.” Rivky looked forward to these weekly visits – which took place every Friday – and she used to bring story books for the Rebbetzin to read to her.
HMS: The Shabbos Mevorchim Kiddush
Wed, Jan 28, 2015
In the early 1940s, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, my family moved from Coney Island to Crown Heights. We didn’t move to Crown Heights because it was the seat of Chabad-Lubavitch – we were not Lubavitch, so that did not attract us at all. As a matter of fact, there were very few Lubavitchers in Crown Heights at that time, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe – the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak – lived there, and he had just established his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Once we were living in the neighborhood, for one reason or another, my father took a liking to the Lubavitchers, and he began to attend prayer services at 770. At that time, I was enrolled in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, but when I heard that a yeshiva for my age group was about to open at Lubavitch, I decided that I wanted to enroll.
But my father had misgivings about this. He said, “You’re an American kid, you’re not going to succeed in a chasidic yeshiva. It’s not like the yeshivas you’re used to – it’s a European yeshiva, not an American yeshiva.”
I said, “Well, they speak Yiddish at Torah Vodaas, and they’ll speak Yiddish at the Lubavitch yeshiva.”
My father said, “If you want to go, it’s okay with me – just be prepared that you may find it unpleasant.” But I didn’t find it unpleasant at all.
Meanwhile, my father’s minyan in the Lubavitch shul had expanded to include other men who were not chasidim. My father came to know these people because they would all sit down to make a kiddush together after Shabbos prayers. This was not a Lubavitch custom – the Lubavitchers went home, but these men stayed behind.
And that brings me to a story I want to tell about Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the Previous Rebbe, and also about the future Rebbe, who was then the Rebbe’s son-in-law. We knew him as Ramash – an acronym for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
HMS: How important is it to You?
Wed, Jan 21, 2015
Before my first visit with the Rebbe in 1966, I’d had no contact with him. At the time, I was facing difficulties in my business as a result of the tragic death of my partner.
I had heard a lot about the Rebbe, and when a friend suggested I consult him, I jumped at the chance.
I flew from London – where I lived and worked as an accountant – to New York, and my audience began at 2 a.m.
Before the audience, I had asked Rabbi Faivish Vogel, who accompanied me on my trip: “How do I explain my business affairs to the Rebbe? They are highly complicated!”
He said, “Write it all down before you go in and let the Rebbe read it.” So the day before the audience, I wrote it all down – about thirty pages of it! Now I know it was a great chutzpah for me to expect the Rebbe to wade through thirty pages of explanations, but Rabbi Vogel told me to put it in writing.
When I entered the Rebbe’s office, the Rebbe took up the thirty sheets of paper and started to read them. It took a while.
While the Rebbe was reading, I was thinking to myself: “Why am I wasting the Rebbe’s time? He can’t possibly understand all these business issues. It’s too complicated.”
My concerns were exacerbated by the fact that the Rebbe never stopped to ask me any questions – he just kept reading. And so the longer it took, the more doubts I had in my mind about whether the Rebbe could possibly understand what it was all about.