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!
Wed, Jul 01, 2015
My grandfather, Shneur Zalman Vilenkin was from Dnepropetrovsk, which in his day was called Yekaterinoslav. This was the place where the future Rebbe’s family also lived at the time. The Rebbe was just a boy then – for this was in the early 1900s – and he would come, along with his two little brothers, to my grandfather’s house to learn.
My mother remembers that these three boys always came very well dressed, and that they were very clean, very neat, very polite. My grandfather would learn with them for the allotted time, and then they would leave. How long this went on, I don’t know.
One time, when the Rebbe was already a young man, he came over and asked for my grandfather. My mother had answered the door and informed him that my grandfather wasn’t available. He told my mother, “I just came to return a book that I borrowed. I want to make sure that he gets it.” So my mother took it and thanked him.
My grandfather would often tell us about the Rebbe’s wedding celebration which took place in 1928 in Yekaterinoslav. Although the Rebbe got married in Warsaw, his own parents were not there because they were not permitted to leave Russia. So they arranged a second celebration in their home. My grandfather was there, and he danced the night away and even danced on the table – this is a known story.
After the war, our family – my grandfather included – left Europe and eventually moved to New York. And when we got here, my grandfather wanted to meet with the Rebbe. This was probably in 1955, though I am not sure.
At this time, my grandfather was partially paralyzed, so it was very hard for him to walk and very hard for him to stand. When he walked into the Rebbe’s office, he naturally wanted to do the respectful thing and stand, but the Rebbe insisted he sit down. He continued to stand, but the Rebbe said, “Many years ago, you and I sat across from each other on a table; we can sit across from each other at a table again.” That convinced my grandfather and he sat down.
The Rebbe just would not allow my grandfather to stand in his presence, and he later told one of my uncles that my grandfather “hut mir avek geshtelt auf de fees – put me on my feet.”
He Cared About Our Family
Wed, Jun 24, 2015
I come from a family of chasidim. My father was a Boyaner chasid, while my mother’s family was Chabad, and she had a connection – from the time that she was a young girl – to the family of the Rebbe in Russia.
The Rebbe – I’m speaking now about the Previous Rebbe, the Rebbe Rayatz – had three daughters, Chaya Mushka – who would later marry the future Rebbe – Chana and Shaina. These three girls would spend time in the countryside, where my grandparents, Levi and Rochma Lagovier, also liked to spend time, and there my mother and the three girls would be together. This went on until 1917, when the Russian Revolution broke out. After that, my mother lost contact with them until 1935, when she and my father went to a health resort in Marienbad. There they met up with the Previous Rebbe, who was taking the restorative waters. One of his daughters had accompanied him there, and my mother was able to renew the friendship. As well, my father got a chance to spend considerable time with the Rebbe.
In 1940, when the Previous Rebbe arrived in New York, we were already living here for over a year, and my father made it a point of going to welcome him. I was 14 at the time, and I was invited to come along.
The Rebbe was staying at the Greystone Hotel, and I remember that when we came in, he was sitting at a small table. He gave me his hand. At that moment he looked at me and I felt his eyes piercing me like two swords. In Europe I had met many other Rebbes, but never before had I experienced such a feeling and, ever since, I’ve been connected to Chabad.
After the meeting there was a joyous farbrengen, full of young people. That’s another thing that attracted me to Chabad. My father’s Rebbe, the Boyaner Rebbe, was a very sweet person, a talmid chacham, a wise sage, but he was surrounded by old people. Here were people like me, full of energy, and this also pulled me over to Chabad.
At this time, my father was trying very hard to bring over my mother’s parents to America. They were stuck in Belgium and needed a transit visa to Lisbon, Portugal, from where my father had arranged a boat passage for them. My father had a fish oil business, on account of which he had very close connections with steamship lines, and he was able to procure two tickets for them. But no matter what he did – the sums of money he spent to pay off officials – he could not get them that transit visa. There was one Nazi who refused to be bought and who stood in the way and, because of him, my grandparents never did make it out of Europe. Years later I found records that they were sent on a transport to Auschwitz.
A Needle In A Haystack
Wed, Jun 17, 2015
I was raised in a traditional Zionist Jewish home in Sydney, Australia. While on a visit in Israel, I became attracted to Chabad-Lubavitch and, upon return to Australia, I enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva, which eventually led me to learning in New York. That is when I found out I had Chabad ancestors – including the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Chabad – and I
became a loyal follower of the Chabad Rebbe.
While I was in New York, I was approached by a prestigious rabbi from another chasidic group, who told me about a family that was searching for their long-lost daughter. She had been born and raised in Boro Park, and she had married there; unfortunately, the marriage ended badly, but her husband – for whatever reason – refused to agree to a divorce.
After this went on for a period of time, she “snapped” (to use a slang term), and she suddenly disappeared. Her family had learned that she had gone to Australia, but they had no idea where. Since I was from Australia, the rabbi w
approached me thought that maybe I could help them bring their daughter back to her people.ho
I said, “Australia is geographically the size of the United States. Looking for someone there without an address is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
He said, “I don’t know what to tell you, but maybe the Rebbe would know what to do.”
Before returning to Australia I had an audience with the Rebbe, so I told him this whole story. He asked, “When are you going back?”
I said, “I’m going back Wednesday.”
He said, “Sometime after you get back, maybe the week after, you should take a trip to Brisbane.”
He didn’t explain why I should do this, but, of course, I would follow the Rebbe’s instructions without question. So, when I returned to Australia, I got on a plane to Brisbane.
“Sing a Niggun!”
Wed, Jun 10, 2015
My name is Ben Zion Shenker. My parents came to the United States in 1921 from the Lublin area of Poland, settling in New York, where I was born and raised.
When I was about 13 years old, a famous cantor by the name of Joshua Samuel Weisser heard me sing in our synagogue – this was a Polish shtiebel in Bedford Stuyvesant – and he asked my father if I could join his choir. At first, my parents wouldn’t give permission but Cantor Weisser persisted. Finally they agreed, with one condition: If I had to travel away from home because of a performance, then I would have to be housed at the home of a local rabbi, so that they could be sure I was in good hands.
Cantor Weisser was chazan at the Avenue O Jewish Center in Bensonhurst where Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky, a Chabad-Lubavitch chasid, was the rabbi. It is at Rabbi Kazarnovsky’s Shabbos table that I first heard Chabad teachings, and I learned to sing Chabad niggunim which I found very stimulating.
In 1946, when I was 21 years old, I accompanied my father on a trip to Eretz Yisrael and there I met a man by the name of Moshe Shimon Geshuri, who was very involved in chasidic music. Mr. Geshuri requested that I take some material back to New York to be delivered to a certain Rabbi Schneerson, who was the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
When I returned home, I went in search of this Rabbi Schneerson and found his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. Although I appeared there without any appointment, he welcomed me in. I had no way of knowing that, in a few years, he would become the Rebbe. I do recall, however, that he made quite an impression on me. He had a lot of charisma, that’s for sure, and he took an interest in me. I thought that I would just hand him the material from Mr. Geshuri and go, but he started asking me questions. He wanted to know who I was, where I was learning, and why I had gone to the Holy Land. So I explained that my father went to visit his brother and had taken me along. While in Eretz Yisrael I composed a niggun to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” which they immediately started singing in a shul in Haifa. Eventually, this became my most famous composition.
Not long after that meeting with the Rebbe, I started attending addresses that he was giving on special occasions. These classes were not specifically geared to Lubavitcher Chassidim, and they had become popular with other yeshiva students in the area – students from my school, Torah Vodaas, from Chaim Berlin, and from other yeshivas.
HMS: “Special Delivery”
Wed, Jun 03, 2015
I am the daughter of Rabbi Sholom Posner who, for many years, operated a Yeshiva Day School in Pittsburgh. That’s where I was raised and that’s where I went to school until age 12, when I was sent to a Bais Yaakov seminary in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It is from this time that my memories of the Rebbe begin. I and another girl would walk from Williamsburg to Crown Heights to observe the Rebbe’s farbrengens. I always waited for the Rebbe to look in my direction as he was passing by, because the Rebbe’s smile would light up a room.
I had previously accompanied my parents when they went to see the Rebbe about matters dealing with the yeshiva, but my first private audience came in 1960 when I was finishing teacher’s seminary, and I was trying to decide what to do next. I had four options – to teach at my father’s school in Pittsburgh, to accept an offer from a school in New York, to travel to Eretz Yisrael, or to join my sister Bessie in Milan, where she and her husband served as Chabad emissaries. I didn’t know what to do and I made an appointment with the Rebbe to seek his advice.
I was very nervous and worried about how I would begin explaining everything. Then my turn came and the door opened. As I walked in, the Rebbe was sitting behind his desk, writing something, and he lifted his head. “Good evening, Miss Posner,” he said. I wasn’t expecting that, and I just burst out laughing. My nervousness completely left me.
The Rebbe asked me lots of questions – why I was so thin and had dark circles under my eyes – and I explained that I was studying very hard for final exams, plus also teaching in another school. So the Rebbe gave me a blessing that I should be successful in all my endeavors. He also told me not to worry about what to do next year, just to take some time off and relax.
HMS: “Special Delivery”
Wed, May 27, 2015
My ancestors came to America from Europe in the late 1800s and settled on the Lower East Side of New York. When the Williamsburg Bridge was built, they moved across the river, and established a yeshiva in Williamsburg, the famous Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.
Although I was not raised Lubavitch, I became a Chabad chasid through an interesting set of circumstances.
After I got married, I was teaching school in Borough Park in Brooklyn, and a fellow teacher who was a Lubavitcher suggested I meet his Rebbe. I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I said, “I’ve met other Rebbes and I didn’t see much difference between them.” He said, “Come – I guarantee you’ll see something different.”
He was right. When I met with the Rebbe for the first time he was still a young man – this was in 1957 – but I was extremely impressed. I saw in him a depth of mind, clarity of thought, and I felt a very strong attachment to him from the start.
After that I would try to see him at least twice a year, and I would talk to him about many things. He gave me very good advice – he encouraged me to get involved in communal work outside New York. And that’s what I did – I went to Miami and established a congregation there. And when I did that, he advised me on how to handle the donors, how to handle the board of directors and how to handle other rabbis in the community.
There came a time, in 1970, when I realized that we needed to rebuild the local mikvah. It had been built thirty years prior, when proper building materials were not available due to the war, and it was starting to deteriorate. So several local rabbis got together, and we raised the money to rebuild it. Some of us wanted to build the new mikvah according to a high standard, but we found out that the rabbi who was in charge of the design did not follow that standard, and the result was that his mikvah did not even qualify as kosher. But this rabbi refused to change the design. And he found some rabbis to approve his mikvah.
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.