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: Influencing the future
Tue, Dec 16, 2014
I first met the Rebbe in 1951 when he had just become the Rebbe. I was attending Yeshiva University high school, the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, which was on Bedford Avenue and President Street in Brooklyn. My best friend in school was Tzvi Groner whose uncle, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Groner, was the Rebbe’s secretary, and Tzvi and I used to walk over to the Chabad Headquarters sometimes to visit Rabbi Groner. We’d bring our sandwiches and spend our lunch-hour with him.
During these visits, the Rebbe would speak with us on occasion. This was before he had become world renowned, when he was a relatively young man. He would ask us about our learning – which section in Talmud we were studying – and he would talk a little bit about philosophy. Although these were very brief meetings, I was enormously impressed with the erudition of this man. I mean, he was so much better educated than my high school teachers. I would look forward to these occasional meetings.
The next time I met the Rebbe was in 1970 when I was clerking for Justice Arthur Goldberg, who was running for governor of New York. Justice Goldberg asked me to arrange an audience with the Rebbe, and I did. I expected to deliver Justice Goldberg to the Rebbe and stay outside but they invited me to participate in the meeting, which lasted about an hour.
The Rebbe was very interested in the role that Justice Goldberg had played at the United Nations, particularly during the 1967 War. It was fortuitous that Justice Goldberg, who was a Jew strongly supportive of Israel, would be the person picked to be at the United Nations at that very important time when Security Council Resolution 242 was being drafted, which essentially set the terms for how peace would be achieved.
The Rebbe and Justice Goldberg discussed the events of that time, but their discussion was not political. Also, there was no effort to get an endorsement. Justice Goldberg simply wanted advice from the Rebbe about New York and about the Jewish community, specifically the Chabad community. He was not particularly familiar with Brooklyn in those days. It was a very, very interesting and thoughtful exchange. I was mostly quiet and learned from both of them.
HMS #100: “I’m going with you”
Wed, Dec 10, 2014
In the summer of 1974, I was sent as the Rebbe’s emissary to Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst is a college town – the site of five colleges, the largest of which is the University of Massachusetts. With G-d’s help, with the Rebbe’s blessings, and with the assistance of one of the veteran emissaries, Rabbi Dovid Eidelman, I was able to set up a Chabad House right on the campus of the University of Massachusetts.
Back then, the term Chabad House was hardly the household word that it is today, and I very much wanted to open the Chabad House with a splash. So I decided to hold a concert in the newly-opened Fine Arts Center on campus, where there was a beautiful concert hall tailor made for this purpose. We hired Theodore Bikel, who was a superstar of Jewish music at that time, and we set about publicizing the event. I spared absolutely no expense. I had full-color flyers printed, I arranged for TV and radio ads, and I did everything possible to make sure everybody knew about this event.
The concert was scheduled for Sunday, and on the Friday afternoon – maybe an hour or two before Shabbos – I called up the ticket office to find out how many hundreds of tickets had been sold. The ticket lady said, “Hold on – I have to check the computer.” A minute later she came back on the line and said, matter-of-factly, “Eighty-seven.”
I said, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re talking about the concert this Sunday.”
“Theodore Bikel?” She asked.
“Yes, that’s the one!” I replied.
I was devastated. The Shabbos before the concert was probably the worst Shabbos of my life. I went up to the second floor of the Chabad House from where you could actually see the concert hall, and as I looked at it, I was thinking to myself, “Yisrael, you see that building over there? Tomorrow that’s going to be the scene of your downfall.” I don’t recall if I was literally crying, but inside, I was sobbing.
HMS: “We just called him “Monsieur”
Fri, Dec 05, 2014
I was born in 1934 in the village of Vizhnitz, Ukraine. When I was a small boy, my parents immigrated to Antwerp, Belgium. Belgium had a large Jewish community – some 50,000 Jews lived in Antwerp at that time – and they hoped to have a better life there.
Unfortunately, our stay did not last long. In 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium and immediately began deporting and killing Jews. So everybody started running. We ran across the border to France.
I was only six years old at the time, but I was old enough to realize that we were fleeing for our lives.
We made our way to Marseilles where my grandmother – that is, my mother’s mother – and also my mother’s sister lived. A group of Lubavitcher chasidim lived there, and we were welcomed warmly. But the problem was there was nothing for us there. By nothing, I mean that with the war going on there was not enough food, and also not enough adequate shelter to handle influx of all the refugees. We moved from house to house, from place to place. A few months later the Nazis invaded Paris, and the situation got even worse.
In the midst of all this chaos and upheaval, my family was forced to split up. Only after the war did I get to see them again. Meanwhile, I was sent to an orphanage in Marseilles.The orphanage housed some forty or maybe fifty children, many of them as young as three and four years old. Some of them knew that their parents had been killed; others didn’t know what became of their mother or father. Often, you would hear children crying, calling out for their parents who were not there to answer.
As the days wore on, the situation grew more and more desperate, and food became more and more scarce. Many a day we went hungry.
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: