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: Every Little Detail
Thu, Mar 06, 2014
I was born in Budapest, Hungary, around the outbreak of World War II.
My family miraculously managed to survive the war, and afterwards, we immigrated to Australia. When we got there, Australia was a parched desert when it came to Torah institutions. But thanks to Chabad, in the late 1940s, a yeshiva was established in Melbourne, and this is where I was educated.
The rabbi in charge of the yeshiva there was Rabbi Yitzchok Groner – he was very clever, and very experienced. And he built up the yeshiva there from scratch. In the mid-1950s, Chabad opened a girl’s school. Both were highly successful.
All the Rebbe’s emissaries who came to Australia made a very good impression. They were warm, friendly, and helpful. They went out of their way to help people. And people admired them because they were willing to sacrifice for the sake of Yiddishkeit. Whatever the Rebbe told them to do, they did it one hundred percent, and perhaps even more.
Today, Melbourne is booming Jewishly. There is a kindergarten, a school for boys, a school for girls, a beginner’s yeshiva, an advanced yeshiva, and a seminary, all thanks to Chabad.
As I mentioned, I attended the Chabad yeshiva when I was a youngster – I came there when I was thirteen and stayed until sixteen, at which age I went into business. And from that time – this would be from 1952 – I started to correspond with the Rebbe. I wrote to him every year on the occasion of my birthday, asking for blessings. The Rebbe answered every letter that I wrote to him – usually, his reply would come within ten days.
I remember that once I asked his advice about my Torah studies. The Rebbe advised that besides my standard learning I should also learn Tanya. Regular study of the Tanya was very important to him and, many years later, he gave me a pocket Tanya, which I still have with me. When he gave it to me, he said that if it gets torn, I would be given a new one. In other words: “Keep on learning daily, diligently, and don’t worry if the book tears.”
HMS: “Do What Your Zeide Says To Do.”
Thu, Feb 27, 2014
My name is Abraham J. Twerski. I come from chasidic dynasties on both my father’s side and my mother’s side. My father’s side was from Chernobyl and my mother’s side was from Sanz. Also, my father’s great- great-grandfather was a son-in-law to the Mitteler Rebbe of Lubavitch, so we’re descendants of the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Lubavitch.
I myself have been ordained and practiced as a rabbi for a number of years in Milwaukee, before becoming a psychiatrist and moving on to Pittsburgh.
After I had practiced as a rabbi for a number of years, I felt I was not fulfilled in my work and – after consultation with the Steipler Gaon – I went to medical school to become a psychiatrist. In 1960, when I had just started psychiatric training, I had my first personal contact with the Rebbe of Lubavitch.
When I went into the audience with the Rebbe, he asked what I was doing. I told him, and he said “When you finish your psychiatric training, move to New York. There are many people here whom I would like to send to a psychiatrist because they need psychiatric help, but I can’t send them to a psychiatrist who is going to say that religion is a neurosis and will tell them that they have to drop their religion.”
At that time, it was not like today – there were no religious psychiatrists in New York. And as a youngster just graduating psychiatry, I did not want to become overwhelmed. So I said to the Rebbe, “If I do that, if I become the only frum psychiatrist in New York, which has such a huge religious population, I will not be able to carry that load. I’ll need to work day and night seven days a week. There will be no opportunity for me to learn even a little bit of Torah. I won’t have a chance to ever open a Jewish text again.”
But the Rebbe said, “Where there’s a mitzvah that no one else can do and you’re the only one who can do it, that mitzvah takes priority over learning Torah.”
I said, “That would mean that I’d totally have to give up learning. And I couldn’t do that unless G-d Himself told me to do so.” To which the Rebbe responded, “What do you expect – an angel with two wings to come and tell you?”
I said, “A rabbi who resembles an angel would be good enough.” I know it was chutzpa for me to say that, but the Rebbe didn’t get offended – he just smiled.
HMS: Department of Military Intelligence
Thu, Feb 20, 2014
I was born in Antwerp, but in 1939, when World War II broke out and the Nazis invaded Belgium, my family fled to France. Shortly thereafter, France also fell and was split in two, with one part occupied by Germany and under the control of the Nazis, and the rest under the control of the French Vichy Government. We smuggled ourselves from the occupied zone to the unoccupied zone, to Marseilles. We arrived there after Shavuot of 1940 and made our home near a kosher restaurant and synagogue ran by a chasidic Jew who, like my parents, was originally from Galitzia, Poland.
This little synagogue – this Bais Medrash – was the central place where Jews gathered. There were so many refugees trying to reunite with their relatives – one lost a wife, one lost a son on the road; they all wanted to find out about their families. They also wanted to find out which consulate was giving out papers, because all the consulates were in Marseilles and people were trying to get from France to Spain or Portugal and out of Europe. Every evening between afternoon and evening prayers, this Bais Medrash was a marketplace of people trying to find information and help.
I was eighteen years-old at the time, and I would learn there with my grandfather – every afternoon from four to seven. And that is where I first saw this interesting young man.
I remember he had a presence about him. He wore a modern suit and a nice necktie, a soft hat, but what stood out about most him was his full dark beard. He smiled at everybody, always said good afternoon or good evening, but he was very quiet otherwise. While other people were talking – like I said, it was like a big marketplace – he was quietly studying off in a corner. I remember he had the Mishnayos printed by Shlesinger Publishing House – a small pocket edition that had all of the Mishna in one volume. After evening prayers, he would go home.
One afternoon, my grandfather said to me, “Aaron, find out who that young man is.” So I asked around, and somebody told me that his name was Schneerson, a name which, at first, I didn’t know was associated with Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. And then someone told me, “This is the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s son-in-law.” That’s when I started paying attention. I would observe him as he came and went – apparently he was travelling a lot between Nice and Marseilles – but I never spoke with him. After eight months, he told people in the Bais Medrash that he was leaving for America, and that was the last I saw of him.
HMS: He Meant Business
Thu, Feb 13, 2014
I grew up in Crown Heights, and as a child I studied at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, but by the time I was fifteen I left and went to a regular boys’ high school. The reason I left is that I felt too restricted there and I wanted to get a broader education. But, although I left Torah Vodaas, I never left Yiddishkeit – I always remained an observant Jew.
At age eighteen I went into the US army for three years – this was between 1943 and 1946 – and served a year overseas, where I worked with DPs, displaced persons. This was a formative experience for me, and it left a deep impression. Seeing the aftermath of the Holocaust, I came to the conclusion that Judaism had to survive, and the only way for it to survive was through Torah.
Although I originally planned to obtain a doctorate in English literature, just when I almost finished my studies, I met Professor Saul Lieberman of JTS – the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative yeshiva – who influenced me to leave Columbia University, where I had been studying, and enroll at JTS instead.
This happened in 1950. And although I studied at JTS in Manhattan, on Shabbos, I used to come home to Crown Heights to be with my family, and I used to go to Chabad to supplement my knowledge of Talmud. Among the Chabad students I found great study partners, and one of them was Rabbi Chaim Ciment. He introduced me to the Rebbe, who was not yet the Rebbe at that time, and I told him my whole story. Apparently, he took an interest in me – and I certainly took an interest in him.
I was also very interested in Chabad. I was so impressed with the ahavas Yisrael, love of every Jew, that emanated from Chabad – an unusual amount of avahas Yisrael. I would see it in every one of the Rebbe’s chasidim that I would meet. And when I became a member of the JTS faculty I spoke out on this subject. I said that if we, in the Conservative Movement, could develop the ahavas Yisrael of Chabad, we could take over America. But they didn’t listen to me. I was outvoted many a time, and I used to say that we must reach out to every Jew, but we must reach out from the point of view of Jewish law, because an institution that does not have halacha as the basis of its studies cannot succeed or even survive.
HMS: From Brooklyn to Cairo
Thu, Feb 06, 2014
In the early 1970s I would come to New York a few times a year, as a foreign correspondent for Hamodia and the Algemeiner newspapers. While I was in New York, I learned a lot from the Rebbe, and I received guidance from him – how to best communicate issues that I covered as a journalist, mainly in the field of security. I also carried messages from the Rebbe to senior military officers in Israel.
The breadth of the Rebbe’s analysis was astounding. When the Prime Minister, the Chief of Staff, or officers in the IDF would come to him – and I know dozens who did – he would present them with information that would amaze them. He would often show them the larger picture which they had never considered. It was this reputation that brought these military leaders to his doorstep.
The Rebbe was not only head and shoulders above the rest, but he was an expert in my field, defense and security. He saw the broader picture and he saw it in great depth. Many times – actually, at all times – he had great foresight.
On several occasions, a senior military officer said to me: “This man amazes me! I am not a religious person, but when I meet with him, I feel like I’m sitting opposite someone who spent his entire life in the army, who understands weaponry, knows military strategy, and understands intelligence.”
The legendary Meir Amit, the only person to hold the positions of Director of the Mosad and military intelligence at the same time, once shared with me an episode that illustrates the standing the Rebbe held in the eyes of Israel’s defense forces:
In the early 1960s, Amit was once meeting with the Rebbe, and he was scheduled to fly to Israel later that night. His audience with the Rebbe ran longer than expected, and as soon as it concluded, Amit called El Al at Kennedy Airport and asked who the pilot was. It turned out that the pilot, a former military man, knew Amit. Amit knew everyone.
HMS: “No reason to be discouraged”
Wed, Jan 29, 2014
My name is Avraham Dovid Teitelbaum, though I am better known as Albert Teitelbaum, Professor Albert Teitelbaum.
I grew up in Montreal. Until I was twelve years of age, I was an only child. My parents were both deaf-mutes and my grandfather and my uncle lived with us. Our home was kosher, and I was raised with good Jewish values, but I did not receive much of an education in Judaism nor did I attend yeshiva.
In my second year of college in 1957-1958, I was fortunate to meet Rabbi Elya Lipsker, who was instrumental in arranging my first audience with the Rebbe, which took place right after I got married the following year. My new bride wanted to go to New York and, like a good Jewish husband, I went to New York, and this is when – through the intercession of Rabbi Lipsker and his brother Yankel – I met the Rebbe.
At this time I was Torah observant, and I was pretty comfortable with my Yiddishkeit, but my knowledge of Chabad was limited. The Chabad movement then didn’t have the outreach on a grand scale that it came to have ten or twenty years later as a result of the Rebbe’s various campaigns.
In my first audience with the Rebbe the most important advice that I received was to be in touch with Rabbi Nissen Mangel, who was then teaching at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Montreal. I followed that advice – Rabbi Mangel became my mentor, and he helped me make up what I had missed because I had never studied in yeshiva. He was a dependable and patient teacher. The Rebbe had put me in very good hands.
A few years later, when I received my Master’s Degree in mathematics at McGill University in Montreal, I considered going to yeshiva for a time, and I went to see the Rebbe to ask if I should take this step. But the Rebbe said no. He thought I should go on to study for a doctorate because I would be more effective with a Ph.D. Again I followed his advice.
HMS: Ankle Injury
Wed, Jan 22, 2014
In the 1960s, my family was living in London, England, and I was a student at the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva in Crown Heights.
In those days, it was extremely difficult to get tapes of the Rebbe’s talks. There were very few available, and only special people could get them. So I wrote to my grandfather who lived in London and asked him to send me a small reel-to-reel recorder with which I’d be able to make my own tapes.
By Divine Providence, the recorder arrived on January 31, 1966, which happened to be Yud Shvat, when there would be a chasidic gathering, a farbrengen, and when the Rebbe was expected to give a talk. So, as fast as I could, I ran the four blocks from my dormitory to the post office to collect it. Unfortunately, there was some very heavy snow that day, and I slipped and fell.
Immediately, I felt the most unbelievable pain in my ankle, and I literally could not walk – I could not take even one step. But I was so eager to begin taping the Rebbe that I hopped on one foot to the post office and back.
When I returned, Dr. Avrohom Seligson, who usually prayed outside the Rebbe’s room, took one look at my foot and said that I must go straight to the hospital.When my friends got wind of my condition, they called a taxi, planning to escort me to the hospital.
Somehow, I convinced them that I could get there myself. But once inside the taxi, I instructed the driver to take me to a store in Manhattan which sold the special batteries needed for my new tape recorder. I arrived back just as the farbrengen was getting under way. The room was so full that it was impossible to get a place to sit. I managed to find a little spot on a table where I put my tape recorder, but I had to stand on one foot for six hours.
Early that morning, after the farbrengen, I finally went to the hospital in Crown Heights. They took one look at my foot and said, “This is too swollen now. You should have come hours ago. We can’t do any x-rays until the swelling has gone down. Go home, elevate the leg and come back tomorrow morning.”
HMS: Strength of the Jewish people
Sat, Jan 11, 2014
My relationship with the Rebbe began in 1967. That year my son Gur was killed in a tragic shooting accident. Shortly after that, I received a letter from the Rebbe, which I saved and still cherish.
Some time later, I met him in person for the first time, the first of many meetings I was privileged to have. I will never forget how he looked into my eyes with his piercing, but very warm, eyes.
Through our conversation we discussed many issues.
I knew that from the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the only people who managed to keep contact with the besieged Jewish community in the Soviet Union were Chabad, and I knew that the Rebbe had great influence. So I asked him to put pressure on the Soviets. This was a time when, for public relations reasons, the Soviet Union was starting to allow musicians and artists to leave. I thought that we should be putting more pressure on the Soviets, and then more Jews would be allowed to leave.
The Rebbe did not agree. He said that we should be very careful with the Soviets. It was the time of Brezhnev – it was a tough period in Russia. We should be careful, he said, because we can never know what their reaction will be.
“But, it will not take too many years,” he continued, “before the doors will open.” I remember the conversation.
“Everything in the world is becoming more open. There are millions of students in the country, and it will be impossible for Russia to remain closed. There’s no doubt a change will take place there.” And, as a matter of fact, that’s exactly what happened. The Rebbe had anticipated this as he anticipated many things.
HMS: The Unifying force
Thu, Jan 09, 2014
Although I was educated at the Torah Vodaas High School, there came a time in my life when I became a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and switched over to study in a Lubavitcher yeshiva.
I had heard amazing stories about him. For example, the principal of Torah Vodaas High School, Rabbi Alexander Linchner – quite a famous man, the founder of Boys Town Jerusalem – told one story. He said that he had been in Radin, Poland, with Yisrael Meir Kagan, the renowned “Chofetz Chaim.” The great teacher had looked over the border to Russia and said, “There are at least a million Jews in that country, and they are all on the shoulders of one Lubavitcher Rebbe.” He was speaking about the Previous Rebbe, of course, but nonetheless it made a deep impression on me, because by then I was attuned to hearing anything to do with Chabad.
On another occasion – this was in 1974 – Rabbi Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, who was the head of the Torah Umesorah Society for Hebrew Day Schools, told me about a time in the 1950s, when their Olameinu magazine was in a severe financial crisis and was going to stop publishing. The Rebbe sent a thousand dollars– a great deal of money in those days – to help out, and that enabled the magazine to continue. Now, Lubavitch was publishing its own monthly magazine, Talk and Tales, and one could assume that the last thing the Rebbe would want is to save a competitor from going under, but the Rebbe said, Olameinu is needed for the people it caters to. The Rebbe always wanted what was best for Klal Yisrael, for the entire Jewish people.
When I first joined the Lubavitch Yeshiva in 1957, as a 17-year-old, I was sent to the Lubavitch yeshiva in Montreal for four years, and after that I came to study at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. Of the many experiences and stories I can relate, I have to say that the most abiding image of the Rebbe is this one which captured the Rebbe’s tireless dedication and deep caring for each and every Jew, and which forever after inspired me in my work as a Chabad shliach in London: I remember the conclusion of Simchas Torah, when the Rebbe had just spent an exhausting week, giving many lengthy discourses while standing on his feet, followed by dancing with the Torah. Then, at the end of the festival, he would personally distribute wine from his Kos Shel Brocho to thousands of people who were present – all the while, still standing on his feet. This took many hours, lasting to two or three in the morning.
HMS: Special Regards
Thu, Jan 02, 2014
My Hebrew name is Sholom Moshe Ben Avraham and my English name is S. Murray Kupetz. The reason for the ‘S.’ is because my parents meant it to stand for Sholom but they couldn’t come up with an English-sounding equivalent, so they just wrote S. Murray Kupetz on my birth certificate. Whenever people question this, I tell them that Harry S. Truman had the same problem – his S. stood for nothing and he managed to become president of the United States.
In 1962, shortly after Sukkos, I became engaged to the daughter of Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal, dean of Manchester Yeshiva, and he took us to receive a blessing from the Rebbe.
It was a very special audience. The Rebbe quoted from the Torah portion of Shoftim – which begins, “You shall establish judges and guards at all the gates of your communities…” And then he gave over a teaching from the Maggid of Mezeritch that the word “gates” also refers to all the entrances into body of the human being – the eyes, the ears, the senses – all of which admit information from the outside. All these have to be guarded, he said.
He then went on to say that a Bais Din, a Jewish court of law, in order to be effective, must have a “makel lirdos v’shofar l’hariya – a staff with which to punish, and a trumpet to blow,” meaning, they must have an method with which to threaten, if necessary, and an instrument with which to announce and publicize.”
“What are the parallels for the human being?” the Rebbe asked. If the judges and guards are the gateways to the body, what do the stick and the trumpet represent?