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!
The Jewish Soul Lobby
Wed, Feb 26, 2020
Early on in my career as a political reporter – first for Herut, the daily newspaper of the Israeli Herut party, and then for Yediot Achronot – I heard the Rebbe’s name many times. This was because the Chabad Movement was unique in its involvement in the lives of Israelis, in keeping with its slogan of Ufaratzta, which can loosely be translated as “spreading the faith.” It was Chabad’s mission to influence matters of Jewish life wherever Jews dwelled.
I would spend a lot of time in the hallways of the Knesset as a political reporter, and I met a number of Chabad chasidim who were promoting Jewish education and the Jewish identity of the state. Today there is almost no concern, social or business, that doesn’t have a lobby which works to promote it, but back then, these chasidim were pioneers. Because of their pleasant approach and personal warmth, everyone in the Knesset – even those who were cynical towards matters of religion – treated them with affection and their cause with sympathy.
In 1962, as part of my journalistic work I was sent to the United States and decided that I wanted to meet the Rebbe. An audience was arranged, and we had an extremely fascinating conversation. At the outset, I told the Rebbe that I wished to interview him on the record, but he responded that he doesn’t give interviews to reporters. But after I explained that I would like to discuss matters of personal interest to me and, with his permission, would publicize his answers, the Rebbe agreed to continue the conversation.
I then brought up various questions that I prepared ahead of time. One of the things I asked was why the Rebbe wasn’t making aliyah to Israel, or at least coming to visit.
In response, the Rebbe did not rule out the matter in principle, but he explained that there are a few important matters which are preventing him from leaving his present location. Traveling to Israel shouldn’t be just for pleasure, he said, but to achieve something. “When the reasons that are obligating me to stay in the United States no longer apply, what I can accomplish there can be considered.”
I asked the Rebbe when he thinks this will happen, but his answer was only a smile.
The 12-Year-Old Editor
Tue, Feb 18, 2020
From the age of ten until I was fifteen, I attended the Chabad yeshivah in Newark, New Jersey. This was a very small, unaccredited school – housed in a one-family, colonial-style home on Grumman Avenue – run by Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon. Although small, the school offered a warm educational environment and I learned a great deal there.
While at the school, I became the editor of the student newspaper, though to call it a “newspaper” is being very generous. This was basically a one-page sheet that reported on school happenings like, “Mr. Posner, the Latin teacher, was out for three days because of a cold,” and other events and activities of equal importance. I would write it up with the help of Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, who edited my writing which was not great since I got only a minimal English education. I would then run off copies on a mimeograph machine, an early version of the modern photocopier. I would turn a handle and churn one page at a time through a large inked roll that would produce copies of the original. I do not recall how many copies I made, but it was never more than twenty. I guess the students and teachers read it, and perhaps the school also sent copies home to the parents.
Now the reason I am describing this extracurricular activity that kept me busy as a kid is because of what happened subsequently with the Rebbe.
Rabbi Gordon would frequently take a small group of us into New York to participate in the Rebbe’s farbrengens and hear him deliver his Torah talks. I recall these as very impressive events. There would be a couple thousand people crammed into a large room, which looked to me like Yankee Stadium with bleachers reaching up to the ceiling. I vividly remember the Rebbe distributing schnapps and everyone saying l’chaim, but us kids got grape juice, of course. We always looked forward to these occasions.
Cake and Juice with Royalty
Mon, Feb 10, 2020
My story begins with the story of my father – Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Holtzman – and his relationship with the Rebbe and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka.
My father was a child survivor of the Holocaust who ended up in a Chabad orphanage in Paris, and this is where he met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future Rebbe. Rabbi Schneerson had come to Paris in 1947 to meet his mother, who had escaped from the Soviet Union, and escort her to New York. During his stay, he visited the orphanage and tested the kids on their Torah knowledge, awarding prizes. My father, who was thirteen at the time, used this opportunity to ask the Rebbe if he could come to America. A year later this was arranged and he came to Crown Heights and enrolled in the central Chabad yeshivah there.
In 1954, his relationship with the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin began. That year, the Rebbetzin had gone to Europe for a few weeks and, during her absence, the Rebbe’s meals were prepared by a local cook. My father was selected to pick up the food and serve it to the Rebbe. And then, after the Rebbetzin returned, he continued to help out. For about four years, he filled the role of their handyman – helping them prepare for Passover and Sukkot – and this is how their house became his home away from home, so to speak.
Since he had lost his father during the war and his mother lived far away in Europe, the Rebbetzin looked after him. When he started dating, she told him, “It’s not appropriate that you should go on every date in the same suit,” and she gave him one of the Rebbe’s old suits to wear, so that he would have another. (The Rebbe then was no longer wearing a suit but a kapote – the black rabbinical coat – so this must have been one that he no longer needed.)
After he got married, the Rebbetzin gave my father a set of silver cutlery as a present. Even when he moved with my mother to Belgium, she stayed in touch with him and once, upon hearing that he was sick, she asked someone in London to send special medicine to him. That’s how she took care of him.
Stop Competing and Start Serving
Mon, Feb 10, 2020
When I was fourteen years old, I got carried away with the celebration of Purim and, in that state, I decided to write to the Rebbe. I opened up about everything that was going on with me – all the things that I did which were not so good, all the temptations I faced, and all the egotistical concerns that disturbed me. Among the latter, I mentioned my worry that I was too far behind in my studies to ever amount to anything.
To underscore my failings, I noted that the Alter Rebbe had written his own version of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, before he was twenty; Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller, had written his classic, Shav Shmaytsa, at eighteen; and Rabbi Meshulam Igra – at age nine! – gave a speech which amazed the Torah scholars of Brody. Compared to them, I was getting nowhere, so why should I even continue to learn?
In his response, dated the 17th of Adar, 1958, the Rebbe wrote that the solutions to my problems could be found in the Tanya, the main work of Chabad philosophy which is a handbook for living a spiritual life. “Certainly, you have a Tanya…” he wrote, “and presumably, you have a Tanya with an index, which will make the search easier.”
“As for your question regarding what is recounted in writing and orally about those who were geniuses in their younger years…” the Rebbe wrote, “what is the use of asking why all minds are not the same?”
“It is explained in the Tanya,” he continued, “that a person’s grasp of Torah is dependent on the ‘his ability to understand and the source of his soul on high.’” He went on citing the Tanya, adding, “The Mishnah states that ‘you should feel humble before all people,’ because each has an advantage over another [in some respect].”
He made the observation that he found my attitude strange, since it is the purpose of every person not to try to be greater than someone else but to serve G-d. “If G-d wants one person to be great in the mitzvah of charity and another to be great in Torah study,” then that’s what must be. We all need to fulfill G-d’s intention for which we were created, he stressed. But regardless of our abilities, we are obligated in all the mitzvot, and in particular, we are obligated to study Torah.
The Man Who Knew How to Ask
Mon, Feb 03, 2020
My story begins with my grandfather – Rabbi Avraham Sender Nemtzov – in Russia.
In 1897, after spending six years as a conscript in the Czar’s army – during which he managed to keep Torah and eat only kosher – he arrived in the town of Lubavitch, where the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, was in the process of opening his new yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim.
At first, my grandfather was rejected by the yeshivah’s administrator, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the seventeen-year-old son of the Rebbe Rashab. The reason was that my grandfather was by then a married man of twenty-seven, whereas most of the other students were teenagers.
But my grandfather insisted on making his case to the Rebbe Rashab himself. He argued that he could have gone to another, more-established and better-known yeshivah where he would have received a stipend. Instead, he was coming to a brand new yeshivah, with no reputation, and he was doing so because he had come from chasidic roots and wanted his descendants to be chasidim. He told the Rebbe Rashab: “Don’t let me in just for myself, but for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and all the generations to come.” And because of that, he was allowed in.
The Rebbe Rashab’s decision had a direct effect on all our lives – on my father, on myself, and on my children. We are all Lubavitchers and committed to spreading chasidic teachings wherever we find ourselves.
My grandfather spent several years studying at Tomchei Temimim, where he became friendly with the administrator who had initially rejected him, the Rebbe Rashab’s son, who would later succeed his father as the sixth Rebbe and become known as the Rebbe Rayatz.
Even after my grandfather left the yeshivah to become a kosher butcher (shochet) and immigrated to Manchester, England, he maintained regular contact with the Rebbe Rayatz via correspondence. They saw each other only once – in 1937, when the Rebbe Rayatz visited Paris and my grandfather went there to meet him. At that meeting, the Rebbe Rayatz famously told him, “Du hust gezucht der emes, du hust gefunen der emes un du lebst mit der emes – You searched for truth, you found truth and you live with truth.”
Overt Blessings for Covert Operatives
Wed, Jan 22, 2020
After I was appointed as the head of Shin Bet, also known as Shabak – Israel’s internal secret service agency – I was sent to the United States as part of the extensive intelligence cooperation effort between our two countries. This was in 1988 and, at that time, the identities of the heads of the security services like Shabak, Mossad and Aman were never disclosed to the public. Therefore, I was very surprised when a delegation of young Chabad chasidim showed up and told me that the Rebbe wanted to see me.
In my eyes, the Rebbe was one of the most important people in the Jewish world, whether religious or secular, and therefore I said it would be my honor – indeed I would be happy and excited – to meet the Rebbe if my schedule permitted. Unfortunately, it proved impossible, but I promised that I would schedule a meeting with him on my next visit to the United States.
The following year the meeting did take place, and I will never forget my first impression of the Rebbe – his shining face and his intense eyes which seemed to be penetrating the innermost depth of me. I also remember that the atmosphere was very pleasant, relaxed and welcoming.
The Rebbe opened with some questions about my personal background. At that time Yitzchak Shamir was prime minister, heading a right-wing government, and the Rebbe asked gently if my more left-wing background presented problems for me. I understood that the Rebbe’s question was a very fundamental one, albeit worded very diplomatically; in effect, he was asking: “Are politics influencing your agency?” I assured the Rebbe that my agency was completely apolitical, with Jews holding different world views serving alongside each other with great professionalism and with total focus on their mission.
Another interesting question that the Rebbe asked me touched upon the great aliyah of over a million Jews from the Soviet republics. He wanted to know if we had a problem with spies who might be infiltrating Israel disguised as new immigrants. He was also interested in our collaborations with foreign intelligence agencies, especially those of the United States, and asked if we were finding a receptive ear among our colleagues and if they understood Israel’s unique security issues.
Straight to the Top
Tue, Jan 14, 2020
I would like to share the story of the Rebbe’s blessing that resulted in my uncle – my mother’s brother – being freed from the Soviet Union.
My mother’s entire family had perished in the Holocaust, with the exception of her older brother, Hershel (Grisha). He had joined the Jewish underground, but had been caught and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Ironically, this horrible sentence actually saved his life, while his wife and daughter were killed by the Nazis.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Hershel was released from prison. He remarried and moved to Rostov, where he earned a meager livelihood as a carpenter. As soon as my mother learned of his whereabouts, she began sending him parcels of items that were hard to come by during the Soviet era.
My mother’s one fervent wish was to be reunited with her brother, the sole survivor of her family. She resolved to do all that she could to help obtain visas for him and his family to enter Canada. However, all her efforts were to no avail. The chief problem was that, at the time, emigration from Russia was severely restricted by the Soviet authorities. It was almost impossible for anyone to leave, let alone a Jew who had been previously imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary activities.” The Iron Curtain was firmly shut, and Hershel was trapped behind it.
It broke my mother’s heart that her dear brother was so far away, in a place where there was little opportunity for him to live a proper Jewish life or to educate his children to live proudly and openly as Jews.
Feeling her pain, I resolved to get a blessing from the Rebbe for my uncle’s release. During a personal audience in 1970, I mustered the courage to do something that was out of character for a chasid: I asked the Rebbe to give his assurance – in addition to a blessing – that my uncle would leave Russia. At first, the Rebbe didn’t respond to my request and spoke to me about other matters. But I persisted and asked a second time, again getting no answer.
For my mother’s sake, I posed my request for a third time. This time, the Rebbe responded. He looked at me, his eyes penetrating mine, and said: “They will leave. But you cannot disclose this to anyone.”
Falling Back to Move Ahead
Fri, Jan 10, 2020
Before I was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces during the Korean War, I came to see the Rebbe. He was very young then, having just taken over the leadership of Chabad, and it wasn’t too difficult to get an audience with him.
I told him that, in the atmosphere of the army, I would be spiritually far away from Torah, and I was worried about that.
So the Rebbe said to me, “Sometimes in life you have to go back, so that you can go forward in the future.” But I was nervous being in the presence of the Rebbe, and I couldn’t really understand what he was trying to tell me.
Seeing the look of confusion on my face, he then got up from his seat, came around his desk and stood in front of a chair that was next to me. “Look,” he said, “if I want to jump over this chair, I can’t, because I’m right in front of it. But if I back up a bit and then run forward, I can jump over the chair with not much difficulty.”
He continued, reinforcing his point: “Sometimes in life, you have to go back to go further forward, and to reach higher spiritually.”
He then spoke about the good I could accomplish while in the army, where I would be in a position to influence other Jewish soldiers and bring them closer to Torah.
Ultimately, I was never sent to Korea, but to Europe. In the meanwhile, I was stationed at Fort Pickett, Virginia. And while there, I began a correspondence with the Rebbe.
I initially wrote to him for encouragement and in response – along with a letter dated the 2nd of Adar I, 5711, or February 8, 1951 – received from him the tract by the Previous Rebbe addressed to soldiers: Courage and Safety through Faith and Trust in God.
“Read it and you will feel encouraged and optimistic,” the Rebbe wrote. “As to the question of what one can accomplish, etc., perhaps you know that my father-in-law [the Previous Rebbe] said, quoting the Baal Shem Tov, that sometimes the whole purpose of a soul coming down on this earth and living 70-80 years is to do a fellow Jew a favor, either materially or spiritually. This goes to show how important is a good deed. You in the army certainly have many opportunities to do your co-religionists many good deeds, materially or spiritually. This ought to make you feel very happy.”
Searching for a Motive
Thu, Jan 02, 2020
I was educated at the Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, where I received my rabbinic ordination. After I married and started a family, I accepted a job as the spiritual leader of the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Connecticut.
Every year, Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, a fundraiser for the Lubavitch yeshivah would come to Norwich collecting money, and on one occasion I asked him a question which was bothering me at the time. It was concerning the opinion of the Shach (a prominent 17th century commentator) regarding the Laws of Oaths, and when I explained my question, he responded that for a matter of such complexity, I needed to write to the Rebbe.
Initially, I was reluctant to write. To begin with, I was not a Lubavitcher, and I thought that the Rebbe must get letters from all over the world, so would he have the time to answer me?
But, back then – this was in the early 1950s – a stamp cost three or four cents, and I had nothing to lose. Worst thing that could happen, I would not get an answer. And, in fact, the Rebbe never wrote back.
Subsequently, I left the rabbinate and went into the world of finance. A few years passed, and then a friend of mine, a Russian Jew who had immigrated to Israel, came for a visit to New York and said he’d like to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He got an appointment for the middle of the night – 1 a.m. or thereabouts – and we went together.
When we entered, the Rebbe stood up to greet us, and I introduced myself as the former rabbi of a congregation in Norwich. His reaction surprised me: “I know who you are. Didn’t you once write to me?” he asked.
And then he proceeded to answer in great detail the question which I had asked him years earlier. I no longer remember exactly what he said, but I do recall that he drew on the writings of the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Chabad Rebbe) to address the question I had raised.
Wed, Dec 25, 2019
When I started leaning in the direction of Lubavitch, my father opposed me changing my religious customs, including which prayer book I would follow, and I arranged my first private audience with the Rebbe to ask him what to do. This was in 1970, when I was eighteen years old. I explained that I was a descendent of great chasidic rabbis of Poland and had always prayed in their style (known as nusach Sephard) but I wanted to start to pray according to the Lubavitch custom (known as nusach Ari).
There are some Lubavitchers in our family tree and, living in Crown Heights, we always had a close relationship with Lubavitch, but my father clung fiercely to the customs he learned in childhood as a Radomsker chasid and he did not want me to change my ways.
The Rebbe’s response proved very wise in that it prevented discord in the home: “Since your family’s customs are also based on the teachings of the Ari’zal [the great 16th century Kabbalist], it’s advisable that you continue to keep them and that you pray according to nusach Sephard.”
So this is what I did for several years until my father accepted that I was a Lubavitcher through and through, and eventually he was quite happy about it. At that point, the Rebbe advised me to switch to Chabad customs.
Fast forward to the time that I married Judith Sternbuch, a Jewish girl from Switzerland and, having started a family, needed to make a living. Due to the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s, the American economy came to a grinding halt and the job market was scarce. I had just obtained a college degree in computer science and my father-in-law urged my wife and me to come to Switzerland where the recession hadn’t hit yet and where he had lined up job interviews for me. I wrote to the Rebbe asking his opinion, and he answered, “Since you have many prospects, it will certainly work out.” I took his word as a promise and I went to Switzerland for the interviews.
In those days in Switzerland, a religious Jew couldn’t wear a yarmulke at work – is was not considered acceptable to wear a religious symbol at the office. But how can a chasid not wear a yarmulke? So I didn’t take it off, and I actually got the job – at the 3M Company – because of it, as the person who interviewed me owed a debt of gratitude to a Torah observant Jew. Later, my wearing a yarmulke on the job proved very important in how I was able to fulfill my assignment as the Rebbe’s emissary in the hi-tech world.