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!
Machine vs. Mystic
Wed, Sep 02, 2015
Although I am a dentist, I have a good singing voice and I dabble in cantorial music. In 1981, I was asked to sing for a Conservative synagogue, which held its High Holiday services at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City, north of Los Angeles. The hall was full – probably 1,500 people were there – and I had a solo to sing, the prayer Unesaneh Tokef. One bar before the solo, a massive headache struck me and I fell to the ground – they had to carry me off the bimah in the middle of Rosh Hashanah.
I was taken to a room where I could lie down and rest for a while. But two hours later, the headache had not gone away, its intensity was unchanged, and it was clear this was not a good thing.
At that point, I was taken to the hospital, where they took X-rays of my skull and neck, and came back with the diagnosis, “You have a tumor
in the pituitary gland. It’s destroying the bone, and the pressure is causing the headache.”
At that point a neurologist was called in who ordered a tomograph, in order to get a better picture of the bone destruction. After he got the results, he said, “There is no tumor. There is no destruction of the bone.”
Relieved, I thought, “That’s good – I’m going home!”
But he said, “Since we do not have a cause for your headache, we need to do further tests.” He ordered a CAT-scan.
The CAT-scan revealed that behind my right eye, in the middle of the grey matter, I had an aneurysm – a blood vessel that had blown up like a balloon – and it was about ready to burst. If it burst, death would be instant.
When my wife heard that, she became hysterical. She was pregnant with our third child and the idea of being alone with three young kids without a husband scared her witless.
Wed, Aug 26, 2015
My husband, Rabbi Samuel (Shmuel) Schrage, was a community activist in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s.
He became involved because yeshiva boys in Crown Heights were being beaten up by gangs coming in from Bedford Stuyvesant, and a Jewish woman was attacked by a knife-wielding man in her own home. My husband went to ask for police protection from the Mayor, who said there was not enough police to go around. And that is when my husband started the Maccabees, a neighborhood patrol group, which became quite famous and which was written up in The New York Times.
The Maccabees, most of them chasidic Jews, rode around Crown Heights six to a car, equipped with nothing more than radios and large flashlights. If they saw an incident, they alerted the police and aided the victim until the authorities came.
Still, my husband received a lot of criticism at the time. Mainly this was because the idea of neighborhood watchmen was so original, and some people didn’t understand it – they thought the volunteers were vigilantes who took the law into their own hands. A lot of this criticism came from local Jews.
So my husband went to the Rebbe. He said, “I can take the criticism from the outside but I can’t take the criticism from my own people. That really hurts. I would like to disband the Maccabees.”
The Rebbe said to him, “Don’t disband – make it stronger!”
My husband followed the Rebbe’s advice, and eventually he became the head of New York City’s Neighborhood Action Program. He also got involved in politics. Mayor John Lindsay appointed him to the New York City Youth Board, and Mayor Abraham Beame retained him in that position.
Whether in politics or his personal life, Shmuel did nothing without a blessing from the Rebbe. When I had my first baby – which was a complicated pregnancy and I feared for my life – Shmuel went to the Rebbe and asked for a blessing that everything should go well. Thank G-d, it did. But in the excitement, Shmuel forgot to call the Rebbe to tell him that our son was born and everything was fine. So the Rebbe had his secretary call and ask if I was okay.
“Don’t be ashamed of who you are”
Wed, Aug 19, 2015
In 1973, when Abraham Beame was elected mayor of New York, he appointed me as City Commissioner of the Addictive Service Agency. I thus became the first Orthodox Jew to head up a major city agency, which was responsible for developing a network of prevention programs to keep young people from getting involved with drugs, as well as for setting up a network of treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction.
Shortly after my appointment, I had an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I had met the Rebbe before and attended many of his farbrengens but, on this occasion, I came to talk to him one-on-one about my role as a City Commissioner and as a Jewish public servant – about what people expected of me and what I should do.
The Rebbe was very forceful about one responsibility that I had – to make sure that I take care of the Jewish people. I said to him, “But my agency is involved with people addicted to drugs – to heroin, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol. That’s not a Jewish problem.”
The Rebbe contradicted me. “Yes, it is. There are many Jewish people who have problems with addiction, and you should make sure you take care of the Jewish people first.”
I repeated, “But really, it’s more of a non-Jewish problem.”
He said, “It’s a Jewish problem also. And you have to make your people your priority. If you express Avahas Yisrael, if you demonstrate your love for the Jewish people, the non-Jews will respect you more. They will see that you are not ashamed of who you are.”
He spoke about this at length. He said that, of course, I had a responsibility of taking care of all people, and I had to make sure that public services were dispensed to Jews and non-Jews alike. But he stressed that, within the framework of taking care of all people, I should not be ashamed of helping the Jewish people. Jews involved in the government often bend over backwards not to do anything for their fellow Jews, erroneously thinking this makes them appear unbiased. There have even been instances throughout history where Jews in positions of power, instead of helping their fellow Jews, actually harmed their fellow Jews. So the Rebbe stressed that I should avoid anything like that. Of course, I should help everybody. But I shouldn’t leave out the Jews, and I shouldn’t do anything that would be harmful to the Jews.
A Special Visit
Mon, Aug 10, 2015
I grew up in Brooklyn, in a Modern Orthodox family – though the term did not exist in those days. We were Torah observant, and I got a religious education from grade school through high school.
During that time, my parents operated a grocery on Albany Avenue near Lefferts Avenue, and they counted among their customers the Gourary family. When I was a teenager, Rebbetzin Chava Gourary suggested – seeing as I was hanging out in the streets during the summer vacation – that I take a job as a waiter in Camp Gan Israel, which was the Lubavitcher kids’ camp.
This I did. It was in the late 1950s I think, or maybe the early 1960s. My job, as one of twenty or twenty-five waiters, was to set up the tables and serve the food.
All the waiters lived under the dining room, where there was one huge room set up with bunk-beds for us. Now imagine what that room looked like after a couple of days. To be polite, we weren’t the neatest human beings in the world. Although the camp authorities did come down once in a while and try to make us clean up, the place was a real mess.
Then, all of a sudden – it was in July or August – word came down the grapevine that the Rebbe was coming to visit the camp. Now, with all due respect, at that point I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded to me like someone important was coming to inspect the operation.
All of a sudden, painters showed up, and cleaners showed up, and handymen showed up – everyone was very busy fixing up the camp in advance of the Rebbe’s visit.
I remember someone coming down and banging nails into the wall of the waiters’ room, so that we could hang up our Shabbos suits and our Shabbos shirts because, until then, they were either on the floor or in our suitcases. And I must say, the waiters’ bunk really shaped up rather nicely.
The big day arrived. When the Rebbe came through, we were all standing by our beds, kind of like at attention, while he conducted his inspection. He looked around, and I heard him say, “Why don’t these boys have closets?”
And this part amazes me to this day – that he cared about closets for the waiters!
Wed, Aug 05, 2015
I grew up in Montreal, where I attended the Chabad yeshiva, which had been started by nine of the Previous Rebbe’s emissaries who had escaped war-torn Europe to Shanghai. From there, they made their way to Montreal and started a yeshiva with about two dozen boys, of whom I was one.
In 1941, the war was still raging, and my teachers wanted very much to see the Rebbe in New York and get a blessing from him. The first one to get a passport was Rabbi Menachem Zeev Greenglass, and he agreed to take a few others with him on the trip, which took place at the end of Passover week. My two uncles went and I went.
That is how I met the Previous Rebbe and also his son-in-law, the future Rebbe. I’ll never forget the experience as long as I live, for when the Rebbe spoke I felt that I could see the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, on his face. That is a very special memory from my youth.
After I left yeshiva, I went into business, but I remained close to my yeshiva teachers, especially Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kramer. He was the person I consulted in times of trouble such as when my wife had a hard time conceiving, and we discovered that the problem was with me.
The cause was what happened when I was perhaps nineteen or twenty years old. At that time, I started losing my hair. As male pattern baldness was common in my family, my sisters started to fret, “You’re going lose all your hair … you’re going be bald.”
One of them found a doctor in Montreal who was dispensing drops which worked miracles, and I got a prescription for this medicine. I was living in Val-D’Or at the time, which is around 350 miles from Montreal, so I didn’t go for periodic check-ups like I was supposed to. Instead, I just kept renewing the prescription again and again. It did, in fact, work miracles, because my hair stopped falling out. Unbeknownst to me, there were hormones in that medicine which affected my whole system, and this was the reason my wife could not get pregnant.
When Rabbi Kramer heard my tale of woe, he said to me, “You must go down to New York and get a blessing from the Rebbe.”
So this we did. Rabbi Kramer arranged an audience for us, and we explained the problem to the Rebbe.
“A Smile That Lit Up The World”
Wed, Jul 29, 2015
In 1973, I was offered a job to establish and direct a Jewish day camp in Flatbush, New York. It was a significant project enrolling about 75 to 100 children at the start. But my wife and I threw ourselves into the job so wholeheartedly that, when the camp opened, we had more than 200 children.
That summer – which was not long before the Yom Kippur War – the Rebbe was speaking at every opportunity about the obligation of each Jew to see to it that every Jewish child get a Jewish education, and he also spoke in favor of day camps for all Jewish children.
Although the organization that had hired me was not a Chabad organization, since I was Lubavitch, I naturally wanted to fulfill the Rebbe’s instructions. So I met with the board of directors and asked them to expand the camp to children who could not afford the tuition. The board agreed.
I dedicated one full bus for non-paying children, and I wrote to the Rebbe that this is what I did. The Rebbe responded with a blessing that the camp should be a great success.
In the middle of the summer, I received an invitation from the Rebbe to bring my children to the next children’s rally at the Rebbe’s synagogue. The Rebbe himself would be attending the gathering. Although it was primarily Lubavitch children from the neighborhood who took part, the Rebbe singled my camp out for inclusion. I felt this was a great honor.
We collected the children and we came to 770 Eastern Parkway. When the afternoon prayers were finished, the Rebbe announced, “Leizer Laine and his camp should come up to receive coins to give out to charity.”
We walked up with the camp in two groups – boys and girls – and the Rebbe gave each child a coin.
Now some of the counsellors had just come from an outing and they were not dressed properly for a synagogue and they were embarrassed to go up to the Rebbe in shorts and flip-flops. They felt that would not be respectful.
After the Rebbe distributed the coins to the children, he turned to me and asked, “Did everybody in your camp get money for charity?”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t say yes because I knew that some of the counsellors did not come up. So I didn’t say anything. I just stood there and looked at the Rebbe.
Deeper than Psychoanalysis
Wed, Jul 22, 2015
I grew in Georgia, Soviet Union, where my father served as a rabbi. He had gone there on the advice of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose directions he always followed.
From my earliest years I remember my father speaking about the Previous Rebbe. It was as if the Rebbe was part of the family. He was our Zeide, our grandfather. My father taught me that, when something disturbing happens and you need advice, you write a letter to Zeide.
In 1941, when the Soviet Union entered World War Two, my father was arrested and charged with “engaging in an occupation that was not healthy for society,” meaning being a rabbi. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because otherwise he would have been drafted into the army. Likely, he would have been killed since the Red Army used people like him as cannon-fodder.
While my father was in prison, I reached Bar Mitzvah age, but there was no celebration because my mother was afraid that I might be arrested too. As my Bar Mitzvah present I got to visit my father in prison. He said to me: “Listen my son, you have to learn Torah. You have to learn Jewish law. You have to learn what to do because you don’t know what will come – here in prison I have to know Jewish law well, so that when I’m forced to do certain things on Shabbos, I do them in a way that doesn’t violate Torah. So you must learn well.”
After this I enrolled in Tomchei Temimim, the Chabad yeshiva, in Kutaisi. I stayed there until my father was released from prison in a general amnesty following the end of World War Two, and we left for Europe. Again, this was on the advice of the Previous Rebbe.
My father eventually accepted a position as a rabbi in Sweden, while I came to study at the Chabad yeshiva in New York. But after a few years in Sweden – this is in 1950 when the Korean War started – my father became frightened that the Cold War between the Soviets and the Americans would cause another world wide conflict. He decided that it would be prudent to leave Europe and migrate to Canada. He wrote about this to the Previous Rebbe, but, in the meanwhile, the Previous Rebbe passed away. Sometime after that, I received instructions from my father to direct his question to the future Rebbe who, at that time, had not yet formally accepted leadership of the movement.
A Lubavitcher Chasid
Wed, Jul 15, 2015
My name is Herbert (Chaim Zev) Bomzer. I was ordained a rabbi by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and also by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, where I obtained a doctorate in Jewish Education. For forty years, until my retirement in 1995, I served as the rabbi of Young Israel of Ocean Parkway and as professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University. I mention this because my education and career path have been decidedly Modern Orthodox, yet I call myself a Lubavitcher chasid. And I’d like to tell the story of how that came about.
It all began about thirty-five years ago when I befriended Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who worked for Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, under the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Around this time my oldest daughter Etty was going through a rough time. She had gotten married to a wonderful young man, a Kohen, a real scholar, and was trying to have a family. But each time she got pregnant she would miscarry. It happened once, twice, three times. Each time – heartbreak.
And then she got pregnant for the fourth time – this was in 1983 – and we were all holding our breath. I confided my concerns to Rabbi Kotlarsky. “My daughter is two months pregnant and having a very hard time,” I told him.
“Why don’t you write a letter to the Rebbe?” he asked.
I said, “Moshe, I’ve never done a thing like that … I don’t even know the formalities of how to write a letter to the Rebbe.” I mean writing “To our holy Rebbe” was just not part of my vocabulary. But he promised to help me, so I agreed to do it. After all, what wouldn’t I do for my daughter?
I wrote the letter which was delivered to the Rebbe’s office. Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, said that it would take two to three days to get an answer. But just one hour later, the answer came back! The Rebbe said, “She should remain in bed for the next seven months, and she will have a living child.”
It so happened that when I got the answer my daughter was staying in our house. She lived in New Jersey but she had come into Brooklyn for an appointment with a doctor that was scheduled for the next morning. This doctor, a Filipino woman at Caledonian Hospital here, was supposed to be the expert in these matters.
Tue, Jul 07, 2015
I first met the Rebbe in 1975, together with Rabbi Abraham Hecht from my congregation, the Congregation Shaare Zion. Although Shaare Zion is a Sephardic congregation, at the time, we had as our leader an Ashkenazi rabbi who was a follower of the Rebbe.
This did not matter to us because Rabbi Hecht was brilliant and great, and actually was also one of my closest friends. He often consulted with the Rebbe and, on one occasion, I asked him to please take me with him the next time he went to Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights.
He did better than that – he arranged a private audience for me and my family. I went with my mother and my wife and with our children. And it was a fascinating experience.
It was 1975, and I was in the record business at the time. When I mentioned this to the Rebbe, he said to me, “There’s something very important that I want to ask you to do for your community. I want you make a recording of the best cantor you can find singing your High Holiday liturgy. It is important that the children of your community understand how their grandparents and their parents prayed.”
I did as he asked. When the recording came out, my community was thrilled, because some of the people had never heard the chants sang in the correct manner.
Since the Sephardic community stretches around the world, we made audio cassettes – at that time there were no CDs – and we provided them for free to as many Sephardic synagogues around the world that we could. And the recordings continue to be in use until today – the cantors listen to them to learn the proper way to chant our prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
So the Rebbe’s advice resulted in a resounding success. This happened thanks to the Rebbe’s interest and respect for the Sephardic community – he was concerned about Jews everywhere – and thanks to our Rabbi Hecht, who followed his directives.
All the while, the Rebbe was very sensitive to the issues involved. He would always try to offer his guidance without appearing to interfere, because he certainly didn’t want members of the Sephardic community thinking that Rabbi Hecht was following the dictates of a chasidic Rebbe. He knew that his intentions could be misunderstood or might even generate antagonism.
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.”