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: The Tefillin Campaign
Wed, Apr 22, 2015
My name is Chaim Jacobs. I was born in England and brought up in a traditional family in the Stamford Hill neighborhood of London. We lived on Cranwich Road, which just happened to be the Lubavitch Street in London. The Rebbe’s emissary, Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, lived on that street, and at 89 Cranwich Road, there was a Lubavitch Hebrew school. From the age of 5, I attended evening and Sunday classes there. This is how I and my whole family became involved with Chabad Lubavitch.
Later, I learned in the yeshiva at the Chabad Headquarters in New York, where I had the privilege of watching the Rebbe in action up close.
While I was in yeshiva, on the Shabbos before the start of the month of Sivan – which fell on June 3, 1967 – the Rebbe spoke about the situation in Israel. At this time, there was a tremendous crisis in the Middle East, because a few weeks earlier, President Nasser of Egypt had evicted the United Nations’ peacekeeping force and blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. Israeli ships could not come in and out of Eilat, and the crisis was becoming more and more serious every day. Quoting the Talmud, the Rebbe said that the verse, “The nations of the world see that the name of G-d is upon you, and they will fear you” refers to tefillin, and that this must be publicized to the Israel soldiers.
The next day, on Sunday, the Rebbe fasted, and on Monday – June 5th – the Six Day War began. I remember how excited everyone was to hear that, on the first day of the war, Israel had destroyed the entire Arab Air Force – military planes of Egypt, Syria and Jordan were out of commission; they never even got a chance to take off.
On the second day of the war, following the Rebbe’s directive, I and several other yeshiva students went out to ask non-religious Jewish businessmen to put on tefillin. We visited shops in the area of Kingston Avenue, Empire Boulevard and Utica Avenue, saying to every person we met, “Let’s help Israel to victory.” There wasn’t one man that morning who refused to put on tefillin. Everyone was so inspired by the victory that Israel was achieving.
HMS: On the Mark
Wed, Apr 15, 2015
At the outset I would like to say that I am not a chasid. My family came from Lithuania, so my background is Litvish and Misnagdish – meaning that my forebearers were opposed to chasidic ways. My mother came from Kovno, Lithuania, and my father came from Lomza, Poland, but he studied in the famed Slobodka Yeshiva, which was located before the war in the suburb of Kovno. And that’s where he met my mother.
My father came to the United States during World War One, in 1916, and eventually he brought over my mother and my three older siblings. He was offered a position as a rabbi in Canton, Ohio, and later became a rabbi in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he stayed until he retired and made Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.
Growing up in small towns like Canton and Bridgeport was a challenge. Obviously, we were a minority among minorities because very few of the Jewish people living there were Torah observant and, certainly, the vast majority of the people in the community were not Jewish.
I went to public school, populated mostly by Italian and Irish kids, and I had to cope as best as I could with trying to find friends. I managed to have some Jewish friends and to forge an uneasy kind of a friendship with my non-Jewish schoolmates.
In 1938, I enrolled in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, which I attended for the next six years. I was ordained a rabbi and I started working first as a teacher in a Jewish day school and then as a rabbi – first in Hartford, Connecticut, then in Saratoga Springs, New York, and then in Far Rockaway, New York, where I have been for the past 60 years.
As a rabbi, I became involved with Iggud HaRabbonim, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, which should not be confused with the Rabbinical Council of America. The Iggud HaRabbanim is a much more conservative organization and has taken much more conservative positions on Jewish issues, such as Mi Hu Yehudi – who is a Jew according to Jewish law. This issue was of great importance to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and it was in this context that I came to meet him in the late 1950s. It proved a very special encounter.
HMS: My audience 43 years ago
Wed, Apr 08, 2015
I’d like to describe my audience with the Rebbe back in May of 1971. But first I want to say a word about my background.
My parents were both Jewish refugees who fled Germany in 1939. They came over on the proverbial last train and made it to England. They were married in 1945, and established a Reform Jewish home.
I was born in London and, in the late 1960s, I attended Manchester University where I was introduced to Hillel House, which was my first experience with the Torah observant lifestyle. After university, work took me 20 miles outside of London to Surrey, where I was introduced to Jewish mysticism. I was really quite excited about it. I felt there was something really deep and meaningful behind all of this. My quest to know more brought me in contact with the Chabad-Lubavitch UK organization.
Before long, I was invited for Shabbos at the local Chabad House. I really enjoyed the free-wheeling atmosphere of the place, and I felt this was the form of Jewish observance that fitted me best. I went back again and again for Shabbos after Shabbos. And, in May of 1971, I joined a group of very excited Lubavitchers traveling to New York to meet the Rebbe.
I remember that we all assembled in the hallway of Chabad Headquarters at about midnight and we waited. While we waited, we recited Psalms. Eventually, my turn came – I believe it was at 4:30 a.m. So, it was quite a long wait.
I had my question written out on a piece of paper – something about Kabbalah – and when I was finally ushered into the Rebbe’s office, I handed it to him. The Rebbe answered my question and spoke to me for 40 minutes. Then I left.
HMS: Like a loving grandfather
Tue, Mar 31, 2015
My name is Tziporah Edelkopf. I was born in 1959, in Kharkov, Ukraine, which was then in the Soviet Union. My mother came from a Chabad-Lubavitch home, but my father did not, and we were not connected to Chabad during my childhood. However, we were Torah observant, and we kept all the Torah commandments as best we could.
Because it was so hard to keep kosher, we rarely ate meat. Once a week, on a Sunday, my parents would go to the market and buy one live chicken. We’d then take it to the kosher butcher and have it slaughtered in the proper way.
My father used to bake his own matzah for Passover, and we used to give it out to the few Jews that we knew. Keeping Shabbos was also a big issue. Either I would not go to school on Saturday, or I would go with my hand wrapped in a bandage and tell the teacher I was injured so I wouldn’t have to write and violate Shabbos. Of course, the teachers knew why I was doing this.
In order to immerse in a mikvah, as a Jewish woman must once a month, my mother had to travel to Kiev. In the summer, she could immerse in the local river, but in the winter, when the temperatures were minus 25 degrees Celsius, immersing in the river, which was completely iced-over was impossible. Then, she’d have to take the train to Kiev – which was 850 kilometers from our town – just to use the kosher mikvah.
In Kiev, there was one family that had a mikvah. The water in it was black, because it was never changed, and this water, too, froze over. But when my mother came, they would light up a little kerosene stove to melt the ice. She’d do this once a month on a Sunday, and then she’d run to catch the train home, because she had to be back by Monday morning for work. If she didn’t show up, we all ran the risk of being sent to Siberia.
HMS: “Go ahead with the procedure”
Wed, Mar 25, 2015
My family’s association with Chabad-Lubavitch goes back to my grandfather Rabbi Moshe Kowalsky, who, when he was a boy growing up in Warsaw, became enamored with the Chabad way. And he decided to run away from home and travel all the way from Poland to Russia, to learn at the Chabad yeshiva in Lubavitch.
His father, that is my great-grandfather, was a fierce Kotzker chasid, and he would have none of it. He went after his son to bring him back.
When my great-grandfather arrived in Lubavitch, he was invited to spend Shabbos with the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, and he consented. After that Shabbos – instead of demanding that his son return immediately home to Warsaw – he declared, “I was so impressed by the spirituality I experienced over Shabbos that I consent to have my son stay here.” So my grandfather got to study with Chabad, and he received rabbinic ordination from Chabad, and he became a very big Lubavitcher chasid.
In later years, when he was living in New York, my grandfather had an apartment in the same building as the Rebbe and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, and he even purchased a gravesite within four cubits of the gravesite of the Previous Rebbe, which is of course where the Rebbe is now buried as well.
I visited my grandfather often and my earliest memory – from the time I was about eight years old – is the Rosh Hashanah Tashlich ceremony at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The Rebbe would come marching down the street with all of his chasidim following behind him, in formation. It looked almost like a military parade.
HMS: Deeply involved in all the details
Wed, Mar 18, 2015
Deeply involved in all the details
I was born in a small town – McKeesport, Pennsylvania – in the 1930s, where I was the only Jew in my class at school, the only Jew on the block, even though our family was very religious.
My mother and father were both quite active in the Jewish community. My father taught an early morning class in the Talmud at the nearby synagogue, and afterwards he would go off to work, selling dry goods door to door. He did this because in those years – the 1930s and 1940s – that was the only way of making a living and not having to work on Shabbos.
I would sum up my home life as very vital and very beautiful religiously, but I would have to say that, as a family, we felt very isolated. And I remember my mother crying when she lit Shabbos candles and praying that all her children remain Jewish. I didn’t understand why my mother cried about that, but she was clearly aware that our environment was a breeding ground for assimilation.
In 1941, when I was ten years old, my parents brought home for Shabbos two emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – that is, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak. From that point onward, our lives changed quite dramatically, as my parents became involved in Jewish outreach.
My father started visiting the Previous Rebbe in New York quite often and he took me along to experience a Chabad farbrengen. I remember that a lot of people were crowded in the room and I couldn’t see a thing. But then Shmuel Isaac Popack – and I will be indebted to him for the rest of my life – saw little me trying to stand on my tippy-toes, and he swung me up so I could catch a glimpse of the Rebbe.
HMS: “It should be better and better”
Wed, Mar 11, 2015
I was born in Israel, but when I was six years old my parents immigrated to the United States and initially settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. At this time we were not associated with Chabad, but my father would occasionally pray at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Chabad Headquarters. And my first encounter with the Rebbe happened then – in 1951 – when he first took over the leadership of Lubavitch.
I had come with my father, and I recall that the synagogue was packed. I felt a little lost, and I was looking around for a prayer book, a siddur, but could not find one. Then I saw a siddur perched on the table where the Rebbe sat. The Rebbe motioned for me to sit next to him and pray from hissiddur together with him. So I did. The chasidim didn’t like that and they started motioning to me to move away. The Rebbe looked up and said, “Vos vilt ir fun im, es davent zich zeir gut mit im!” Which means, “What do want from him? My prayers are going very well with him!”
I had many more encounters after that, some of which were quite special.
During one audience with the Rebbe in 1973 – after I was married already and had three children – I mentioned to the Rebbe that my oldest daughter would turn five on the 11th of Nissan, which happened also to be the Rebbe’s birthday. And I asked the Rebbe, “Since there is a custom among the chasidim to take on an additional mitzvah or a mitzvah upgrade on each birthday, I’d like to know if there is something I can do in conjunction with my daughter’s birthday?”
The Rebbe smiled and said, “Had you not asked me, I wouldn’t have told you, but since you did ask, I will suggest that your daughter start lighting Shabbos candles.”
HMS: Shalom Aleichem
Wed, Mar 04, 2015
Before I relate the story of my meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I would like to express my gratitude for this opportunity to share it. I’ve been waiting over 50 years to relate this story, so this goes to show that people should never give up hope, whatever they might be waiting for.
My name is Yonasan Wiener. I was born and bred in Melbourne, Australia, lived for a time in New York, and now I’m living and teaching in Jerusalem.
My family originally came from Poland, a place called Chrzanow, but they bounced around all of Eastern Europe – Krakow, Bremen, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt. In Frankfurt my father attended the yeshiva of Rabbi Yosef Breuer, Yeshivat Torah Lehranstalt, and he was there in November 1938 on Kristallnacht, when the Nazis began burning synagogues and Jewish places of business.
After Kristallnacht, my grandfather took his family and fled Germany. They first migrated to Holland and from there to France and then to Australia. My father attended Melbourne High School and Melbourne University, where he excelled because he had a brilliant mind. He got his Ph.D. there and he also studied medicine. In his spare time, my father researched poisons and their antidotes. He studied the red-back spider, a deadly spider in Australia, and he discovered the anti-venom. He also studied the stonefish, a toxic fish which buries itself in beach sand, and when people accidentally step on it, they die. He discovered the anti-venom for stonefish as well. He did this in his spare time, and he didn’t want any money for his discoveries.
When he was asked, at the end of his life, what motivated his altruistic research, he said, “Thanks to the Australian government I was saved with my entire family from the Nazis. If I had stayed in Europe I would have perished with my six million brothers and sisters.”
HMS: “I want you to smile”
Wed, Feb 25, 2015
I grew up in the Bronx, in a religious home. Although my parents were not affiliated with any chasidic group or movement, they sent me to a local Jewish day school which just happened to be operated by Chabad-Lubavitch. It was called the Bronx Lubavitch Yeshiva, and it accepted students from all walks in life.
While attending this school, I had the opportunity – when I was nine years old – to come for a Shabbaton in Crown Heights. This was my first introduction to what Chabad was all about. It was also the first time that I spend a night away from home, and I remember very vividly the dormitory experience – staying up the whole night, playing games and drinking green soda.
The Shabbaton concluded with a Farbrengen at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, by which time I was completely exhausted, having not slept for nearly 40 hours. The Rebbe started to speak – he was speaking Yiddish, which I understood because my parents spoke Yiddish at home – but I just couldn’t stay awake. I started nodding off.
Suddenly, I felt jolted awake, and I found myself staring straight into the Rebbe’s blue eyes. And he announced, “The boys from the Bronx should sing a niggun!”
That was my first encounter with the Rebbe.
Not long after, I switched schools and enrolled at the Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn. During those years, it was a custom for the yeshiva boys to have an audience with the Rebbe on their birthday, and I remember going in once and confiding in the Rebbe about something I had done wrong. Rabbi Yoel Kahan, my mentor in the yeshiva, had told me, “You can tell the Rebbe anything. If you did something wrong, tell him and he will advise you what tikkun you must make, how you can make it right. Ask him for advice, and he will help you.”
So I did. And the Rebbe’s response showed me his human side. He was so very compassionate. He didn’t exactly say, “It’s nothing what you did – don’t worry about it,” but he was very reassuring. I was just a naïve kid and that was exactly what I needed. I felt a personal connection with him at that moment – I felt understood totally.
HMS: “Weren’t you angry about the letter?”
Tue, Feb 17, 2015
My name is Adeena Singer. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, where my parents migrated in 1965, and where my father, Rabbi Nachman Bernhard, opened the first Orthodox elementary school, then called the Menorah Primary School.
During those early years, my father, being a Chabad chasid, had a lot of contact with the Rebbe – letters, phone calls, back and forth, and I grew up with a very strong idea that the Rebbe was our intimate, loving, warm teacher, guide, grandfather. That’s how I thought of him. I was too young to know his teachings, but I knew that he cared about me and, in turn, I cared about him – I would do what he needed me to do.
When I was thirteen, my father was asked to leave by the South African government because he was too outspoken politically. He stood very strongly for human decency and against the concept of apartheid, which he believed was completely against everything that Torah holds as good and true. I remember the police banging on our door in the middle of the night, and for years they wouldn’t give us permanent residency – we had to renew our residency every three months, until we were told to leave.
At that time, my father decided to immigrate to Israel. I was very excited about this idea but the Rebbe told my father that he had to complete what he started in South Africa, and he asked people in high places to intervene so that my father would be allowed to stay. I was very disappointed that we might not be going to Israel after all, and I decided to appeal to the Rebbe myself.