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 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:
HMS: Lasting Impressions
Fri, Mar 28, 2014
My name is Norbert Weinberg and my Hebrew name is Natan – Natan Ben Yitzchak Dov.
I was born in Germany before the Holocaust. My family almost didn’t make it out; in fact, my father, who was a doctor in a little town called Bad-Nauheim, was arrested and sent to Buchenwald for six weeks. But somehow my mother moved mountains and got him out, and we left for England and then we came to America. I went to Yeshiva University and was ordained as a rabbi there.
In the mid-1950s, I became a principal of a Hebrew School in Yonkers. After a short time, however, I became quite discouraged about my work. The children were wonderful; they wanted to learn, and they loved learning. The parents, however, were a problem. Although they sent their children to our Hebrew School, the parents were not religious, in the sense that they didn’t keep the Torah. I think they did it because their neighbors did it – it was the thing to do – but the children were taught one thing in the school but every night they’d go home and be taught something else.
I began to feel that I was not making a dent. I was getting pretty disheartened about the whole thing.
At this time – it was the late 1950s – I was hearing a great deal about the Rebbe. He was becoming very well known then; he was becoming a force in Jewish life. So I decided to see him and ask his advice on the matter. Maybe he agrees with me that I should switch professions and become a lawyer or a doctor.
Somehow I arranged an audience with the Rebbe. I don’t remember the exact details of how it came about, though I do remember that my late cousin, Bjorn Bamberger, came with me.
We arrived and were told to wait a while. And it was quite an experience to see the Rebbe up close. I had seen him before at a number of farbrengens but this was face to face.
I remember that my cousin and I entered the room, and there was the Rebbe seated at a desk with a library of books behind him. He stood up when we walked in. We were nobody of importance but, nevertheless, he stood up for us, and shook our hands. This was a great surprise to me, and it made me feel that he wanted to speak to me.
HMS: A Visit with the Rebbetzin
Fri, Mar 21, 2014
I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a Conservative Jewish family. I was educated in public schools, though I also went to Hebrew school. In 1976, when I was 17 years old, I went on a trip to Israel that was sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative yeshiva in New York.
While in Israel, I stayed on a religious kibbutz – because there were no Conservative kibbutzim – and there I started keeping Shabbos and learning more about Judaism. After four months of this, I returned home and I wanted to continue keeping Shabbos.
So who did I call? Chabad, of course. I called up Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Chabad emissary in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and I said, “I just came back from Israel and I’d like to come for Shabbos.” He was elated and he immediately said, “Come and bring all your friends!” I had no friends to bring, because my friends were not interested in keeping Shabbos, so I went alone.
It was a wonderful experience, and even after I enrolled at the University of Minnesota that fall, I kept going for Shabbos to various Chabad families in St. Paul. The following summer – this was the summer of 1977 – I decided that I wanted to learn Torah full-time at Machon Chana, the Chabad seminary for young women in New York.
My parents were against this, and they were very upset that I insisted on going to Machon Chana. My siblings were also upset, my relatives were upset, and my friends basically dropped me. So I arrived in Crown Heights feeling very much alone. One day, I was sitting in the dorm at Machon Chana feeling like I had no one to talk to, and the thought entered my mind, “I could talk to the Rebbetzin.”
I shared this thought with two of my roommates from the dorm, and together we wrote a letter to the Rebbetzin. We said that we knew we were not worthy but, if possible, we would like to meet with her. We took this letter to the Rebbe’s and Rebbetzin’s house on President Street, we put it through the mail slot, and we ran away as fast as we could, not sure what was going to happen.
A few days later, Mrs. Galperin, the cook at Machon Chana, came up to me and, in a low voice, asked, “Did you write a letter to the Rebbetzin?”
My heart started to pound, and I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to be asked to leave Machon Chana. They’re going to kick me out, and I’ve been here only three months!”
HMS: My Career in the Military
Thu, Mar 13, 2014
My parents are Holocaust survivors from Warsaw, where my father was educated in the Chabad yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim. I was born right after the war, in 1946, in a displaced person’s camp where my parents were awaiting papers for America.
When I was 11 years old, I came to study at the Chabad yeshiva in Crown Heights. I stayed there for many years, and this is where I eventually received my rabbinic ordination.
In 1967, just before the Six Day War, the Rebbe began the first of his mitzvah campaigns to reach out to secular Jews. Some of the yeshiva students were designated to reach out to Jewish soldiers, to ask them to put on tefillin. We went to Camp Smith in Peekskill, where the New York Army National Guard is based. This was during the Vietnam War and a lot of Jewish boys joined the National Guard because, even though you had to sign up for six years, you wouldn’t get shipped out overseas.
On that occasion, I first met the chaplain of the National Guard, Ed Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest, and from the start he encouraged me to become a chaplain once I received my rabbinic ordination. There were not enough Jewish chaplains, he told me, and I would fill a real need.
I was not interested, but he kept at me whenever I visited Camp Smith. Finally, one day he said to me, “What is the name of your bishop? I want to ask him to release you, so you can join the army.”
In response, I said that I would ask him myself. That very night I wrote to the Rebbe to request his advice; should I become a soldier and a chaplain?
The Rebbe’s answer was: “Nachon hadavar, azkir al hatzion – It’s the right thing to do, I will pray for you at my father-in-law’s resting place.”
This is how my military career began. During my various military missions, I sought the Rebbe’s advice many times. At other times, the Rebbe reached out to me out of the blue.
In 1983, during the United States-led invasion of Grenada, I was deployed there. On the fifth night of Chanukah, I was aboard a military plane when suddenly the pilot motioned to me to put on the headset because I had a call. It was the Pentagon switchboard with a message to urgently call Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who was the Rebbe’s secretary.
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.