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: 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.
HMS: The Kollel student
Wed, Feb 11, 2015
My name is Chaim Brovender. I was born in Brooklyn in 1941, when Brooklyn was a great center of Jewish activity. I attended Modern Orthodox schools, namely the Yeshiva of Flatbush – both elementary school and high school – and after that I went to Yeshiva University, where I received my rabbinic ordination. In 1965, after I got married, I made Aliyah to Israel. There I also learned at Hebrew University and received a doctorate in Semitic languages.
While in Israel, I felt myself drawn to learning Torah and, after that, to teaching Torah, and that’s basically what I’ve done my whole life.
The story I’m about to share happened in 1967. My wife Miriam and I were living in Israel by then, but we were on a visit to New York and, although we were not chasidim, we decided to request an audience with the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. At that time, everybody understood that a blessing from the Rebbe was something worth grabbing onto, and my wife especially wanted a blessing to get pregnant – because we were having a problem conceiving – so we got an appointment to see him.
The appointment was for 3 a.m. because, in those days, the Rebbe learned and worked all day and would only see people at night.
We came into his office and were astonished to find it in perfect order. His desk – a very big desk – was absolutely clean. There was not one piece of paper on it. I believe there was a Book of Psalms on the desk, and that’s all.
HMS: “How is the young couple?”
Wed, Feb 04, 2015
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where my father attended medical school and where he later practiced general medicine. This is also where my family became connected to Chabad. We later moved to the Bronx.
In 1977, we all came to Crown Heights for the High Holidays, and this was when – on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret – the Rebbe suffered a heart attack. There was a great commotion in the Chabad synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, with people shouting to give the Rebbe some air, and my father – being a doctor – rushed over to help.
We ended up not seeing him for several days as he, and the other doctors in attendance, set up a mini-hospital and took care of the Rebbe.
A year later, when the Rebbe had somewhat recovered, my parents made a permanent move to Crown Heights. My father became one of the Rebbe’s doctor, and after a time, also one of the Rebbetzin’s doctor.
Because of their close relationship, when my sister, Rivky, was born in 1983, the Rebbetzin wanted to see her. My father brought me along as well, and that was the first time I met the Rebbetzin.
The Rebbetzin became very attached to Rivky and even asked – when Rivky started to talk – that she call her not “Rebbetzin” but Doda, meaning “Aunt.” Rivky looked forward to these weekly visits – which took place every Friday – and she used to bring story books for the Rebbetzin to read to her.
HMS: The Shabbos Mevorchim Kiddush
Wed, Jan 28, 2015
In the early 1940s, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, my family moved from Coney Island to Crown Heights. We didn’t move to Crown Heights because it was the seat of Chabad-Lubavitch – we were not Lubavitch, so that did not attract us at all. As a matter of fact, there were very few Lubavitchers in Crown Heights at that time, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe – the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak – lived there, and he had just established his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Once we were living in the neighborhood, for one reason or another, my father took a liking to the Lubavitchers, and he began to attend prayer services at 770. At that time, I was enrolled in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, but when I heard that a yeshiva for my age group was about to open at Lubavitch, I decided that I wanted to enroll.
But my father had misgivings about this. He said, “You’re an American kid, you’re not going to succeed in a chasidic yeshiva. It’s not like the yeshivas you’re used to – it’s a European yeshiva, not an American yeshiva.”
I said, “Well, they speak Yiddish at Torah Vodaas, and they’ll speak Yiddish at the Lubavitch yeshiva.”
My father said, “If you want to go, it’s okay with me – just be prepared that you may find it unpleasant.” But I didn’t find it unpleasant at all.
Meanwhile, my father’s minyan in the Lubavitch shul had expanded to include other men who were not chasidim. My father came to know these people because they would all sit down to make a kiddush together after Shabbos prayers. This was not a Lubavitch custom – the Lubavitchers went home, but these men stayed behind.
And that brings me to a story I want to tell about Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the Previous Rebbe, and also about the future Rebbe, who was then the Rebbe’s son-in-law. We knew him as Ramash – an acronym for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
HMS: How important is it to You?
Wed, Jan 21, 2015
Before my first visit with the Rebbe in 1966, I’d had no contact with him. At the time, I was facing difficulties in my business as a result of the tragic death of my partner.
I had heard a lot about the Rebbe, and when a friend suggested I consult him, I jumped at the chance.
I flew from London – where I lived and worked as an accountant – to New York, and my audience began at 2 a.m.
Before the audience, I had asked Rabbi Faivish Vogel, who accompanied me on my trip: “How do I explain my business affairs to the Rebbe? They are highly complicated!”
He said, “Write it all down before you go in and let the Rebbe read it.” So the day before the audience, I wrote it all down – about thirty pages of it! Now I know it was a great chutzpah for me to expect the Rebbe to wade through thirty pages of explanations, but Rabbi Vogel told me to put it in writing.
When I entered the Rebbe’s office, the Rebbe took up the thirty sheets of paper and started to read them. It took a while.
While the Rebbe was reading, I was thinking to myself: “Why am I wasting the Rebbe’s time? He can’t possibly understand all these business issues. It’s too complicated.”
My concerns were exacerbated by the fact that the Rebbe never stopped to ask me any questions – he just kept reading. And so the longer it took, the more doubts I had in my mind about whether the Rebbe could possibly understand what it was all about.
HMS: The recipe for a warm home
Wed, Jan 14, 2015
My name is Masha Lipskar. I was born in 1949 in Brooklyn. When I was four, my parents moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where my father, Rabbi Aaron Popack, took a job – at the behest of the Previous Rebbe – as the director of the Bais Yaakov seminary.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, after the war, it was a brave new world –where all that Jews really wanted was to be American. When I completed high school, my dream was to go to university and become a journalist. I thought that as a journalist out in the world I could best help spread the message of the Chabad Movement. But my parents felt that this was no occupation for an observant girl and that I should go to Bais Yaakov seminary instead.
There was no way I wanted to become the stereotypical Bais Yaakov girl. Bais Yaakov girls seemed to me like little copies of each other and, obviously, I didn’t want to become a copy of anyone.
My father consulted the Rebbe who suggested that, instead of Bais Yaakov, I should come to Crown Heights and attend Bais Rivkah. And this is what I did.
Bais Rivkah was a sorry sight – the school had no money for electricity and we were freezing; when it rained, the rain came in. I would call my parents crying my eyes out. My father advised me, “The Rebbe told you to go there, so you have to tell the Rebbe about this.” I wrote to the Rebbe and, after the mid-term break, Bais Rivkah reopened in a better location. I realized then how much the Rebbe listened to everyone, how much he cared about individuals and their needs.
I studied in Bais Rivkah for two years, and then my parents asked me to return home. I got a job teaching second grade, and it was a year of tremendous growth and learning, but I was very, very lonely. I spent all my time at home preparing my lessons and going to work, and I couldn’t wait for the summer when I could join my friends at camp.
HMS: All for the cause
Wed, Jan 07, 2015
My name is Moshe Salzberg. I was raised in Lisbon, Portugal, where my parents spent the wartime years. After high school, I came to New York to study at Yeshiva University and the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, but after I got married, I immigrated to Montreal, Quebec, in order to find work. I have lived in Montreal for close to fifty years now, and I’ve been involved with the Jewish community here. My involvement came about mostly because of my three children and my concern for their religious education.
In 1968, when my son Meyer was ready to start school, there was a Lithuanian-style yeshiva in Montreal, called Yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah, and there was also a Lubavitch yeshiva. As a matter of fact, the founders of Merkaz HaTorah came to town at the same time as the Lubavitchers. At one time they worked together, but eventually they split.
Lubavitch made its own institution – there was a large Lubavitcher community in Montreal, and they needed a yeshiva for the chasidic children – and Merkaz HaTorah made its own. But while Lubavitch prospered, Merkaz HaTorah did not do as well. They did not have enough students to fill all the grades.
So we didn’t see a future for Meyer at that school. A few of the other parents felt the same, and so we decided that maybe we should start another school, because it seemed to us that Merkaz HaTorah would eventually disappear.
That’s when I started talking with the Lubavitchers, who did not want another yeshiva in Montreal. Instead, they invited me and the other parents to bring our children to their yeshiva. At that time, they had just put up a new building on Westbury Avenue in Montreal, so they were conveniently located in the area.
We met with Rabbi Sputz, Rabbi Greenglass and Rabbi Gerlitzky, and we discussed the idea of making a yeshiva together. The meeting was going well until I asked: “Who decides on the teachers for these kids?”
HMS: Personal Care
Wed, Dec 31, 2014
My name is Leah Rivka Arkush. I come from England, where I grew up in Stamford Hill, in a non-religious home just two streets away from Beis Lubavitch – Lubavitch House.
When we first moved to Stamford Hill, I pointed out the Beis Lubavitch to my mother and I said to her, “Look, this is a place where I could go to school.” My mother agreed to check it out, but she didn’t. I had to nudge her a few times until, finally, she found out – and, yes, it was a place that would be good for me, so I started going to school there.
During those years, my father was badly injured in a car crash. The recuperation took a very long time, and while he was in the hospital, my mother struggled very much because we didn’t have any money.
One day, then the headmaster of the Chabad school, Rabbi A. D. Sufrin, got a phone call from the Rebbe’s office inquiring about us. How did the Rebbe know we were in trouble? I have no idea. But when Rabbi Sufrin related that we were not doing so well, he was told, “You must make sure that they have food and whatever they need.”
Even when my father came home from the hospital, he still wasn’t really well enough to go and work at a full-time job. So Lubavitch employed him at the Montefiore Home in Ramsgate, to get it ready for summer camp. He helped in building the Nissan House, and he stayed there until he was better.
It was right around this time that my parents decided it was best for me to change to a different school. When the Rebbe learned that I was leaving, however, he sent a message to Rabbi Sufrin: “She’s got to stay. You’ve got to sort out what has to be, but I want her in that school. I do not want her to leave.”