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 Man with the Fax Machine
Fri, Nov 15, 2019
I come from a respected Lithuanian family that had not connection to Chabad or chasidic ways. In fact, just the opposite. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz, was ones of the senior disciples of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, and I was sent to study at Yeshivat Kamenitz in Jerusalem.
But in 1969, I was privileged to be introduced to the Tanya, the seminal work of the Alter Rebbe, the 19th century founder of the Chabad Movement. And from that point on, my connection to Chabad only grew stronger. I participated in the studies of chasidic teachings at the Chabad yeshivah, although a directive came from the Rebbe that this had to be with my parents’ knowledge and consent.
When I got engaged in 1975, I managed, despite my parents’ opposition, to travel to New York to seek the Rebbe’s blessing for my upcoming marriage. In a private audience, the Rebbe showered me with blessings and encouraged me to stay in New York until the wedding, since it would be better for me to be separate from my future bride until then. “You will be able to learn the topics of Jewish law that you need to know before your wedding here as well,” the Rebbe said, “but you should write to your parents and future parents-in-law to find out whether they need you for the preparations for the wedding.”
But when I told the Rebbe that my parents hadn’t wanted me to come to New York at all and were pushing me to return, he instructed me to go back after Purim which was two weeks later. The Rebbe explained his instruction, “It is not clear whether being near the bride puts you at risk of violating a Torah prohibition or a rabbinic decree, but creating discord is certainly prohibited by Torah law…”
Happiness: The All-Purpose Cure
Thu, Nov 07, 2019
As a three-year-old child, I fell while running down the stairs too quickly and I got hurt. But it took some time for my parents to realize that the fall had caused my hearing to become impaired. Once they knew, they took me to the best doctors they could find in Jerusalem, where we were living, and the various tests conducted by the doctors confirmed that I had suffered inner ear damage. In order to hear properly, I would have to wear hearing aids.
Because of my young age, the hearing impairment also hindered the development of my speech. I had to work with a speech therapist in order to learn correct pronunciation of words. But that therapist only spoke Hebrew, and my first language was Yiddish – the language my parents spoke at home, and the dominant language in the school I attended. So, she told my parents that I needed to speak Hebrew and that they should speak Hebrew to me at home. My father didn’t like this idea, which would necessitate the whole family having to switch to Hebrew, and he decided to write to the Rebbe about this.
I was five when my father wrote to the Rebbe, explaining the reasons for the speech therapist’s request and the challenges involved, and asking what was the right thing to do in such a situation. The Rebbe replied that “it isn’t advisable to burden your son by changing his primary language, and therefore you should continue to speak with him and to learn with him in the same language which he has spoken and learned in until now.”
The therapist accepted the Rebbe’s verdict, and she eventually thanked my mother, who worked alongside her during my speech therapy sessions because, as a result of my case, she got to learn another language. As for me, I continued studying in Yiddish in my school, and eventually picked up Hebrew and some English as well.
The Yearning Violin
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
During my fourth year of study at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology, I experienced a spiritual awakening that was difficult for me to define at the time. I searched in all sorts of places before arriving at the conclusion that my path lay in Judaism. As a result of a connection that I forged with Rabbi Reuven Dunin of Haifa, and with Rabbi Moshe Weber of Jerusalem, I began studying at the Lubavitch yeshivah in Kfar Chabad. And, after about a year of study, I began to work as a teacher in the Chabad trade School, and then got married.
My first visit to the Rebbe took place in 1968, a year after my wedding, in the month of Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. As I was leaving for New York, my acquaintances recommended that I take my violin with me, and I did.
I began playing the violin at a relatively young age, and I had been privileged to study with some of the best teachers in Israel. And I played with a number of orchestras, including the Technion orchestra, so I had a wide musical background which I eventually integrated into the chasidic world of music. And indeed, during the time that I was studying in yeshivah, I was privileged to play a few times at farbrengens and at various Chabad events held on kibbutzim throughout Israel.
During my visit to the Rebbe in New York, I played a few times in my hosts’ sukkah, and then came Simchat Torah. At the end of the holiday, the Rebbe held a farbrengen and, after conducting the Havdalah ceremony, distributed wine from his cup. When I came up to receive some, I asked the Rebbe if I might play my violin. The Rebbe looked at me for a moment with a penetrating gaze and said, “Very good, please.”
I took out the violin which, at the urging of some of the chasidim I had run back to
The Youngest Diplomat
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
My family’s connection with the Rebbe began in 1971 when my father, Tzvi Caspi, worked for Israel’s foreign service in New York and the President, Zalman Shazar, came to the United States. Mr. Shazar – who was born in Russia to a Lubavitch family – wanted to visit the Rebbe, and my father was given the task of making the arrangements.
I was ten years old at the time, and I remember the president’s visit very well. As he was leaving, Mr. Shazar told my father, “You know, the protocol is that when the leader of a country travels to another country, his first visit is to the leader of the hosting country. I am visiting our leader, and that’s why my first visit was to the Rebbe.”
From that point on, a strong connection developed between my father and the Rebbe. They met many times, engaging in very intense conversations which lasted well into the night.
For Simchat Torah of 1971, the Rebbe invited a large group of Israeli diplomats and dignitaries to participate in the dancing with the Torah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. My father was very happy to organize this, and he also brought me along.
I vividly recall the dense crowd, the noise and commotion, and looking down from a high platform at the restless sea of black hats. And then, suddenly, the room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. And the sea of hats split down the middle as if by magic, forming a path through which the Rebbe entered. I watched astounded – this was my first encounter with the phenomenon called Chabad-Lubavitch – marveling at the special connection the Rebbe had with his chasidim.
Settling the Score
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
After the Six Day War of 1967 and the liberation of the Judea and Samaria territories, I became involved with building new settlements there. I decided to use my financial knowledge and the experience I had gained in political activism in the cause of developing Jewish neighborhoods in these regions. But, although I had good political connections, I had a hard time securing bank loans, which were essential for this purpose.
The specific matter of Jewish settlement in Hebron really lit a fire under me. One of the reasons for this was that I had a personal connection to the city. I was born there on the 17th of August, 1929, and my brit was held on the 24th of August, the day of the Hebron massacre, when Arabs rampaged through the city killing sixty-seven Jews and wounding many others. So I really wanted to expand the small Jewish settlement there. I wanted to create a connection between Kiryat Arba and Hebron, two cities that were separated by an empty no-man’s land which was possible to purchase at that time. My idea was to call the new settlement “Kiryat Chabad,” in hopes of drawing Chabad chasidim to move there, to renew the historical Chabad settlement in Hebron which dated back to the 18th century.
After Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, I met with him and laid out my plan regarding Hebron. I explained my challenges with raising the money to purchase the land and getting the required insurance for investing in infrastructure in the settlements. I proposed that the government establish a national insurance company for this purpose. This company, Inbal, was established and, because of it, factories were built and both Hebron and Kiryat Arba benefitted.
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
Toward the end of the 1960s, while studying in Chabad’s Yeshivat Torat Emet in Jerusalem, I heard about a charter flight being arranged to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the High Holidays. Feeling more than excited to spend this special holy time in the presence of the Rebbe, I eagerly signed up.
Before leaving for New York, I went to visit the Gerrer Rebbe to inform him of my upcoming trip. Although I am and always was a Chabad chasid, I had developed a close relationship with the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Alter, a charismatic leader who attracted yeshivah students from different streams of Judaism. Upon hearing my final destination, he asked me to do him a personal favor: “Please give regards in my name to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and my wishes that he be inscribed for a good year.”
When I arrived in New York, I had a chance to meet the Rebbe in a private audience. At the end of the meeting, after we finished discussing my personal issues, I conveyed the Gerrer Rebbe’s regards. As soon as the Rebbe heard the words – “my wishes that he be inscribed for a good year” – he rose from his seat and answered, “Amen! May G-d grant that the blessings we all wish one another be fulfilled.”
I returned to Jerusalem after the conclusion of the month of Tishrei, and the very next day received a message that the Gerrer Rebbe was looking for me. I went to see him after Shabbat ended. When I entered, he was still sitting in his Shabbat attire, his face radiant; he greeted me warmly. After I informed him that I had carried out his instructions, he said, “Tell me something interesting that the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught you.”
Unpacking on the Battlefield
Mon, Oct 07, 2019
Having come from a family with chasidic roots, I gravitated to Lubavitch at a young age and studied in a Chabad yeshivah. But it was not until I was an adult and already married that I met the Rebbe. This was in 1965 when I traveled to New York to spend the Hebrew month of Tishrei – the month of the High Holidays and Sukkot – in his presence. At the end of my visit, I had a private audience and I confided in the Rebbe that, although I’ve been near him for several weeks already, I still didn’t feel that a change has occurred in me, as I expected would happen.
In response, the Rebbe quoted a saying of his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, that “when you travel to the fair, you buy a lot of merchandise, pack it up and take it home, and you unpack the parcels all year.” I understood what he meant – the one who travels to a fair is like the chasid who travels to his Rebbe for the month of Tishrei, “buying a lot of merchandise” – that is, acquiring spiritual inspiration. But he doesn’t see what he has truly received until he gets home, processes it, and puts it into practice. And then he begins to feel that the Rebbe is with him all year long.
This proved very true for me, especially in later years, when the Yom Kippur War broke out.
Unlocking the Gate of Trust
Thu, Sep 26, 2019
Several weeks ago, we published a story from an anonymous source for the first time. This inspired one reader, who had a very moving encounter with the Rebbe during a particularly difficult time in his life, to come forth and share his experience in writing.
Due to the personal nature of his account, he did not disclose his identity, but the details of his story were verified by his rabbi and his doctor, who were both involved as the events unfolded.
We are thankful to Mr. B. for sharing his story with us. It was very difficult for him to relive this part of his life, but he volunteered to do so with the hope that it would help those who may be dealing with similar challenges.
We hope that others who may have shied away from sharing their stories thus far will be encouraged to emulate his example, and thereby assist many others who could benefit tremendously.
The Rebbe helped me in many ways, but here I would like to take the opportunity to relate how he helped me with my mental health. I feel that it will give others some insight regarding the Rebbe’s view of mental health and also show how the Rebbe’s advice was spot on.
When I was about eighteen years old, I had a psychotic episode and I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for about six weeks. I was subsequently diagnosed as manic depressive, which nowadays is referred to as bipolar.
About six months later, I went to see the Rebbe. In the note that I handed to him, I wrote about the psychotic episode and said that I wanted to visit Israel in the summer, and also that I wanted to enroll afterwards in an out-of-town yeshivah.
How Eighteenth Street Got Its Name
Thu, Sep 19, 2019
After finishing my tour in the Israeli army, which included service during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, I came to Los Angeles where I opened a clothing store in a prime garment-district location – on the corner of South Los Angeles Street and Pico Boulevard.
At a certain point, a Chinese clothing manufacturer came to see me to propose a partnership, and since it was a good deal, I agreed. After we signed the contract, he invited me out to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate, and although I was not Torah observant, I told him “please don’t serve me pork.” During this dinner, I made l’chaim with him on a liquor which tasted strange to me; I also ate some strange-tasting food, and afterwards, I got very sick. I remember vomiting and pleading with G-d, “Please … please … I’m sorry I ate that.” This incident bothered me very much but, after a while, I forgot about it.
Several months later, I was traveling to Israel and decided to make a stop in New York to get a blessing for marriage from the Rebbe. But when I arrived at 770, I discovered that it was not so easy to get an appointment. Nonetheless, Rabbi Binyomin Klein, the Rebbe’s secretary, agreed to convey a letter I had written.
Now, in my letter to the Rebbe, I had not mentioned the incident with the Chinese restaurant, so I was shocked to get a return call from Rabbi Klein saying that the Rebbe asked me to watch what I ate! He also invited me to come to 770 to pick up three dollars which I was to donate to charity on arrival in Israel.
A Letter from Dyedushka
Wed, Sep 11, 2019
Right after their wedding, my parents – Rabbi Moshe and Chasha Vishedsky – were sent by the Previous Rebbe to the city of Gorky (today Nizhny-Novgorod) in Russia, to strengthen Judaism there. This was in the 1930s, when religious freedoms were severely curtailed and the Soviet regime persecuted those who dared to violate their decrees.
However, the Previous Rebbe refused to bow to the regime. He had been imprisoned for his activities, and after he was expelled from the country, he settled in Latvia, from where he directed his activists in Russia. The activists – my father among them – worked under harsh conditions to sustain Jewish life wherever possible; they gave Torah classes, established Jewish schools, supplied kosher meat, maintained mikvehs, etc. All their work had to be done undercover, as the Soviet secret service kept a watchful eye, and they were constantly in danger.
After the Second World War, my parents moved to Czernowitz (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine), where my father continued his activist work, along with Rabbi Mendel Futerfas. But a few years later, as a result of their involvement with a group of young Jews who tried to escape Russia via the border with Romania, they were both arrested and taken to prison.
My father was stopped by NKVD agents as he walked to shul, and I vividly remember them bringing him back home under guard, while they proceeded to search the house. I was just a child at the time and I watched all this gripped by terrible horror. At a certain point my father threw a rolled-up piece of paper to my older sister so it should not be found, but one of the agents noticed and tried to intervene. Despite the volatility of the situation, my sister showed incredible resourcefulness – she quickly stuffed the paper in her mouth and swallowed it before anyone found out what was written on it.