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!
A Humble Office In Brooklyn
Wed, Oct 07, 2015
My name is Joe Davidovitz. I am an architect from South Africa. When I first set up my practice in Johannesburg as a young man, I did very well and I built it up quickly – in three or four years – into a massive business. At the height of my success, I was doing property development and employing 1,500 people.
But then my business started to wobble. This was largely due to my inexperience. I had borrowed money short and invested long. This was a good way to get into trouble. When South Africa’s economy started reeling, there was a tremendous downturn in property values, and raising money for development became impossible.
Around this time – I believe it was in 1974 – I heard good things about a young Chabad rabbi who had come to South Africa. This was Rabbi Mendel Lipskar, and I went to hear him speak.
The time I went he was speaking about the Exodus from Egypt and what happened when the Jews arrived at the Red Sea and realized they were trapped. That struck a chord with me because I was in exactly the same place; I was at the sea with no future in front of me, with my business about to collapse.
Rabbi Lipskar’s father was there also – he was a really wise man, a very fine man – and I mentioned my troubles to him. He said, “You should go to New York and tell all this to the Rebbe.”
I said, “I’m not going to New York to speak to someone about property problems in South Africa.”
Special Children’s Hakafah
Wed, Sep 30, 2015
My name is Pesach Fishman. Since 1988, I have served as an emissary of the Rebbe in South Africa. At first I was assigned to be the rabbi of the Jewish community of Bloemfontein, a provincial city about 400 kilometers from Johannesburg. While there, I also served the Jews in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, which is a separate country from South Africa, but is only about a two-hour drive from Bloemfontein.
It has always amazed me how far the Rebbe’s influence reached. During the first Gulf War in 1990, I remember receiving phone calls from so many far-flung Jews. One called from the middle of Lesotho where there were not even ten Jews – counting men, women and children – wanting to know if it was true that the Rebbe said that Israel would be safe. Another caller lived on a farm 200 kilometers from where I was, and at least 50 kilometers from the nearest Jew – but he, too, heard that the Rebbe said Israel would be safe and wanted to know more.
To me, this was an indication that the Rebbe’s influence was not confined to major Jewish centers, but extended to every little town. All these people had somehow heard what the Rebbe had to say, and were encouraged and inspired by it.
While I was stationed in Bloemfontein, just before Rosh Hashana of 1989, our son Yosef Yitzchak was born. But, unfortunately, he contracted some type of infection in the hospital and had to be placed in intensive care. He was there for eight days, and he was not improving.
I was hesitant to write to the Rebbe. I didn’t want to take up the Rebbe’s precious time, and I felt that the doctors were doing their best. G-d willing, the situation would resolve itself in its own good time. My wife, however, was insistent that we should write to the Rebbe, so we did.
We didn’t hear back immediately. In those days, we used faxes, as this was before e-mail and communications were not what they are today. But apparently we didn’t need to receive the Rebbe’s written response. The response proved much more vivid. The morning after we wrote the letter, when my wife and I walked into the hospital, the nurse greeted us with these exact words: “A miracle happened here last night! You can take your baby home today.”
Yosef Yitzchak was fine! And thanks to G-d and thanks to the Rebbe’s blessing, we had his bris during Sukkot.
The Miracle of South Africa
Tue, Sep 22, 2015
My name is Yosef Yitzchak (Yossy) Goldman. I was named after the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, being born right after his passing. When my name was announced at my bris, there was a collective gasp, since I was one of the first babies named after him, and the community’s sense of loss was still very fresh and very raw.
As behooves a namesake of a Rebbe, after I completed my studies, I became the Rebbe’s emissary in a faroff land – in my case, South Africa. This happened in 1976, and it came about partly at the instigation of Rabbi Mendel Lipskar. He was the first Chabad emissary to go there, and – since we had been students together in yeshiva and good friends – he wanted me to join him.
Even before I was married, he was already talking to me about it, but I needed to get some more learning under my belt first. When the time came, I had many options. I thought about going to St. Louis because I wanted to serve in a big city, and St. Louis was the biggest city in North America that didn’t have a Chabad presence. But Mendel said to me, “When you consult the Rebbe, please also put Johannesburg on the list.”
And that is what I did. I wrote to the Rebbe presenting my options, and the Rebbe returned my letter with the word Johannesburg underlined. So with one stroke of the pen, the Rebbe dispatched me – and my wife and two small children – to South Africa, which proved to be exactly the right place for us. We went there in 1976 and never looked back.In hindsight, I don’t know how many Chabad emissaries make a life-long commitment to go to a place they’ve never been to before. But that’s what we did. I signed up for a mission on the other side of the world in darkest Africa, which back then was much farther away from New York than it is today. I guess I was naïve or idealistic, or both, but I never took a trip to check it out. I went trusting the Rebbe that this is where I belonged – that it was our purpose in life to serve the Jews of Johannesburg.
I say “our” because the Rebbe was always careful to include the wives. When I wrote to ask his advice, I made sure to state that my wife is with me, that she is a partner in this mission, and that she is as happy as I am to go wherever the Rebbe decides.
Those who didn’t include their wives when they wrote to the Rebbe requesting his advice were inevitably asked, “Are you writing on behalf of both of you?” The Rebbe made it clear to his emissaries that it can’t be just you deciding on your own and then informing your wife after the fact. The Rebbe made it clear that it’s a partnership – it’s a team effort.
“He Thinks I Don’t Know”
Wed, Sep 16, 2015
I spent most of World War Two in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, learning in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva there. After the war ended, the Previous Rebbe dispatched my father to Antwerp to help reopen the Etz Chaim Heida Yeshiva, and I also went, but I didn’t stay there – I moved on to Paris, because it was easier to get a visa for America in France than in Belgium.
It was while I was in Paris, waiting six months for my visa to come through, that I met the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – who would later become the Rebbe – and his mother, the Rebbetzin Chana.
The Rebbetzin had been trapped in Russia during the war but, once it ended, she made her way via various DP camps to Paris. She came there in 1947 and she stayed in the house of her cousin Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, which is where I was also staying.
We often ate dinner together, and we became very friendly. I was there when, to her great joy, her son arrived from New York to take her to America. The necessary documents took a while to arrange and this is when I got to know him.
He made everybody feel so good, even in uncomfortable circumstances. For example, once he started to tell a story, and I interrupted him; I jumped up, miffed, “Hey, I told this story yesterday!” He smiled at me so kindly and said, “Please understand – once I’ve heard a story from my father-in-law, I don’t listen to that story again from anybody else, because I don’t want to mix up their version with what I heard from him.”
How could I be upset, if he had such a good reason and he explained it in such a nice way?!
I also remember another incident. Before Passover, I went to prepare matzah – which required buying wheat and having it ground into flour. As the flour sacks were being readied for transport, I had to make sure nobody took them – something I couldn’t allow to happen. This was the special flour for Passover! So I lay down on top of the sacks and my jacket turned completely white, though I didn’t know it. When I got on the train back to Paris, people were laughing at me, but I thought nothing of it, because the French often made fun of the Jews. When I got home, the Rebbe looked at me and said, “Go look in the mirror!” And he took me by the hand to the washroom and helped me clean up.
Wed, Sep 09, 2015
I was born in Latvia but raised in the United States to where my family immigrated in 1930. At a very young age, I joined Young Israel, and when I was an adult, I became active as a volunteer. Young Israel appealed to me because it was an organization interested in bringing estranged Jews close to Judaism, and its doors were always open.
After a time, I became a delegate to the National Council of Young Israel, the body that governed all the Young Israel branches; later, I became an officer and, in 1961, I became national president.
As president, it was my goal to figure out what would be the best thing that Young Israel could do for the Jewish people – not only in America, but also in the Soviet Union. In trying to sort that out, I decided to seek counsel of the sages of the generation. Among those I met with was the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
When I came into the Rebbe’s office – I remember it was a simple room filled with books – I sat across from the Rebbe and he sat behind his desk, never taking his eyes off me. When he spoke, he was very direct. To begin with, he asked, “In which language would you like to speak?” I said “If you don’t mind, Yiddish.” He seemed surprised, “The American president of Young Israel prefers Yiddish?” I said, “Because this is my native language.” And then I asked him, “What do you think should be the primary focus of Young Israel for the next ten years?”
The Rebbe seemed to know everything that was happening with Young Israel. For example, he knew that we had only one kosher kitchen – at Cornell University. So he said to me, “Your primary focus for the next ten years should be Jewish college students who have little Jewish background. And you have to give them a place to congregate – a place that not only has kosher food, but also educates them in Torah. You should organize centers like this on at least ten college campuses.”
I said, “Excuse me, Rebbe, but where am I going to find the money for this?”
With a big smile on his face, the Rebbe replied, “When I ask chasidim to collect money for one of my activities, they get it done. You don’t have those kind of chasidim?”
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.