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!
Someone Is Praying For You
Wed, Apr 20, 2016
In the summer of 1968, while I was studying at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Montreal, a fellow student and close friend of mine was appointed to be a teacher in the Lubavitch School in Boston, Massachusetts. In order to make the move, he asked me for my assistance. More than eager to help my friend, I agreed. We packed his family into the car and made the five-hour drive from Montreal to Boston. But, for me, the trip didn’t end there, as I needed to return to Montreal. Shortly after I returned to Montreal, I travelled to Chicago make to participate in a friend’s wedding. Upon my return to Montreal I decided to make the six-hour trek to Upstate New York to visit my younger brother who was working at a summer camp there.
I arrived late at night, and having driven close to 2,500 miles in a few days’ time, I was beyond exhausted. Too tired to look for my brother, I found his room and just collapsed on his bed. When he finally returned having no idea that I was there, he flipped on the light and woke me up. But when I opened my eyes, the indescribable happened – I felt as if a knife had sliced through my eyes; the pain was excruciating. I tried to go back to sleep but, of course, this was impossible and, as soon as morning arrived, I ran to the store to buy some Visine eye drops. They didn’t help at all. So, in great pain and having no choice, I got back home to Newark, New Jersey, where my mother arranged an appointment for me with an optician.
After examining my eye, the optician said, “I am sorry, but this is out of my league. I am going to refer you to an eye doctor by the name of Dr. Plain.”
Dr. Plain happened to be a Jewish doctor, although he struck me as someone who was uninformed of anything Jewish. He looked at my eye, spent several minutes examining it and then broke the news to me as gently as he could: “As a result of sleep deprivation, the pressure built up in your eye, and the cornea – tissue covering the eye – ruptured. Unless we perform a cornea transplant, you will lose your eye.”
In the meantime, he put a pressure patch on my eye to reduce the swelling and ease the pain. And he immediately arranged an appointment for me with a premiere eye surgeon in New York.
At that time there were only two doctors in America who performed such operations – a doctor in Texas and Dr. Kostoviaro in Manhattan – so Dr. Plain had to use all of his influence to squeeze me ahead of some two hundred people on the waiting list. However, he succeeded, and I was examined by Dr. Kostoviaro and his assistants. They concluded that surgery was necessary but, I would have to wait some time for a donor to become available.
Nothing To Fear
Wed, Apr 13, 2016
I grew up in South Africa, the son of an immigrant who came from a well-known Lubavitch family in Rokiskis, Lithuania – the Ruch family with whom the Previous Rebbe stayed in 1930 while visiting his followers residing there. True to his roots, my father was very attached to the Previous Rebbe and often sought his counsel.
For example, there came a time, in 1946, when my father was thinking of selling his cattle farm. He had been offered a very good price for it and, as he was strapped for cash, he thought this might be a good idea, but he wasn’t sure. He decided to ask the Previous Rebbe’s advice. The Rebbe’s answer came back that he should hold onto the property. That proved to be the right thing to do because two years later, he was offered much, much more – fifty thousand South African pounds –and this time the Rebbe said he should go forward with the sale.
In 1950, the Previous Rebbe passed away, a loss which my father felt deeply. However, he continued his connection to the new Rebbe and in 1955, when I was fourteen years old, he decided to send me to New York, to the Chabad yeshiva there. After two years I transferred to the Chabad yeshiva in Montreal, where I stayed for five more years.
I had not intended to study for so long. In fact, I wanted badly to return to South Africa, but the Rebbe urged me to stay put. He wrote me a heartfelt letter in which he praised my efforts as a student – something which surprised me because I did not consider myself to be among the top learners, to say the least – and explained that I was in my most formative years and, therefore, should continue learning without interruption. He said he understood that it was hard for my parents not to see me for so long, but that, in the end, they would take great pride in my accomplishments.
Of course, the Rebbe was right – these were my formative years and I was greatly influenced by the elder Chassidim who mentored me in Montreal – particularly Rabbi Hershel Feigelstock and Rabbi Menachem Zev Greenglass.
Years later, Rabbi Greenglass told me an amazing story. He said that there came a time when he went to see the Rebbe and expressed some disillusionment with his job as a teacher. In the course of the conversation, he asked rhetorically, “Was it worth it?”
Encouragement on the Campaign Trail
Fri, Apr 08, 2016
In 1989, my husband Scott decided to run for U.S. Congress on the Republican ticket. This meant challenging the incumbent Democrat, Congressman Harry Johnston, in Florida’s 14th district, which includes Boca Raton, where we were living at the time.
When our Lubavitcher friend, Rabbi Yossi Biston, heard about this plan, he immediately advised my husband to seek the Rebbe’s guidance and blessing. Although we were not Lubavitch ourselves, we were deeply connected to Chabad, and so we decided to follow Rabbi Biston’s advice.
On March 27, 1989, we travelled together to New York in order to meet the Rebbe. When it was our turn, Scott told the Rebbe, “I am considering running for United States Congress, and I would like to know whether or not it is proper for a Shabbat-observant Jew to do so.”
The Rebbe answered, “Not only is it proper, in many ways it is a sanctification of G-d’s name. If you are in Congress and everyone knows that you observe Shabbat, those gentiles who respect the Noahide Laws will be inspired to be more observant as well.”
As soon as we returned to Florida, my husband moved forward with the campaign, and he received the Republican nomination virtually without opposition. But then came the hard part. We were young and naïve and did not realize the amount of money that would be necessary to keep the campaign afloat. We had to hire expensive political advisors, and we took out substantial loans to pay for them. After a while, we began to question if we could raise enough money to make it till the end.
In addition to the fundraising problems, we were also facing nasty and libelous attacks in the press due to Scott’s opposition to abortion on demand. Almost every day there was another terrible comment about him. It was not a positive experience at all, and we were debating whether or not we should continue.
So again, we decided to seek the Rebbe’s advice. With the help of the local Chabad emissaries, we sent a fax to the Rebbe, but received no reply.
Yearning For Israel
Fri, Apr 01, 2016
I was born in La Flèche, a little town in France, to a family of Jewish immigrants from North Africa. We were the only Jewish family in town, but – even though I was educated as a proud Jew among non-Jews – we were not fully Torah observant. Over the years, I progressively became more religious, especially after I joined a Zionist religious youth movement called Tikvateinu and visited Israel for the first time. As a result, I developed a strong aspiration to live there.
At the age of 20, I went to Toulouse where I was accepted to study in the famous University of Aerospace Engineering. And it was there that I met the local Chabad emissaries – Rabbi Yosef Matusof and his wife Esther.
After I graduated and got married in 1978, I travelled with my wife and baby daughter to New York, where we had our first private audience with the Rebbe. It was a very emotional and awe-inspiring moment for me, and it initiated a connection which increasingly deepened over the years.
When I started to work as an engineer for Airbus Industries in Toulouse, my work brought me frequently to the United States, and during each visit, I always spent Shabbat with the Rebbe.
In 1982, I wrote a letter to the Rebbe asking if the time was right for my family and me to make aliyah – to immigrate to Israel. The Rebbe’s answer came: “If your job today allows you to be Torah observant, then it is preferable that you stay where you are for the time being.” I must confess that I was a bit disappointed, but I followed the Rebbe’s advice and stayed in Toulouse. My family certainly played a role in the Jewish community in the city, since very few Torah-observant families lived there, and we served as an example to others.
Then, in 1985, I was offered a job in Israel. At this time, the State of Israel decided to become more technologically independent and it launched its own fighter aircraft project, called the Lavi. I was invited to work on this project. Excited at the prospect of moving to Israel, I asked the Rebbe’s advice again. Surprisingly, the Rebbe replied: “How can you make this decision when the situation is so volatile in Eretz Israel? You should decide about half a year before your Aliyah.”
The Dangerous Trip
Wed, Mar 23, 2016
I was born in Holland to an Ashkenazi family whose ancestors emigrated from Poland. My parents were Holocaust survivors who went into hiding during the war years, and met and married after liberation. In 1964, when Rabbi Yitzchak Vorst founded Lubavitch of the Netherlands, they began their association with Chabad. And, through his influence, I went to study at the Chabad yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim, in Brunoy, France.
After I completed my studies and got married, I was considering various ways of making a living. One option was to become a kosher butcher in Germany. Another was to become the director of a girls’ school in France. A third was to return to Holland – which is what Rabbi Vorst and my father were both pressing me to do – although there was no job for me there.
Unable to make a decision, I wrote to ask the Rebbe’s advice. His response – “Speak with acquaintances in Holland” – suggested to me that this was where my future lay, since the “acquaintances” (my father and Rabbi Vorst) would only reiterate their opinion. But what should I do in Holland? Again I wrote to ask the Rebbe’s advice. This time, he responded that I should look for work in a place that offered “the best conditions.”
As it turned out, there was only one place in Holland that was prepared to offer me any conditions. But the job proved enriching in a way that I could never have imagined.
The rabbi of the small city of Amersfoort had passed away, and I was offered the pulpit. But it came as a package deal. I would have to become the rabbi of the community as well as the chaplain of the local psychiatric hospital, which was the only Jewish psychiatric hospital in Europe.
I had no interest in working with “crazy people” – that was the way I saw it at first. But when I learned more, I realized how wrong my original attitude had been. After nearly forty years, I am still there, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world. It is such a blessing to be able to be of service to people with serious problems – people traumatized by war, children with learning disabilities, innocent victims of mental and genetic defects. I feel enriched doing this work. This is what I consider the best possible conditions for any job.
Finding My Mission
Wed, Mar 16, 2016
The Rebbe shaped my life in many ways. He guided me regarding my marriage prospects, advised me on how to earn a livelihood, and set my rabbinical career on the right course. My gratitude to him is without measure, and I would like to take this opportunity to relate just a few personal examples that demonstrate his love and care for his chasidim.
Back in the early 1950s, while I was still a student at the Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn, I was in a quandary. People were constantly pestering me with dating suggestions, while my parents were reminding me every chance they got that I was now the right age for marriage. But I was not sure what to do. So, on my 23rd birthday, which that year fell on January 8th, I went to see the Rebbe for a blessing and asked him whether I should pursue any of the proposed matches. His answer to me was, “Why in the middle of the winter?”
He didn’t say “go forward,” nor did he tell me “it’s not for you,” he just hinted that I could wait until spring if I wanted to. When spring arrived I was selected, along with nine others, to go to Israel on a special mission. Shortly after Passover that year, terrorists had attacked the village of Kfar Chabad, killing five yeshiva students and one teacher, and the Rebbe sent us to help bolster the residents’ morale.
The Rebbe didn’t order me to go on this mission. He asked me, “Do you want to travel to Israel?” Truth be told, I didn’t want to go, because the journey was hazardous and I knew it would upset my parents, so I answered evasively, “If the Rebbe wants me to go, then I want to go.”
But that was not what the Rebbe wanted to hear, as he immediately made plain: “I am asking you.” So I said that I would go. This pleased him and he promised me, “If you go to Israel, you will find a marriage match.”
The Special Wedding Gift
Wed, Mar 09, 2016
While I was studying at Yeshiva University – in YU’s rabbinical seminary, known as Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan – I became friendly with another student who was a Chabad chasid. He urged me to join a weekly group that was studying the Tanya, authored by the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. At first I wasn’t interested, but he kept telling me how eye-opening the Tanya was and finally he convinced me.
He was right – I found the material most absorbing. Previously, I had studied other classical works of Judaism, but I had never encountered any teaching like this in my life. As well, the teacher, Rabbi Berel Shemtov, was excellent; he explained this complex work in a most interesting way.
Then one day – I believe it was in 1954 – Rabbi Shemtov said to me, “Let’s go see the Rebbe.”
I demurred. “Why go see the Rebbe? What am I going to discuss with him?”
“You will see a great leader,” he replied, and before long he made an appointment for me.
I had previously been to a farbrengen, shortly after the Rebbe assumed the leadership of Chabad in 1951, but I hadn’t formed any kind of opinion about him. I remember that he spoke at length and that I didn’t understand everything he said because I was not familiar with the idioms of Lubavitch then.
But what I liked was that he related the topic – whatever it was, current events or another mundane matter – to Torah. That made a big impression upon me, because I had seen many Rebbes before, who modelled the way of G-d, but who didn’t relate the realities of modern life to Torah.
Never On Friday!
Wed, Mar 02, 2016
I am descended from a Misnagdic family – that is, from those who opposed Chassidism – and yet I am walking this earth because of a blessing from a Chasidic Rebbe, the Rebbe Rayatz, who was the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch from 1920 to 1950.
This is what happened:
During the time that the Rebbe Rayatz was staying in Riga, Latvia, my grandparents were living on the outskirts of the city. In January of 1932, in the freeze of the winter, my grandmother went into labor with my mother, and things started to go wrong. She was rushed to the hospital where the doctors decided that it was necessary to abort the baby in order to save her life.
My grandmother, Frieda Gisha, was unwilling to accept the doctors’ verdict but, fearing for her life, she asked her sister Leah to run to the nearest synagogue and pray for her. She said she would not make any decision until Leah returned.
So, in the middle of the night, Leah, my great-aunt, did just that – like her sister asked, she ran to the nearest synagogue and started praying. She went up to the holy ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, grabbed onto the curtain and pleaded with G-d for the life of her sister and her unborn baby.
As she was praying and crying, a woman tapped her on the shoulder. Leah did not know who this woman was – perhaps the cleaning lady – but when this woman said, “Come with me,” she followed her.
Together they went to where the Rebbe Rayatz was staying at the time and asked for his blessing. They received it in writing, and I still have it – it is a treasured possession in my family. It says: “With the help of G-d, everything will go well. You will give birth to a healthy and living child.”
Leah took this blessing and rushed to the hospital, where she was informed that her sister had just been taken into the delivery room. A short while later Frieda Gissa gave birth in a totally normal way to my mother, Miriam, whom the doctors had recommended aborting.
Our family has kept the Rebbe’s note for these many years. It is preserved in a safe, and we take it out only when a relative is giving birth so she can take it to the hospital with her. I myself have a copy, and I carry it with me wherever I go.
From Flames to Riches
Wed, Feb 24, 2016
The events I am about to describe occurred in 1969 – in the early hours of the 8th day of Tammuz, which was Tuesday, the 24th of June. This is what happened:
A friend, Rabbi Elchanan Geisinsky, invited us to his wedding, which was taking place in Boston on Monday night, and I – along with a group of Chabad yeshiva students – decided to attend. How could we not?
Nine of us piled into a station-wagon and drove from New York to Boston, where we enjoyed the wedding celebration, and it was already past midnight, when we set off for home. As we were getting off the highway, slowing down to exit, a tractor-trailer going about seventy miles an hour hit the back of our car. The driver had tried to avoid crashing into us, but he was going too fast and couldn’t slow down in time. His truck clipped our back corner, which caused our car to flip into the air. I remember waiting for it to land so I could jump out of the back window, which I did.
As soon as the car was hit, it burst into flames. The middle doors jammed, and the three fellows in the middle seats were burned quite severely. One of those from the front who had managed to get out tried to help them to open the door but, as soon as he grabbed the handle, he burned all of his fingers. Eventually, he managed to open the door and everyone got out. Several of the guys had to roll on the grass to put out the flames still licking their clothes but, thank G-d, everyone was okay.
The state trooper who arrived at the scene was just amazed. He said, “I’ve been patrolling this highway for twenty-five years and I never saw a fire like this, with nine people packed into a car, and everybody coming out alive. And the fact that the gas tank didn’t explode was just miraculous.”
When this happened, seeing some of my friends severely burned, Rabbi Meir Minkowitz called the Rebbe’s office even though it was five in the morning. He spoke with his secretary, Rabbi Hodakov, and he pleaded with him to ask the Rebbe for a blessing. His response was that we should check with the doctors first. If they said that somebody’s situation was life-threatening, then he would call the Rebbe. If not, he would speak with the Rebbe first thing in the morning.
Students and Laymen
Wed, Feb 17, 2016
I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1935, a few years before the start the Second World War. As I was growing up I witnessed an influx of Chassidim and their Rebbes – Satmar, Belz, Lubavitch – into Brooklyn. So I got a good taste of Chassidic life at that time.
However, I did not pursue Chassidic life. In fact, when it came time to go to yeshiva, I went to Telz in Cleveland where I stayed for 13 years – from 1950 until 1963. Telz is affiliated more with the non-chasidic “Lithuanian” style of Talmudic study. I left when my rabbis at Telz encouraged me to spend a couple of years teaching in South Africa, where there was a crisis in Jewish education.
So I went, and along with a couple of others, helped establish the first religious school for Jewish children in Johannesburg. We started out with a primary school, then established a high school for boys and after three years, also a high school for girls.
In December of 1966, I began to plan a visit to the United States. One of the items on my agenda was to find someone to head the girls’ high school, and I was hoping to find a suitable candidate in the US.
While in South Africa, I had befriended the Chabad emissaries there, and they encouraged me to see the Rebbe. So I decided to make an appointment, and I hoped the Rebbe might also help me with a recommendation with regard to the position in the high school.
While meeting the Rebbe, I was most impressed with his overwhelming personality. There was no question that he was an intellectual giant – a truly great man. But he also had an ability to see through people that very few have. And when speaking to him, I had a sense of being acknowledged and understood.