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 Black Belt with the Black Hat
Wed, Jan 17, 2018
I was born Philip Jacobs, although I was better known as “Flip Jacobs” in the predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. But in 1967 – when I was 11 – we moved to South Royalton, Vermont, a hamlet with a population of only 900, where we were the only Jews in town. There was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism brewing there, and I got a bitter taste of it when I started school.
The school administration could not prevent the beatings I was routinely subjected to on and off school property, and it became painfully clear that I had to learn to defend myself. So my parents signed me up for karate classes with a South Korean master. From the beginning, I trained intensely – five hours a day, every day of the week. I got my black belt at age 18, and won many regional tournaments including the 1976 YMCA East Coast Black Belt Heavy Weight title. I spent my high school and college years training and competing in karate with the plan to eventually fight in the Olympics.
While I was attending the University of Vermont, I met Rabbi Shmuel Hecht, the Chabad emissary there, who immediately invited me to his house for Shabbos dinner and repeated that invitation every week. He called me Fishel, which nobody called me before. He would say, “Fishel, the Rebbetzin made great food for you, she made chicken wings for you…” How could I refuse? After a while, he also invited me to the synagogue on Saturday morning. So I started going there as well.
I graduated college in 1979 when, with Rabbi Hecht’s encouragement, I enrolled in the Hadar HaTorah yeshivah in Crown Heights. Of course, being so close to Chabad Headquarters, I saw the Rebbe every day when he came to pray Minchah. And I made of point of standing near him. I recall the Rebbe looking at me – straight into my eyes – and I believe that he must have been reading my soul.
A 2017 ‘My Encounter’ Story
Tue, Jan 16, 2018
By Rabbi Avraham Bekhor
Approximately ten years ago I met Mr. Bernard Cytryn, a Holocaust Survivor and a Korean War veteran. Reb Baruch, as he is known to my family, lives in my town and was a neuromuscular massage therapist. Reb Baruch’s energy and happiness drew me to him like a magnet and he became like a Zaide to us.
The first time we met I was having one of my low Shlichus days, not feeling successful and being hard on myself when in walks BARUCH! He was excited to show me a treasured letter from the Rebbe dated the 5th of Tammuz 5711 (1951). Of course, the Rebbe’s words hit me hard. It read: “It was a little surprising to me that you do not mention anything about your personal contact with your friends in matters of Yiddishkeit, for while influence by good example is effective often enough, it is necessary to make it the subject of conversation whenever possible.”
Reb Baruch hand delivered a message from the Rebbe to redirect me and help me focus on what’s important.
Reb Baruch went on to share his story with me. He narrowly escaped the line marching towards the crematorium in Aushwitz as a 13 year old boy. Sadly, he was the only survivor of his entire family – or so he thought. As he would say, “my family was destroyed.” And for Bernard Cytryn family means everything.
Even though he had an opportunity to escape Nazi Germany in the beginning of the war, his dear Mama couldn’t part with him, so he stayed. With G-d’s help he made it over to America after the war and despite all his atrocious memories of the past he signed up to fight in the Korean War. He was grateful to the United States for saving his life during the Holocaust and he wanted to give back.
A friend of his, Rabbi Eliyahu Gross took him to yechidus with the Rebbe before he left for Korea. The Rebbe told him to put on Tefilin everyday while he is overseas and gave him a bracha to return home safely. He remembers how: “the bullets were whizzing by the right side of my face and the left side of my face, but they didn’t touch me because of the Rebbe’s blessing.”
After hearing this encounter with the Rebbe, I quickly connected Reb Baruch with Rabbi Yechiel Cagen of JEM’s My Encounter project, who interviewed him in 2010. In fact, Bernard’s story was one of those selected in JEM’s new book, My Story.
Take Care of Yourself
Wed, Jan 10, 2018
My parents were Gerer chasidim from Poland who immigrated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That is where my father, Rabbi Chanoch Henech Rosenfeld, befriended a neighbor of ours, Rabbi Mordechai Groner, who was a Lubavitcher. And this eventually led to our entire family becoming Lubavitcher chasidim.
There came a time in the late 1940s when I was working for the Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, which was headed by Rabbi J.J. Hecht, a prominent Chabad rabbi. And he decided that I would make a good wife for his brother Peretz.
We got married in 1949, and shortly before the wedding we came to get a blessing from the Rebbe – this was the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was wheelchair bound due to the injuries he suffered in a Soviet prison. I remember that he said to me in Yiddish, “A bride can ask for all good things under the wedding canopy, so G-d should give you the wisdom to know what to ask for, and whatever you ask for should be fulfilled.” I remember that, because of his condition, he could barely speak. He had to struggle to express himself and that just broke my heart, so I stood there crying and crying and crying.
That was my encounter with the Previous Rebbe, who passed away a year later, and in 1951, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, his son-in-law, took over the leadership of Chabad as the Rebbe.
After being married for four years, we still had no children, and I came to ask for the Rebbe’s blessing. He said to me, “Did my father-in-law know about this situation?” I said that he did. “Then do what he advised.”
The Previous Rebbe had recommended that I go into a hospital and undergo various tests to find out why I couldn’t conceive. I never did that, but now I did. And I became pregnant – news which my husband joyfully reported to the Rebbe.
Good News, Guaranteed
Wed, Jan 03, 2018
In 1987, we moved from South Africa to the United States, where we had the good fortune to meet the Chabad emissary in Tarzana, California – Rabbi Mordy Einbinder – and join his synagogue.
After we had been living there for about a year, we noticed that Ryan, our two-and-a-half-year-old son was acting oddly, constantly bruising himself, and then we saw blisters on his tongue. Something was seriously wrong, so we took him to a see a pediatrician who immediately ordered blood tests and x-rays. Within hours, the diagnosis was in. Ryan had leukemia, and he was rushed to Children’s Hospital.
As soon as we had the chance, we informed Rabbi Mordy of what was going on, and he helped us draft a letter to the Rebbe, requesting a blessing for speedy recovery.
Very quickly thereafter, a letter came from the Rebbe saying he would pray for Ryan at the resting place of the Previous Rebbe, and that we should inform him of Ryan’s recovery. His exact words were: “You will report good news,” as if it was a given that we would have good news to report.
At that point, Ryan was the sickest child on the hospital floor – among all the children there with cancer, he was in the worst shape and he was not eating anything. But, after the Rebbe gave his blessing, Ryan sat up and drank a whole bottle.
After the doctors commenced treatment, Ryan was isolated in a kind of a plastic room designed to filter out all germs, as he was highly susceptible to infection. We had to don special spacesuits, gloves and masks to even come near him.
Meanwhile, with Rabbi Mordy’s help, we started sending weekly progress reports to the Rebbe, and thank G-d, we were able to say that Ryan was beginning to recover. Indeed, the leukemia went into remission very fast, though he was still extremely ill.
The Pharmacist’s Son
Wed, Dec 27, 2017
I grew up in Crown Heights where my father, Morris Milstein, operated a well-known drugstore – Milstein’s Pharmacy – at the corner of Troy and Lefferts.
Although my father attended the morning prayers every day, he was not a religious man – that is, he did not wear a yarmulke, and his pharmacy was opened seven days a week.
Back then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, pharmacies were not what they are today. The medicines did not come packaged in bottles ready to be taken – they had to be prepared with a mortar and pestle, and I remember my father physically grinding chemicals to make tablets and capsules.
My father basically functioned as a doctor with people coming to him for medical advice, and he practically lived in that drugstore, where my mother also worked.
Even though we were not Lubavitchers, over time, my father developed a strong friendship with the Rebbe, and my mother with the Rebbe’s wife.
So Far, Yet So Close
Thu, Dec 21, 2017
I met the Rebbe for the first time in 1969, when I was fourteen years old. Back then, I was living and learning in London, in a small Lubavitch school, but I wanted to learn in a real yeshivah, and so I asked the Rebbe if I could do that. The Rebbe approved and I went to the Lubavitch yeshivah in Brunoy, near Paris. Eventually, I transferred to the main Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah in Crown Heights, New York, where I lived and learned for close to ten years.
In 1980, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, who was the Chabad emissary in Australia, approached me about joining other young married men in staffing his kollel post-graduate learning group in Melbourne.
I wasn’t very keen on the idea but, since he had come to me, I felt that it was worth considering. I had also received two other proposals so I decided to write to the Rebbe and request his advice. In my letter, I listed all three of my options with the invitation to Australia last, and I asked the Rebbe which option I should choose.
Two weeks passed, but I received no reply. Meanwhile, Rabbi Groner was anxious to know whether I was coming or not. “What do you want from me?” I responded, “I wrote to the Rebbe but I got no reply!”
Rabbi Groner apparently followed up with the Rebbe, who replied that the interested parties should ask again. I wrote again and, on that same day, we received the Rebbe’s answer. He had crossed out the other two potential destinations I had put forth, and underlined “Australia” as the place where I should go.
The Reluctant Philosopher
Wed, Dec 13, 2017
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, in the middle of the Great Depression, in a Jewish environment that was predominantly Reform. But, when my father passed away in 1943, right after my Bar Mitzvah, I began to attend the local Orthodox synagogue in order to say Kaddish for him. Then, after the year of mourning ended, I continued to participate in the minyan. As well, I started keeping Shabbat – which was a challenge when I had to miss playing with my team in a basketball tournament, but I persevered.
In 1949, Rabbi Zalman Posner, a Chabad emissary, came to town and ignited within me an interest to seriously study Torah texts. At that time I was attending Vanderbilt University, where I was also seriously studying philosophy.
And that is where my story begins.
Through the intercession of my mentor at Vanderbilt, Professor Arthur Smallion, I was accepted to Harvard University for graduate studies in philosophy. But I wasn’t sure that I should go there – a university in Edinburgh, Scotland, had also accepted me and that exotic location appealed more to me. Meanwhile, I decided to spend my summer vacation of 1952 at the Chabad yeshivah in New York.
While there, I had my first audience with the Rebbe.
Very Old Wisdom for a Very Young Man
Thu, Dec 07, 2017
I was born in 1941 in New York to a Lubavitch family. I was nine years old when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Previous Rebbe, passed away, but it wasn’t till I turned ten that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the Rebbe and formally took over the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch.
What I remember about him from that time is that he was always busy. He wasn’t a person who would sit around and chat. He was always doing something. When I saw him walking in the street, his mouth was always moving, as he recited words of Torah. He never wasted a moment.
The other thing I remember is that he refused to stand on ceremony. Although he was not yet the Rebbe, people were already treating him as such and – out of deference – trying not to shake hands with him. But he wouldn’t have it, and he’d extend his hand to them. I remember that once, on a Shabbat during the period between the previous Rebbe’s passing and his formal acceptance of the leadership, he gave me his hand, but I wouldn’t shake it. He said, “What is this? You also?”
“I’m working on being a chasid,” I responded, and he broke out in a wide smile. At that moment my connection to him began, and I became a chasid of the Rebbe. From then on he took a serious interest in me, shaping my learning as well as my life.
In 1952, the Rebbe gave Chanukah gelt to people who were studying Chasidic teachings. The Rebbe called my father into his office and asked him if he was learning Chassidic teachings with me. My father wasn’t, and he justified himself by saying, “But he is still a young boy.” The Rebbe didn’t accept that. He said, “You must teach him,” and he suggested that we start with a discourse from Likkutei Torah entitled Adam Ki Yakriv, which is a customary entry point into Chasidic philosophy. He also gave my father a silver dollar which I was to receive after learning the discourse.
The Filmmaker’s Vision
Wed, Nov 29, 2017
As a kid, I used to love reading books. In fact, I opened my own home library at the age of seven. And that’s when it started. One morning, I just got up and I could not open my eyes. In a panic, I ran to the bathroom to try to put some water on my eyes, but that didn’t help. My eyelids were glued shut.
My father – who himself was a doctor at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem – took me to the emergency room and, after a series of tests, they discovered that I was suffering from a very rare eye disease – in a nutshell, I was allergic to the sun.
From then on, for several years, when I woke up every morning, my eyes were glued shut. I would have to apply various creams and solutions to open them again. This took a long time. I had to get up at about 6:00 in order to open my eyes by 7:30, when I would have to get ready for school. I had to do this morning after morning.
My father sent me to every eye specialist he knew. But nothing any one of them tried helped. My sun allergy meant that any exposure to the sun would cause my eyes to swell up, and I would feel a sharp pain like someone jabbing me with needles. Besides that, my eyes were always itching and tearing.
I had to wear special sunglasses prescribed especially for me and, wherever I went, curtains had to be drawn the entire time I was in the room. At school, I was subject to mockery for a long time, though after a while the kids got used to me and my unusual appearance.
Mediating Between Heaven and Earth
Thu, Nov 23, 2017
My story begins in 1972.
At that time, I was a gutsy but confused young student who had recently been arrested and briefly imprisoned by the South African police and was standing trial for anti-apartheid activities. I also fancied myself as something of a spiritual activist promoting a particular Indian meditation technique. As well, I had begun to investigate a more inspired form of Judaism than the mediocre Jewish education I had received which ended with my Bar Mitzvah.
And that is when Rabbi Mendel and Mashi Lipskar arrived as the Rebbe’s emissaries to South Africa. I began receiving weekly Shabbat invitations to their home and to the homes of other members of the then tiny Chabad community. The warm atmosphere and the rich and wholesome environment in which their children were being brought up inspired me and modelled the type of home that I, in due course, hoped to establish.
After a while, Rabbi Lipskar suggested that I and a friend of mine spend a year or two in yeshivah. He wrote to the Rebbe, who responded that my friend should go to yeshiva immediately. I, however, was told to complete my undergraduate degree and then study in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad under Rabbi Zalman Gafne. But for Rabbi Lipskar’s suggestion – and the Rebbe’s endorsement – it would never have entered my mind to attend a yeshiva.
Rabbi Lipskar also suggested that I ask the Rebbe whether my meditation technique was compatible with Judaism. The Rebbe wrote back, recommending that I embrace Jewish prayer instead:
“It is hardly necessary to emphasize that the benefit you will get from the observation of tefillah three times a day is a true and lasting benefit, and incomparably greater to any benefit that one can find in strange pastures, G-d forbid …