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 Soldier’s Wife
Wed, May 24, 2017
In 1973, just before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, I had traveled from Israel (where I was living) to New York to attend my brother’s wedding, and while there, I came to see the Rebbe.
Before the audience was to take place, Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, instructed me to write down my requests on a piece of paper which would be handed into the Rebbe in advance. I did as he instructed – I wrote that I was married with children, that I was teaching in the Chabad school in Lod, and that my children were in daycare which was costing more than the money I was making. I wanted the Rebbe’s advice – should I leave my job and stay home with my kids, instead of borrowing every month to make ends meet?
When I walked into the Rebbe’s office, he had a big pile of letters on his desk and he reached into it to extract my letter – he pulled it out just like that without even looking for it. He read it quickly and then answered my question with this statement:
“I see you are teaching the children of Israel at the school Reshet Oholei Yosef Yitzchak, which is named after my holy father-in law,” he began. “You should know that the education of Jewish children is a conduit for blessing – both material and spiritual – for you and your family for generations to come.”
Then he repeated those words again, and I felt that the audience was over.
It was only after I left that the Rebbe’s words started sinking in. I thought: “The Rebbe is telling me that my job educating children is a conduit for blessings. So clearly, there is only one thing I can do – keep working.” I called my husband, Meir, and after I told him what the Rebbe said, he concurred with my decision.
Before I could return to Israel, however, the Yom Kippur War broke out and the news we were hearing was not good.
My husband was drafted into a combat unit on a moment’s notice and, because I was still in New York, he distributed our children amongst our neighbors and relatives. I was informed that he was sent to the front lines at Ismailia, Egypt but that’s all I knew. I immediately asked Rabbi Groner for another audience with the Rebbe, but he could not schedule it as I had just been to see the Rebbe a few days before. However, after I broke down in tears, he suggested that I wait outside the office and ask for a blessing for my husband when the Rebbe came out.
My heart was pounding, but I mustered the courage to approach the Rebbe as he passed by and make my plea. The Rebbe responded, “When you return to the Holy Land, you will find that all your loved ones are healthy and whole. Be sure to keep in touch with me and let me know the good news. You can call me collect.”
Chasid in Camouflage
Wed, May 17, 2017
My name is Benjamin Blech and I come from a long line of rabbis – in fact, I am the tenth in line to have rabbinic ordination in my family.
My father was a chasidic rabbi – a follower of the Chortkover Rebbe – with a congregation first in Zurich, Switzerland (where I was born) and later in Boro Park. He was also the Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Toras Emes (where I was educated). So my father was also my first and most influential teacher. After Torah Emes, I attended the Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and the Lakewood Yeshiva. I received my rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, as well as a Master’s Degree in psychology from Columbia University. Subsequently, I became a pulpit rabbi – of Young Israel of Oceanside – and also a teacher at Yeshiva University.
I explain my background here because it has a great deal to do with how I came to the attention of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and why, I believe, he selected me for a special mission in the Far East.
The first time I met him was in the 1960s, when I became president of the National Council of Young Israel Rabbis. The Rebbe had called Young Israel and requested that the president of the National Council come to meet him – in order to discuss the issue of Soviet Jewry. Although it was a long time ago, I still remember the awe I felt in coming face-to-face with this Torah giant. I have met many famous and important people, but there was no comparison with any of them and the Rebbe, in terms of the aura of holiness around him.
The Joy of Children
Wed, May 10, 2017
I was not born into a Lubavitcher family. I was educated in the Torah Vodaas school system in Brooklyn. I did my advanced studies at the Mir Yeshiva from 1952 to 1957 receiving rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz.
However, I became a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe because of what happened to a schoolmate of mine. His name was Dovid Shlamyug, and he was a fluent Spanish-speaker from Uruguay. Dovid had a dream to go to Mexico City and open a yeshivah high school something that did not exist in that city. He felt there was a tremendous need for it. He sought the advice of many rabbis in our yeshivah and every one of them told him not to go. And then he went to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Next thing I see is Dovid packing his bags. When I asked him what happened, he explained: “The Rebbe advised me that not only should I go and open a yeshivah , but I should do so immediately. I should get going now and arrive in Mexico Citybefore Shabbat.”
He went and he succeeded; as far as I know that yeshivah is still in existence today. I was so impressed by what happened with him that I resolved to seek the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe if any life issues came up for me.
And of course they did.
One involved a job offer to be the head of the Talmud Torah at Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach. When I told this to the Rebbe during an audience, he gave me the following advice:
“The main job of a Jewish educator is not to convey information, but to instill in his students a fear of Heaven. But to do this, the educator must fear Heaven himself.”
Then he asked: “How can you make sure this is true of you?” In answering this question, the Rebbe used the following analogy. “There are two kinds of water wells,” he said. “One kind is filled from an underground spring, and it never runs dry. Another kind is a cistern which is filled with rain water. This type will run dry if the water is not replenished. An educator is akin to the second type, and he must always be replenishing the water – that is, the fear of Heaven – within himself so he does not run dry. And I want to give you a blessing that you should succeed in constantly replenishing yourself and in conveying a fear of Heaven to your students.”
The Young Role Model
Wed, May 03, 2017
I was born in the USSR in the decade after the Holocaust, shortly after the death of Stalin. By then, there was no day- to-day fear for the Jews of being killed or sent to death camps. By then, the fear was of being persecuted simply for practicing Judaism.
Nevertheless, largely through my grandfather’s efforts, we got a Jewish education, and we stayed loyal to Torah. In 1971, we had the opportunity to get out, and we took it. We came to Israel, where we had relatives, and settled in Kiryat Malachi. I had just finished high school in Russia, and now I enrolled in a language school to learn Hebrew, with the intent of continuing on to university.
At this time, many people were telling my father that his daughter should not be going to the university — that it was not right, not proper, for a religious girl to do this. My father was conflicted and didn’t know how to guide me. Meanwhile, I was determined to get a university education and had enrolled in a preparatory course. But also, I didn’t want to hurt my father or go against him. So, when the opportunity came to visit New York and see the Rebbe – who, I knew, had studied in universities in Paris and Berlin – I seized the chance. I was sure the Rebbe would understand me and also help me put my father’s mind at rest.
In advance of the audience, I wrote a long letter to the Rebbe in Russian, explaining my situation and pouring out my heart. And when I walked into the Rebbe’s office, my letter was lying on the table in front of him. This I remember vividly.
I had been very anxious before this meeting but, in the Rebbe’s presence, I felt calm and comfortable. He was smiling when he started to speak, using a very elegant, poetic Russian. I had only heard this before from very few people who came from
aristocratic families. No one speaks like this anymore. He said, “The university in the modern Western World is not anything like the university was in Europe before World War Two. Back then, the university placed a great deal of value on pure study.
Today it’s not like that. Today, people go to university for the atmosphere and the social groups, while simply acquiring enough knowledge necessary for whatever profession will generate the most income for them.”
At this point his smile grew wider. “But from your letter, I see that is not the reason you want to go.” And, of course, he was one-hundred percent correct.
A Channel for Blessings
Wed, Apr 26, 2017
I grew up in Montreal, where I was educated in the Chabad yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim. In my youth, the availability of kosher products in the city was very limited and so my father, a kosher butcher, opened the first glatt kosher meat market in the city. He did this at the direction of the Rebbe, and the business quickly prospered thanks to the Rebbe’s blessing.
In connection with opening this business, my father had a number of meetings with the Rebbe, and he traveled several times to New York. He took me along in 1954, on the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah.
I recall coming into the Rebbe’s office with my father, and feeling as if I was being x-rayed by the Rebbe’s eyes, as if he could look through me and know everything that I did from beginning to the present. Yet, when he started to speak, his voice was very soothing and my nervousness disappeared.
The Rebbe invited my father to sit down, while I stood of course, out of respect for them both. The Rebbe then asked me what I had seen on Eastern Parkway – the street where Chabad Headquarters is located.
I didn’t how to answer the Rebbe, and I wondered if this was meant to be some kind of trick question.
“What did you see?” the Rebbe repeated.
“I saw people,” I muttered.
“You didn’t see trees?” the Rebbe prompted.
“No, I didn’t pay attention to the trees,” I admitted, though in fact the medians down the middle of Eastern Parkway are full of trees, and there are also trees along the sidewalks on both sides of the street.
“If you would have paid attention, you would have noticed that there are two types of trees planted along the parkway. One tree grows by itself because it has strong roots, but the other needs a fence around it to support it and help it grow straight and tall. You should learn from the tree that has strong roots. If you are steeped in Torah the way a son of a family with strong religious roots ought to be, then you too will grow up strong, for as our rabbis say, a tree with strong roots can stand up to any storm and no winds can tear it down.”
Wed, Apr 19, 2017
In the late 1970s I was living in New York, studying for my Masters in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, from where I received my rabbinic ordination. At the time, my uncle, David Shine, was also living in New York while directing the North American branch of El Al. His job was to oversee all of the El Al departments in the United States, although his main focus was the New York/Tel Aviv connection.
At some point we met up, and he suggested that we go visit the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and see a Chabad gathering. My uncle was a Holocaust survivor, who was not observant in the slightest and didn’t even consider himself to be a believer in G-d. But he had many contacts in the Chabad community, due to the Chabad presence at the airport, where the chasidim sought to reach out to their fellow Jews near the El Al gates. He respected what they were doing and, whenever he had a chance, he would help them in any way he could.
Even though I didn’t have any prior associations with Chabad, I accepted his invitation and decided to go with him to see the Chabad gathering. It was when we arrived that I realized I had never seen something like it before. There were thousands of chasidim in the hall focused on the Rebbe, who sat at a large table in the middle, speaking words of Torah. My uncle didn’t come as a manager of El Al, rather he arrived as a simple person without any fanfare and, together, we blended into the large crowd.
It was a sight to behold – thousands of people crushed together, captured by the Rebbe’s personality and listening to every word that came out of his mouth. Between the Rebbe’s discourses, they would raise their cups, and the Rebbe would say l’chaim! Despite the large crowd, one could tell that every person felt as if the Rebbe was talking just to him. When we left, my uncle was very excited; he said, “You know what, let’s keep in touch and come back here another time.”
A Son’s Concern
Fri, Apr 14, 2017
I was born in 1946 in the city of Lvov, Ukraine. Due to its close proximity to the Polish border, Lvov became the gateway for smuggling Jews out of the Soviet Union. My father was an artist, so he would create counterfeit passports for Jews who wanted to escape to the free world via Poland. During the year I was born, he was caught and sentenced to harsh labor in the Siberian Gulag.
In 1971, when we were living in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, my brother, Shalom Ber, received an exit visa and immigrated to the United States. When he arrived, he sent the Rebbe a picture of the resting place of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had been the rabbi of Yekatrinoslav, Ukraine, when he was arrested by the Soviets for religious activism. He was then exiled to Kazakhstan, where he passed away in 1944 in the city of Alma Ata (which is about 400 miles from Tashkent).
Later, when Shalom Ber went to visit the Chabad Headquarters in New York, the Rebbe – who never had the chance to see his father’s resting place – thanked him for the picture and asked him many questions about it: “Who is buried next to my father?” … “Is the cemetery Jewish?” … and so on.
Noticeable in the picture, which the Rebbe studied closely, was the woeful state of the headstone. It had deteriorated so badly that even some of the words were illegible. Suddenly the Rebbe said, “You told me that you still have family in the Soviet Union. Would you ask them if they could repair my father’s headstone?”
Wed, Mar 29, 2017
My name is Israel Drazin, and I am a rabbi, biblical scholar, and a lawyer. My name is rather well-known in the military because I defended the chaplaincy of the US armed forces in court against two lawyers who claimed it was a violation of the establishment of religion clause of the US Constitution. I won and, as a result, President Ronald Reagan elevated me to the rank of brigadier general.
The story I will relate here happened in 1986, when I had the privilege of meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the time, I was living in Columbia, Maryland, and because the only Orthodox synagogue in the area was the Chabad House, I began an association with the young rabbi there – Rabbi Hillel Baron. It was he who suggested that I might like to attend a farbrengen in New York and meet the Rebbe.
So I put on my uniform and went there. During the farbrengen, one of the chasidim came over and said that the Rebbe wanted me to join him on the dais. When I came up, the Rebbe spoke to me in a mixture of English and Yiddish, which I understood. He blessed me to be “a chaplain in God’s army” and then he said something startling:
“May the Almighty bless you … to influence the gentile soldiers, as well, in fulfilling the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach – the Seven Noahide Laws. Certainly the other gentile chaplains will not be upset that you are mixing into their affairs, because you will actually be helping them. And all this will help bring our righteous Mashiach.”
“I will try to do that,” I responded, but it was a non-committal statement. I was thinking to myself, “It’s absurd that the Rebbe would expect me to stand before non-Jews and speak to them about the Seven Noahide Laws.”
While I knew, of course, about that these basic commandments for all of humanity to live by – prohibiting blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, murder, theft and cruelty to animals, and mandating the establishment of courts of law – I could not imagine myself preaching this as a general in the armed forces. As far as I was concerned, it was a “no go” right from the very beginning.
But, when I had a chance to think about it some more, I said to myself, “Those things that seem to be the most difficult in life are the very things that one should try and do.” So I decided to try and do it.
After some thought, I developed a speech, which I tried it out first on a small Christian audience – and they liked it. The biggest compliment I received was that they wanted to invite me to address the Easter service.
Mon, Mar 27, 2017
I come from Kimyat, a small village in the Carpathian Mountains, from a region that has been variously controlled by Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and (currently) Ukraine.
In 1944, I was taken, along with my family, from Kimyat to various Nazi concentration camps, where my parents and my brothers perished though I survived. Three years after the war ended – once the State of Israel was declared – I volunteered for the Israeli Army and then worked for the Israeli Merchant Marine.
In 1956, I came to Los Angeles where I got married and started a family. Although I was raised in a very religious home in Eastern Europe, I moved away from Yiddishkeit in the United States. Nonetheless, when it came time for putting my kids in school, my wife and I chose the Hillel Hebrew Academy, and we also joined Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue in the area.
After a time, I befriended Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, the Rebbe’s emissary in LA, and began to help him out financially. As part of my association with Chabad – first with Rabbi Cunin and later with Rabbi Shlomo Aaron Kazarnovsky from New York – I embarked on a number of projects in the city. One of these was building a mikveh, another was building a school.
Around that time – it was in the late 1970s – Rabbi Kazarnovsky talked me into making a visit to New York to meet the Rebbe. I took my whole family with me – my wife and my four sons.
When we went in to meet the Rebbe, I expected we would say hello, get a blessing and say good-bye. In fact, I told my driver that we’d be out in ten to fifteen minutes. But that’s not what happened. It turned out to be a very long meeting.
First of all, the Rebbe looked at me and started talking to me in Yiddish, asking me about my background and my Torah learning. He figured out right away that I was a Holocaust survivor, and he urged me to write a book about what I had witnessed. “Don’t hire somebody else to write it; that won’t be good enough. You should do it yourself, and I am sure you will do a good job,” he said.
And I did just that. I wrote the original in English and it was published under the title: A Holocaust Survivor in the Footsteps of his Past. I then sent it to Yad Vashem where it was translated into Hebrew.
Then the Rebbe asked me what I had done in Israel. During the course of that conversation, I got the impression that the Rebbe had no political opinions where Israel was concerned. However, he was adamant that all of the Holy Land belonged to the Jews, and that no one had the right to give any part of it away. He said to me that the development of the Land was a partnership of secular and religious Jews – those who would sit and learn Torah and those who would work in the fields.
Resignation Not Accepted
Wed, Mar 08, 2017
I was born in Israel but my parents moved to Crown Heights when I was only four, and I had the good fortune of growing up in the Lubavitch fold, in close proximity to the Rebbe.
In 1983, my wife Rivka and I had been married for a year already and we were exploring options of becoming Chabad emissaries someplace in the world.
As a result, we set our sights on Columbia University and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. So we asked the Rebbe for his blessing and agreement. The Rebbe responded that this was a good idea, provided my wife agreed. Of course she did, and we went to work.
I started by setting up a hot dog stand at the gates of Columbia University, which was my outreach vehicle, and I also gave a class in Earl Hall on the Tanya, the seminal work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement. Eventually we began expanding to other programs as well.
One year, when the holiday of Purim was approaching, I copied an idea from a fellow Chabad emissary by producing a Purim flyer which advertised a UPS (United Purim Service.) The flyer proclaimed “This is the whole Megilla” across the top, and which then went on to say that many Jews heard of Magilla Gorilla but most Jews never heard of the real “Megilla.” Magilla Gorilla was a popular kids’ cartoon in the 1960s, featuring a gorilla dressed in a bow tie, shorts held up by suspenders and an undersized derby hat.
It also said that, on Purim, Jews share in joy and revelry, and among many other things, it offered two kinds of Shalach Manot gift options — a $4.95 and $6.95, one was with grape juice, one was with wine — to be delivered by a clown on the campus during the Holiday of Purim.
I printed this flyer and, because I had a custom to submit everything to the Rebbe, I sent this also, never expecting any kind of response. But, within a few days, I was amazed to get a call from the Rebbe’s secretary that the Rebbe had edited my flyer. I went to Chabad Headquarters and saw that the Rebbe had made some significant changes.
First, the Rebbe crossed out “Magilla Gorilla.” I’m not sure why the Rebbe objected to it, but I suppose that he didn’t think it was necessary to mention pop-culture, especially in this context. Where the flyer said that “most Jews don’t know what a real Magilla is” the Rebbe crossed out “most” and substituted “not all.” He clearly didn’t want us making this kind of judgment about our fellow Jews. And where the flyer mentioned “joy and revelry,” the Rebbe crossed out “revelry.” Obviously, “revelry” has a negative connotation.