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!
Honoring Loved Ones
Wed, Feb 03, 2016
When I was a boy, my father – an immigrant from Bialystok, Poland – accepted the post as a rabbi of a synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn. This was in the early 1940s, and this is when I first encountered the world of Chabad-Lubavitch.
I attended the Chabad elementary school on Dean Street, where my teacher, Rabbi Meir Greenberg – who later became my brother-in-law – was very concerned about my hearing. Indeed, I was nearly deaf and the doctors whom my parents consulted recommended surgery. So Meir decided to bring me to the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing that the operation should go well.
I remember the encounter vividly. I remember that the Rebbe’s gaze was very intense but that he also looked at me with great compassion. He smiled kindly and told me not to worry, that I would hear again. As it turned out, the surgery was successful, and I was able to hear quite well afterwards.
A few years later, my family moved to New Jersey, and although I came to Chabad Headquarters from time to time for farbrengens, I was not part of the Chabad world.
I got married and became a rabbi of a synagogue in San Antonio Texas, and later in Long Branch, New Jersey. While there, my oldest daughter became very sick, and I contacted the Rebbe – this time the last Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – for his blessing. He urged me to go to California to see a physician there who was world renowned. This physician helped her, and she recovered for a time, but after five years – at age seventeen – she passed away.
When that happened, we decided to establish a high school in her name in Deal, New Jersey. But there were complications from the start, as some of the donors wanted a co-ed school, and we wanted a girls’ school. And then there was the question of the site itself. We found a beautiful mansion that was the perfect building for the school. But the Jewish neighbors opposed the idea, fearing the value of their properties would go down.
Transforming a Family
Wed, Jan 27, 2016
I would like to tell you the story of how my late husband, Dr. Rodney Unterslak, and I started on the path toward Yiddishkeit, and the role the Rebbe played in our journey.
In 1975, after a relationship of six years, Rodney and I married. At the time, we had absolutely no connection to Judaism, other than the fact that we both came from traditional Jewish families and both of our parents had made us very keenly aware of our roots.
After we were married for about three years, Rodney was called up for military service in the South African army. At that time I was pregnant with our first child, and we decided to avoid the draft by immigrating to London, where Rodney was offered an attractive teaching position at a prestigious hospital.
Before we left South Africa, our daughter was born – this was in January of 1978 – and, on an impulse, Rodney decided to do something most unusual for someone not the least bit observant. He went to synagogue to name the baby during the Torah reading.
Six weeks later we arrived in London, where we opted to share a house with a couple – Alon and Rena Teeger – who were very dear friends of ours. They had emigrated from South Africa to England several years before us and had become religious there. In order to stay with them, we had to agree to keep the kitchen kosher and not to violate Shabbos in their presence, all of which we were happy to do in order to have their company and guidance in unfamiliar surroundings.
Indeed, when we arrived in London, I was a complete basket casebecause I never really wanted to leave South Africa, where my entire extended family resided. So I was very happy to move in with the Teegers.
Chivalry on the Upper East Side
Wed, Jan 20, 2016
During the war years, my father-in-law, Boris Gorlin, worked with the Rebbe – when the Rebbe was not yet the Rebbe but the son-in-law of the Rebbe, employed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an electrical engineer. It was in this capacity that he had frequent contact with my father-in-law who was also involved in the war effort.
After the war, their association ended, and it was not until 1977 that my father-in-law saw the Rebbe again. I was present at their meeting, and this is the story I would like to relate here.
At that time, our Upper East Side synagogue needed a rabbi, and my father-in-law decided to ask the Rebbe for a recommendation. So, we made an appointment for an audience, prior to which we were briefed by the Rebbe’s secretary how to behave. We were to walk in and stand in front of the Rebbe, who would be sitting at his desk; we were to state our business, listen to what the Rebbe had to say and then excuse ourselves. The secretary would signal us to leave by opening the door; when the door opened we were to back out of the room.
But nothing went according to plan. When our turn came, the Rebbe came to the door, escorted us in and refused to sit down until we were both seated. He also offered us a drink, and then signaled to the secretary that he didn’t want to be disturbed. He seemed genuinely delighted to see my father-in-law after all these years, and it appeared he expected it to be more than just a brief visit.
He opened the conversation by saying, “Boris, you and I can speak in Russian, or French or Yiddish, but your son-in-law doesn’t understand those languages, so let’s speak in English.” Thus the rest of the conversation proceeded in English.
Wed, Jan 13, 2016
My name is Shmuel Levine. I was born in Germany after the war to Holocaust survivors, who migrated to the United States on the first day of spring in 1949. Although I don’t remember any of it, that’s what I’ve been told.
What I do remember is that the Rebbe saved my father’s life. After the war, my father was a beaten-down man. We were living with my uncle in (Worcester). My father didn’t care about our surroundings at all – as long as there was a roof over our heads and food on the table, that was enough for him. He took whatever menial job did not require him to violate Shabbos. He worked as a tailor and as a presser; he didn’t care about the wage. But this lifestyle was all too depressing for my mother – she said, “I can’t live like this.”
So my father tried starting a business, but he had no confidence in himself whatsoever. He didn’t know what to do or where to turn. And then Rabbi Hirschel Fogelman who is a very dear friend and mentor, somebody that I revere, said to him, “Mr. Levine, you really need to see the Rebbe.”
Rabbi Fogelman arranged an audience with the Rebbe, and from that very first meeting, the Rebbe became like a father to my father. I guess that means the Rebbe became my Zeide.
I vividly remember that first meeting with the Rebbe, even though I was very young – only nine years old – and my brother was not yet three; he hadn’t yet had his first haircut. He had beautiful reddish-gold curly hair and a great smile. I remember my brother literally climbing on the Rebbe’s lap – and the Rebbe smiling.
A Successful Conference
Wed, Jan 06, 2016
I come from Johannesburg, South Africa, where I have been in the insurance business since 1964, and where I first became involved with Chabad. Although I was not observant back then, Judaism mattered to me. When my wife and I got married in 1976, we decided to keep a kosher home.
I first met the Rebbe in 1977. I had come to New York for a business conference organized by the insurance company which was employing me at the time. The company was dominated by Jews, none of whom was observant. And they’d scheduled the conference over Shabbat, just before Passover.
I participated in a part of the conference, but in middle I went off on my own. Instead of joining the others, I came to Brooklyn to see the Rebbe.
At the time, there was a possibility that the company would be sold. Like all the employees, I was unsure what to do if that happened. Should I stay or leave? This is what I wanted to ask the Rebbe.
I had never met the Rebbe before and, while I awaited my turn, I was a bit anxious. I didn’t know what to expect and what the outcome would be. I had written out my questions and given them to the Rebbe’s secretary.
My anxiety was further increased by the instructions I received: “A lot of people are waiting. Hand the Rebbe your letter, and don’t say anything. The Rebbe will respond to you. So as not to take up a lot of his time, speak only if the Rebbe asks you a specific question.
Behind The Miracle
Wed, Dec 30, 2015
I first met the Rebbe in the early 1950s, shortly after he had assumed leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch and shortly after I was appointed chairman of the Israel Commission of the Rabbinical Council of America. In this capacity I was involved with issues affecting religious life in the State of Israel, which were of great interested to the Rebbe. And so, we frequently met to discuss the highly controversial issues of the day, such as religious women serving in the IDF, the place of non-Jews in the Jewish state, how the state should define who is a Jew, and so on.
Many a time, I came to see him at about midnight and left at four in the morning. During those meetings, it became apparent to me that the Rebbe had a tremendous amount of knowledge of what was going on in Israel, including many minute details. He knew who was who in the Knesset and in every one of its subcommittees. He knew of every government meeting on every subject, and who was against and or for a particular position. It was quite an experience to listen to him speak about government meetings as though he was there.
As well, he knew what was going on with Jews everywhere, whether in Arab countries, Eastern European countries, South Africa, or North and South America. He had to know in order to send his emissaries to shore up Jewish communities all over the globe. As far as I’m concerned, he is the individual most responsible for the re-construction of Jewish life after the Holocaust.
His efforts earned him admiration from the most unexpected quarters. For one, I can testify that David Ben Gurion admired the Rebbe. In my conversations with Ben Gurion, he expressed the greatest admiration for the Rebbe’s knowledge, for the fact that the Rebbe had studied at the Sorbonne and was as well versed in the sciences as in Torah. This was unheard of in a chasidic Rebbe, and it impressed Ben Gurion to no end.
A Child’s Gift
Wed, Dec 23, 2015
While I was studying in the Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn – where I had the merit to spend three-and-a-half years in the early 1980s – I made it a point of observing the Rebbe as much as possible. As a result, I saw and learned some amazing things. But nothing impressed me more than the Rebbe’s sensitivity and love for little children.
It was the Rebbe’s practice to visit the Ohel, the resting place of his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, on a bi-weekly basis. Whenever he went, he went alone. And he would take sacks full of letters sent by people asking for blessings – for health, for livelihood, for marriage, for family, for success. He would spend many hours praying and reading those letters. Often he would spend the whole afternoon there, coming back only before nightfall to join the minyan for prayers.
The one time of the year when people would join the Rebbe at the Ohel was the day before Rosh Hashanah and, in 1982, I decided to go as well.
I got there early in the morning, just before the Rebbe arrived, and I picked a good spot to stand – as close as possible to the tziyun, the tomb itself – from where I could see the Rebbe clearly.
First he prayed; then he opened the huge sack that he had brought with him and started pulling out letters one by one. He would read each letter very quickly, tear it and let it fall onto the tziyun. He read hundreds of letters – one after the other, one after the other, reading each one, tearing it and letting it fall. After a while, it seemed as if a cascade of paper was falling, falling, falling onto the Tziyun.
Here he was, a man in his 80s, standing for hours on end, reading an endless stream of letters that contained all the troubles of so many Jews – letter after letter.
As I was watching him, he pulled out a packet of papers – not white like the other letters, but colorful, like drawing paper – and started reading these colorful letters just as he did the others. When he tore them and they were falling before my eyes, I recognized from the big square letters and fanciful decorations that they were from children in kindergarten. A teacher somewhere must have told the kids to request blessings for the New Year, and then sent all their scribblings in one packet.
The Uniqueness of Education
Wed, Dec 16, 2015
When I was twenty-one and newly graduated from Yeshiva University, I decided to join a group of friends and spend the next year in Israel, learning Torah at Yeshivat Har Etzion.
Before leaving, I went to see the Rebbe to ask for a blessing, and during that audience I also asked his advice about what course my career should take. I was very interested in psychology, as my brother had taken that path, but I was also considering Jewish education because I loved teaching kids and I was successful doing that during my college years.
I arrived early for my appointment – this was in the summer of 1974 – in order to recite some Psalms in the Chabad Beit Midrash as my preparation for the meeting with the Rebbe, which I took very seriously.
As I was doing that, I remembered stories I’d heard about the famed 15th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who could read people just by looking at their foreheads and knowing what they had done, both good and not so good. It occurred to me that the Rebbe might be able to do the same thing, and I began to tremble; I couldn’t stop trembling for several minutes. At that point, a thought entered my mind, “Why am I so concerned about what the Rebbe is going to think of me? Why am I not more concerned about what G-d thinks of me? Shouldn’t that be more important?”
I do believe that it was the Rebbe’s presence that led me to this understanding, and I felt grateful to him for the awe of G-d that he instilled in me at that moment.
When I saw the Rebbe in person, I discussed my career choices with him, and I asked what he thought of psychology versus education.
He was all for me going into education. He said that a psychologist often deals with emotional illness of some sort or another, but a teacher can prevent such illness. A Jewish teacher in particular is educating children in a healthy way of life, according to the Torah, which is the Tree of Life.
Do Your Best
Wed, Dec 09, 2015
As a college student in the early 1960s, I had occasion to attend a psychology seminar in Bethel, Maine. Since kosher meat and bread would not be available, my mother prepared a large care package, including salami and some matzah. Fruits and vegetables I planned to purchase locally.
When I arrived, I noticed that the majority of the three hundred participants were Jewish, but I was the only one with a yarmulke. Immediately, several students came over to ask me, “Where are you getting kosher food?”
I offered to share my salami with them, and together we figured out how to prepare our meals in the seminar’s kitchen.
Other students also came over to me to ask questions about Judaism. Although I was not brought up chasidic, I had admired Chabad’s outreach work among unaffiliated Jews and I had brought a packet of Chabad brochures with me. Within a couple of days, I had given them all out, so I wrote a letter to Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, requesting more. In my letter, I said that I’d been speaking with many Jewish students who had never seen an Orthodox Jew in their entire lives, and I expressed pessimism as to what effect I could possibly have on them since, once the seminar was over, they would return to their secular environments.
Rabbi Groner showed my letter to the Rebbe and, a short while later, he called me to convey the Rebbe’s message: “M’darf ton, der Aibershter vet upton – You need to do whatever you can. Leave the rest to G-d.”
Every Child Matters
Wed, Dec 02, 2015
In 1970, when my daughter was about two years old, she stuck a Q-tip into her ear and punctured a membrane, which caused a mastoid infection. We didn’t know what had happened until we saw pus coming out and realized that she was losing her hearing.
She was operated on two times, but each time the surgery failed. We felt she was getting good care at the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham where we lived at the time; the doctors there were highly competent, but their efforts did not succeed. As they say in Yiddish, “S’iz nisht gegeingen – It just didn’t go.” The pus was still forming and draining from her ear. Needless to say, we were very worried.
So I decided to write to the Rebbe to ask for a blessing. A short while later, I got a call from Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, instructing me to check the mezuzah on the door of her bedroom. He also said that the Rebbe suggested that we consult a doctor who specialized in ear surgery down south, near where we lived. He didn’t give me a name or precise location, but said that, if I did a little research, I would find him easily.
In response, I told Rabbi Groner that I had checked every mezuzah in our house about four months ago, and they were fine. I asked if I should do all that again, or just check the one on the door of my daughter’s room. He said, “That you checked them before is not relevant. The Rebbe says to check this one mezuzah – where the child sleeps – so that’s what you have to do.”
When I got this call, it just so happened that one of the Rebbe’s emissaries – Yossi Gerlitzky, who is now a rabbi in Tel Aviv – was visiting my house. We had known each other since childhood. So I told him what Rabbi Groner had said, and we both removed the mezuzah from the door.