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 Matter is in Your Hands
Wed, Jun 13, 2018
When I was four years old, all the Jews of my birthplace – Gura Humorului, Romania – were deported to Transnistria, where most perished at the hands of the fascists allied with the Nazis, including my own grandmother. My family and I survived and, in 1950, just before my Bar Mitzvah, we managed to leave Romania and immigrate to Israel.
Once in Israel, I went looking for a yeshivah and, although my parents were Vishnitzer chasidim, by chance I ended up in a Lubavitcher yeshivah in Lod. There I learned for about eighteen months before my father, worried about my ability to earn a living in the future, took me out and sent me to learn car mechanics in Tel Aviv. When informed of my plan to leave, Rabbi Yonah Edelkopf suggested that I write to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for advice.
I was shocked at the suggestion. Who was I, a fifteen year old teenager, to be writing to the Rebbe?! But he persisted in trying to convince me that I should. When he told me, “Write to the Rebbe that Yonah Edelkopf told you to write,” he finally succeeded in convincing me.
So I wrote, explaining my family situation and my reasons for leaving. The Rebbe responded:
It is clear that since, through miraculous circumstances, you have merited to enter a yeshivah … you must recognize how you are being assisted from on high to follow a path which is good for you materially and spiritually. And you should also understand that, in order to test you, thoughts occasionally fall in to you mind about abandoning your studies. You must get rid of these thoughts … Clearly, when the time comes for you to support yourself, the One who sustains all living will also provide a livelihood for you … A person’s livelihood depends exclusively on the Holy One Blessed Be He, so connecting with his Torah and mitzvot now are a great way to help you earn a living later on, while leaving the tent of Torah too early will only disturb this …
However, despite the Rebbe’s advice, I wound up leaving the yeshivah to become a mechanic’s apprentice in secular Tel Aviv. To do so, I cut my long side-curls, my long peyot, which I knew my employer and co-workers would consider strange. I didn’t want to feel ashamed in front of them.
One day, however, as I was coming home from my apprentice job covered in dirt and oil, I began to feel bad that I had left the yeshivah, and so I wrote to the Rebbe again. And, as before, and as many times since then, he answered.
A Great G-d in a Tiny Room
Wed, Jun 06, 2018
I grew up in 1950s Brooklyn in a very American home – that is, we knew we were Jews, but we led an American lifestyle. For me, this translated into sports participation. Indeed, I became so good at baseball, America’s favorite pastime that, while in college, I was scouted by the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But that was not to be, as I was a student during a time of turbulence in America, the time of the Vietnam War. I was drafted and called to report for a physical to the induction center at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. Many people were trying to get out of the draft back then, but I was taught that “you’ve got to face it,” so I did.
I fully expected, as an athlete in top condition, to pass the physical, but I was very nervous about being sent to Vietnam and all that it meant, so I prayed – though it was more like I mumbled than prayed – “G-d, if You get me out of this, I will do whatever You want.”
And G-d got me out of it. At the end of all the tests, they found that I had a hearing problem – which was total news to me – and I received an exemption.
I left the induction center crying with happiness. I realized that I had been saved, which moved me very deeply.
Shortly thereafter, I had a strange dream. In that dream, I was in a field, holding a shovel, and I was digging up a gigantic footprint. In that field, there were other people (some of them people I knew) who were doing the same thing – also digging up their footprints.
At some point in the dream, I saw an open book which read, “King Solomon had deep faith.” And then I looked up to the sky and heard a voice from on high saying, “There is going to be a resurrection of the dead,” and I turned to see millions of graves.
When I woke up, I was very moved by this dream, but I didn’t know what it meant.
The Power of One Blessing
Wed, May 30, 2018
My story starts in 1914, when my grandfather, Rabbi Gershon Katzman, came from White Russia to the US for medical treatment. But then World War I broke out, and he was stranded here. He became the rabbi of a small Orthodox community in San Francisco, while waiting to return home. But that was not to be. The Russian Revolution followed World War I, and it took him almost ten years to get his family out, including his daughter (my mother), my father (Rabbi Yaakov Karasick) and their children (my sisters and I).
Incidentally, my father came from the city of Barbruysk, which was the home to a large Chabad community – in fact, the name Karasick is a common name of the Lubavitchers from that area. Throughout his life, my own father kept some of his old Chabad customs, even though he was cut off from his fellow chasidim while living in San Francisco.
I grew up there as a young boy but, after my Bar Mitzvah, I was sent away for religious studies which did not exist nearby. Eventually, I enrolled in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon (which is now called RIETS and is a part of Yeshiva University). There I became a student of Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, better known as the Rav, and received rabbinic ordination from him in 1945, at the tender age of twenty-three.
A year later, on the day of my wedding, my grandfather decided that I should get a blessing from somebody very special and holy. Although he himself was not the least bit chasidic, my grandfather selected the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe as that person. It was strange that my grandfather would make this choice, but it must have been Divine Providence.
The Rebbe was very ill at that time, having suffered terribly in Soviet prison before coming to the US. He was wheelchair-bound and could barely speak. He was in terrible pain, and he passed away three years later. However, he agreed to give us his blessing.
Who is a Chassid?
Thu, May 24, 2018
After earning a Ph. D. in biological sciences and studying medicine at Oxford, I was appointed assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Bacteriology at the University of California in Berkley. When I took up this post in 1957, I moved with my family to the San Francisco area. While there, I befriended Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, who was the Rebbe’s emissary to California, and I believe that it was Rabbi Cunin who brought me to the Rebbe’s attention.
The first and only time that I met the Rebbe was after a trip that I made to the Soviet Union in 1965, when the Rebbe asked to see me.
That year the Soviets decided to host their first symposium in modern medicine to which they invited twenty-five scientists from abroad, along with twenty-five of their own scientists. It was a very select symposium, and I was one of those honored by their invitation.
However, I didn’t feel honored. I knew very well about the oppression of the Jews in the Soviet Union, so I refused to attend. But then, Avraham Harman, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, appeared on my doorstep and convinced me that I should go. He told me of the dire situation the Jews in the USSR were facing – many had been imprisoned for minor offenses such as hoarding flour, which they were only saving to bake matzot for Passover! He told me that the staff of the Israeli embassy in Moscow was under constant watch and could not reach out to the Jewish community, but that I would have a chance they did not. I would be going to Russia as a VIP with special privileges; I would have a car and driver at my disposal, and I would have the freedom to move around. Thus convinced, I accepted the invitation and I went.
The Survivor Who Wouldn’t Sit Down
Wed, May 16, 2018
The story I would like to relate concerns my father, Sam Moss, more than me. My father was born in Munkatch, Czechoslovakia, what is now Mukachevo, Ukraine. There he attended the yeshivah of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira, author of Minchas Elazar, who was the Munkatcher Rebbe.
In 1944, the Nazis herded the Jews of Munkatch into a ghetto, from where they were taken to Auschwitz and later transferred to Dachau. There they endured unspeakable trials, and at one point my father got very sick and was near death, but he was saved due to my grandfather’s intercession with a kitchen hand, Oscar Heller, who slipped him extra food which helped him recover. After the war, he made his way to Australia, where he married and built up a very successful textile business. I was born in Sydney, as was my brother.
Because of his war experiences, my father was not religious. Indeed, between the time of liberation until 1956, he never even walked into a synagogue. He was just so angry with G-d because of everything that had happened to him. Only when I, his first son, was born, did he set foot in a synagogue for my brit.
His travails continued when my mother passed away at age thirty-eight, at a time when my brother and I were teenagers. This happened just when my father thought he had gotten his life back together, and it made him more bitter and drew him even further away from Judaism.
Then, to my father’s chagrin, I became Torah observant, and after finishing high school, enrolled in the Chabad yeshivah in Melbourne. This really upset my father, because he had rejected all that. Now his son was wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit! This was just too much for him.
An Accountant Becomes a Soldier
Wed, May 09, 2018
I was educated in England as an accountant and then went into business in London. My cousin Stanley Kalms – who is now Lord Kalms – got me a job as the finance director at Dixons which had been founded by his father. At the time, it was still a private company but I took it public, and it has since become one of the largest consumer electronics retailers in Europe.
Around that same time in the early 1960s, Rabbi Faivish Vogel came to London as the Rebbe’s emissary. He saw an advertisement that I had put in The Jewish Chronicle, announcing the birth of my third daughter, Penina, and he contacted me. We became quite friendly, and as a financial manager, I helped him set up the Chabad infrastructure in England. As a result of our association, I grew close to Chabad and three of my youngest daughters were enrolled in Chabad schools and eventually married Chabad boys, two of whom are emissaries out in the world.
Obviously, Rabbi Vogel talked to me about the Rebbe all the time, and he was very keen that I should meet him. “Faivish,” I said, “I believe that the Rebbe is a great man. But I have no problems financially or personally, so I have no need to take up the Rebbe’s time.” To which he responded, “Do it as a favor to me.” So I did.
During my first audience in 1965, the Rebbe and I spoke mostly about what Rabbi Vogel was doing and what was involved in setting up Chabad of England. And then the Rebbe made a very interesting observation; he reminded me of a very basic accounting requirement of balancing the books: that the right side of the ledger must balance the left side, and so it should be in one’s life. Yes, there should be commercial or secular activity, but the Jewish activity of learning and awareness should balance that and be equal to it. He also mentioned that among the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, there are small ones and large ones, but all have to be kept if you want the account to be right.
Don’t Abandon Ship
Wed, May 02, 2018
My father, Rabbi Shabsi Katz, was born in Lithuania to a Chabad family. When he was a small child, he came with his parents to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was educated until he reached yeshivah age – at that point he went to London to attend Jews’ College (now called London School of Jewish Studies) where he eventually obtained his rabbinic ordination.
When he returned to South Africa, he married my mother and took up a position as the rabbi of Pretoria, the capital city. This was in 1954. And that is where he stayed until he passed away in 1991.
Because of his Chabad background – though he was educated as an English rabbi – he developed a friendship with the late Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, the famous Chabad “globetrotting rabbi,” who persuaded him that he should meet the Rebbe.
Once he did so, he became strongly connected to the Rebbe and made many trips to New York to seek the Rebbe’s advice on apartheid, his role regarding that issue, and many other issues.
At his first audience he was accompanied by my mother, and I recall both of them speaking about that experience many times. Uppermost in my father’s mind was concern about the future as South Africa was in the throes of unrest then, and he wanted to know if perhaps our family should leave.
The Rebbe responded that he was aware of all the problems in the county. “As Jews, we know what it means to suffer under a system that makes you into second class citizens,” he said, “And we can never condone such a system.”
He spoke favorably of Helen Susman, the feisty Jewish member of the South African parliament who had challenged apartheid, quoting some of her speeches and saying that we should be proud of the fact that we are represented in that way because that is the Jewish way.
A Prouder, Safer Israel
Thu, Apr 26, 2018
I was born to a traditional Jewish family in England, where I grew up. I studied law at University College in London and then at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since 1969, I have lived in Israel where I spent many years as a military prosecutor in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, as well as serving as a legal advisor to the IDF on issues of international law and human rights law, following which I moved over to the Foreign Ministry as a legal advisor.
During my time with the Foreign Ministry, I was sent to New York, where I worked for four years as a senior legal officer to Israel’s UN Mission.
During that time Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was ambassador to the United Nations, and I used to accompany him whenever he would visit Jewish religious venues and, in one instance, to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Part of the real reason why Bibi wanted to meet the Rebbe was the strong connection that all Israeli ambassadors and foreign ministers and prime ministers had with him. At the time, Yitzchak Shamir was prime minister, and he had appointed Bibi as ambassador to the United Nations. Shamir had been in contact with the Rebbe, and I assume that he recommended that Bibi pay him a visit.
When we came, it was Simchat Torah during the Hakafot ceremony. We were brought straight up to Rebbe, and he talked with Bibi and myself for about forty minutes, which I found extraordinary.
During the entire exchange – and this also impressed me immensely – the Rebbe spoke to us in perfect Hebrew. That is, not in biblical Hebrew but in regular modern Hebrew, in which he was obviously very fluent.
The discussion concerned Middle East security. At that time, Shamir was involved in negotiations to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon, and the question of whether Israel would withdraw or not was still open. Ultimately, Israel did withdraw, but the Rebbe was very insistent that Israel shouldn’t do it at that moment in time. (At the outset of the war, the Rebbe had urged Israel to eliminate the terrorists quickly and forcefully and then to pull out of Lebanon, but in late 1984, when this meeting took place, pulling out was a retreat of sorts.)
The Cincinnati Rebbetzin
Thu, Apr 19, 2018
In the spring of 1955, the Rebbe introduced the idea of women’s learning classes, encouraging women emissaries to assume the role of adult education teachers. At that time, I was still a newlywed – having been married in September of the previous year – and my husband and I were just starting out as Chabad emissaries in Cincinnati, Ohio. Being so new to the task at hand, I didn’t consider myself ready to be one of those teachers. However, at the urging of Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, I made a phone call to a friend in an effort to organize a class. She suggested the names of three young women to join, and thus was started the first Chabad “Women’s Study Group.”
We grew from five to thirty women, who met on a regular basis to learn. We also organized luncheons and dinners for women from various walks of life. Throughout this time, the Rebbe provided constant support and encouragement and became effectively our program chairman.
Meanwhile, my husband started classes for college students at the Hillel House at the University of Cincinnati, while I learned with the girls in their dormitory. As well, my husband was invited to teach the Talmud by the students of Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school. When my husband asked if he should do this, the Rebbe replied that he should, but that “the students should come to you.” Indeed, they came to our apartment regularly for the next ten years.
After a time – this was in the summer of 1956 – I went to New York on my own to visit my parents and took the opportunity to have an audience with the Rebbe. Upon walking into the room, he asked me in Yiddish, “Why are you so pale?” I was shocked, because I thought I looked so good in the new clothes I had just bought for the occasion! I really didn’t know what to answer, but I told the Rebbe that I was newly pregnant and this may be why I was looking pale. The Rebbe asked me if I had household help. I didn’t, as we couldn’t afford it. Nonetheless, the Rebbe said that we should hire someone.
An Expedited Blessing
Thu, Apr 12, 2018
I was born in 1936 in Ukraine, in the city of Dnepropetrovsk (formerly known as Yekaterinoslav), where the rabbi was Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the Rebbe’s father. Unfortunately, I never got to know him because, when I was only three years old, he was arrested for his activities on behalf of Judaism and was exiled by the Soviets to Kazakhstan, where he passed away five years later.
After World War Two – during which my father, a soldier in the Russian army, was killed – my mother and I escaped to Germany, where we stayed for a time at a displaced persons’ camp near Bergen-Belsen. At age ten I was sent to live with a relative in England and attended the Gateshead and Manchester yeshivahs there.
After I finished my schooling, I became a jeweler, eventually settling in London. Although I was leading the life of a religious Jew, I felt something was missing in my life. When I was 18 years old, I began to study Torah with a Chabad rabbi named Yankel Gurkov who introduced me to chasidic teachings and told me about the Rebbe.
I felt drawn to the Rebbe since his father was the rabbi of my hometown, so I wrote to him, asking for a blessing for three things: proper intelligence, a good livelihood, and the right woman to marry.
Very soon afterwards I got a reply, in which the Rebbe said he would mention me in his prayers and wished me to share good news soon. Sure enough, two weeks later I met my wife. Just two weeks later!
Not long afterwards, in 1962, I came to New York along with a group of Jews from England as part of a trip organized by Mr. Zalmon Jaffe. At that time, I had my first audience with the Rebbe and instantly I felt that this is the connection that I was looking for.