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 Holistic Approach
Fri, Aug 18, 2017
In 1976 I was appointed Director General of Kupat Holim Clalit, the leading provider of health insurance in Israel, and as part of my job, I was invited to the United States to lecture on the standards of health services in Israel.
My wife accompanied me on the trip, and when we were in New York, we met our friend Yossi Ciechanover, who served as an Israeli Defense Ministry representative in New York. He asked us if we’d be interested in visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a proposal which we gladly accepted, so he arranged an appointment for us at eleven o’clock on Sunday night.
When we arrived, we were ushered into the Rebbe’s study. The Rebbe was sitting behind a large desk, and we sat down across from him. I remember that from the very first moment we were very struck by the Rebbe’s personality. Of course, we had already heard about his Torah knowledge and his broad general knowledge; we knew that he was a certified engineer and we’d also heard of his great personality. Nevertheless, this face-to-face meeting left a great and lasting impression on us.
Incidentally, I began our conversation in Yiddish, but the Rebbe switched languages and continued the rest of the conversation in Hebrew, which he spoke with impressive fluency. Our meeting lasted more than an hour, much longer than had been arranged. I don’t recall exactly how much time was originally allotted, but I remember the secretary coming in several times to hint that our time was up.
Focus on the Good
Wed, Aug 09, 2017
My history with Chabad goes back to the mid-1970s, when the Rebbe’s emissaries – Rabbi Mendel Lipskar, Rabbi Shalom Ber Groner and Rabbi Yossi Goldman – first came to Yeoville, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was born and raised.
I was part of the post-hippie generation trying to find spiritual answers. This search drew us to Chabad where we found Chasidism and rediscovered the depth and beauty of Judaism.
Although I counted myself part of the Chabad community back from that time, I did not get to meet the Rebbe until nearly ten years later – when I was already married, and my wife was having problems conceiving.
In 1983 I joined a special raffle being held to select a representative of the community to travel to the Rebbe. I won, and I travelled to New York for Passover, where we were hosted by Rabbi Goldman’s parents. I finally met the Rebbe in person during kos shel bracha, when the Rebbe would distribute wine from his cup immediately after the holiday. When I told him that I was from South Africa, he gave me a huge smile, handed me a small bottle, and said, “My views about South Africa are well known. You should go back and celebrate, and remind everyone that I said it will all be good.”
Wed, Aug 02, 2017
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and as a teenager I went to the United States in order to study in yeshivah. At first, I enrolled in Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, Ohio, but in 1964, after a number of visits to Chabad-Lubavitch in Brooklyn, I decided to switch. I was drawn to the Rebbe and to the study of chasidut. I saw that the Chabad students were very serious about their Torah learning, and their “awe of heaven” made a very strong impression on me; I wanted to learn among them.
In 1968, I married a Chabad teacher from Worcester, Massachusetts and on the Rebbe’s instructions, we moved to Worcester. My wife returned to her teaching job, and my role included among other things, teaching in the day school, adult education, and organizing youth activities in the community. I would also give classes in Chasidic thought at various universities in Boston.
In 1970, a position opened up in Australia – at the Chabad day school, Oholei Yosef Yitzchak – and I was invited to return home to Melbourne by Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Groner, the Chabad emissary there. I asked for and received the Rebbe’s approval and blessings.
After this was settled and we started preparations for the move to Australia, I began to feel as if I was just treading water in Worcester. I wound up my activities and, since it was not appropriate for me to start any new projects, I felt betwixt and between, neither here nor there – not yet gone but with my mind already elsewhere.
During a personal audience, I confided my state of mind to the Rebbe, who responded, “In the Torah we find that during the forty years the Jews were wandering in the wilderness, they would sometimes stay in a place for just one day, yet they would go through the tremendous trouble of setting up the Tabernacle each and every time. The Talmud derives many laws from this, including the principle that, if you find yourself in a place even for just one day, it is as though you are fixed there permanently.”
The Rebbe’s Generals
Thu, Jul 27, 2017
In 1975, when I was 20 years old, I had the good fortune to meet the Rebbe’s emissaries, Rabbi Benzion Friedman and his wife Esther, in Lomita, California, and that meeting changed my life.
I had come from a very Reform background – I say “very Reform” because my great-grandparents were part of the original Reform Movement back in Germany. I received very little Jewish education from my father who got very little Jewish education from his father. In fact, when I asked my grandfather which one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel I was from, he had no idea what I was talking about. I, myself, when I saw a picture of a friend in front of the Kotel wearing a tallit and tefillin, thought: “Why is he dressed like an Arab?” I didn’t recognize what he was wearing. That’s how little I knew.
I did have a strong Jewish identity mostly because of my mother who came from a Zionist family. One branch of her family founded Zichron Yaakov, a town about 20 miles south of Haifa, in Israel, and when I was 19, I went to Israel as a volunteer during the Yom Kippur War where I learned some Hebrew.
When I came back I met Rabbi Friedman, and that’s when I began a journey back to my Jewish heritage, which I describe as a kind of awakening.
For Passover of 1976, I came to Crown Heights and had the first opportunity to see the Rebbe. At that time I was able to pray together with the Rebbe in the small synagogue at ‘770,’ and to participate in a farbrengen with him – a gathering which the Rebbe addresses, sharing his Torah thoughts and directives. These were very special experiences. But it was not until I got married and we had our first child – who was born in November 1984 – that my wife and I had a direct encounter with the Rebbe that profoundly impacted our lives.
A Special Greeting
Wed, Jul 19, 2017
I grew up in Irvington, New Jersey, in a traditional Jewish family that was not fully Torah observant. But, in 1973, when I was twelve, thanks to my cousin Avraham, who had become religious, I began to explore Judaism in depth. It began when he dared me to keep just one Shabbat. I rose to the challenge and thus began my journey to a Torah life.
Because of my cousin, I was invited to Shabbat lunch with the family of Rabbi Sholom Gordon, the Chabad rabbi in Maplewood, who showed me what it was all about. I remember sitting at their table for the first time – never having seen a table set like that with a white tablecloth and beautiful china – and I remember the blessings, the songs, the words of Torah. I told myself then that I wanted to have a table of my own just like this someday.
After that, Mrs. Gordon took me under her wing, teaching me basic laws and prayers, and sometimes arranging for me to spend Shabbat with her sister, Mrs. Goldman, in Crown Heights.
Crown Heights was a different planet altogether – the Chabad people there dressed much more modestly, and I purchased a set of special clothes which I would take along to wear there.
One Shabbat – it was Shabbos Mevarchim when blessings on the upcoming new month are recited – Mrs. Goldman urged me to go to Chabad Headquarters and see what a farbrengen with the Rebbe looked like. I went with my best friend Cheryl, and it was an amazing experience.
Mind Over Matter
Wed, Jul 12, 2017
I was born in Montreal in 1944, the third boy in a traditional Jewish family. My two older brothers attended the local Jewish day school, but because they both contracted scarlet fever while there, my mother decided to change schools.. The school she chose was run by Chabad-Lubavitch, and that’s how my association with Chabad began.
After a time, during a visit to New York, I asked the Rebbe for permission to transfer to the Chabad yeshivah near the Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights. The Rebbe asked, “What were your marks?” I answered, “I don’t remember.” At that, the Rebbe laughed and said, “That’s a diplomatic answer.” But he gave me permission to transfer.
So it happened that I was in Crown Heights when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah – this was in 1957. During my Bar Mitzvah audience with the Rebbe, he asked me if I knew how many strings were on my tzitzit, the ritual fringes. I answered, “There are thirty-two strings total.” The Rebbe then took out a piece of paper and wrote down the number 32 in Hebrew, using the letters lamed and beis. He then explained that this spells lev, meaning “heart,” and he blessed me to have a good heart, a warm heart, a Jewish heart.
While I was studying in New York, my younger sister came down from Montreal for a visit. I took her to a farbrengen – a chasidic gathering led by the Rebbe – and she enjoyed it very much. After the farbrengen, I walked her back to where she was staying. Meanwhile, I missed the closing ceremony – kos shel bracha – when the Rebbe handed out wine from his cup.
By the time I returned, I saw that the Rebbe had finished and was walking back up the stairs. I felt very bad that I missed kos shel bracha, so I went up to the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Hodakov, and asked him if he could get a little bit of the Rebbe’s wine for me. Rabbi Hodakov agreed to see what he could do. I thought he would ask one of the chasidim, but instead he went to ask the Rebbe himself.
The Rebbe’s Favorite Prayer
Thu, Jul 06, 2017
My story starts when I and my family came to the United States from France in October of 1951. We had been staying in a Displaced Persons’ Camp (DP Camp) after escaping from Russia. Then, the Joint (as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was known) relocated us to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where they gave us an apartment for a few months, after which we moved to Crown Heights. Once we moved to Crown Heights, my father established the first grocery store there that was closed on Shabbat.
All his friends told him that he would not survive in this business being closed two days out of the week as, in those days, there were the so-called “blue laws” which forbid being opened on Sunday as well. But my father would never do business on Shabbat, and he asked the Rebbe if, under these circumstances, he should go into a different business. But the Rebbe advised him to keep the grocery store – and obviously, to remain closed on Shabbat.
In the early 1950s, when I was about nine years old, I became a delivery boy for my father. Using a three-wheeled pushcart, I would make the deliveries to his customers – and we had some famous customers. Among them was the Rebbe and his wife – Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe’s mother – Rebbetzin Chana, and the Rebbe’s mother-in-law, the widow of the Previous Rebbe.
Our other famous customers included the Koshnitzer Rebbe, the Bobover Rebbe, the Kozlover Rebbe, and the Novominsker Rebbe. The business never made a fortune, but we worked very hard and we managed to make ends meet. I myself had to get up at five o’clock in the morning to start preparing the deliveries, and my father, who got up even earlier than me, stayed in the store until 11 at night.
Then, one day – it was in 1953 or 1954, as I recall – a Lubavitcher named Yankel Lipsker came to my father and said he wanted to open another grocery store in the neighborhood, just one block away from ours. My father said to him, “There isn’t enough business for one family, how can there be for two? Besides this, the wholesale distributors of kosher products won’t deliver to you, since they are already delivering to me.”
A Daughter’s Plea
Thu, Jun 29, 2017
Mrs. Goldie Feld
Both my parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland, and they raised a religious family rooted in Chasidic teachings. I attended a Lubavitch schools for girls in Boston, where my future husband – also a child of Holocaust survivors – was enrolled in a Lubavitch yeshivah.
We began dating as students at Yeshiva University and got engaged. At that time – this was in 1974 – my father was sick with stomach cancer, and the doctors were not giving him much longer to live. Coming from a Chasidic background as he did, my father urged us to go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe to get a blessing for our marriage and, while there, to bring up his condition. We were to specifically tell the Rebbe – and my father was very adamant about it – that doctors were recommending we cancel the wedding and only hold a brief ceremony in the hospital as there was no time for more. Naturally, neither he nor any of us wanted to hear that, but my father believed strongly that a blessing from the Rebbe would help him. So we went to see the Rebbe.
In advance of our audience, I submitted a letter listing all the Hebrew names of those we wanted him to include in his blessing starting, of course, with my father. The Rebbe read my letter and responded, “Everyone mentioned in your note should be blessed.”
But that was not good enough for me. And now that I was face-to-face with the Rebbe, I decided to press on. I was mindful of my father’s specific instructions to make sure the Rebbe blessed him. So I said, “I particularly want to ask the Rebbe to bless my father, by name, for a full recovery.”
In response, the Rebbe simply repeated the same blessing, “Everyone mentioned in your note should be blessed.”
Thu, Jun 22, 2017
Many people tried to dissuade me from this path. They said that the Lubavitch way was very different from what I was used to. But I stood firm in my resolve and, in 1956, I came to learn at 770, the Lubavitcher Yeshivah in New York.
Immediately upon arrival, I received an audience with the Rebbe. He had taken over the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch just five years prior, and it he was remarkably accessible. I explained who I was, asked his secretary for an appointment with him and, a short while later, I was given an appointment. When I saw the Rebbe, one of the questions I asked him was whether I should change the prayer-book I was using for the Chabad liturgy. I was using the standard Ashkenazi version at the time, but I felt I should change to the Chabad prayer liturgy which follows nusach Ari. The Rebbe said it would be a positive change but that I shouldn’t switch right away. He suggested that I change at the start of the new month which was a few days later.
Remove the Dirt
Wed, Jun 14, 2017
I was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1957. Although my family had no Lubavitch affiliation, I gravitated from an early age to Lubavitch and had many Lubavitch friends. But it was not until after I got married that I decided to contact the Lubavitcher Rebbe directly.
This happened in 1983. By then, I had been married three years already but had not children. As hard as we tried, my wife could not get pregnant. So I wrote to the Rebbe requesting a blessing for children. Before I wrote the letter, I was advised by Rabbi Aharon Serebryanski that I should do my part and offer something to G-d. So in the letter, I promised that, from now on, my wife and I would be observing the Jewish laws of family purity – what is known as Taharat Mishpachah.
The Rebbe gave us his blessing and immediately my wife became pregnant. And after, this we had five more children, so it was as if the Rebbe helped open the floodgates for us.
I wrote to the Rebbe many times. Sometimes the Rebbe answered, sometimes he didn’t. I had also gone to New York and stood in line several times when the Rebbe was handing out dollars for charity, but these encounters were seconds in length.
On one occasion, I had asked for a blessing because I had gone into a business deal that didn’t work out and, as a result, I was facing a huge tax bill which I couldn’t pay. The day after I received the blessing, the news came that the tax office had made a mistake and instead of having to pay a bill of $832,000 (in Australian dollars), I had to pay a bill of only $32,000.
And then, finally, in 1989, I got an audience with the Rebbe. Although the Rebbe was no longer granting private audiences, he was still receiving the donors to the Machne Israel development fund twice a year. The day that I came with my wife and family, there was a group of about two-hundred other people waiting, and after three hours in line, our baby, Zalman, grew irritated and started crying loudly. When it was finally our turn, I handed him to a woman I knew and asked her to look after him for a bit, as I did not want to bother the Rebbe with a squalling infant.