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 Wonder Fruit
Wed, Sep 30, 2020
My family fled the Soviet Union right after World War Two ended and wandered around Europe until 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. At that time, my parents – together with another thirty-four families – responded to the Previous Rebbe’s call to establish a Chabad village in Israel.
In the beginning, Kfar Chabad was an agricultural settlement and like most of the residents, my father – Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Gorelik – also worked in agriculture. But, in 1956, he decided to enter a partnership with Rabbi Nachman Elbaum, a dealer in etrogim, the fruits of citron trees which are necessary for Sukkot rituals.
Rabbi Elbaum brought seedling from Calabria, Italy, and with these my father started the first etrog orchard in Israel. For generations, the preferred etrogim came from Italy, but there were concerns – because etrogim are notoriously difficult to grow, very delicate and fragile – that the farmers in Italy were grafting etrog branches onto other citrus trees. Therefore, the Rebbe had instructed that seeds from Calabrian etrogim that had not been grafted be sent to Israel and that we begin growing them here.
The Doctor’s Bedside Manners
Wed, Sep 23, 2020
In November of 1986, my father was being treated at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, where the chaplain was Rabbi Elya Gross, a Chabad chasid. I was staying at the hospital to help care for my father, who was in a coma following a sudden cardiac arrest, and we became close friends. I greatly appreciated that Rabbi Elya came every day to make sure we had kosher food, and also to make us feel as comfortable as was possible under the circumstances.
We saw each other a great deal, as I spent a full month sleeping in the hospital by my father’s side. Having recently graduated from medical school, I felt I had the responsibility to make sure everything possible was being done to help him live. As well, I wanted to provide support for my mother who was devastated by what had happened.
One day, Rabbi Elya said to me, “You know, you are a great example to others of how to perform the mitzvah of ‘honor your father and your mother.’” And then he added, “As soon as you can leave here, I want to take you to see the Rebbe.”
This is what happened. After my father awoke from his coma and was discharged from the hospital in early December, Rabbi Elya took me to Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
When we arrived, I saw a lot of people hovering around the Rebbe’s office, but Rabbi Elya ignored everybody, walked right up to the Rebbe’s door and knocked. When we entered, we found the Rebbe sitting behind a desk, studying a holy book.
The 29-Year-Old Chief Rabbi
Thu, Sep 17, 2020
In 1976, when I was a student at the central Chabad yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Rebbe made an announcement at a farbrengen that he wanted to publish more writings of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, better known as the Rebbe Rashab.
The Rebbe Rashab was a prolific writer and there was a series of 146 discourses called Ayen Bais – written by him in the years 1872-1875 to lay out the foundational concepts of Chabad Chasidut – that were never published. But now the time had come to change that, the Rebbe said, going on to explain:
“For many years now, I have been troubled by the fact that many other chasidic discourses have been printed, while this extraordinary series never was. If I have the ability to publish it, and I haven’t yet done so, I’m taking upon myself the responsibility for withholding these teachings from the public. But, for several reasons, I was afraid to publish [these deep mystical truths] until I thought of an idea…”
The Rebbe’s idea was to publish these revolutionary teachings in partnership with his chasidim, and so he asked that each chasid demonstrate his participation by contributing one dollar towards the project.
I was among those selected to work on this project, and – together with my friend Rabbi Zusha Winner – was put in charge of making the index of the subjects covered in all of the 146 discourses. After we handed in the first batch of entries, the Rebbe congratulated us, saying that our indexing method “gives an orderly and positive impression.” He urged us to continue to work as fast as possible but not to sacrifice quality.
He also told us that each time he goes to the Ohel, the resting place of the Previous Rebbe, he takes with him the latest pages we’ve produced, which helped to spur us on and kept us on the go.
Resignation Not Accepted
Wed, Sep 09, 2020
After I became the principal of Tomchei Temimim, the Lubavitch yeshivah in Montreal, every year I brought students to meet and be as inspired by the Rebbe as I was.
The first time, in 1953, I brought about fifty students and handed in a list of their names to the Rebbe. In addition, I made sure that every student made a donation as is the custom, and towards that end I collected one dollar from each.
After the group audience ended and the students walked out, I remained for a private meeting with the Rebbe, who was displeased. “How could you have done this?” he asked, looking at me sternly. “You didn’t consider that the students might get the wrong impression? That they might begin to think that a blessing requires payment?”
I was properly chastised, but the Rebbe went on, “The students have to know that a Rebbe is not about money. They can’t think that a Rebbe is about money!”
The next year, when I again brought fifty students to see the Rebbe, I dipped into my own pocket and made a donation of fifty dollars on their behalf.
Security Clearance of Another Kind
Fri, Sep 04, 2020
The story I am about to tell was related to me by my grandfather – David Eli Rosengard. It is an amazing story which my grandfather told many times, and my family remembers it as vividly as I do.
My grandfather was a doctor, who held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. armed forces. Shortly after the Korean War broke out in 1950, he was ordered to the South Pacific, where American soldiers were falling ill from a mysterious stomach ailment. (I do not recall the location exactly, but I do know that it was on an island in the South Pacific, possibly Guam, but I am not sure.)
As my grandfather related the story, the situation was quite serious and it went on for a considerable period of time, so there was very real concern about what was happening to these soldiers.
Before going over to investigate, my grandfather decided to get a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As a physician living and practicing in Boston, he had cared for the family of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky – who later became the Rebbe’s secretary – and it was Rabbi Krinsky who arranged the audience for him.
The Sacred Art of Publishing
Thu, Aug 27, 2020
While studying at the Chabad’s central yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, I became involved in the publishing of a series of bi-weekly booklets, Ha’aros HaTemimim, containing Torah essays written by yeshivah students and rabbis.
The Rebbe had initiated the publication of students’ Torah insights in 1972, saying that it would energize their studies, and I noticed that he showed a special fondness for these booklets. On many occasions, as the Rebbe would enter the shul for Friday night prayers, we could see him holding the latest issue together with his siddur. And often I saw him open the booklet and browse through it after the prayer service.
That he read it all carefully was evident from the feedback he sent whenever he caught a mistake. For example, on the first Shabbat after Rosh Hashanah, we published Ha’aros HaTemimim forgetting to change the header date to the new year. The Rebbe pointed this out to us, so we didn’t repeat the mistake. And he commented on other small things. I learned from him that everything needs to be precise, even technicalities. Whether one is publishing a pamphlet or a book, it must be beautiful and respectable and without errors. This is why proofreaders are so important.
About a week before the Rebbe’s seventy-fifth birthday on the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan 1977, his secretary Rabbi Binyomin Klein asked me to bind all of the issues of the Ha’aros HaTemimim that were published until that point. I was to present them to the Rebbe during the upcoming farbrengen marking this special occasion. For someone as young as me to approach the Rebbe in public was extraordinary, but I understood that this directive was coming directly from the top.
The 80-Minute Transformation
Tue, Aug 18, 2020
While I was enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Chicago – a time when I was just becoming religious – I faced a serious personal problem. Suffice it to say that it was an extremely difficult situation and I was in tremendous emotional pain, so I decided to write about it to the Rebbe. In my letter – which was about a dozen pages long – I detailed the entire background of the matter, its history, its issues, totally pouring out my heart.
In short order, I received a response, dated the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, 5744 or June 11, 1984:
The Torah of Life expects a Jew to do what is necessary in the natural order while placing complete trust in G-d for success. Thus, in matters of health, the Torah clearly instructs [one] to see a medical specialist and follow his instructions. At the same time, one must pray to G-d to send His blessings in this and all needs, as it is written “And G-d will bless you in all that you do.”
The Rebbe gave me his blessing for “substantial improvement” in my situation and concluded by pointing out that we had just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, when we commemorated the Giving of the Torah and its commandments at Mount Sinai. These commandments, he wrote, are channels through which we receive G-d’s blessings both spiritually and materially.
In other words, the Rebbe was saying that, if I applied myself to keeping the Torah, I could expect to transform my life.
Truth be told, I was a bit disappointed by that response. I had been expecting some amazing blessing that would miraculously transform the situation without my input, so I went to mystics for guidance, which I followed until it became clear that doing so would lead to disaster.
Be An Original, Not a Copy
Thu, Aug 13, 2020
Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz, of whom the Rebbe wrote, in 1970, “I found in him far greater capabilities than were told to me, written to me, and described to me,” passed away last week. He had a unique relationship with, and perspectives on, the Rebbe which he described in two JEM interviews – excerpts of which will be presented on this week’s Living Torah at 70years.com. Here we share several stories he recounted of his interactions with the Rebbe.
When I began translating the Babylonian Talmud from Aramaic into modern Hebrew, one of the basic decisions I had to make was the format of the Gemara.
The problem I faced was that, when I added commentary to the translation, the pages became too long to publish with the traditional pagination. Back in 1965 when I first started doing this, the printing options were very limited, so I was struggling to find the right format.
It was the Rebbe who gave me the advice to keep the pages as they are but to cut them in two. And this was most helpful to me because I had an answer from a respected authority and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. Although I was the subject of some criticism for changing the traditional format of the Talmud, I wasn’t bothered since I knew that the Rebbe supported this choice.
As I completed each volume, I sent it to the Rebbe, but I didn’t want to bother him with everything. I didn’t agree with those who thought that they could exhaust the Rebbe with all manner of minutiae. Maybe I was wrong, but I thought that burdening the Rebbe with small matters was simply unfair. It bordered on violating the commandment to “love your fellow Jew as yourself.”
Writing the Book on Self-Sacrifice
Wed, Aug 05, 2020
As a young man, while studying at Chabad’s Yeshivas Toras Emes in Jerusalem, I became curious about the Rebbe’s background. Of course, I knew that the Rebbe shared his surname with the Previous Rebbe – who was his father-in-law – and that he was the descendant of the famed Tzemach Tzedek, but I knew nothing beyond that.
My fellow students also knew nothing more, and when I asked the elders in the yeshivah, I received no further details. The lack of information troubled me very much – it just didn’t feel right. “He is our Rebbe,” I thought, “so why don’t we know more about his roots?”
This matter continued to trouble me into adulthood, and I decided to do something about it. So I sent a letter to the Rebbe, telling him that I would like to write a book about his father – Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson – but I never received a response.
Nine years passed.
In 1974, during the month of the High Holidays and Sukkot, I traveled for the first time to New York to see the Rebbe. After the conclusion of Simchat Torah, when everyone approached him to receive wine from his cup – a ceremony known as Kos Shel Brachah – I went up as well. As the Rebbe poured the wine for me, he said, “You promised me a book about my father. Where is it?”
I was momentarily shocked that he should remember something from so long ago, but then I responded, “I sent the Rebbe a letter, but never received a reply.”
The Rebbe smiled and said in a voice loud enough for the people standing nearby to hear: “I don’t need to answer you. G-d needs to answer you.”
100 Light Years
Fri, Jul 31, 2020
For the past forty-five years, I have directed Chabad’s Shabbat Candle Campaign, which the Rebbe started in 1974.
It was very important to the Rebbe that all Jewish women – including young girls – be lighting Shabbat candles to illuminate this dark world we live in. And he devoted a great deal of time and energy so that all aspects of the campaign had maximum impact.
Just how important this was to him was made crystal clear to me when the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, passed away. This happened in 1988 – on Wednesday, February 10th – more than a dozen years into the campaign.
That year, our main fund-raising event – a Melave Malka dinner – was to take place on Saturday night, February 13th, when the Rebbe was sitting shivah in mourning for his wife. Of course, we had planned it months in advance, not knowing that any of this would happen. At first, we thought to cancel, but then we decided to go ahead and dedicate it to her memory. So we issued an announcement that we were establishing a special fund in the Rebbetzin’s merit to further promote the campaign.