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!
People of the Book
Wed, Feb 13, 2019
During the years when I was studying at the Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak, Israel, I was put in charge of the book collection. Initially, this was a rotating assignment, with each student given this responsibility for four months, but I took it more seriously than most. I walked into the dusty old room filled with thousands of books and got to work. After my four months were up, the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, noticed that a revolution had taken place in the library; everything was organized and every book was easily accessible. He called me in and said, “I want to establish a paid position of librarian here, and I would like you to take the post.”
This is how my work as librarian began. For eight years I managed the Ponevezh Yeshivah’s library, which is considered a huge library in the yeshivah world, housing some twenty-five-thousand books. Through my work I learned to recognize the issues and challenges involved in organizing such a large collection, and on the Rosh Yeshivah’s advice, I enrolled in professional courses in library science.
During my studies, I discovered that there were simple and effective solutions to the issues that I was struggling with, and I thought that it would be good for other Torah librarians to know about these solutions. This is how the idea to open a Center for Torah Libraries came up. We reached out to people in charge of Torah libraries of all types – in yeshivahs, in religious councils, in religious kibbutzim – and we began to offer professional training courses for their librarians, as well as developing a method of classification and cataloging especially adapted to Torah texts.
In 1970, I traveled to the United States for the first time, staying two months with relatives who lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. While there, I prayed at Chabad Headquarters at 770
Craving Good News
Wed, Feb 06, 2019
I was born in Morocco in 1936. When I was eleven, I set out by horse-drawn cart to Casablanca, where I studied in the Chabad yeshivah for two years. But I wasn’t happy; I was looking for something more rigorous. I learned that the Rebbe’s first emissary to Morocco, Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, had come to Meknes and opened another yeshivah there. In Meknes, I found what I had been looking for – a more intensive program of studying Talmud and chasidic teachings.
Rabbi Lipsker also taught me (and all his students) how to bring Jews closer to G-d through love.
One day representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel came to the yeshivah. Rabbi Lipsker started a conversation with them in which questions of faith came up. Rabbi Baruch Toledano, the chief rabbi of Meknes and one of the greatest rabbis in Morocco, was also present when they came. And when he heard how these Jews were speaking about Judaism, he put his hands over his ears in shock, declaring, “These are words of heresy!”
Rabbi Lipsker countered, “Rabbi Baruch, why are you so upset? These people are like children who were stolen from their own people – they weren’t educated and they don’t know.”
Rabbi Lipsker continued to speak with them for another hour, and then they agreed to put on tefillin and to recite the afternoon prayers. When Rabbi Baruch saw this, he praised Rabbi Lipsker to the skies. Rabbi Lipsker responded, “The essence of every Jew is pure – you just have to know how to find the right path to his heart.”
The Unwitting Author
Wed, Jan 30, 2019
My family was very close with Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the famed “tzaddik of Jerusalem” whose extraordinary capacity to help his fellow Jews – whether the sick, poor or those suffering under the British regime during the Mandate of Palestine (1920-1948) – made him a legend in his time. He often visited us and, whenever he came, it fell to me to walk him back home. On those walks, he always took pains to ask me about my studies and would often invite me inside his house to carry on our conversation. And so, from the age of twelve, I forged my own connection with him, which continued for over thirty years. I came to see Rav Aryeh as the wisest person I’d ever met; he became a mentor whom I sought out whenever I needed
advice. And, after his passing in 1969, I published an article memorializing him in the weekly journal Panim el Panim.
At the time I was working for the advancement of the study of the Hebrew language in the Diaspora, which brought me to New York in 1970, when I had the privilege of meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As soon as I walked into the Rebbe’s office and introduced myself, he exclaimed, “I read an article about Rav Aryeh Levin in Panim el Panim written by Simcha Raz. Is that you?”
After I confirmed that I was one and the same, the Rebbe asked me if Rav Aryeh had left behind any writings. In fact, Rav Aryeh did leave a number of manuscripts, including an explanation of the entire Mishnah, parts of which were eventually published. At that time, however, his only published work was a booklet about the famous Kabbalist known as the Leshem, who had been Rav Aryeh’s mentor. I told this to the Rebbe, adding that Rav Aryeh was a “walking Torah,” and I quoted a number of teachings that I had heard from him.
They’re All Our Children
Thu, Jan 24, 2019
When I opened a podiatry practice in Crown Heights in 1983, I began to learn about my religion. I was raised in a secular home, so initially I felt a little shell-shocked as I learned that Jewish holidays didn’t consist of just Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, and as my patients began offering to help me put on tefillin. (I did it, although it took me some years to learn to recite the Shema with comprehension of what I was saying.)
After I became a bit more known, I got a phone call asking me to make a home visit to a Mrs. Schneerson. I set an appointment, but then I got busy and forgot to go. It was around 8:30 p.m. when the phone rang and the caller asked what had happened. That’s when I remembered the appointment and I apologized profusely, offering to come immediately, which is what I did.
When I arrived at the address she gave – 1304 President Street – I was met by a German Shepherd guarding the yard, so I figured that this lady must be quite affluent. But when I went inside the house, I found it quite plainly appointed – considering the guard dog outside, I had been expecting a mansion.
I met the nice elderly lady who had called me – this Mrs. Schneerson – took down her medical history and treated her. She was about 85 years old, but she still had very regal bearing. At the same time, she was very warm and kind and approachable. I recall that she also served me cake and tea, and then I left.
The next morning in the office, I got a number of phone calls. Some of my other religious patients had somehow gotten wind of my visit – perhaps I was spotted as I was pulling up to the house – and were very excited that I had treated Mrs. Schneerson. I didn’t exactly get what the fuss was about until my secretary explained to me that I had treated Rebbetzin Schneerson, the wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
When that didn’t impress me, she explained to me who the Rebbe was, and she suggested that I go see him on a Sunday when he was handing out dollars for charity. I said, “I don’t need his dollar; I make a living.” And she laughed and said, “It has nothing to do with money. To get a dollar from the Rebbe is an uplifting, spiritual thing. You should think about doing it.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” I told her, but really, I just forgot about it.
It’s Not About Politics
Fri, Jan 18, 2019
During the years that Rabbi Betzalel Zolty served as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, I headed his office. I joined him on a visit to the United States in December of 1981, when he was honored at a fundraising dinner on behalf of institutions of the Ger chasidim.
During that trip, Rabbi Zolty planned to meet a few important rabbis, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading halachic authority in America, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, the head of the rabbinic school of Yeshiva University, the Klausenberger Rebbe and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In those years however, it was hard to obtain an appointment with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as he was no longer meeting people as much as he had in the past, but I managed to arrange it.
When we came into the Rebbe’s office, the first thing that struck me was the simplicity of the room. The Rebbe stood up as we entered, walked around his desk and came right up to the door to greet Rabbi Zolty. He shook his hand warmly and invited him to sit down. After the initial greetings, an animated Torah discussion began between the two.
The first topic that Rabbi Zolty brought up was his concern that too few yeshivah graduates were interested in taking up positions in the rabbinate. This matter disturbed him greatly, and he would talk about it wherever he went. He believed it was important that, when in
Divine Change of Plans
Wed, Jan 09, 2019
My involvement with Chabad started in 1974 while I was a student at the University of Michigan. One day, as I was walking through campus, a bearded man wearing a black hat approached me and asked, “Pardon me, are you Jewish?” When I answered in the affirmative, he invited me to Yom Kippur services.
This man was Rabbi Aharon Goldstein, the director of the Chabad House in Ann Arbor, and I went on to study Torah with him over the next couple of years, becoming more religiously involved. However, I was still undecided whether becoming fully Torah observant was for me. Additionally, I was fluctuating between two worlds – academia and business – uncertain whether to pursue a degree in psychology or follow one of my other talents and interests, the chief of which was cooking (a true passion of mine).
While in the midst of this confusion, I decided to write to the Rebbe, asking several questions about life. In his response, he began “May G-d grant you the fulfillment of your heart’s desires for good.” I took that to mean that what is important in making a decision such as this is following what feels right in one’s heart. The Rebbe encouraged me further by mentioning the assurance of Talmudic sages, “seek and you shall find,” which means that success requires effort but, as I discovered, even a little effort can go a long way.
In his inimitable way, the Rebbe was able to get me to focus on what I really wanted to do. And at that time, I expressed myself best through cooking,
The Gift of Speech
Wed, Jan 02, 2019
Although we were a Modern Orthodox family, in 1954, shortly before I turned sixteen, my father enrolled me in the Chabad yeshivah in New York. As was the custom in the yeshivah, on the day of my birthday, I was sent to receive a blessing from the Rebbe. This was only a short while after I had joined the yeshivah, and I had never met the Rebbe before.
As I was about to enter his office, I was told that this day – the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan – was also the Rebbe’s birthday. So when I walked in, I put my hand out and said, “Happy birthday, Rebbe!”
I didn’t know how one was supposed to act in front of the Rebbe. I didn’t know anything – I hardly knew who the Rebbe was! It was only later that I learned more about him.
In that meeting, the Rebbe spoke to me as an equal. I was just a teenager who knew nothing, but he spoke to me like a friend, and I felt very comfortable with him. We talked for about a half hour and, during that time, we discussed many issues. I told him about my life and about my problems. At the end he said that he would like to help me.
In those days, I stuttered terribly. The only time I didn’t stutter was when I was singing. But I didn’t believe that there was a cure for my condition, so I said, “You can’t help me.”
Speaking Their Language
Wed, Dec 26, 2018
My father, Rabbi Yosef Rachamim, immigrated to Israel from Morocco in the year 1911, settling in the Old City of Jerusalem, where I was born in 1937. Despite the great poverty and the difficult security situation at the time, my parents insisted that my brothers and I devote ourselves to the study of Torah. I was sent to the Novardok yeshivah in Hadera, where I remained for five years, until 1952, when my brother Meir influenced me to transfer to the Chabad yeshivah in Lod.
I was received warmly at the Chabad yeshivah, even though I had come from a very different background than most of the other students. They were primarily the sons of Chabad families from Russia, while I had come from a Sephardic family with roots in Morocco, and then had studied in a Lithuanian yeshivah, which was generally opposed to chasidic ways. Those who came from the Lithuanian yeshivah background questioned how could a fifteen-year-old boy like me delve into the deep chasidic teachings which are steeped in Kabbalah. Their questions disturbed me, but when I asked my teachers, they advised that it would be best if I wrote to the Rebbe about this.
And thus began my extensive correspondence with the Rebbe. This was just a few years after the Rebbe began his leadership of Chabad, and he used to answer all my letters at length.
But even later on, when he became very busy, the Rebbe always noticed if a long time passed between my letters to him. In subsequent years, there was a period that I didn’t receive any reply from him so, in order not to burden him, I decided to stop writing. Therefore, I was astonished to receive
Thu, Dec 20, 2018
Since 1970, I had been working for the radio station Kol Israel, editing and broadcasting music programs, but after nine years on the job I was not sure that I still wanted to continue. I was then at the beginning of my journey toward becoming Torah observant, and I was being encouraged to enter yeshivah in order to make up the knowledge that I lacked. In addition, I was beginning to doubt whether radio was the proper place for me as an observant Jew.
When the occasion arose in September of 1979 to travel to New York and meet the Rebbe, I decided to seek his advice on this issue.
The Rebbe’s answer surprised me. He said that I should continue working at the radio station. In retrospect, I understand why. A Torah observant person serves as a living example to those with whom he works, and automatically – whether he wants to or not – he is affecting his surroundings. And his influence is greater than if he were to withdraw from the secular world and seclude himself in yeshivah.
To the best of my knowledge, this was the Rebbe’s general approach. He counseled newcomers to Torah observance not to flee the scene, but rather to strengthen Judaism in their natural environment. It worked for me. I witnessed more and more Jews at Kol Israel coming closer to their Jewish roots as a result of my example.
During my audience, the Rebbe also spoke with me about the best uses for one’s G-d-given talents. If someone has a certain talent, no matter what is his field of endeavor, he must use it to spread Torah. If he does not do so, he is harming creation. Why? Because G-d entrusted him to utilize his talents and strengths to do good in this world.
In order to emphasize this, the Rebbe cited the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, who made it a point of honoring rich people. Why did Rabbi Yehudah do this? The Rebbe explained that “rich” doesn’t necessarily mean in silver and gold, but rather in talents and character traits. If people used these for spreading Torah, especially at the time of great hardship for the Jewish nation suffering under Roman occupation, they were worthy of Rabbi Yehudah’s honor.
What about the Chinese?
Wed, Dec 12, 2018
I was born and raised in Brooklyn where I was educated in the public school system and attended City College, receiving a degree in civil engineering in 1965. After graduating, I served for two years in the U.S. Public Health Service, which allowed me to fulfill my military obligation and left me free to do anything I wanted.
I then traveled to Israel, where I worked on kibbutzim and also learned in a yeshivah in Kfar Chabad. When I returned home to Brooklyn, I continued my studies at Hadar Hatorah, a Chabad yeshivah for Jews returning to Judaism.
During this time, I had an audience with the Rebbe – in December of 1970, on the occasion of my 28th birthday. In advance of that audience, I wrote the Rebbe a long letter, expressing my ambivalence about committing to the life of an Orthodox Jew. In my letter I also stated that I didn’t feel ready to marry as that would obviously commit me to a particular lifestyle.
The Rebbe welcomed me warmly and began the conversation by asking me about myself. After answering a number of his questions, I mentioned that I had written about these things in my letter. In the letter, I had questioned whether Judaism represented the truth. In response, the Rebbe told me that the Jewish people were the only people in the world who have survived from antiquity until now. I had heard this explanation previously and, as he Rebbe was talking, I thought, “What about the Chinese?” I really wanted to ask him about this but I didn’t have the chutzpah to interrupt him.